In a few weeks I’ll be privileged to see Francesca Zambello’s “American Ring” in San Francisco. I have done my best to remain ignorant of the production in order to enjoy surprise after surprise. (Oscar Wilde warned that “ignorance is like a delicate, exotic fruit: Touch it and the bloom is gone.”)
Yet I do know it is an “American Ring,” and for a while now the prospect has prompted some flights of imagination, involving not American history, but rather American mythology, musing on themes in our national psyche find resonance in the mythology of the Ring.
There is, of course, slavery: Our own brand of Niebelungen oppression and the creation of what Lincoln called “all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil.” We live with the fruits of that labor still, do we not? What is our Tarnhelm? And where is our ring?
And there is the gold: Not only the madness, delusion and abandonment of California in 1849, but the gold of Carnegie, Rockefeller and Gates. The uniquely American lure of the entrepreneurial. Horatio Alger without the social accountability. “Greed is good,” a fictitious American said, not without cultural resonance.
There is the frontiersman, the mythological Davy Crockett type who lives in the woods and makes his own law as he goes along. Honest and dead-sure of himself, but not a lot of “goin’-out skills.” His heroism stems from his lack of sophistication. He gains his fame by daring exploits, and when he falls in love, he falls hard.
There is the willingness to revolt. The nation considers itself born of revolution, casting aside the Old World in favor of the new. This impulse is a permanent fixture of American political discourse — the Know Nothings, the Bull Moosers, the Populists, the Tea Party. Siegfried Act II scene 2, anyone?
Does any part of the Ring have anything to do with making promises with a race of people, and then breaking them, to their doom? And what about the decision to assume the role of the all-powerful force in all the world? Is some part of us Wotan, protective of our power and fearful of our fate?
Theatre invites the audience to recognize its own condition in that of the characters onstage. Mozart’s serenades matter to everyone, everywhere. But his theatre, especially the Da Ponte works like Figaro, had a special “zing” when first performed because they captured a contemporary, iconoclastic social reality that made it “hit home.” Certainly Wagner intended for the Ring to declare a revolutionary era when he began to write the words in that year of revolution, 1848. What does the Ring mean to Americans in the 21st Century?
What parts of the myth that forms our national imagination find voice in Wagner’s narrative?