Jupiter in his smirking guises: Some birthday jottings for Richard Strauss

Why still Strauss and why Strauss still.

Steichen_Early Years_07
Strauss as photographed by Steichen in 1904.

“Richard Strauss, then, seems to me to be more than the greatest man of music of our time. He iin my opinion a central figure in today‘s most crucial dilemma of aesthetic morality—the hopeless confusion that arises when we attempt to contain the inscrutable pressures of self-guiding artistic destiny within the neat, historical summation of collective chronology.”—Glenn Gould, “An Argument for Richard Strauss” (1962).


I’m frequently asked by friends and acquaintances alike, “Why Strauss?”, and I, with equal frequency, pause and ask myself that same question, especially on his birthday, June 11. When I first made the leap from stage management to musicology, it should have by all rights been for the sake of Wagner. But those were the days of his bicentenary and though there is still more to be done with the magician of Bayreuth, there seemed to be at that time very little of R. that needed turning over in the scholastic moment.

Seeking avenues beyond Wagner, Strauss as scholarship became a reality for me that same year thanks to two seminar papers, one on the Regiebuch for Der Rosenkavalier and the second on Strauss’s Friedenstag. The first has fed directly into my dissertation research on Strauss’s stage collaborators and key collaborations, but the second is still a labor of love. With this, as with all my ventures in Strauss, the goal is to dig past the dreaded enemy of conventional knowledge to what lies beneath.

My early route to Strauss, however, was more circuitous, helped along the way by the treasured compact disc. The first Strauss addition to my catalog, indeed my first extended exposure, was a compendium release of tone poems conducted by Rudolf Kempe with the Dresden Staatskapelle: Zarathustra, Till, Tod und Verklärung, and always infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils” from Salome. I recall I bought it mostly for the work “freely after” Nietzsche—in reality, for what came after the introduction which I had never heard in full. I confess I continue to vacillate in my reactions to TuV, but I never looked back after hearing Till and the always infamous “Dance of the Seven Veils.” (Being a self-contained excerpt, Kempe’s version is one of the few to keep the long line of the piece in balance with its wildness.) To my growing ears, they both shared two things which still bring me back to Strauss’s works every day: their sheer thrill as well as their inherent wickedness.

With that term, I don’t mean “wickedness” in the sense of outright sin, though such a distinction does have merit for these examples, two of the composer’s most irreverent compositions and characters. Nor do I mean to characterize the composer in Manichean terms as “evil.” Strauss’s career in many ways does boast its blasphemies: the “unconventional” (inadequate to some) choices of subject matter, the adherence to his own milieus of composition, his eclecticism, his bourgeois attitudes, even the later political missteps. Beyond these, however, Strauss, like Mann, remains the consummate ironist: turning our personal and cultural norms up their heads by means of a jocose and elegant antagonism that rarely strays into crude maliciousness. I have come to believe that this “wicked” ambivalence, neither ebulliently optimistic nor numbingly pessimistic, keeps Strauss’s works alive. One hundred and fifty-four years after his birth, there are few dead ends to be found in Strauss, even in works which many would (and still) consider to be “disappointing” or “uninspired.” Riddles perhaps, fogs occasionally, but rarely a full stop. As Gould observed over fifty years ago, Strauss’s vitality spawns from his capacity for debate, for reevaluation, for, as he did time and time again, wickedly flaunting whatever may be said, written, or thought of him.

“I swore to love him” or, On-again/Off-agains with “Der Rosenkavalier”

FullSizeRender-2Anniversary meditations on the works of Richard Strauss.

As breaks amid preparations for my exams, I’m revisiting Strauss’s major works on the anniversaries of their premieres with more informal and personal, if not occasionally wandering, musings.

Today, a big one:

Der Rosenkavalier

Premiere: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden; Thursday, January 26, 1911

The calendar struck with two big Strauss anniversaries back-to-back, so this offering is unfortunately tardy. Looking over the fare I offered on Elektra and Metamorphosen, I realized that I skirted too closely around the shoals of formality. The benefit of a medium like this is frankness. One should always be accurate, of course, and I welcome any and all responses to what I’ve written. My goal is to nourish kernels of my own thoughts which would not likely have a friendly home in a more academic venue, and wrestle with ideas without concern if they come up short. Much will end up ultimately being fragments, a form too often undervalued.

Which brings me to the work under consideration for today, perhaps the most quintessential of all Strauss stage works: Der Rosenkavalier. Lately, I’ve been perplexed. When it comes up in discussion, I routinely stifle a sensation close to ambivalence. Moods happen—yet this tepidity is different. It’s not a case of out-and-out dislike. As someone who studies opera production history, Rosenkavalier is one of the central case studies, and for good reason. Apart from the joy that is the work of designer Alfred Roller, the circumstances of the premiere (Strauss’s contractual battles, wounded feelings at Dresden, Max Reinhardt’s involvement), no matter how many times retold, still yield forth fresh gems. Beypnd this, Der Rosenkavalier is central to the Strauss canon, the wider operatic repertoire, and the course of art music in the twentieth century. Yet in putting these thoughts down, I find the same sensation surfacing again. Whence this dissatisfaction?

In this regard, I am not alone. Though this was the first original collaboration of Strauss and Hofmannsthal (Elektra already existing as a stage text) and easily their most successful (at least commercially), at certain points they themselves perceived personal qualms. Strauss later admitted the work was hampered by longeurs of his own making. More bitingly, before the ink on the score was dry, Hofmannsthal was venting his distaste of Strauss’s efforts to Count Harry Kessler with one hand while dashing off praise to the composer with the other. Despite these misgivings, no attempt was made to revise the work as with Ariadne auf Naxos, though Strauss did eventually sanction cuts. (Myself, I prefer the work without them.) One could look to Arabella, so often described (both positively and negatively) as a “second Rosenkavalier,” as an attempt to respond to the earlier work, but such a tack soon runs into a slough of its own.

It may be, simply, just Rosenkavalier fatigue on my part. Some of this fatigue, however, is relief. The hackneyed critical line about Rosenkavalier as a threshold of regression has been soundly obliterated, though it occasionally resurrects itself. Furthermore, the work has been the center of valuable attention in the last decade. Michael Reynolds has offered a probing study of the contributions of Count Harry Kessler and the origins of the scenario in the 1907 operetta L’Ingenu libertin. The press response to Glyndebourne’s production in 2014 exposed and incited a valuable dialogue about body-shaming in opera criticism. There also was a recent Opinion piece for the New York Times online, which I shall address at a later date. These latter two instances point to the greatest challenge facing the work, indeed the entirety of Strauss’s output: how do (and how will) these works speak—through performance—to the concerns of our century? What answers can a “comedy” so inexorably and problematically tied up with questions of gender and power provide to #metoo? Opera’s not impalpable undercurrent of misogyny has drawn our comfort with numerous works of the nineteenth century into question, along with how they appear in the hands of contemporary directors, designers, and performers. The rest of the repertory faces similar scrutiny.

These criticisms are in no way new; indeed, they are if anything long overdue for response, as well as action. Ultimately, criticism and exegesis on the web or on paper only reach so far. These are dramatic works and answers to their questions are (and must) be found in performance. It may be that once Strauss’s works fall completely into the public domain across the globe, much will be done in the way of reinvention, reinterpretation, and recasting, both literal and figurative. This is a sensitive nerve with Rosenkavalier, since its stage history is so inexorably bound with attempts to preserve a particular vision of the work—as the creators “intended” it to be. I am tempted to say that “traditional” Rosenkavaliers will always be with us, but really, what does “traditional” mean, and what is a “traditional” Rosenkavalier? Is it merely rigid adherence to the original designs and prompt book? The complete score with the complete forces dictated by the composer? Or is it more a vision of what will placate opera’s Achilles heel: the ever-feared but always necessary audience that may provide that fatal rejection of not buying tickets or donating money if what they see fails to entertain or holds up too brutal a mirror.

I frequently quip, with much seriousness, that someday someone will produce a version of the Ring with a dozen performers, two pianos, two chairs, and a stick, and it will be the greatest revelation in Wagnerian history. Strauss could do with the same. If the works are strong enough, rich enough, and powerful enough, they will survive being adapted, being challenged, being put into dialogue with what was once done, and what could be done the next time around. We may wring hands that the creator’s wishes are being violated, disgraced, or some other melodramatic participle. No doubt, Strauss and his librettists would have strong and resolute opinions on what they would see on the stages of today’s opera houses, but these acts of supposition are just that. I don’t mean to give carte blanche to interpretations that take little of the dramatic and musical substances of the work into account. The informed is always the enemy of the reckless. And we must hold the unaccounted for accountable in what we see onstage. If, like the Marschallin, we have sworn to love these works to the point that we can appreciate attractions to them from other corners, then we too can support a plurality of approaches to them.

A Coda. We must not forget that Strauss took his own “liberties” in bringing Gluck (Iphigenie auf Tauris), Beethoven (Die Ruinen von Athen), and Mozart (Idomeneo) to the stage in his own era. January 26 also marks the anniversary of the premiere of Mozart’s Così fan tutte, a clear ancestor of Rosenkavalier and one of Strauss’s specialties as a conductor. It is also the eve of Mozart’s birthday. Strauss’s reverence for the composer was nigh on absolute, but even he abjured pedantic adherence to tradition. I’m reminded too of Strauss’s epithet “the divine Mozart,” and how, in a late philosophical fragment on his forebear, Strauss considered his melodies to be “primal types” (Urbilder) to be experienced by emotion, breathed in by the ear. If Strauss could still breath Mozart a century and a half after his death, we should be able to do the same for Strauss in our own century.

(c) Ryan M. Prendergast, 27 January 2018.

Love, Death, and Memory: “Elektra” and “Metamorphosen”


Anniversary meditations on the works of Richard Strauss.

As breaks amid preparations for my exams, I’m revisiting Strauss’s major works on the anniversaries of their premieres with more informal and personal, if not occasionally wandering, musings.

Today, two works:

Premiere of Elektra: Königliches Opernhaus, Dresden; Monday, January 25, 1909.

Premiere of Metamorphosen: Kleiner Saal, Tonhalle, Zurich; Friday, January 25, 1946.


Like Salome, I always recommend Elektra as a “first opera” to newcomers. Strauss’s Tragödie has all the necessary ingredients: brevity, violence, great set pieces, women driving all the action, and, perhaps surprisingly for an operatic work, no love story. (Or at least a conventional love story…) It’s still my desert island score. (And, for what it’s worth, the source for the title of this blog.) It’s a vital presence in my research and playlists, but more often than not, Elektra is most valuable to me as a rebound opera. Adverse incidents usually send me back to its paroxysms of maenadic rage, its oases of lyricism, and its frenzied catharsis. (Along with the second act of Wagner’s Götterdämmerug, it’s stood me through more than one breakup.) Immersed in it now for over a decade, I think it’s the emotional purgation that Strauss gets best in this work, showing his dramaturgical prowess as an editor in distilling Hofmannsthal’s original stage text. The one-act is wound tighter than an industrial spring and should uncoil just as fatally. Yet the more I live with it, the more I realize just how heavy its unfurling hits. It’s relentless drive to the final, leveling C major is a snap that sometimes threatens to overwhelm everything, like the monstrous, twentyfold ocean Elektra describes burying her every step of her triumphant dance.


Part of that whelming likely comes from my unabashed preference for Sir Georg Solti’s recording of the work from 1967 on the Decca label. (It’s still my recommendation for first-time listeners as well.) Though still popular, Solti’s efforts on record (Strauss or otherwise) seem to be muscled out of fashion by efforts considered to be more lucid and restrained. Indeed, the maestro was not one for subtlety. Not unjustly did Wieland Wagner accuse him of orgasms every other bar, and the word “vulgar” is more than occasionally bandied about in discussions of Solti’s discography. Yet his recorded operas (I sadly never heard him live in the theatre) possess the vital edge and urgency one expects from the medium, something akin to the radio dramas of an earlier era—with no visual, the recording needed something extra to reach across the proscenium of the home speaker system or headphones. John Culshaw’s work as producer on Solti’s more famous releases is also no stranger to criticism, yet I’ve always reveled in the unabashed “Grand Guignol” (to use Culshaw’s own words) of Elektra, and Salome before it. There’s always a grisly relish in Birgit Nilsson’s triumphant B-flat in her opening monologue at the line “rings um dein Grab!”, Regina Resnik’s malicious cackles, Gerhard Stolze’s schrecklich Aegist. Vulgar on occasion, perhaps, but never boring. I’m also of the opinion that Elektra is not a work for understatement. If Salome is perfumed gossamer, Elektra is a bloody sack of burlap and should feel that way.


For all my love of recordings, as a student of opera staging history, I firmly believe that recorded Strauss is only half the experience. The power of the stage works depends on just that: the stage. (I use the term stage works consciously. “Opera,” though a term of convenience and habit, is ultimately an unwieldy term, especially in light of Strauss’s specific generic subtitles.) There’s no shortage of filmed Elektras, however, and the videography boasts some of the best-stocked casts of any opera of the twentieth century. Like Der Rosenkavalier, it is fascinating to see singers move from role to role in the piece. The triple crown of Elektra, Chrysothemis, and Klytemnästra provides a particularly diverse range of musical and dramatic challenges. Only the likes of Leonie Rysanek and Dame Gwyneth Jones could attempt it with impunity.


I had the good fortune to see Sir David McVicar’s production when it debuted in Chicago in 2012—a bold season opener—with Christine Goerke, Emily Magee, and Jill Grove in the principal roles. (A revival in Houston is currently underway.) Key to its success were John Macfarlane’s set and costume designs, a true exercise in scenography. Entering the auditorium, you were confronted by doom and dread emanating from the show curtain, a giant, tattered funerary shroud that replaced the famous Lyric Opera fire curtain and main drape. Elektra, like Tosca, possesses one of the strongest openings to any operatic work, a startling, pummeling statement of the masculine presence that hangs over the work, here the D minor theme representing the murdered king Agamemnon. The grey pall was impressively flown out at this moment, revealing the decrepit palace in Mycenae framed in the full proscenium. The familiar teaser was absent, and the screen for supertitles was hung, appropriately, off-center.


Eschewing sanitized visions of ancient Greece, Macfarlane painted a nightmarish landscape of the royal abode as a tremendous ruined edifice replete with oblique walls and smoldering debris, endless shadows and perplexing angles. Light, an important dramatic symbol and motif in the text, received a skillful manipulation in this world by designer Jennifer Tipton. Given the director’s comparison of Strauss and Quentin Tarantino in his program note, there was no shortage of gore in McVicar’s final scene, when a rush of blood poured down the palace stair. (It was a particularly thrilling sight from the first balcony.) Amid Elektra’s final dance, the threshold to the palace was sealed by an ominous door of solid sheet metal, an image which left me perplexed and startled with its suddenness. No stage direction for the closing of the door appears in the libretto or score, yet the chilling stage direction of “Stille” following Chrysothemis’s final “Orest!” as she beats on the door of the palace defies a concrete description of what might be going on inside the palace. The hint, provided by bassoons and Wagner tubas in the orchestra, is ominous. The unsettledness of McVicar’s image recalled something between a slaughterhouse door or the entrance to Leatherface’s lair in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Like the conventions of ancient Greek theatre, it suggests that what’s going on offstage—Orest’s purgation of the palace or even his own torment by the Furies—is even more terrifying than what might be happening onstage. Sadly, Strauss and Hofmannsthal never progressed beyond an embryonic idea for a ballet based on Orest and the Furies, an effective sequel to Elektra, so the fate of all remains ambiguous, at least as far as the creators are concerned.


It’s altogether uncanny that a work with such rage and violence should share a premiere anniversary with a work of such profound melancholy. One should not read too much into the coincidence but positing Elektra and Metamorphosen in dialogue encourages reflection. Both are, in their own ways, threnodies. Elektra keens for vengeance for her father’s murder and the eventual, but always elusive, triumph of his brood. The lamentation in Metamorphosen, however, is less straightforward. The familiar image of Strauss mourning the destruction of Germany has been fruitfully problematized in the last decades of scholarship. Like the exiled Thomas Mann, Strauss returned more and more to the works of Goethe in his final years, themselves spent in refuge in Switzerland. His work on Metamorphosen took up the latter part of 1944, originating first in a setting of Goethe’s text “Niemand wird sich selber kennen” (No one can know himself) before reaching in its final form in the piece commissioned for the Collegium Musicum Zürich by Paul Sacher, Willi Schuh, and Karl Böhm.


Finished in Garmisch on April 12, 1945, the same day as the death of FDR, Metamorphosen lacks any easy or convenient exegesis. The composer left a substantial clue, however, in the title. A metamorphosis, as it would have been familiar to Strauss, would be an achievement of transfiguration through a search and acknowledgment of the divine within. Throughout Strauss’s instrumental and operatic works, the similar, but distinct, dramatic gesture of transfiguration (Verwandlung), from human to the divine (Ariadne auf Naxos, in both the 1912 and 1916 versions), the divine to the human (Die Frau ohne Schatten in 1919), or from humanity to nature (Daphne in 1938) is presented as an act with positive, but not solely redemptive (read: Wagnerian) connotations. Metamorphosen counters these examples. This “Study for Twenty-Three Strings” presents an intense probing of the self, but without the expected, redemptive ending. As Timothy Jackson’s research has suggested, the awareness of the inner beast, something morose and ultimately vile, is the piece’s parting sensation. With its final quotations “In Memoriam” from the funeral march movement of Beethoven’s Third Symphony, Metamorphosen succeeds in emphasizing a sense of negation and abnegation, reinforced by the continual chromatic tension between C major and C minor, the latter claiming victory in the last bars of the piece. Compare this with the final bars of Elektra, where C major provides a triumphant, but also somewhat compromised, accompaniment to the image of the prone, immobile Elektra. Her long-held objectives are realized but her “self” is seemingly absented in the process, a metamorphosis to some state. In their earlier confrontation, Elektra taunts her mother with the question “What must bleed?” to her question about comforting sleep. Metamorphosen perhaps hints that any peace comes at the price of self-purgation.


(c) Ryan M. Prendergast, 25 January 2018.


To the Gods and the Monsters: Observations on Classic Horrors (I)

Theodor von Holst’s frontispiece to the 1831 edition of Frankenstein. (Public Domain)

Five Fragments on Frankenstein

“It is my only weakness” —Pretorius, Bride of Frankenstein

Like Dr. Pretorius in Bride of Frankenstein (1935), my self-professed weakness(es) extend beyond the odd shot of gin in a chemistry beaker or a cigar in a church crypt. Though opera is usually first among my penchants, I have a great love of classic horror films that reaches back long before the music of Richard Strauss ever touched my ears. I was an eclectic viewer, but the movies produced by Universal Studio during their token “golden ages” were the best friends a teenage me could ask for. Awkward adolescence drew me to stories of the phantasmagorical, yet I remember relishing little of the “horrific” in them. In the protagonists of these films, I saw fellow outcasts and misfits, and the gasps were always far fewer in frequency than tears and laughter. (Years later, I would find Boris Karloff, that ever-genial doyen of the macabre, was of a similar opinion.) I’ve visited these friends time and again over the years, and while some plot twists now come off a little worse for wear, they still exude an undying magic.

While Dracula and the Mummy each held their mystical sway over me, my true devotion—ever since handling those musty old Crestwood House MONSTERS books—was always to the Frankenstein Monster. Thanks to the brilliance of Boris Karloff’s performance and the directorial panache of James Whale, the 1931 Frankenstein still reigns as one of the most seminal films in history. While its sequel Bride of Frankenstein usually takes the lion’s share of critical acclaim, each of eight installments in the franchise stalks forth with their own distinctions.[1] One may lament that some are not up to the perceived quality of the first three, which starred Karloff as the Monster, but the brand’s endurance is still, to quote Inspector Krogh in Son of Frankenstein, “indelible.” Rereading Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein for a course on Romanticism triggered a nostalgic “reunion” with the Universal saga a few weeks ago. The rest of the films followed suit, and my contemplations worked their way out here. What follows are some ruminations on the films, their makers, and their legacy. Some stitches may occasionally show, but I hope that, to quote the good Dr. Pretorius once more, “there is a pleasing variety about my exhibits.”

I. “Cannot be destroyed. Cannot die. Your father made him live for always!” —Ygor, Son of Frankenstein

Of all those to don the Monster’s flat top, none comes close to rivaling Boris Karloff’s three nuanced performances of the role. While his principal successors Lon Chaney, Jr., Bela Lugosi (once the first choice for the 1931 film), and Glenn Strange each have merit, Karloff above and beyond exuded a pathos and presence all his own, even as the character began the inevitable lurch towards brute automatism in Son of Frankenstein.

What is it about Karloff, that make-up, that performance that is so spellbinding? What is it about the infamous flat-top and electrodes (not bolts) in the neck? Why has it become one of the most durable images of twentieth-century popular culture, recognizable nearly everywhere? In some ways, it was the luck of combination—the right collaborators, the right ideas, the right timing. But that design could not have worked on just any actor, and it is hard to fathom who else or how else it could have transpired except with Karloff (and makeup artist Jack P. Pierce, of course). For this reason, one cannot overlook the significance of Karloff’s peculiar facial architecture for the success of the Monster—that lean V-shaped mask, that point of the tubercle on the upper lip, those large and enigmatic eyes. Universal did not bill him as “Karloff the Uncanny” for nothing, and he would seem to be a clear embodiment of, to quote Freud on the unheimlich, “that type of ‘unsettling’ which flashes back to what was once-known and long-familiar.”[2] The attribute pervaded every aspect of his performances, and not just as the Monster. One can note many examples of “uncanniness” in either Karloff’s appearance, voice, and movement, but more than anything else, it remained his gift that no matter what his role, he could convey gentility and jeopardy in the same breath, frighten as quickly as he could comfort, and bring forth terror with tears.

The cadaverous aspects of his face notwithstanding—Karloff had far fewer lean years following Frankenstein’s runaway success—it is the draw of his eyes that truly distinguish his performances as the Monster, especially in the first film. This ocular effectiveness was heightened in Frankenstein by the building up of Karloff’s brow with the headpiece, darkening the eye sockets, and the pronouncing of the bags under the eyes. (These aspects, modified in later films, also showed a clear debt to the appearance of Conrad Veidt in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.) Though the lids were laden with mortician’s wax, the orbs still projected an alertness and a penetrating quality hard to express in words, but always clear in the visual. They convey a special menace in moments when the Monster observes other characters at a slight remove, particularly Mae Clarke in the boudoir scene in the first film. Beams emanating from the eyes of uncanny beings were also part of the promotional material and the film’s title sequence, a cue perhaps to the film’s emphasis on “the great ray that first brought life into the world.”

For varying reasons, Karloff’s successors maintained somnambular expressions for much of their screen time, and the effect diminished what little agency the Monster possessed in later installments. One cannot truly fault Lugosi’s Monster for this, however, since the script for Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man carried over the convention from the previous film that the Monster had been blinded by surgery complications. It is all the more a pity since Lugosi, just like Karloff, had a magnetic stare and a commanding profile. (Who can ever truly look away from his Murder Legendre in White Zombie?) Indeed, when the Lugosi Monster is brought to full power in the final sequence, the opening of the eyes with that leer is chilling. One laments that Lugosi’s masterful creation in Son and The Ghost, the broken-necked Ygor, did not play a greater role beyond the latter film.

No less consequential to Karloff’s interpretation were concerns of movement and voice, or relative lack thereof in the case of the latter. Despite the weight and constraints of his costume, Karloff gave the Monster a fluidity as uncanny as the face at the top of it all. This also extended to those potent moments of stillness where the Monster was at his most pitiable, and dangerous. There was no scripted dialogue for the Monster in Frankenstein, a major point of criticism since Shelley’s Creature exhibited an unbridled mastery of rhetoric. (It is worth pointing out, however, that Shelley’s Creature learned speech indirectly over the course of several months, thanks to the acquisition of a satchel of books and his observation of a family instructing a guest in language.) As a result, Karloff was confined to vocables in the first film, blossoming into more developed speech in Bride, a choice which the actor famously resisted. Thankfully, the choice prevailed. While most of the Monster’s dialogue is frequently, if not annoyingly, quotable, one moment deserves singling out for its anguish: his plaintive cry of “Friend?!” as the Hermit’s hut goes up in flames. Given Karloff’s avowed affinity for English literature of the nineteenth century, however, one does wonder how Shelley’s text would have sounded. (Excerpts from the novel would have made an excellent addition to the actor’s catalog of spoken word recordings.)

II. “Quite a good scene, isn’t it?!” —Henry Frankenstein, Frankenstein

A source of perpetual beauty and eeriness in the Universal Frankenstein films is the subtle ambiguity of their settings, an uncanny bricolage of places and anachronisms that stretches across all eight installments. A visual aesthetic that melded past, reality, and fantasy was a conscious choice of the first film. Writing to Colin Clive before shooting began on the first film, director James Whale laid out his conception: “I want the picture to be a very modern, materialistic treatment of this medieval story—something of Doctor Caligari, something of Edgar Allan Poe, and of course a good deal of us.”[3] Whale was true to his word, and the successor installments followed suit in melding a variety of styles in their own unique state of consciousness—potent but never over-assertive. Reliable geographies, dates, and material objects fragment, feign, and fuse into a world that never existed, except perhaps in an impish nightmare, and like all nightmares, they are never consistent or easily explicable in their unfolding.

When any indicators appear in the films or their associative texts (screenplays, press kits, etc.), they only serve to reinforce the singular unsingularity of the films’ locales. The first two films transpire in the Teutonic arcadia of Goldstadt, an oblique nod to the Ingolstadt of Shelley’s novel. (The name “Goldstadt” is a holdover from the Webling/Balderston play adaptation that served as a source for the first film’s screenplay.) A retcon in Son, however, renames the village “Frankenstein,” triangulating the tragedy of the maker and the Monster with that of the populace that lives around them. (A nobility upgrade for the family to “von Frankenstein” occurs in the interim as well.) The remaining films cut back and forth from Frankenstein to the equally fictitious (and pliable) Städte of Vasaria/Visaria, Neustadt, Reigelburg, and finally, La Mirada, Florida for the Monster’s rendezvous with Abbott and Costello. In each case, the world strikes an uncanny concordance with reality.

Chronology is equally nebulous. The press kits for Frankenstein and Bride ominously describe the “time” of their setting as “the present.” Yet in no way can we consider that “present” realistic. Late Victorian and Edwardian attire juxtaposes contemporary-to-production fashions, and technologies like the telephone exist alongside grave robbing and body snatching from mountain gallows. Bride does provide the saga with its only reliable chronological anchor: Pretorius’s ghoul Karl reads the date “1899” a casket inscription during a body snatching, and considering the skeletization of the corpse within, the action must take place decades into the next century. (A cut scene from Bride would have shown the date “1869” on the sign of the Goldstadt morgue.) Yet apart from natural decay, little in this world seems to age in any way. New characters come and go, but all and sundry seem marooned in an unavoidably nasty and brutish world. Even though Son takes place a generation after the events of Bride, little of this world seems to have changed. If anything, the world seems doomed to repeat its history over and over, with no escape.

III. “Pretty little thing in her way, wasn’t she?” —Karl, Bride of Frankenstein

To a young me, Bride of Frankenstein truly was (and is) a masterpiece to end all masterpieces, a Gothic dramma giocoso that fuses the ironic, the expressionistic, and the subversive into most sublime tragedy. Re-watching Bride once again revealed the mastery of the film’s execution and how its thematic underpinnings had in no way faded with age. In many ways, Whale’s achievement in this film mirrors Richard Strauss’s accomplishment with Salome thirty years earlier: a decadent melding of styles and aesthetics in telling a blasphemous tale tinged with wickedness, flecked with wit, and ultimately cloaked with catastrophe. Nor could one ask for a better-crafted film.

Every shot by cinematographer John Mescall presents visual excellence, which Whale always imbued with his own panache. Both Karloff and Colin Clive are back in rare form as Monster and maker, now buttressed by the acid menace of Ernest Thesiger’s Dr. Pretorius and an outstanding roster of supporting players—Valerie Hobson, Una O’Connor, E. E. Clive, Dwight Frye, the always redoubtable Elsa Lanchester, and the divine O. P. Heggie as the Hermit—all under the umbrella of William Hurlbut’s fantastical screenplay. (Whale’s shooting script, reproduced in facsimile by MagicImage, lists Hurlbut and John Balderston as co-authors of the screenplay, but Hurlbut would receive sole credit in the credits for the final film, while Balderson would receive co-adaptation credit.)

Returning to Shelley’s novel for several plot elements, Whale and Hurlbut developed the state of the story at the end of the first film to the point where the two films effectively operate as a holistic entity, which pivots around the so-called “Prologue” sequence with Mary Shelley (really still Mary Godwin in that summer of 1816, as film historian Scott MacQueen has rightly pointed out), Percy Shelley, and Lord Byron. For those concerned with lapses in continuity (and convention), the Prologue provides a convenient palimpsestuous conduit. Mary admits that the story extends beyond the immolation at the end of the first film, with the implication that other details have been interpolated and modified as well.

Not all was destined to survive to the final release print. Numerous scenes were trimmed, including the Prologue along with Pretorius’s first scene with Henry which elaborate his history with Henry and his knowledge of the Monster. A lengthy sequence following the Monster’s escape from the Goldstadt dungeon was also excised, including a scene wherein the Monster finally confronts E. E. Clive’s disbelieving Burgomaster. Had it survived to the final print, this culling scene would have mirrored a similar moment in Whale’s preceding film The Invisible Man (1933). Following his first escape, the lunatic Griffin returns to the Lion’s Head Inn in Iping to retrieve his notebooks. In the process, he disrupts a police inquiry and murders the pompous Inspector Bird, who similarly doubts his existence. (Clive’s Burgomaster is given no name, but it is worth pointing out that Lionel Belmore’s Burgomaster in the 1931 film’s name is “Vogel,” the German word for bird.) These trouncings of an overly supercilious authority figure resonate throughout Whale’s work, going to back to the murder of Dr. Waldman in Frankenstein. In that instance, however, Waldman fully recognizes the Monster’s menace. Other masculine authorities from the first film are summarily omitted in Bride: the “old Baron Frankenstein” dies off-screen (and not shown in the final film), and Victor Moritz and his memory simply vanish.

While the Monster happens about his misadventures, the charismatically vicious Dr. Pretorius emerges as the true antagonist of Bride. One would be hard-pressed to find a better Mephistophelean gatecrasher that Ernest Thesiger, who gloriously infects each scene in which he appears. (Throughout the film, Whale cements the character’s dominance by awarding him the final close-up of the scene before the dissolve.) The emphasis given to Pretorius’s character reconfigures the doppelgänger tension between Henry Frankenstein and the Monster, one of the defining relationships in Frankenstein. Removing the Monster from the equation for a moment, in Bride Whale dispenses with the conventional love triangle in the first film (Henry, Elizabeth, and Victor) in favor of a much tighter and more fraught threesome between Henry, Elizabeth, and Pretorius. Rather than have Elizabeth as the focus of the triangle, the object of contest is Henry. Caught in the pull between Elizabeth and Pretorius, the latter temporarily prevails while Elizabeth is the ultimate victor in the final shot. Pretorius inverts the roles of the romantically anemic Victor Moritz while absorbing the authority of the ignobly dispatched Dr. Waldman (no offense to the memories of John Boles and Edward van Sloan). In the case of the latter character, Pretorius pushes Henry to continue his experiments rather than deter him. Though the Monster is the instrument of Pretorius’s destruction as much as Waldman, Pretorius first enjoys mastery over him. Victor’s absence replaces the more conventional romantic triangle with a more compelling alternative. A more dynamic rhomboid would return in Son of Frankenstein, with Wolf von Frankenstein pitted against his wife Elsa, the wily Inspector Krogh, and malevolent Ygor, a worthy successor (and foil) to Pretorius’s suave iniquity.

Thesiger’s performance serves as a complement to Karloff in its reliance on peculiarities of appearance. The actor’s countenance in the film is marked by its angularity, an effect heightened by the prominent upturn of his nose and the size and orientation of the eyes. In contrast to his previous macabre roles in The Old Dark House (1932) and The Ghoul (1933), Thesiger’s eye sockets are not darkened in Bride in any way. Pretorius is always on the alert, always scheming. Mescall’s cinematography in Bride seizes upon the contours of Thesiger’s face, especially the severity of the eyebrows and the wrinkles on his brow and around his eyes, which convey a tremendous effect of texture in almost every close-up, particularly those at the end of the homunculi scene and during the creation sequence. Like Karloff, Thesiger had a lisp which produced an idiosyncratic effect on both the timbre of his speech but also the movements of his mouth. Thesiger’s lisp favors the lower left corner of his mouth, Karloff’s the whole lateral length. The total effect is best described by a note in the screenplay that Pretorius’s entrance is “something to make a witch’s skin creep.”

IV. “Don’t knock the castle over! We’re not all dead yet!” —Minnie, Bride of Frankenstein

Irony would be one of the major forces at play in Bride, as evinced by the epigraph on the cover of the shooting script, a modified quotation from William Blake’s “The Garden of Love”: “So I turned to the Garden of Love / That so many sweet flowers bore; / And I saw it was filled with graves.” The potency of Whale’s comedy, substantial additions to the shooting scripts of both Frankenstein or Bride, comes from its grounding in the story and its characters. The moments are small in nature, but the extent of their balance amid the larger narrative showcases the director’s keen sense for irony as an essential aspect of story. The opening sequence of Frankenstein shows three such instances. In one way or another, they condescend death. First, the sexton’s matter-of-fact slinging of his bell post over his shoulder as he makes his way down the hill (prompting an abstruse look from the pall bearers and mourners). Second, the gravedigger’s almost contemptuous toss of a burned-out match on the fresh mound of the burial. And third, and most effective of all, Henry’s toss of a shovelful of dirt in the face of a nearby grave monument of Death with wild abandon as he and Fritz loot the sepulcher. Both the statue of Death and the adjacent giant crucifix monument cameo in the graveyard scene in Bride, the former part of a scene cut from the shooting script wherein the Monster tries to free the Christ figure from its mount. What its replacement, the toppling of the statue of a bishop, lacks in pathos, it more than compensates for in its visual irony.

Whale’s strength as a cinematic ironist would only grow over the course of the intervening projects The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man, where believably innocuous gestures are interwoven between acts of terror or discomfort. In the former film, Rebecca Femms’s adjustment in the mirror and exit following her harangue and unsubtle grope of Margaret Waverton stands as a notable example. From Jenny Hill’s shrill fits to Griffin’s incessant quips while committing his atrocities, irony saturates frame after frame of Invisible Man like the scientist’s Monocaine.

As usual, Whale works the humor into the discomfit of the characters. Names and their repetition play such a role in the humor of Bride. The repeats of Pretorius’s name in his introductory scene are the most obvious, but in the scenes following the Monster’s escape from the jail, the hyperbolic reiterations of the names of Freda and the mutilated Neumanns turns the tragedy of their demises into something approaching sardonicism.

V. “The undying monster.” —Neimann, House of Frankenstein

Like their monstrous protagonist, the Frankenstein films have been constantly hunted by torch-bearing detractors who decry their often-tenuous relationship with their source material. (The first three installments do credit Mary Shelley’s original story, though the third Son possesses at best threadbare connections.) To some, though, there’s no sin like a loose adaptation. Furthermore, while they are often denounced in favor of more “faithful” cinematic incarnations, ultimately all dramatic iterations of Frankenstein appropriate from each other in some way, shape, or form if only as intentional departures—a testament to the work’s solid foundation in popular culture. Inevitably, though, those cinematic adaptations that purport to hew closer to the source material inevitably end up conjuring the specters of the characterization by Karloff and the famous creation sequence(s) with their elaborate electrical paraphernalia and histrionics.

Universal now moves towards another reboot of its Monsters series, a more expansive reimagining on the heels of the Mummy franchise and multi-monster Van Helsing from Stephen Sommers, and Joe Johnston’s Wolf Man remake. David Koepp has been charged with tackling the Bride, and we can only speculate how many more of the “Devil’s brood” will be once more revivified and set against each other. Yet as before their mettle is such that the no matter what is hurled at them, they restore and renew no matter what. To quote the blasphemous Pretorius once more, “Be fruitful and multiply.”


[1] The films are, in order, Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), Son of Frankenstein (1939), The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943), House of Frankenstein (1944), House of Dracula (1945), and finally, Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948).

[2] “das Unheimliche sei jene Art des Schreckhaften, welche auf das Altbekannte, Längstvertraute zurückgeht.” Sigmund Freud, “Das Unheimliche,” 1919. My translation.

[3] New York Times, “FRANKENSTEIN finished,” October 11, 1931.

(c) 2017, Ryan M. Prendergast

First posts first.

“There is a noise within.”

This will all be an attempt, a work in progress.

One point, though: the title comes from the final “duet” of Richard Strauss and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s Elektra. As their brother Orest sweeps through the palace in victory, Chrysothemis asks her sister if she can hear the clamor of rebellion within, the rejoicing, the slaughter, the lighting of a thousand torches. Elektra retorts, “Can I not hear it? Can I not hear the music? Surely it comes from me!”