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The Rudolf Steiner Archive

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Poetry and the Art of Speech
GA 281

Decline and Re-edification

When at the present time a Madonna, when a goddess addresses us from the stage one can hardly believe one’s ears. Not the faintest attempt is made to set the language apart from the ephemera of common life, and not the slightest effort to attain with the aid of speech to a higher sphere. The spirit is barred every way from admittance to the stage, and not an opening, not even the least pretentious of openings into its alien, inaccessible worlds can be found. Absolutely no one undertakes to allow any light to infiltrate from that hinterland of speech whence celestial forms may shine through. The reality of spirit is a concept cast by the wayside. A washerwoman at her sink is quite up to any one of these Madonnas perched on a pedestal in some miracle-play – and quite devoid of anything divine and spiritual in her language. The speaking is so uncultivated, so rough, so painfully prosaic. It is positively offensive. I do not mean this as a snub to washerwomen and the way they speak, which in their case is quite justifiable. Hard work makes the voice hard and rugged, and her struggling with material tasks must have a coarsening effect unless there happens to be religion or anthroposophy to restore the balance. But a Madonna is hardly likely to be subjected to such physical labours in the heavenly heights: A certain aura should always hedge her about – even on the pedestal. There should be a certain translucence, a luminosity, a spirituality that sounds in her voice. The speaker should be able to produce the effect of a voice sounding from afar, free and floating. The figure thus presented is an image of something that reaches for the heavens and brings us down her gifts, catching us in the effulgence of her beams and the music of the spheres.

And what about the heavenly hosts: Have you ever heard them speak, either on stage or behind the scenes? What about Goethe’s archangels, for instance, or the Lord in the same scene? They sound like a real lot of stay-at-homes, or a chorus of sales executives: dry, dun, getting-down-to-business, quite down-to-earth. As for the spiritual background, the circling tread of the dance, the course of the aeons – all absent.

The sun makes music as of old

Amid the rival spheres of heaven

Of the poetry there is hardly a trace.

Yet this is what we ought to pursue, to capture, today.

We have to feel our way towards it, step by step, listening, responding, continually wrestling, never relenting, until we burst out of our intellectual constraints, the barriers directed by material life across our path; until we transcend our restrictions and emerge into the open on the other side, liberated, saved. Anyone who is “happy discovering earthworms” will never succeed in getting beyond himself, will not make the discovery that he is also a being of air who can master the physical man, and make use of him without being chained to him. For him there will be no encounter with the word’s healing power, its life-giving power, or the power of illumination which enables him to grasp the core of his being and carries him over into the realm from whence he came. Borne on the wings of the word, he can endeavour to seek out his way along these paths. He has a presentiment of them whenever he gives himself over to the primordial powers of the word. The “I” – the vital breath – the divine centre: along such a path may the word lead one back to the beginning.

And let us explore the realms of that less expansive spirituality that opens up for us in poetry. Let us take the elemental world. Does modern art, like a child of the gods, hand us the key to unlock these kingdoms? Not at all! Cleverness, and a dash of temperament, are enough to be going on – absolutely rattling along, with no feeling at all for a wise disposition of aesthetic resources, such as comes from knowledge of our human organization. No knowledge of the laws that are manifestations of divine-creative forces in art, of which for us both man and the world are representations. Should not our ultimate aim be to trace the routes that the gods have taken in creating works of art after their own image, and into which they have breathed the breath of life? Let us embark with our tentative consciousness on those paths, beginning quietly and reverentially by experiencing the breath of life that furnishes the ground of our existence – here, in speech, as there, in creation. It is when we immerse ourselves in the word, when we fathom its being, that we enter upon those paths. What more marvellous prospect could there be?

Only we must begin by learning to spell. We must concern ourselves with the fundamentals, the speech-sounds themselves, and not with projecting our own one-sided personality.

I once saw in Germany a large-scale production of Shakespeare’s Tempest. But of the elemental world and its spiritual nature, there was nothing to be perceived. There was certainly a lot of noise, temperamental outbursts and screaming. The Caliban scenes were exorbitantly overdone, and protracted in the realist manner far beyond anything Shakespeare apportioned them. And Ariel? There was nothing in him of aerial lightness and strength: a heavy, booming voice, hard as bone; the figure thick-set. There was much bouncing up and down and shrieking. But the bouncing did nothing to dispel the heaviness of that little, earth-bound, dumpy figure with its anti-halo of tousled, dishevelled hair. An Ariel! Is not the word itself pure lightness and radiance – a soaring, sounding, hovering delight in the air? Shortly afterwards, I saw the same actress as Salome in Hebbel’s Herodes and Mariamne. It struck me then that she was talented. Her constitution lent support to her in that role: the dark, heavy voice, the hard, watchful, furtive glance; rooted to the earth and stocky in stature, she was the most interesting figure in Hebbel’s darkly-coloured piece, brooding on disaster as Salome-Herodias. Mariamne, on the other hand, seemed too cool and self-conscious, too keenly intelligent and concerned with women’s rights. A Maccabee? – no, a north-German down to the ground.

When will the actors find the escape route from this one-sidedness of the intellect, and reach the sources that will open up for them the culture-epochs, the races, the elements and the spirit-world? Desiccation is the only alternative to finding this way. In extremity, nerves fray. The breathless, consumptive approach soon loses its fascination – and is anyway not productive. If once the practice spreads, it becomes frankly objectionable. It is increasingly being rumoured that the theatre will be ousted by the film.

I once saw an Iphigeneia performance that acquired for me the status of an event. It was something of a turning-point, for things just could not continue like this. They had already been taken to breaking-point. And perhaps it was exactly here, where lay the driving powers behind such excesses as these, that the counter-forces could be evoked. I refrain from saying much about Iphigeneia herself. She was terribly tedious and common-place, expressing the boring and blasé inanities of a salon-lady – the kind who has nothing to do but parade up and down in her park and be pestered by her (solitary) insufferable admirer. Nor will I dwell upon the prize-fighter’s figure of King Thoas, the admirer in this case – though, with a neck like a bull and swinging his bare, muscular arms, he seemed to be saying: Just take my measurements, you won’t find anyone who can size up to me! I do not recall that anything else was conveyed in what he did say; certainly nothing faintly regal.

But then Orestes – Orestes: He was obviously sustained by one idea alone: that of being different from any Orestes that ever was. He was out to excel in triviality. Now if one is supposed to be a tramp, one must have the proper attributes: a skin as red as copper, an unkempt, tangled head of hair (of an indeterminate mousy colour), and a voice that is hoarse and flat, with a tinny ring. Orestes is supposed to be possessed. And so the intellect is set in motion to work out what a possessed person should look like: his thoughts will be incoherent, his nerves sensitive, making him nervous and wary of being touched; he finds everything repellent. Inwardly, such a concocted product of the head’s “realism” possesses about as much truth as a billiard ball that is made to speak. And outwardly it looks like a sort of uncared-for vagabond one might encounter on the highways of Russia ... but wait, that might actually be an inspiration: Tauris – the Crimea – Russia – a possessed vagabond it yields analogies: Modern interpretations are scarcely drawn from farther afield than this. As for Orestes, the accursed descendent of Tantalus, the Greek hero, on the other hand – such ideas are long out of date, far too hackneyed. And the same goes for iambics, for the metres and noble harmony of speech: we got beyond such things years ago.

It is said that Maximilian Harden’s journalistic career began in the following way. The editor of the Monday edition of the Berliner Tagblatt instructed a number of his young employees to “do nothing for the whole week except sit in coffee-houses, read all the papers you can lay hands on, and for next Monday write me an article that is different from everything else you have read on the subject.” Maximilian Harden is said to have done the best job.

If the motive-power behind the player of Orestes was something on the same lines, this might explain his grotesque whim and bad taste – otherwise quite inexplicable. His novelty consisted, in effect, only in pushing the tendencies of intellectualism and naturalism to an extreme, obsessively debasing this culminating achievement of the German spirit by his nervous brand of realism. The noblest, flawless, perfect product of German poetry, the Roman version of Goethe’s Iphigeneia, was quite ruthlessly and brutally trampled upon, and anyone who felt in sympathy with the play felt himself trampled upon too. We came away from the performance with a burden of responsibility: to rescue the most exalted values of the spirit.

It was about this time, as well, that our Shaper of Destinies was taken from us, he who had done so much for art, too, and pointed out the path of recuperation. He spanned the “shimmering arch” which bridges over the spirit-abandoned abyss of modern times to the other side. He was the builder, he did the moulding, he kindled and scattered the sparks, bequeathing us in his work myriads of precious stones. It is with a profound sense of responsibility that we now put together these precious stones from his spiritual wealth.

They will ennoble human beings, and fill them with bliss for thousands of years to come; and they will serve today as a magic key to open closed doors, to revive what is dead and heal what is sick, to atone for what is evil. We must only have good will. All these far-flung gems can become a magic key – even though, as in the case of these transcripts, they lie before our eyes in fragments. The notes of these three splendid lectures are very inadequate, and for all of seven years they lay hidden from the public at large because these deficiencies seemed too obvious. But so much of their richness remains that, on the foundation they lay, a rebirth of the theatre can come about.

Every word that was uttered must indeed be given its full value, and taken in all its interconnections. A foundation must be furnished for an understanding based on the will to an all-round knowledge of man and the world in their cosmic dimensions. Rudolf Steiner refers to what is adumbrated here as being “guiding principles”. With them he has opened new worlds for us.

These lectures can be our signposts to those more subtle reaches of art to which access has presently been lost, barred by materialism. The intimacies of the soul-life, the mysteries of man’s organization in conjunction with the mysteries of the cosmos form the basis of our considerations. They are intended only as points of departure for further advances, which will be achieved through steady work and inner experience. Limitations of time meant that they could be carried out only cursorily; but they may serve as prompters and awakeners to rouse the artist’s powers to independent life. They were given as part of a whole complex of lectures, which were aimed in a single direction: away from the nihilistic forces at work in our age, towards new light and recuperation. This was the deed which Rudolf Steiner performed. And if, to some hostile powers, his life’s work seems to have been checked or even annulled through the crippling of his public activities, the burning of the Goetheanum, his physical death – they are mistaken. The seeds, sheltering the future within them, are there. They are sprouting everywhere, even though external forms may be disrupted.

The task of preparation and re-edification for the future demanded unflagging effort, superhuman strength; and their affirmation could only be achieved through sacrifice. In a lifetime of indefatigable labour, one of the high points of Rudolf Steiner’s work was the opening of the Goetheanum as a Spiritual Scientific University (Hochschule). It was a time of subversive acts, of social dissension and economic collapse. Even though the art work was not entirely finished, the building could be committed to its proper function, the work for which it was intended. For three years the building served this purpose: the spiritual renewal of mankind. Then, on Sylvester Night, it was destroyed by fire. The solemnity of the festival gave way to the act of destruction; the vast framework of the completed year passed over into history. And thus, when it was rent away from earthly effectiveness, the building was impressed like a seal into the cosmos and the course of the ages.

The lectures formed part of the course for this university, and were not to be omitted from their context in the whole opening ceremony, of which they formed an integral part. For Rudolf Steiner the word stood at the foundation of everything that took place. The word was his point of departure, the central and directing force behind every development that unfolded and every seal that was opened. It was not Rudolf Steiner’s way to shroud great words in the secrecy of the occult: he paved the way for them through genuine understanding and inner apprehension. What he laid open to us became a matter of perception, something consciously grasped, an activity consciously undertaken. We were able, under his guidance, to scale the first rungs of the ladder. Then he gave us our freedom. In us his word was to become a courageous venture and accomplishment.

Art was never lacking in any of the projects inaugurated by Rudolf Steiner. We were to approach art with understanding, and practise it with reverence, being mindful of its origin. In the celebration of the cosmic rite, art played a vital role. It sprang from the threefold Logos; it officiated and performed the sacrifice at the altars of truth, beauty and power. In the course of the age of rationalism, it has for the longest time preserved its links with the divine. In the age of triviality, this heaven-born child was sunk in physical nature: the triumph of mechanics tore her away from her spiritual origins and fettered her to the machine. She must be redeemed again!

The House of Speech (as Rudolf Steiner called the Goetheanum) was intended to lead art, science and religion, which had grown apart from their original unity into threefold isolation, back together. Rudolf Steiner saw in a spiritual deepening of art, science and religion and in their mutual fructification an effective remedy for the social ills of mankind. Barbarity might be avoided and, in place of the twilight of European culture that has already been confirmed by science, there might rise out of affliction, misery and delusion the light of a new dawn.

He expressed the object of his strivings in profoundly penetrating words, which allow us to realize the significance he attributed to a spiritualized form of art in the rebuilding of a higher culture for humanity.

The house which served this end, freely and openly bidding welcome to every guest, is no longer standing. But in its place there rises a building made, like a stronghold, in the hard material of our time – concrete. Life from its departed creator was still breathed into it, ennobling it and giving it its special significance. It is there that the Mystery Plays are to be performed. These dramatic creations of Rudolf Steiner, which put man in connection again with the spiritual cosmos and make him once more a “citizen of the universe”, explaining his present personality in terms of his earlier lives an earth – these productions will enable mankind to attain to self-knowledge, self-realization and self-renewal. And there above all, eurythmy must be cultivated: Rudolf Steiner added this new art, where speech-movement takes an externally visible form, to the series of already existing arts; and this leads to the compelling, the imperative demand for a renewal of the art of speech – the word artistically spoken. Concerted interaction between spoken word and eurythmic gesture was what Rudolf Steiner called for and this had to be attained in practice. When the performance corresponded with his demands, he gave us a conscious insight into our actions and shed light on the mysteries of the art of speech and poetry, thereby redeeming us from the insufferable state into which they had degenerated.

We are under no illusion that the world will bring any but a meagre understanding to bear on our endeavours. We shall be understanding, even if some honest student at first casts this book impatiently and despairingly aside. A metamorphosis of consciousness is necessary to pass this way, and art has been held back from any permeation by consciousness. A perceiving, a hearing, a willing consciousness: today these alone can bring us genuine aesthetic experience and wrest the language of poetry away from the abstractive intelligence and mechanization to which it has now fallen prey.

We have grown accustomed to what the modern stage puts before us and thus have little notion of the suffering that can be inflicted when the noblest works of poetic drama are brought before the soul mutilated, maltreated and desecrated, as is only too often the case today.

It is as if the gods have turned away in anger from what we have made of their gifts. They gave us everything, held nothing back. Works of unbelievable stature, purity and perfection of form have come into being. The German language has been moulded into an instrument of subtlest strength and pliancy, to grasp the breadth and profundity of existence, to unfold the inner essences of things. It is still capable of transformation, of pliancy; it still has the ability to grow beyond itself, bearing mankind onward and upward in its progress. But whoever leads it on to its destination resolutely and imperturbably will be stoned – while those who make it banal, who reduce it to the level of the feuilleton will be venerated.

The German language’s potentialities for concrete delineation and for the transcending of conceptual formulations are also to be found in another way: in the plasticity and translucence of its speech-sounds. It is not in the usual sense musical – not superficially. One has to have an ear for it. But it does have so many lights and shades, such capacities for veiling the sound or for brightening, flashing, that with its help we can break through the bounds of the senses. The world beyond sounds through in its modified vowels and its diphthongs, whispers through its clusters of consonants and rings out in the freely-suspended vaulting of its syntax. We do not realise what an artistic experience language can be until we have learnt to listen inwardly, until psychic-spiritual sound has been transposed into tone-formation and soaring movement.

The world of today is sheer intellect rendered actual. It does not go beyond the mechanical and mathematical; it cannot find the way into imagination and the creating of myths. We are unable to produce images any more, because we have grown abstract and hollow. It is much easier to be clever in one’s thinking than it is to form imagery, since the intellectual stems from our personality, while aesthetic creation makes much greater demands an our selflessness. It immerses itself in the object rather than reflecting upon it, lets itself be drawn along rather than seizing hold of it. Through living in intellectualism we lose our real connection with the world. We deprive human beings of their immortal part. The forming of images affects not only the intellect, but the whole man, entering into much deeper strata of the soul-life than does conceptual thinking. In attempting to speak in imagery, we bind the atoms sundered in the course of study, and divided amongst the conventional categories of learning, into a new synthesis. It must all be raised into the sphere of Imagination, where the plasticity of the language is released into movement and its musicality becomes ensouled. In this it draws near to the eternal in the soul which stands behind everything intellectual. Through imaginative, ensouled speech we can lead man to the substantial content of the word, to the super-sensible, to the creative word that flows from the super-sensible. The immortal life of the soul is roused to awakening when we speak artistically, out of the image; immortal life is smothered when we work out of intellectualism.