Alban Berg’s LULU: Decadence, Decay and Myths of Freedom

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Welsh National Opera’s forthcoming new production of Alban Berg’s Lulu (commencing Feb 8, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff) is the first ever staging of the completed, three-act work in Wales and the first new production for the company by recently-appointed Artistic Director and CEO, David Pountney. Berg started work on the opera in 1928 and all but parts of Act III were finished by the time of his death in 1935. A completion was made by Friedrich Cerha but the opera was heard only as a two-act ‘torso’ until 1979, when the world première of the entire three-act work took place in Paris, conducted by Pierre Boulez. WNO’s production will feature a new completion of Act III (2008) by Eberhard Kloke.


In the first of a series of Wales Arts Review features on this momentous production, Steph Power examines the opera and Berg’s dramatic intentions in cultural context.


An obsession with sexuality – and womens’ sexuality in particular – dominated the arts and high culture of fin de siècle Vienna into which the composer Alban Berg (1885-1935) was born. On the surface, social interaction for wealthy Viennese obeyed strict, mannered codes of behaviour but, underneath, the clash of rigid aristocratic tradition with bourgeois opulence made for a dangerously hedonistic cocktail. With the gradual collapse of political liberalism and a simultaneous awakening to social issues and injustice, many artists and cultural commentators set out to expose the decadence and moral hypocrisy of the ruling classes – to whom many, like Berg, ironically belonged. Thus ensued a modernist whirlwind in Vienna; a backlash to the corrupt status quo encompassing a new and radical questioning across the arts and sciences about the nature of the human psyche and the core significance of so-called animal instincts – questioning which was as often triggered by deeply personal trauma as by wider cultural crisis.

Lulu review
‘Wally in roter bluse mit erhobenen knien’
By Egon Schiele

Creative life in Vienna was characterised by a striking cohesiveness across the spectrum as artists mingled with cultured professionals in the many coffee-houses and salons, stimulating a shared preoccupation with the problem of the individual in a degenerating society. In the visual arts, a sense of looming catastrophe drove the Expressionism of painters such as Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka (who is also credited with the first Expressionist play, Murderer, Hope of Women). Both artists drew upon desire – and not a little fear – to depict women as powerful creatures of raw sexuality which, according to Kokoschka, amounted to ‘the female principle’. This conflation of women with sex became prevalent amongst the Viennese intelligentsia as women began slowly to gain social emancipation, challenging the existing patriarchal order. Hence the ambivalence of Schiele’s mentor Gustav Klimt, whose intense sensualism and obsession with sex and death reached apotheosis in the Beethoven Frieze; on the one hand, his myriad women subjects were worshipped as symbols of erotic power, but, on the other, as Angelica Bäumer has noted, they were ‘stylised into figures of fantasy divorced from harsh reality’. Such ambivalence would be taken to devastating extremes and lethal conclusion in Berg’s Lulu.

Klimt’s ‘stylised… figures of fantasy divorced from harsh reality’ would be taken to devastating extremes and lethal conclusion in Berg’s Lulu.

Berg was keenly aware of developments in the visual arts (his revered – if intimidating – teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, was an accomplished painter as well as an epoch-making composer). But he was particularly drawn to literature and read widely from an early age, becoming passionate about the writings of social critics as diverse as Gerhart Hauptmann, the earlier Georg Büchner and, crucially, Frank Wedekind (1864-1918). Berg’s first opera Wozzeck (1914-22) drew upon Büchner’s controversial play Woyzeck (1837, unfinished at his death), a ‘working-class tragedy’ much admired by later Expressionist writers and depicting the mental fragmentation of its central character; a soldier dehumanised by military life and the experiments of cruel medical doctors. His second opera, Lulu, was an altogether more problematic and complex proposition.

Lulu review
‘Der rote blick’
By Arnold Schoenberg

Starting work on his new libretto at a time well into the Weimar period (1919-33), in which dark political shadows were lengthening from neighbouring Germany, it was Wedekind to whom Berg eventually turned; a culmination of life-long respect for a playwright whose withering political scorn and brutal (sur)realism were often subject to censorship. In 1905, Berg had attended the first, private performance of Wedekind’s banned play Pandora’s Box (1904), in which Wedekind himself appeared as the character Jack. It turned out to be Berg’s first encounter with a vehement supporter of Wedekind, the political satirist Karl Kraus, whose introductory speech had an equally profound impact on him, and which sparked the formation of a close friendship based on a shared cultural outlook (with Berg taking a keen interest in Kraus’s highly influential, boldly critical newspaper Die Fackel – The Torch).

Two years after this inspirational performance, Berg wrote to Frida Semler in 1907 that Wedekind was:

‘the really new direction … at last we have realised that sensuality is not a weakness but an immense strength. Only through an understanding of the sensual, through a profound insight into the depths – or rather, perhaps, the heights – of mankind can one arrive at a true idea of the human psyche’.

Many years later, Berg set about compressing the twin, consecutive dramas Earth Spirit (1895) and that same, formative Pandora’s Box into two halves of one seamless libretto – managing to retain all Wedekind’s major characters and plot devices and, crucially, remaining true to Wedekind’s conception of his central character Lulu, despite needing to cut four-fifths of the dialogue. The enormous care Berg took in adhering to the spirit of the original plays is of key significance regarding his dramatic intentions with the opera, as Lulu is by no means a straightforward social tragedy but a heavily ironic, complex critique of the culture of decadence and illusory social freedom which – notwithstanding the primary and utter catastrophe of increasingly rampant Nazism – was still relevant in the 1930s and remains so today.

Lulu is by no means a straightforward social tragedy but a heavily ironic, complex critique of the culture of decadence and illusory social freedom… relevant in the 1930s and today.

The plot charts the social rise and fall of Lulu, a figure of immense desirability and mysterious origin and, hence, a magnet for the sexual obsession of all who come into contact with her. Most who do so end up dead through a series of farcical but tragic events and she herself is eventually murdered by Jack the Ripper. The first half of the opera, as in Earth Spirit, charts Lulu’s apparent rise as she outlives two husbands finally to marry Dr Schön, her long-term lover/‘protector’. The second half, based on Pandora’s Box, depicts her downfall, following her incarceration for the apparently accidental murder of Schön during a jealous confrontation. She escapes from prison with the help of an entourage of besotted misfits including the Countess Geschwitz, Schön’s son, the composer Alwa, the tramp Schigolch and others, running the gauntlet of would-be blackmailers and pimps only to end up as a prostitute in London where she meets her sordid death.

A key component of Berg’s dramatic design is his employment of symmetry, through which he not only tightens Wedekind’s narrative structure, but maximises the social critique with a particularly savage, ironic twist. For, in Berg’s libretto – but not in the original Wedekind – Lulu’s three husbands are directly mirrored by her subsequent three clients through role doublings involving the reiteration of both dramatic and musical material. Thus, the Doctor returns as the Professor with the same musical motifs; similarly, the Painter returns as the Negro and – crucially for the dramatic dènouement – Dr Schön returns as Jack the Ripper, thus exposing the toxicity of Lulu’s primary, troubled relationship and taking it to an extreme, fatal conclusion. This is no simple case of male revenge on Lulu the femme fatale for supposedly ‘luring’ men to their destruction, but a direct correlation by Berg of the social elite with a dark, amoral underworld; not least through the Jekyll and Hyde conflation of a successful, wealthy businessman with psychopathic sex-murderer, leaving no doubt regarding Berg’s desire to brutally rip aside the illusion of his society’s respectable veneer.

That the outwardly mild, shy and bourgeois Berg should have set out to deliver such devastating critique of his own privileged class may seem at first surprising. But he himself had fallen foul of hypocritical convention, attempting suicide at the age of eighteen after fathering an illegitimate child with a local serving girl. His sister Smaragda was openly lesbian, embarking on a relationship with a prostitute upon deserting a disastrous marriage, and he held views on homosexuality that were very liberal for the time (nevertheless seeing it as a ‘condition’ necessitating sympathetic understanding). In common with Berg’s entire output, Lulu is saturated with personal references, many of which remain fully to be explored, but which hint at the tremendous difficulties in Berg’s life beneath the happily married surface (he had a frustrating affair with Hanna Fuchs for years). But certainly, Geschwitz, Lulu and others have personal resonance (the Painter’s suicide perhaps echoing that of the artist Richard Gerstl, lover of Schoenberg’s first wife Mathilda), whilst the composer Alwa is often taken to represent Berg himself.

Lulu review
Louise Brooks

In any case, at the dramatic dead centre of the opera (so to speak) lies another key to Berg’s dramatic purpose. In the Wedekind, Lulu’s incarceration occurs off-stage, ‘between’ the two plays. But Berg chose to depict her trial, imprisonment and escape by means of a silent-film interlude, probably inspired by GW Pabst’s 1929 silent movie Pandora’s Box starring the celebrated Louise Brooks (though we don’t know for sure and the original 1937 Lulu film no longer exists). Berg’s film is underpinned by an orchestral accompaniment comprising a sophisticated musical palindrome in which the music pauses on a held chord before quite literally running backwards note for note as Lulu “escapes” – straight (back) into the beginning of Act III, with a recapitulation of the opera’s introductory music. Thus, the sense of overall déjà vu and cyclical entrapment could hardly be more painfully ironic as Lulu re-emerges on stage after her prison breakout to deliver her famous ‘Freedom’ aria.

the very notion of freedom is, on many levels, shown to be a chimera in this opera.

Indeed, the very notion of freedom is, on many levels, shown to be a chimera in this opera. By the time Berg started work on Lulu, Sigmund Freud’s ground-breaking psychological theories had long since shattered the façade of bourgeois respectability, demonstrating how subject we all are beneath the layers of so-called civilisation to the drives of our unconscious and the psychological imprints of past experience. But these two Wedekind plays are not intended to be Freudian in any sense of exploring psychological motivation, unconscious or otherwise (although of course the plays are open to Freudian interpretation like any drama and, indeed, the opera itself has often been directly interpreted thus – not always helpfully). The original Lulu dramas were submitted for publication before Freud’s revolutionary work The Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1900, emerging later only due to censorship problems. Moreover, Kraus was noted for his vehement opposition to psychoanalysis whilst Berg himself, despite briefly consulting both Freud and Alfred Adler, later described psychoanalysis as a ‘confidence trick’.

Wedekind’s preoccupation was with the socially excluded to whom the bourgeoisie habitually turned for entertainment; underworld figures such as the prostitutes, pimps, circus performers, cabaret artists, crooks and con-men that he himself mixed with. But his social outcasts are not presented as victims or suffering individuals with whom we are meant to sympathise. On the contrary, they are displayed as crude caricatures through dialogue in which they talk not to – or even at – but past each other. They are simultaneous puppets and manipulators in a ‘menagerie’ of celebrated, debauched outsiders; their activities depicted in grotesque and savage parody in order to ridicule the hypocritical vanity of their wealthy clients. In the opera, Berg essentially sets out to do the same, utilising Wedekind’s brutal dialogue, black humour and farcical plot devices, but setting these deliberately and paradoxically against a sumptuous and highly-charged post-Romantic musical language to added – and devastating – emotional effect.

The opera is full of situations in which the crude, cold dialogue seems bizarrely at odds with the intensely emotional music and often horrifying but absurd action. Just one example can be found in Act II Scene 2, when Lulu has escaped from prison, still wearing Geschwitz’s clothes and suffering visibly from cholera. Alwa is preparing to make love to her with ecstatic declarations of desire – despite her having murdered his father in that very place – crying ‘Oh … oh … I‘ll write a dithyramb to your glory’, to which she coolly and farcically replies, ‘I’m just annoyed by this hideous footwear’. At other times, the high seriousness of her predicament is seemingly swept aside by the buffoonery of other characters, as in Act II Scene I, in which her fraught appeal to Schön – the ‘Lied der Lulu’ or ‘Lulu’s Song’ – takes place against a background chaos of sundry admirers attempting to hide. So who, exactly, is Lulu? What is her significance and what is she supposed to represent, if anything?

Lulu is neither a straightforward character nor a simple caricature. Indeed, she barely exists as a character in her own right, having no life of her own beyond her existence as a mirror for others. She is intended as a symbol of womanhood and her story is an exploration of what this means in a sex-obsessed, corrupt bourgeois world. By taking her name as the title of his opera – or, at least, one of the many names by which she is called in the text – Berg focuses attention on her from the start. The opening of both opera and play presents the dramatis personae as a circus of ravening beasts into which Lulu is introduced as that classic creature of temptation, the serpent. Wild and untamable, she is an ambivalent and lethal mix of apparently adult sexual allure and child-like innocence; on the one hand, beautiful, pure and available – the ultimate object of desire – and, on the other hand, corrupted, evil and unattainable – refusing to be possessed even as she appears to respond to others’ demands. In other words, she is entirely a product of male fantasy, into which trap the lesbian Geschwitz also falls.

Lulu is… wild and untameable, an ambivalent and lethal mix of apparently adult sexual allure and child-like innocence; on the one hand, beautiful, pure and available – the ultimate object of desire – and, on the other hand, corrupted, evil and unattainable

However, the symbolism does not stop there. According to the narrative, Lulu is far from being a mature, adult woman in age but is shockingly young – around fifteen years old in fact. Treated like a whore from the beginning, her story is, in essence, that of an abused child, whose eventual ‘fall’ into actual prostitution is no more than a realisation of her true plight all along, completing a full and appalling circle. Having ‘rescued’ her from the streets as a young urchin, Schön has raised her alongside his son Alwa but cannot shake off the fascination she exerts despite marrying her off, firstly to the Doctor and then to the Painter. Schön apparently excepted, Lulu shows not the slightest concern towards any of her suitors but simply plays with them, or goes along with their desire like a ‘seductive’ child. So, whilst on one level she may appear as both victim and tormentor – the architect of her own and others’ destruction – at a deeper level, she is entirely a product of the corruption around her; a target for others’ lust, rage and frustration and blamed for their delusions and weaknesses in ways that are even more shocking given her age.

Only at the simplest level is it possible to read Lulu as a so-called ‘free spirit’ for, ultimately, she is as trapped as are those besotted with her in a hell of their own making. Central to the themes of voyeurism, objectification of the ‘other’ and visibly-realised degradation, is the portrait of Lulu which the Painter makes in the first scene and which remains a constant presence throughout her rise and fall (an oblique nod, perhaps, to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Grey, 1890-1). Lulu herself is often appraised alongside this much admired, static representation; indeed, the Painter, who Lulu describes as ‘blind’, clearly confuses the captured pose with the real ‘woman’. He is not the only one. Geschwitz also becomes fixated, eventually taking the portrait to London, only to direct her final, heart-rendingly ironic Liebestod to it before she too follows Lulu into oblivion at the hands of Jack the Ripper.

The Schön/Jack characterisation is clearly instrumental to the drama. His twin characters embody the violent abuse of power, paradoxically rendered powerless by the very creature of his own decadent design and whose ultimate recourse is to rape and destroy that which he cannot control. But it is, perhaps, the mysterious and often overlooked Schigolch who represents the rotten core lurking at the heart of the drama – of which he is the sole survivor. Indeed, the score itself suggests his fundamental significance; in writing the music for the opera, Berg utilised a highly personal interpretation of Schoenberg’s (in)famous ‘serial’ methods to generate webs of inter-related motifs and character-associated ‘tropes’ so complex as to have occupied music analysts for years in the unravelling. Put simply, each character and some objects (like the portrait) has a unique motif associated with them specifically, in ways not unlike Wagnerian Leitmotiv. But Schigolch’s trope alone permeates the entire opera as an architectural device embedded within the musical structure, and closely related to Berg’s overall ‘basic series’; in the words of George Perle, Schigolch’s music is, therefore, ‘a representation not only of Lulu’s origins but also of the ultimate source of the tone material itself’ .

Schigolch appears as a blackly comic, wheezing beggar, who has clearly known Lulu for years. He is variously said to have been her lover and pimp, which latter role he reprises before her London demise. But, crucially, he is also said to be Lulu’s father; revealing the dark heart of incestuous abuse beyond even the implied incest of the Schön-Lulu and Alwa-Lulu couplings. Hence, the opera holds up a truly shocking mirror of Berg’s society which, to our shame – and as demonstrated by countless contemporary cases of abuse, grooming and the sex trafficking of children and adults – is still relevant today.

With Lulu, Berg composed arguably the most significant operatic masterpiece of the twentieth century. Its complex ambition, scale and sheer musical virtuosity rank it as an achievement of the highest order – let alone Berg’s literary genius in compressing Wedekind’s sprawling dramas into one, brilliantly cohesive libretto. However, it is not without its flaws – and the fact that most analytic and historiographic attention has focused on the musical score and aspects of related biography rather than the work as a music-dramatic whole says a great deal about the opera’s problematic nature; for the many, deeply paradoxical layers, often appearing to set dialogue, plot and music against each other, seem at times to have left commentators grappling for ways to unravel the opera as social critique as well as post-Romantic tragedy. Berg left very little room for redemption at the opera’s close and this may, perhaps, put off those determined to find human positives in a frankly gut-wrenching piece. I am glad to say that none of this has deterred Welsh National Opera from mounting Lulu at last.


Suggested further reading:

Angelica Bäumer: Gustav Klimt – Women (London, 1986)

Mosco Carner: Alban Berg – the Man and the Work (London, 1975)

Christopher Hailey, Ed: Alban Berg and his World (USA, 2010)

Carl E Schorske: Fin-de-Siècle Vienna – Politics and Culture (USA, 1961)

George Perle: The Operas of Alban Berg – Volume 2, Lulu (USA, 1985)


Banner illustration by Dean Lewis