Wichard Wagner's Waskiwy Wabbit
Richard Wagner was one of the most compelling composers of all time. Throughout his career he strived to successfully combine opera with philosophy and psychology. By this, he sought to return theatre to the level of importance at which it was held by the ancient Greeks. Much has been written about Wagner's work, especially his use of recurring leit motifs, short musical themes which convey emotional and psychological elements that are subtextual. Unfortunately, Wagner's operas are painfully long - his ring cycle clocks in at fourteen hours. However, in Wagner's final and greatest opera he managed to compose a complete musical epic that lasts only six minutes, 29 seconds. This master work is Wagner's unparalleled treatment of the Bug's Bunny legend, What's Opera, Doc.
The opera begins with the image of a muscular shadow cast against a steep precipice. The shadow summons a violent tempest by merely gesticulating. The music is a thunderous theme carried by the full orchestra. This theme was first used by Wagner in The Flying Dutchman, the title character of which is doomed to sail the stormy seas without repose until he finds redemption through a woman who will be faithful to him until death. This motif is used to signify the violent storm that follows the Dutchman's ship for all eternity.
Soon the shadow is revealed to be cast by a diminutive man encased in cumbersome golden armour. That man is Elmer Fudd, a hunter. The Storm Motif, given its origins, tells us that, although Fudd creates the rain and thunder, he is trapped by it, like the Dutchman. Unbeknownst to himself, he is psychologically in the grips of the very Shadow he casts upon the cliff.
Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote that the Hero's journey is symbolic of the Jungian concept of individuation, the search to fully become ones Self. Jung says in his book, Four Archetypes, "the problem constellated by the Shadow is answered on the plane of the Anima." The Anima is defined as the feminine principals in the psychological make-up of every man. Therefore, Fudd's heroic journey, is to free himself from his Shadow by reconciling himself with his Anima, just as the Dutchman would sail forever until freed by a woman's love. This is one of Wagner's favourite psychological themes.
Fudd then sings the recitative, "Be vewy, vewy quiet. I am twacking wabbits" and tippy-toes down a hill, traversing a small stream, representing Fudd's cross over into the realm of the unconscious where his repressed Anima resides. Wagner accompanies this action with his old chestnut, the Ride of the Valkyries, more commonly known as The Cool Helicopter Thing from Apocalypse Now. The motif is lusty and vibrant, at once joyful and ominous. Here it is played on a lone, muted trumpet to illustrate the repression of Fudd's anima. Valkyries are divine warrior maidens from Germanic mythology. In some ways they are fearsome, vampire-like creatures, gorging on the blood of battle. Psychologically speaking, this monstrous view of the Anima is the result of the feminine element being viewed through the destructive spectacles of the Shadow archetype. However, the Valkyries are also beautiful wish maidens who choose the valiant warriors to be rewarded in the paradise of Valhalla. It is this latter aspect which Fudd must discover.
Fudd spies some suspicious foot prints and sings, "Wabbit twacks!" As he follows the trail, Fudd comes closer to his Anima, therefore the orchestra picks up the Valkyrie motif in a frenzied manor. He arrives at a wabbit hole and begins stabbing ferociously at the opening with his spear. "Kill da Wabbit! Kill da Wabbit! Kill da Wabbit! Yo-hod-hoa!" he sings with the orchestra. This act is a symbol of masculine principals (the phallic spear) exerting violent dominance over feminine (the vulvar warren). The symbol is psychic rather than sexual. It illustrates that the Anima is a power which can only be repressed through terrible force, and then only temporarily, as we are about to see.
Bugs Bunny, the hunted wabbit emerges from a second hole. Repressed energies do not disappear, they emerge in other forms. Bugs is a manifestation of the Trickster Archetype. He is a symbolic cousin to Hare of Sioux Mythology who disguises himself as a human and is intentionally devoured by a man-eating hill. He finds several hunters trapped inside Hill's belly. Hare splits Hill open and the hunters are freed. Bugs is a similar savoir. In Four Archetypes, Jung defines the Trickster by comparing him to the alchemical figure of Mercurious. "He has a fondness for sly jokes... his power as a shape-shifter, his dual nature, half animal, half divine, his exposure to all kinds of tortures and last but not least - his approximation to the savoir." Mercurious, related to the Greek Hermes, is also hermaphroditic - another trait of the Trickster. All these elements are apparent in Bugs, as envisioned by Wagner. Also like Hermes, one of the Trickster's roles is to act as a messenger from one part of the psyche to another. Bugs, as the Trickster, has been sent as an emissary of the repressed Anima, which, due to Trickster's androgynous nature, Bug's also represents.
Bugs approaches Fudd and asks him what is up, while praising him as a mighty Warrior and a Doc. Accompanied by a lone french horn, he sings a powerful and heroic melody which Wagner previously utilized in the Ring Cycle to signify Siegfried, a handsome young hero who, after performing several feats of valour, becomes romantically entwined with a Valkyrie named Brunnhilde. In a letter to a friend, Wagner wrote, "Siegfried on his own is not the complete man... until Brunnhilde is with him." In employing the Siegfried motif here, Wagner is implying the condition is the same with Fudd.
Fudd replies in that he is going to kill da wabbit. Bugs asks how, still praising the hunter, and Fudd explains he will use his spear and magic helmet. Fudd's answers are sung to the Valkyrie motif, an unconscious recognition of Bugs as the bearer of Fudd's Anima, just as the Valkyrie, Brunnhilde was the embodiment of Siegfried's Anima.
Fudd's spear is most likely Gungnir, the weapon of the god Wotan, a Germanic God Wagner includes in his Ring Cycle. The magic helmet of which Fudd sings is related to the Tarnhelm (Dark Helmet), a magical possession of Siegfried's that leads to his eventual downfall. In supplying Fudd with the totems of his two heros of the Ring Cycle, Wagner is telling us that Fudd is a symbolic combination of both. Robert Donnington, in his wonderful book Wagner's Ring, says that the magic helmet "represents things not yet understood, including the unconscious power of the psyche." The spear is a symbol assertive consciousness. When Fudd sings, "I will do it (Kill da Wabbit) with my speaw and magic hewmet" the helmet glows, the spear does not; It is the power of the unconscious that is truly the dominant force.
After the staccato repetition of "Magic helmet", Fudd sings, "Yes magic hewmet, and I'll give you a sample!" As he summons the storm winds, the Dutchman theme returns. Threatened by the destructive power of the Shadow, Bugs say, "Bye-ee" and flees. Only at this juncture does Fudd recognize him. "Dat was da wabbit!" The high strings swirl with the excitement of the chase as Fudd pursues.
All at once, Bugs is revealed on top of a high summit, illuminated by a bright sun beam. The mount symbolizes a still centre where the highest truths are revealed, like Moses' Sinai. Bugs is in feminine attire, dressed in the armour of a Valkyrie and astride a plump white horse. The wabbit is now fully revealed as the hunter's Anima; The Trickster has brought her out of repression and into the light of consciousness. This is similar to the Germanic myth of Loge, another Trickster, freeing the goddess Idunn from bondage in the dark realm of the giants. It is no accident that when Loge appears in Wagner's Ring Cycle, he is described with a motif similar to that of the Valkyries.
The music which accompanies this magnificent moment is the Redemption Theme from Wagner's Tannhauser. Tannhauser was a knight who for many years served as the erotic consort to Venus, living with her in a mountain known as Venusberg. He escaped the goddess by invoking the name of the Madonna. However, his sins of lechery remain unredeemed until the maid, Elizabeth prays for her own death as penance for Tannhauser's sins. This motif is the song of Tannhauser's redemption. However, here it becomes Wagner's most poignant love song, not only due to the haunting melody, but also to the sublimity of the libretto. "Weturn my Wove, a wonging buwns deep inside me!/ Return my Love I want you always beside me!/ A wove wike ouws should be/ made for you and for me!" Wagner's poetry shows a subtleness and sensitivity rarely found in his other works. In this moving duet, Fudd refers to Bugs as Brunnhilde- or rather, Bwunnhiwde- making his connection to Siegfried and the conclusion that Bugs/Brunnhilde is the embodiment of Fudd's estranged Anima unmistakable. That the duet is sung to the Redemption Motif tells us this romantic union is Fudd's salvation . It represents a temporary reconciliation between Fudd and his Anima,.
The duet is followed by another theme from Tannhauser, the Venusberg Ballet which opens that opera. There, it sees various nymphs and satyrs coupling sexually while fat cupids fire arrows at them. In What's Opera Doc, Wagner wisely refrains from such overwrought spectacle and uses the theme to accompany a tender pas de deux between Fudd and Bugs/Brunnhilde. The ballet ends with a loving embrace in a gazebo atop a long flight of marble stairs.
(NB: The scene has steadily moved from a primitive setting to a more civilized one. Pillars and gazeboes have replaced trees and mountains. From this point onward the destructive force of Fudd's Shadow will reverse the process. As the rise and fall of industrial society viewed through Wagner's operas is the topic of a lengthy essay by Bernard Shaw, there is no need to discuss it in further depth here.)
As they embrace Brunnhilde's wig and helmet fall away, and Fudd recognizes his lover to be none other than the wabbit! Lessons too easily learned are easily forgotten and he becomes enraged. Bugs runs away. Once more pray to the forces of his Shadow, Fudd uses the Magic Helmet to invoke winds, hurricanes, typhoons and smog to smite the wabbit. The music is chaotic, mostly made up of non-musical sound effects. It is no longer the Dutchman Motif. It has changed because Fudd has changed through coming into contact with his Anima, however fleetingly.
This scene is similar to one from Die Walkure, the second part of the Ring Cycle. Brunnhilde has disobeyed Wotan and granted victory in battle to Siegmund, Siegfried's father. Although Wotan inwardly yearned for this outcome, he had promised his wife Fricka that Siegmund would fall. He pursues Brunnhilde in a red storm cloud, and upon catching her, he deprives her of her divinity and places her in a deep sleep. Donnington writes that Wotan "is leaving his Anima to the mercy of his Shadow." This is precisely what Fudd is doing at this point. Even the red storm cloud reappears. Brunnhilde/Bugs is being punished for granting Wotan/Fudd's inner will, contrary to his spoken desire to either see Siegmund fall or kill da wabbit.
A savage bolt of lightening splits the mountain in which Bugs has taken sanctuary. The storm subsides and Fudd bounds down into a valley to view his kill, accompanied by a descending chromatic scale. His finds the wabbit sprawled dead on a rock. A broken white flower drips water onto his face. The music is similar to that used in Tannhauser at the death of Elizabeth. Like Elizabeth dying to save Tannhauser, Senta dying to free the Dutchman, or Brunnhilde dying to cleanse the world of the curse of the Ring, Bugs Bunny has died so that Fudd will be reconciled with his anima. "Without death as a necessary concomitant, there is no life," Wagner wrote.
On seeing this sight, Fudd softens and weeps. "What have I done? I killed da wabbit!/ Poor wittle bunny! Poor wittle wabbit!" Death is symbolic of transformation. In terms of myth, psychologically speaking, elements of the murdered are integrated into the murderer. Therefore, Bugs' sacrificial death brings about Fudd's assimilation of, and reconciliation with his Anima. This is evident in Fudd's new found tears and gentle manor, and most importantly, in the Redemption Motif which plays quietly under the mournful swirl of strings.
The redeemed Fudd gingerly lifts the corpse of the wabbit and carries it up a long staircase toward a bright light, signifying the triumph over the Shadow. For the first time, the hunter's armour seems to fit; he is a complete hero at last.
A Trickster till the end, the dead Bugs lifts his head for a moment and says, "What did you expect in an opera, a happy ending?" In fact, we have been given a happy ending, at least a happy ending as Wagner envisions it. "Woman voluntarily sacrificing herself is the real and conscious redeemer," Wagner wrote. "For love is indeed the Eternal Feminine." Wagner was referring to the final scene in Geothe's Faust II, in which Faust, like Fudd, is redeemed through a woman's sacrifice. That play ends with the words, "Thus, the Eternal Feminine draws us ever onward." What's Opera Doc, Wagner most stirring and emotionally mature work, shows us that this is indeed true, even when the Eternal Feminine takes the form of a waskiwy wabbit.