I'm going to use this post to give a rough account of some of the ideas I discussed in my paper. I don't know if it's particularly interesting to readers who don't share my particular academic interests but I like to think there are a couple of points that might interest people.
I began planning my paper with a very general idea of what I was going to talk about. This isn't unusual. The subject of the conference was literature and humanism. "Humanism" is a difficult word because it means different things in different contexts. However, advance publicity suggested that the conference would focus on the human element in literature and the way in which humans can and should value on another. When the call for papers reached me, I thought about Auden's ideas and the way he cared about human relationship and dignity. Then I started thinking about the way he refused to take up heroic positions and my ideas focussed around a title: "Auden's anti-heroic humanism." At this point my mind was ranging over the whole of Auden's work. There are numerous people on quests and missions but, even in his poetry of the 1920s, these tend to conclude in failure. When he appears in his own poems, Auden may see the necessity of action, but he never presents himself as a heroic resister. The nearest he gets to the heroic pose is in the poem "Grub First, Then Ethics," in which he's concerned to get a good dinner before resisting.
That was getting pretty broad, so my proposal for the paper suggested that I would look at three kinds of writing: those based on the theme of the quest, elegies and opera libretti (which Auden wrote with his partner, Chester Kallman). I knew that was still too broad but it gave me a starting point.
There were months between writing the proposal and starting work on the paper. I decided to begin with the opera libretti so took down the huge, expensive volume from my shelf to look for a starting point.
I began by looking at the familiar - the Paul Bunyan libretto, The Rake's Progress and the two libretti for Henze. But, as I browsed, I found myself looking at Auden's Don Quixote lyrics and wondered if they would form a good starting point. And they took me to the year 1963, when Auden and Kallman were contracted to write the lyrics for Dale Wasserman's TV play, I, Don Quixote which was to become a Broadway show with the title Man of La Mancha. The collaboration ran from November 1963 to February 1964, when it broke down. And Auden's lyrics were mostly written in November and December 1963.
So I began to look at the Quixote lyrics, wondering why the collaboration failed.
Auden was an extremely experienced librettist who had been writing lyrics for songs since the 1930s. He was used to working collaboratively with dramatists and composers - he even collaborated with Bertolt Brecht on a version of Webster's play, The Duchess of Malfi. He liked writing lyrics and was usually very flexible in following the requests he received - for instance, rewriting lines so that they would be more singable. At the same time, he had strong ideas of his own.
Dale Wasserman gave his own account of what happened. There were two points of conflict. Auden wrote a song for Don Quixote ("The Song of the Quest") which didn't include the phrase "the impossible dream", as Wasserman wished. And Auden refused to write an ending which endorsed Don Quixote's quest as heroic and necessary.
In terms of Broadway success, Wasserman was right. The song "The impossible dream", first sung by Richard Kiley, was a huge success. And the reprise of the song at the end of Man of La Mancha was doubtless enormously effective. But I wanted to work out why Auden said no.
The decision came partly, I think, from Auden's view of humanity. When he started work on the Quixote lyrics, he had just finished work on the libretto for Hans Werner Henze's The Bassarids. This was a version of Euripides' play The Bacchae and its major concern was the role of irrationalism in the contemporary world. You can get a flavour of the opera by looking at the video here on the Bayerische Statsoper site. (I wish I'd seen the production - I know the opera only from recordings.)
Auden had been considering the irrational for a long time. In a sonnet he wrote in 1936, he described the loss of belief in dragons and fairies and how, when belief in the irrational had ebbed away, "The vanquished powers were glad/ To be invisible and free" and "Struck down the sons", "ravished the daughters, and drove the fathers mad."
Auden also discussed irrationalism with Professor E.R. Dodds, a family friend who became Regius Professor of Greek at Oxford. Dodds edited the standard Oxford edition of the Bacchae and wrote a major book entitled The Greeks and the Irrational. He was also personally concerned with the effect of repressing irrational elements in human life, at an individual, social or national level. Auden and Kallman's work on the Bassarids libretto made them consider what dangers were presented either by irrationalism or by an approach which was overly-dependent on reason.
In The Bassarids, Pentheus, king of Thebes, is a man who denies irrational and human needs. He believes in an impersonal god and wants to act well. Repelled by irrationalism, he takes a vow to give up wine, meat and "woman's bed". He is right to be appalled by the god Dionysus but his horror at the irrational turns him into a tyrant as he commands the torture (to death) of Dionysus' followers, including a child. In the end, Dionysus draws on Pentheus' repressed desires and persuades him to dress as a woman and go to the mountains where the Bacchantes (Dionysus' followers) are drunk on wine and Bacchic ecstasy. He is torn apart by the Bacchantes and his own mother rips his head from his body. Dionysus remains unrepentant about the disaster he has caused.
According to the stage directions, the followers of Dionysus are very ordinary - one is identified as an American housewife dressed to undertake her chores. This brings the opera up-to-date and suggests a concern about America and the rest of the world in 1963.
Auden and Kallman finished work on the libretto in October. On 22nd November, as Auden was starting work on the Quixote lyrics, President Kennedy was assasinated. A week later, Jackie Kennedy asked Theodore H. White to interview her for Life magazine. In this interview she kept returning to the Broadway musical Camelot, treating her husband's presidency as a "shining moment" and associating it with the ideals of knights in armour. The idea of Camelot and knightly ideals - not to mention the glamour of lost causes - was in the air.
Idealistic dreams were also the currency of the day. Martin Luther King's "I have a dream" speech, given to a quarter of a million marchers in Washington D.C. in August 1963, was carried on the television and widely reported in the newspapers. It came in the midst of a catalogue of horrors including the murder of Medgar Evers and the church bombing in Birmingham Alabama. Although the phrase "impossible dream" came earlier, I think it must have been given a new force and stronger meaning by King's speech.
No wonder Wasserman wanted the phrase "impossible dream" and hoped to convey ideals to the audience. But Auden refused. His "Song of the Quest" was about the individual, hopeless quest, although there was a suggestion that other questors might follow in Quixote's steps. It's full of references to folk tales and includes a brief reference to the poem "This ae night", which Britten had included, probably at Auden's suggestion, in his 1943 Serenade for Tenor Horn and Strings. And it ends, I'm pretty sure, with an allusion to lines from Byrhtnoth's speech in the Anglo-Saxon poem, "The Battle of Maldon." Auden, who was a Tolkien fan, would have known that Tolkien condemned the folly of Byrhtnoth in leading his men to certain death.
Auden was politically concerned. He supported civil rights and lamented the Kennedy assassination. But since the 1940s he had worried about the power of language to move masses of people to folly and wickedness. That's why he gave up lyric poetry, saying that if poetry was to be judged on its power to move its audience, Goebbels was the greatest lyric poet of all time. Auden feared the irrational as a particular danger in a rationalising age. He was cautious about the effects of words and music on readers and hearers. He wasn't likely to write an inspiring finale for a Broadway musical, which would leave the audience feeling good about themselves and united in the sense of their own virtue and courage. He was happy to publish and read two of the Quixote songs as "Song of the Ogres" and "Song of the Devil" but he avoided the myth of knightly strength and virtue.
Auden's "Song of the Quest" for Don Quixote acknowledges Quixote's heroism but takes him on a lonely, individual quest which is doomed to failure. He is not a model for humanity nor, in the horrid jargon of today, a "role-model".
Song of the Quest
Once the voice has quietly spoken, every Knight must ride alone
On the quest appointed him into the unknown.
One to seek the Healing Waters, one the Dark Tower to assail,
One to find the Lost Princess, one to find the Grail.
Through the Wood of Evil Counsel, through the Desert of Dismay,
Past the Pools of Pestilence he must find the Way.
Hemmed between the Haunted Marshes and the Mountains of the Dead,
To the Valley of Regrest and the Bridge of Dread.
Falsehood greets him at the cross-roads, begs him stay with her awhile,
Offers him a poisoned cup with a charming smile;
Vizor down, in sable armor, Malice waits him at the ford;
Cold and mocking are his eyes, pitiless his sword.
No man can command his future; maybe I am doomed to fail;
Others will come after me till the Right prevail.
Though I miss my goal and perish, unmarked in the wilderness,
May my courage be the more, as my hope grows less.