It’s one thing to impose an external “konzept” onto a dramatic work and shove the piece unwillingly through it. American audiences refer to the results as “Eurotrash,” and I would choose the recent, unlamented Bayreuth production of Tannhäuser – staging the work as a divertissement for the workers of a biogas factory in order to investigate issues of bioethics and transhumanism – as an easy target.
It’s quite another to responsibly seize upon a fundamental part of a story or character – something that is of the essence of the work but not ordinarily brought forward – and to follow the ramifications of that attribute where they may lead. Directors have been stymied, for example, about how to interpret Mikado on the stage for a modern, diverse audience, without needing to decide whether to ignore (on the one hand) or directly confront (on the other) the offensive stereotyping of Japanese characters on which much of the work’s comedy and charm rely.
David McVicar’s revealing interpretation of Meistersinger hints at, but doesn’t directly wrestle with, a central attribute of the character of Sachs that has not yet been given the examination it deserves. Sachs beats young men, and the town knows it. That is to say, in some unavoidable way the story of Sachs is similar to the story of Peter Grimes.
I’d previously ignored it, the way one ignores the pain implied by slapstick or pratfalls. I took as an article of faith that the tradition of Punch and Judy, surviving well into the 19th Century, was based upon a general agreement by the audience that beating people with a stick was funny. I accepted David’s complaining of being regularly beaten by Sachs as an extension of the master-servant tradition of commedia dell’arte. Indeed, the very term “slapstick” derives from a prop – still in use in some modern theatre – that is a harmless paddle composed of two pieces of wood that slapped together to produce a sharp sound when the 16th Century commedia character Harlequin struck someone on the butt.
This may all be just an excuse for not grappling with an issue to which 21st century audiences are unavoidable sensitive – that older men beating younger men with their fists or their feet or with straps of leather is not funny; and that communities who remain silent about child abuse are complicit. Early in the action of the play, David’s peers (apprentices to craftsmen other than Sachs) greet David as someone who “gets strapped when he’s naughty” and who knows well how leather can sting. They tease him because:
The strap-leather mode has made him smart,
The Hunger tune he knows by heart!
And the hearty–kick mode he carefully learns,
His Master employs them all by turns.
This would all be well, I suppose, if the other apprentices were sharing their common plight – that masters tend beat their servants. But that is not so. The fact that Sachs’ treatment of David is different is deemed to be noteworthy, and is broadly acknowledged. Indeed, there is no indication in the text that any master treats any servant in any way even remotely similar to the way Sachs treats David.
Sachs’ violent beatings define much of the way David experiences the world. When Sachs is civil to him, David expresses his surprise in terms of sadism: “He was never like this. Now the feel of his leather strap has gone from my mind.” And the single act of direct violence that is written in the text is not a swat on the butt with a slap-stick; it is a “smart box on the ear” that, in the McVicar staging, sends the unsuspecting David right to the ground, momentarily senseless and unmistakably injured. The viciousness of the blow is intended: Sachs does not do it to provoke laughter, but to make sure that David always remembers this moment, simultaneously one of christening for the new tune; release from Sachs’ household; elevation from apprentice to journeyman; and freedom to establish his own household with his beloved (if older) wife. Why Sachs thinks that David needs a concussion on order to remember this day is a question that a responsible performer and director should be duty-bound to consider. Sachs seems to conflate young servants with objects of physical abuse with impunity.
Sachs’ violent relationship with the young man in turn is expressed in David’s own tendency to violence towards other men. Sachs challenges David in Act II, “Must you always be in fights?” Indeed, he apparently is: David’s reaction to the apprentices’ teasing is to punch them out; and upon seeing Beckmesser serenading Magdelena and concluding that “This is the fellow she prefers,” David doesn’t confront her to seek clarification, but rather goes downstairs, re-enters “armed with a cudgel,” and “throws himself on Beckmesser,” causing him serious enough injuries that he does not recover by the end of the play. This is, once again, not an event of swatting someone on the butt with a harmless slap-stick – as David himself admits in Act III, “I fell upon him tooth and nail.”
Violence is a behavioral characteristic of those to whom violence has been done. Hurt people tend to hurt people in turn. We listen to David’s developing realization during the quintet, his head still ringing from Sachs’ concussive blow:
I, no longer an apprentice?
She my bride? Before the altar, at my side?
Now, my heart in answer cries,
Win the Master’s prize!
Master! I will soon as Master rise!
…and we cannot but wonder, will David take on an apprentice of his own? And what treatment will that boy receive at David’s hands?
Accepting this character trait as a real one and a central one in Sachs – one that compels the action of important parts of the story — may be an opportunity for character development that is consistent with the overall arch of the play. In the course of the play, the meaning of love changes for each main character. Sachs learns resignation; Beckmesser learns humiliation; Walther learns trust and openness; Eva learns maturity; David and Madgelena are given permission to wed, to leave the confines of their masters’ households and to become socially elevated and independent.
In David’s leaving Sachs’ punitive and sadistic brutality, might each of them come to a further enlightenment? And would that journey not be worthy of our deliberate attention?