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Twilight Of The Gods
And now for something completely different: Tim Madigan watches Nietzsche clash with Wagner.
As all the world knows, 2009 marks the 40th anniversary of the founding of Monty Python’s Flying Circus. Amidst the myriad documentaries, cast member reunions and endless repetitions of the Dead Parrot Sketch, philosophers can take special pride in the fact that by combining absurdist humor with deep intellectual ruminations, the Pythons made philosophy seem hip.
In addition to the six Python cast members, there were a host of people behind the scenes who helped to make the TV series, films, books and albums the classics they became. One of these is Julian Doyle, a versatile film editor who worked with Monty Python from its earliest days. He also had an infamous cameo role as the police sergeant who abruptly ends Monty Python and the Holy Grail by putting his hand over the camera. Incidentally, Doyle directed one of my all-time favorite music videos, for Kate Bush’s Cloudbusting.
While visiting the London office of Philosophy Now recently, I was amazed to learn that Doyle had written and was directing a new play with a philosophical theme. Entitled Twilight Of The Gods: Nietzsche Contra Wagner, it deals with Nietzsche’s first day in a lunatic asylum in Turin, where he spent just over a year, from 3rd January 1889 onwards, evidently insane. (Nietzsche’s work The Twilight Of The Idols was published in the month he was admitted.) In the play he is being cared for by a nun, and he begins to hallucinate that the ghost of Richard Wagner is visiting him in his cell.
I learned about the play from Philosophy Now editors Rick Lewis and Grant Bartley, and accompanied them to see it. Other than the brief description above, we had no idea what to expect, but given the Python connection of its author and director, we naturally anticipated a farce along the lines of The Bruce’s Philosopher’s Song (‘There’s nothing Nietzsche couldn’t teach ya /’bout the raising of the wrist…’) or the Argument Sketch (“This is not an argument!” “Yes it is!”). When we read on the playbill that the actress playing the nun, Anna Winslet (Kate’s sister) had previously appeared in a work entitled Thalidomide: The Musical, our expectations for non-stop nonsense were increased.
Imagine our surprise, then, when it became clear that Twilight Of The Gods was in fact a serious exploration of the tortured relationship between two ego-driven geniuses. There are laughs in the play, but they come from the actual writings of the two men, from which Doyle has extracted much of the dialogue.
In a short amount of time, Doyle expertly weaves together several themes: the initial shared enthusiasm both men had for the writings of Arthur Schopenhauer; their increasingly divergent aspirations; the nurturing role of Cosima Wagner in both mens’ lives; and most of all, the love for music which inspired them, and which ultimately drove them apart. Cleverly playing on the theme of Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman, Doyle has the ghost of Wagner trapped in Nietzsche’s cell until Nietzsche wills him to go away. And like a variation on Sartre’s No Exit, you witness two men, former friends and now mutually-hated enemies, bickering, bantering and one-upping each other in a kind of eternal recurrence neither desires. The play ends with Nietzsche denouncing Wagner in blistering terms for his unrelenting anti-Semitism. Then, in a final twist, Nietzsche offers Wagner a sort of forgiveness – not from him, but from several Jewish individuals that Wagner had swindled, lied to and mistreated, all of whom forgave him his personal flaws for the incomparable music he had given to the world.
This play is obviously a labor of love. Doyle does a masterful job of using the two mens’ original material in a brisk and entertaining way. The aforementioned Winslet has a dual role – the caring nun who cannot see the ghost of Richard Wagner and thinks Nietzsche is talking to himself, and the ghost of Cosima Wagner. Jud Charlton and William Hoyland were equally excellent as the dueling egoists (Nietzsche and Wagner respectively). Given its short length – just over an hour – this work would make an excellent video for classes. I hope that Mr Doyle will use his skills as a moviemaker to capture the original cast on film, and make it available to philosophy instructors and others interested in the intersection of Wagner and Nietzsche.
Twilight of the Gods is a no-nonsense drama – which is itself remarkable, given its Monty Python connection. But, as Nietzsche himself once asked, who among us can be elevated and laugh at the same time?
© Dr Timothy J. Madigan 2009
Tim Madigan is a US Editor of Philosophy Now. See his special Christmas “Food For Thought” column.