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Birtwistle: The Last Supper's libretto explored

(September 2001)

Facing up to the subterranean stream:
the challenge of Robin Blaser’s libretto
by Patrick Wright

Sir Harrison Birtwistle has remarked on his fascination with the Last Supper as a moment when ordinary human experience is transformed into ritual. In Robin Blaser, he has found a librettist uniquely able to deepen that perception and pursue it in unexpected directions. A leading North American poet, Blaser is known for his mastery of the image, yet his work has long also involved him in scholarly investigations into the most diverse traditions of western thought. Quite distinct from any amnesiac rush for novelty, Birtwistle’s radicalism consists of going to the root of musical tradition in order to create an historically informed ‘music for now’. Blaser’s libretto is written in a very similar spirit. It is an extraordinary work of cultural archaeology which, far from just retelling the story of Christianity’s inaugural moment, employs it to sound the rhythms of ‘the western heartbeat’ as they echo back and forth between biblical times and the present.

At the premiere in Berlin, Robin Blaser went to some lengths to explain that his libretto was not a theological work, by which he meant ‘not an argument for or against the existence of God’. He observed that the religious tradition ‘seems to be exhausting itself in various forms of hatred these days’, but he also rejected atheism as a negative impulse that has itself been ‘joined with cruelty in our time’. Blaser refused to enter this hall of mirrors in which faith has been reflected by secular anti-faith of the kind represented by Stalinism. Yet having made that position clear, he went on to say that the great thing about Christ is that, in the moment of the Last Supper, in which the Jewish passover ceremony became the foundation of the Christian Eucharist, he invented ‘a religion of life’: i.e. one that, far from denying the world in the name of divinity, addressed itself to humanity in its given historical and existential condition.

How are we to think of that ‘religion of life’ in the knowledge of the things that have been done in its name over the last 2000 years? Blaser has addressed this question with the help of a simple dramatic vehicle. The idea was to bring the disciples, those ‘great figures of our culture’, into our time, and imagine their struggle as they try to make sense of what they find. The ‘Ghost’ who invites them to re-enter the world is introduced as ‘the representative of ourselves’, and her name may be taken to suggest an evaluation of our present condition: more apparitional than divine, and bereft of the attendant word ‘Holy’. That sense of our time as bare and reduced, both disillusioned and damaged by its own history, is underlined by the disciples’ realisation that they have been invited to look through the ‘three zeros of the year 2000’.

Describing the themes or preoccupations of his libretto at the time of the premiere in Berlin, Blaser remarked that a sense of ‘breakage’ seemed to be a defining characteristic of our times, and counted the ‘great belief system’ of Christianity as one of the things that have broken. This observation was not made in a spirit of gleeful iconoclasm or, for that matter, in the belief that the damage could ever really be mended by a revival of faith. Instead Blaser spoke of ‘the irreparable’, remarking that the true task of our time is to come to terms with living in ‘the shatters of that in which we trust’ or, in the words his libretto quotes from the French philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, with ‘our eyes filled and deserted by divinity’.

His second concern was expressed as a question: Who is the betrayer and who, or what, is the betrayed? Has Christ been betrayed by the Church or, for that matter, by the fundamentalism that Blaser sees as the potential incubator of a new kind of fascism in the United States? If this question is answered with considerable power in the libretto, that is partly because Blaser combines it with another project: ‘the necessary release of Judas from infamy and anti-Semitism’. This story is brilliantly dramatised with the bolt of red cloth that Judas brings to the table. This is at once a table cloth, a red carpet for Christ’s return and, more profoundly, an emblem of the degeneration that has obliterated Christ’s ‘river of light’ with ‘a red rain full of our dust’. It is also the redness of anti-Semitism, and of the ‘blood guilt’ said to have fallen on the Jewish race in the primitive Christianity of the medieval treatises and passion plays.

Against this vision of Judas as a demonic Christ-killer, Blaser recovers the story of Judas’s gospel, which is said once to have existed and, indeed, to have been read by some of the early church fathers. Judas is also shown as the only disciple to have come from the city, and one who joined Christ in the belief that the people of Jerusalem would rise up around him. As for the betrayal, this is explained partly by Judas’s conviction that ‘God would make it clear that Jesus was the Messiah’, stepping into human history to redirect its course, as he had done so dramatically in the book of Exodus.

The words of the libretto are shared out between the singers, but Robin Blaser’s libretto is also conversational in a less obvious sense. Convinced that modern experience is too fractured to be encompassed by a single lyric voice, Blaser has long employed quotation to bring different perspectives, traditions and discourses into play in his poetic writing. The Last Supper participates in this attempted ‘relocation of the high lyric voice’. It is written as a kind of frieze, a textual fresco in which many voices are called into speech from the two thousand years of the Christian era. The Chorus Mysticus, which will become the voice of both Old Testament and New, opens the work with Latin phrases quoted from the medieval endeavour to combine faith and reason (the unanswerable question ‘What is God’; ‘What is his name?’; ‘God Said: I AM WHO I AM’). The same collage-like method is used in the wonderful passage in which words of the Hebrew testament are mixed with the Christian pater noster, a musical interplay that rejects history’s segregation of Christianity and Judaism. We hear fragments from the thought of contemporary thinkers, from George Steiner to Avital Ronell, the American feminist theorist of ‘stupidity’ and other contemporary conditions. Blaser also recites the words of great devotional poets who found divinity within, rather than against, the human world: notably, the seventeenth century metaphysical poet Richard Crashaw and also Thomas Traherne, who praised the body as ‘the glory of life’ in his ‘The Thanksgivings’.

In the Last Supper, many of the quoted voices are sounded in opposition to the dualism that has set mind against body, and spirit at war with the material world. Others speak of modern disillusionment. ‘Seeking the eye of God, I saw only a socket, huge, black, and bottomless’. Blaser quotes these lines from Gérard de Nerval’s ‘Christ among the Olives’: part of the sequence entitled ‘Les Chimères’, a version of which formed Blaser’s own second book in 1965. This poetic image of the Death of God, which predates Friedrich Nietzsche’s better-known pronouncement of the same cultural fact, has a whole subterranean history of its own. It derives from a dream in a late 18th century work by the German romantic writer Jean Paul - a ‘Speech of the Dead Christ’ - that was translated by Madame De Stael and Thomas Carlyle, as well as being taken up by Nerval, whose poem, written in 1841, opens with an epigraph from Jean Paul:

god is dead! The sky is empty
weep children, you no longer have a father.


Blaser’s own perspective on Christ, which is certainly not without a political dimension even if it avoids the theological, is revealed by the priority he gives to the footwashing scene, in which Christ enacts a ‘reversal of hierarchies’ that is here put to powerful new use. When we first hear of ‘dust’ or ‘pulvis’ it may be in lines from Psalm 103, an image of the fleeting insignificance of human existence when measured against both nature and divinity. But it becomes something quite different here. The disciples recite the passover phrase, ‘What’s this’, as Christ moves from one to the next, and the dust that he washes from their feet consists of the historical deformations that have reduced Christ’s ‘religion of life’ to ‘bestiality and vileness’. It’s quite a list: the tormenting of heretics, pre-emptions of God’s judgement, the state usurping the kingdom of heaven with its own murderously ‘redemptive’ programmes, hatred of the body, victimisation of blacks, women, aboriginals and homosexuals as well as Jews, proliferation of genetic definitions of ‘worthless life’, and savage attempts to replace human history with order.

Perhaps the key to this formidable inventory of historical sins is to be found in the line about ‘the subterranean dust that bursts out of the cracks and crevices of belief’. This image, which has already been cited in Ghost’s opening words, is drawn from Hannah Arendt, a philosopher whose thought has been a presence in Blaser’s writing for many years now. In the preface to her study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Arendt reflected on the irruption of anti-Semitism, imperialism and totalitarianism in a world that had so recently seemed assured of its own progressive enlightenment. After that, she concluded, ‘we can no longer afford to take that which was good in the past and simply call it our heritage, to discard the bad and simply think of it as a dead load which by itself time will bury in oblivion. The subterranean stream of Western history has finally come to the surface and usurped the dignity of our tradition’.

The surfacing of that subterranean stream is dramatised with startling power when the disciples freeze in the position of Leonardo da Vinci’s ‘The Last Supper’, bathed in a harsh light ‘as if a war is passing over them’, while Ghost sings

Don’t you hear Messiah coming in his tank, in his tank?
Messiah in an armour-metalled tank?


These startling lines are quoted from ‘Ballad of the Days of the Messiah’ by the Ukranian-born Jewish Canadian poet, A. M. Klein. The poem, which is little known and has scarcely been taken seriously before, was written in the second half of 1941: that is to say, after (or at about the same time as) the Nazi blitzkrieg broke into the Soviet Union to embark on a war of extreme and genocidal brutality, but before the ‘final solution’ was a confirmed fact. Klein knew that persecution had left European Jewry vulnerable to false messiahs, like the 17th century Shabtai-Zevi or Jacob Frank, who led his desperate Polish followers into a mass conversion to Christianity in 1759. Indeed, his poem echoes a 19th century ballad mocking the aspirations of the pious ghetto Jews, who had tried to defend themselves against pogroms and murder with prayers. It also reflects Klein’s secular Zionist regret that Hitler’s victims had not been quicker to realise that their salvation lay not in tanked messiahs but in the more worldly act of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Quoted by Blaser as a defining image of the twentieth century, it prepares the way for the central line of the libretto in which Christ, here presented as a Jew rather than the passive victim of Jewish betrayal imagined by medieval anti-Semitism, says ‘The Holocaust shattered my heart’. A risky line, to be sure: yet, as Blaser has explained, there is no other voice in the western tradition that could utter those words with sufficient meaning to save them from cliché.

The Last Supper may stand alongside other attempts to face up to Christianity’s collusion with murder - from the revisions carried out in an attempt to reduce the anti-Semitism in the medieval Passion play still performed by the Bavarian villagers of Oberammergau, to recent half-hearted attempts at papal apology for the Catholic church’s many sins of the past. Yet, Blaser knows that it is not sufficient merely to mutter ‘sorry’ when the victims are lying dead at your feet. As the Berlin Tagesspiel remarked of the first performance, Blaser’s Christ ‘offers a political correction against which the mea culpa of the Pope is little more than a cat licking itself clean’.

Remarkably, however, Blaser’s libretto is in no sense a captive of its own negativity. Indeed, by the end of this tough-minded yet profoundly moving work, the ‘three zeros of the year two thousand’, seem less depleted and void-like than they do at the beginning. While it is no part of Blaser’s intention to offer a programme for Christian renewal, it is noticeable that, in its lyrical dimension, the libretto keeps hinting at the possible restoration of wonder and dignity to a human experience that has been so tormented by religious intolerance with its life-denying ‘mimicries of God’. ‘Hell is here’, says Judas, and by the same reckoning, as Blaser demonstrates without ever straying into theological statement, so too is all that we need of Heaven. This is the most profound undercurrent of the libretto: its own answer to Hannah Arendt’s ‘subterranean stream’ of Western history, perhaps, and the means through which Blaser’s text comes into its own as far more than the sum of its quoted parts. For the real work of the libretto consists of bringing the imagination back to earth, of restoring much that had previously been given to God to Humanity. Blaser’s Christ shares in this work of returning the divine attributes of beauty, love and just politics to the world of ordinary human existence - a place of fishing, mustard seeds, carpentry and shepherding. This may place the libretto on the side of secular reality, yet it does not mark a surrender to mere disenchantment or mechanistic thought. In a pamphlet entitled Bach’s Belief (1995), Blaser cites Geoffrey Hartmann’s declaration that ‘the secular is the sacred integrated rather than degraded or displaced’, and his libretto is written in the same spirit.

‘There’s a Passion / In the depth of things - that burns with life’. That insistence, which puts Blaser firmly on the side of the heretics of old, may stand as a necessary corrective to a Christendom that has so often resorted to jumping up for Paradise from buckets of blood. Yet it also makes the libretto a visionary text, rather than merely an essay on the historical sins of Christianity. As for the shattered heart, and the ‘irreparable’ nature of our broken history, this too is less a counsel of despair, than an indication of what it might be to live well and responsibly in the knowledge of what western history has become. Born-again fundamentalists may retreat into theologically-dressed bigotry in the face of that challenge, but for Blaser such avoidance is itself a kind of blasphemy. He is on the side of those who learn to live with the fact that our eyes are, in those words he quotes from the French philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy and gives to Ghost, both ‘filled and deserted by divinity’. In that connection, we might remember the saying of Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav: ‘No heart is as whole as a broken heart’, and, as Nancy adds in his essay on ‘Shattered love’, that it is ‘the break itself that makes the heart’.

© 2001, Patrick Wright
Reproduction of this text is only possible by permission of the author.
This article was first published by Glyndebourne Festival Opera, in Glyndebourne 2001


> Further information on Work: The Last Supper
> Further information on Last Supper: libretto

Photo: © Mike Hoban

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