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The Flying Dutchman, English Spectacle and the Remediation of Grand Opera

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  11 October 2017


Richard Wagner wrote in 1852 that in settling on the theme of the phantom ship he had entered ‘upon a new path, that of Revolution against our modern Public Art’, that is, grand opéra. Wagner’s revolution has often been described in light of the poetics of return and homecoming that contributed a new sense of identity to (German) opera. The present article is written against the grain of this conviction, and highlights the cosmopolitan career of the phantom ship and of the vernacular art forms – the nautical theatre and the phantasmagoria – that maintained the seafaring image at the forefront of the liberal imagination, first in Britain, and then in Paris, where Wagner arguably seized on it. Specifically, it explores the significance of ‘apparitional images’ to mid-nineteenth-century opera and Wagner’s turn to a regime of modern spectacle, inspired by the art of phantasmagoria, in Der fliegende Holländer.

Research Article
© Cambridge University Press 2017 

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Gabriela Cruz, University of Michigan;


1 John MacDonald described the ghostly ship in his Travels in Various Parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa during a Series of Thirty Years and Up (London, 1790).

2 Barrington, George, A Voyage to New South Wales with a Description of the Country, The Manners, Customs, Religion, etc. of the Natives in the Vicinity of Botany Bay (London, 1795), 4546 Google Scholar.

3 Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine 9 (May 1821), 128. Millington, Barry, ‘The Sources and Genesis of the Text’, in Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, ed. Thomas Grey (Cambridge, 2000), 2535 Google Scholar; ‘Vanderdecken’s Message Home, or The Tenacity of Natural Affection’.

4 Edward Fitzball, The Flying Dutchman or the Phantom Ship: A Nautical Drama in Three Acts (London, 1866), 128.

5 [Anon], The Flying Dutchman; or the Demon Ship (London, 1830)Google Scholar; Heine, Heinrich, ‘Aus den Memoiren des Herren von Schnabelewopski’, in Der Salon, vol. 1 (Hamburg, 1834); Marryat, Frederick, The Phantom Ship (London, 1839); French trans. by Defauconpret, A. as Le Vaisseau fantôme (Brussels, 1839); German trans. by Richard, C. as Der fliegende Holländer (Leipzig, 1839).

6 Le grand Voltigeur hollandais met sept ans à virer de bord, c’est-à-dire à se retourner. Quand il roule – ce qui lui arrive rarement, en raison de la résistance que la masse oppose au ballottement des lames – les baleines et les cachalots se trouvent à sec sur ses porte-haubans. Les clous de sa carène serviraient de pivot à la lune; sa drisse du pavillon fait honte au maître-câble de notre plus puissant trois-ponts.’ Lecomte, Jules, L’Abordage: Roman maritime (Paris, 1836), 1: 324335 Google Scholar.

7 Benjamin, Walter, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility: Second Version’, in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, ed. Michael Jennings, Brigit Doherty and Thomas Y. Levin, trans. Edmund Jephcott, Rodney Livingstone and Howard Eiland (Cambridge, MA, 2008), 21 Google Scholar.

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9 Richard Wagner, ‘A Communication to my Friends’ (1851), in Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen, vol. 4 (Leipzig, 1898), in Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, trans. Grey, 183.

10 Thomas Grey describes the biographical force of this call in his ‘Wagner and Der fliegende Holländer’, in Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, ed. Grey, 15–17.

11 Wagner, Richard, undated letter to Ferdinand Heine, early August (?) 1843, in Selected Letters of Richard Wagner, ed. Stewart Spencer and Barry Millington (New York, 1988), 114115 Google Scholar; republished in Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, ed. Grey, 191.

12 Wagner, Richard, ‘A Communication to My Friends’, ed. and trans. William Ashton Ellis, Richard Wagner’s Prose Works (London, 1892), 1: 307308 Google Scholar.

13 Groos, ‘Back to the Future’, 197–8; Thomas Grey, ‘Der fliegende Holländer and Its Generic Contexts’, in Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, ed. Grey, 69–70.

14 See Grey, ‘Wagner and Der fliegende Holländer’, 4, for a summary of the identity politics of Holländer; Baudelaire, Charles, ‘Voyage’, in Les Fleurs du mal (Paris, 1861), 313 Google Scholar.

15 On the beginnings of nautical theatre, see Bratton, Jacqueline, Acts of Supremacy (Manchester, 1991), 43 Google Scholar; and Cox, Jeffrey, ‘The Ideological Tack of Nautical Theater’, in Melodrama: The Cultural Emergence of a Genre, ed. Michael Hays and Anastasias Nikopoulou (New York, 1996), 170 . On their audiences, see Booth, Michael, English Melodrama (London, 1965), 102103 Google Scholar; and Grimaldi, Joseph and Dickens, Charles, Memoirs of Joseph Grimaldi (London, 1838), (2): 1314 . On the affinity between the economics of the navy and the theatre, see Cox, ‘The Ideological Tack’, 171. On the physical aesthetics of nautical theatre, see Donohue, Joseph, The Cambridge History of British Theatre, (Cambridge, 2004), 2: 204 Google Scholar.

16 Cohen, Margaret, The Novel and the Sea (Princeton, 2010), 2 Google Scholar.

17 Moody, Jane, Illegitimate Theater in London (Cambridge, 2007), 8082 Google Scholar.

18 Davies, James Q., ‘Melodramatic Possessions: The Flying Dutchman, South Africa, and the Imperial Stage, ca. 1830’, Opera Quarterly 21 (2006), 499 Google Scholar.

19 See Pisani, Michael V., Music for the Melodramatic Theater in Nineteenth-Century London and New York (Iowa City, 2014), 8794 Google Scholar.

20 Fitzball, The Flying Dutchman or the Phantom Ship, 16 Google Scholar.

21 Fitzball, The Flying Dutchman or the Phantom Ship, 18.

22 Daniel wrote: ‘If Rockalda and her water wagtails are too much for the sensitive nerves of “Mrs. Brown, from Somers’ Town, and Mrs. Spriggs, from Aldgate, And cruel Miss Priscilla Twist, the Pink of Norton Falgate” behold a leash of merry varlets, — (“when shall we three meet again / In thunder, lightning, or in rain?”) / John Reeve, Yates and Butler, emulating the angry billows, and claiming, in their turn, to set the theatre in a roar!’ See George Daniel, ‘Remarks’, in Fitzball, The Flying Dutchman, 8.

23 Crary, Jonathan, ‘Géricault, the Panorama, and Sites of Reality in the Early Nineteenth Century’, Grey Room 9 (2002), 19 Google Scholar.

24 Banham, Martin and Stanton, Sarah, The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Theatre (Cambridge, 1996), 350 Google Scholar. See also Izenour, George C., Theater Technology (New Haven, 1996), 3637 Google Scholar.

25 Mannoni, Laurent, Campagnoni, Donata Presenti, and Coppola, Francis Ford, Lanterne magique et film peint: 400 ans de cinema (Paris, 2009), 130 Google Scholar.

26 Phantasmagoria, This and Every Evening at the Lyceum, Strand… (London, 1801), (accessed 5 November 2015).

27 For One Night Only… Deceptions, Musical Glasses, Phantasmagoria (London, 1803), reproduced in Mannoni, Campagnoni and Coppola, Lanterne magique et film peint, 128.

28 Mannoni, Campagnoni and Coppola, Lanterne magique et film peint, 218.

29 Mannoni, Campagnoni and Coppola, Lanterne magique et film peint, 218.

30 ‘Who in the name of wonder shall say that our national taste is not marvelously inclined to the supernatural? Speak, ye applauded demons in Der Freischütz! Come forth, thou monstrous compound of sulphur and indigo blue, in Frankenstein! The Flying Dutchman furnishes conclusive evidence of the fact’. Daniel, ‘Remarks’, 7.

31 Daniel, ‘Remarks’, 8.

32 For a discussion of the importance of this trope in nineteenth-century visual arts and literature, see Cohen, The Novel and the Sea, 112–20.

33 Daniel, ‘Remarks’, 7.

34 Daniel, ‘Remarks’, 8.

35 pantomimes de toute espèce, à l’exception des exercices équestres, dont le privilège [sic] est réservé au Cirque. Les pantomimes pourront être entremêlées d’harmonie instrumentale, mais il est défendu d’y introduire, sous aucun prétexte, aucun acteur chantant ou parlant’, ‘des effets d’eau’. Journal des débats (13 September 1833), 3.

36 ‘Le directeur du Théâtre Nautique en remettant ainsi chacun à sa place rendra un très grand service à la science de mise en scène qui est encore fort arriérée dans nos théâtres de France, sans excepter l’Académie royale de musique, où nous aurons occasion de signaler plus d’un contresens de ce genre.’ Le Ménestrel (22 December 1833), 4.

37 Moynet, Jules, L’Envers du théâtre: Machines et décorations (Paris, 1874), 210 Google Scholar.

38 ‘Un immense bassin en plomb embrassera la moitié de la scène; l’eau limpide et pure, parce qu’elle sera fréquemment renouvelée, sera maintenue au niveau nécessaire pour que de toutes les parties de la salle on puisse en parcourir la surface. L’étendue réelle du bassin permettra d’y mettre en mouvement des barques d’une grande dimension; ces bâtiments, grossis par la double illusion de l’optique et de la peinture, offriront l’image la plus complète et la plus vraie de vaisseaux voguant en pleine mer.

Un nouveau mode d’éclairage, renversant la vieille routine qui faisait partir les rayons du soleil du trou du soufleur [sic], complétera l’illusion en rendant à cet astre brillant ses coudées franches dans les régions supérieures, dont il n’aurait jamais du descendre pour l’honneur de l’art et pour son amour-propre personnel.’ Le Ménestrel (22 December 1833), 4.

39 ‘Les effets de marine ont toujours obtenu de grandes succès. Dans la Traitre des noirs, on vit deux navires évoluer sur le Théâtre du Cirque et se combattre. L’un des deux virait de bord, sur le devant de la scène, et envoyait des bordées à son adversaire qui ripostait de son mieux, et finissait par être pris à l’abordage.

Dans une autre pièce, le navire, Le Vengeur, occupait toute la scène; on voyait à la fois le pont et l’entre-pont. Le mouvement du roulis était très sensible, et cette grande machine portait cent cinquante personnes. Au moment du changement à vue qui le laissait voir, le combat était engagé avec la flotte anglaise qu’un apercevait à travers le gréement du vaisseau, commençant à couler; l’entre-pont submergé, le pont restait encore quelques minutes à fleur d’eau; mâts et cordages s’abimaient brisés par les projectiles; puis le sommet de la dunette, portant les principaux personnages du drame, agitant le drapeau tricolore, s’engloutissait à son tour. La mer recouvrait immédiatement l’emplacement occupé par le navire et son équipage, et des embarcations anglaises traversaient le théâtre sur les flots agités par le remous de la catastrophe.’ Moynet, L’Envers du théâtre, 210–11.

40 ‘Nous avons donc eu une des idées plus ingénieuses qui aient jamais germé dans un cerveau humain … Je ne vous cache pas que nous allons représenter le naufrage réel, les vaisseaux seront tous mouillés par en bas avec de l’eau véritable et épurée … la tempête, grandeur naturelle; mon pauvre ami, nous aurons des poissons vivans tels que baleines, requins, souffleurs, phoques, et sardines.’ Arago, Étienne, Le Prix de folie. Vaudeville en un acte représenté, pour la première fois, à Paris, sur le Théâtre National du Vaudeville, le 31 Décembre 1833 (Paris, 1834), 6 Google Scholar.

41 Arago, Le Prix de folie, 6.

42 Arago, Le Prix de folie, 7.

43 Joseph Grimaldi was the clown hired by Charles Dibdin the younger, to perform at Sadler’s Wells.

44 ‘Le Cirque Olympique, lui que n’est pas subventionné, nous offre souvent un spectacle plus grand, plus magnifique que tout ce qu’on a vu à l’Opéra depuis quinze ans.’ Valier, J. P., Recherches sur les causes de la décadence des théâtres et de l’art dramatique en France (Paris, 1841), 46 Google Scholar.

45 The tableau vivant at the Cirque Olympique (Cirque Nationale after 1834) was mentioned by Arthus Fleury in the review of Denoyer’s drama. ‘Théâtres de Paris: Revue dramatique’, Le Monde dramatique (May 1839), 281.

46 Moynet, L’Envers du théâtre, 251.

47 ‘Les spectateurs seront priés de ne pas amener de chiens, parce que ces estimables animaux pourraient s’aviser de se jeter à l’eau. Les personnages qui auront trop chaud pourront facilement prendre un bain. En revanche, pendant l’hiver, il est possible qu’un froid soudain gêle l’eau … Les acteurs fendront l’espace avec les patins.’ Le Figaro (2 April 1834), 3.

48 Gazette des théâtres’: Journal des comédiens (3 January 1836), 220. An 1840 account of theatre in London reported at length on the subject of prostitution and concluded with a remark on the popularity of comedic forms in the illegitimate theatres. ‘Au total les seules représentations qui plaisent sont les farces, les grosses farces, bien burlesques, bien triviales. Les paillasses font fortune.’ Le Ménestrel (14 June 1840), 3.

49 See Hibberd, Sarah, ‘ Le Naufrage de la Méduse and Operatic Spectacle in 1830s Paris’, 19th-Century Music 36 (2013), 256 Google Scholar.

50 Wagner, ‘A Communication to My Friends’, cited in Carl Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, trans. Mary Whittall (Cambridge, 1979), 18.

51 Wagner, ‘A Communication’, in Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, 18.

52 Abbate, Carolyn, Unsung Voices: Opera and Musical Narrative in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, 1991), 86 Google Scholar.

53 Wagner, ‘A Communication’, in Dahlhaus, Richard Wagner’s Music Dramas, 18.

54 Groos, ‘Back to the Future’, 194.

55 Kropfinger, Klaus, Wagner and Beethoven: Richard Wagner’s Reception of Beethoven, trans. Peter Palmer (Cambridge, 1991), 180 Google Scholar.

56 Thomas Grey, ‘Text, Action and Music’, in Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, ed. Grey, 37.

57 Chion, Michel, Sound: An Acoulogical Treatise, trans. James A. Steintrager (Durham, NC, 2016), 811 Google Scholar.

58 Wagner, Richard, The Flying Dutchman, ed. Felix Weingartner (New York, 1988), 342 Google Scholar.

59 Wagner, Flying Dutchman, 74.

60 Adorno, Theodor W., In Search of Wagner, trans. Rodney Livingstone (London, 2005), 75 Google Scholar.

61 Richard Wagner, ‘Remarks on the Performance of the Opera Der fliegende Holländer’ (1852), in Gesammelte Schriften und Dichtungen (Leipzig, 1897), 5: 160–8, in Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, trans. Grey, 195–6.

62 ‘Blue-fire syndrome, critically, is observed as the monster flamboyantly rises from the churning and darkened sea. The skies sense this blasphemy and storm. Vanderdecken arrives with a ghostly cyan tint about him, wearing a dark garb and an even darker expression.’ Clifton, Larry, The Terrible Fitzball: The Melodramatist of the Macabre (Bowling Green, OH, 1993), 131 Google Scholar. For a discussion of Frankenstein, see Hitchcock, Susan Tyler, Frankenstein: A Cultural History (New York, 2007), 8183 Google Scholar.

63 Fitzball, Edward, Thirty-Five Years of a Dramatic Author’s Life (London, 1859), 1: 170 Google Scholar.

64 Groos, ‘Back to the Future’, 197.

65 Wagner, ‘Remarks on the Performance of the Opera Der fliegende Holländer’, 196.

66 Richard Wagner, letter to Minna Wagner, 8 January 1844, reproduced in translation in Richard Wagner: Der fliegende Holländer, ed. Grey, 190.

67 Debord, Guy, Society of the Spectacle, trans. Ken Knabb (London, n.d.), 10 Google Scholar.

68 Levin, David J., ‘A Picture-Perfect Man? Senta, Absorption, and Wagnerian Theatricality’, Opera Quarterly 21 (2005), 486 Google Scholar.

69 Levin, ‘A Picture-Perfect Man?’, 492.

70 Wagner, ‘Remarks on the Performance of the Opera Der fliegende Holländer’, 200.

71 Grey, ‘Der fliegende Holländer and its Generic Contexts’, 86–8; Goehr, Lydia, ‘The Undoing of the Discourse of Fate’, Opera Quarterly 21 (2005), 433 Google Scholar.

72 Goehr, ‘The Undoing of the Discourse of Fate’, 433.

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