NEW IMPULSES IN ART
EURYTHMY AND THE MYSTERY DRAMAS
During the years when he was absorbed in philosophy and Goethean science, Rudolf Steiner does not seem to have been especially interested in the arts, or at all events he wrote and spoke relatively little about them—with the exception of the lecture given in 1888 to the Goethe Society in Vienna entitled Goethe as the Founder of a New Science of Aesthetics. His association from 1901 onwards with Marie von Sievers, who was thoroughly familiar with art history awakened his latent interest. Once he began to travel with her to the various European capitals, for the first time he had the opportunity to view original paintings, whereas apart from the art treasures in Berlin, Weimar, and Vienna, he had, as he tells us in one of the last chapters of his autobiography, seen little but reproductions. ”Her fine and cultivated insight,” he comments, ”complemented in a beautiful way all that I was able to experience in the sphere of art and culture. She understood how these experiences then flowed into the ideas of Anthroposophy, imbuing them with mobility. For what my soul received as artistic experiences then permeated what had to be brought to active expression in the lectures. . . . I felt it to be a specially favorable stroke of fortune that destiny granted me, in Marie von Sievers, a companion in my work who, out of the deepest disposition of her soul, understood so completely how to foster this artistic element in a way imbued with feeling yet utterly without sentimentality.”36
None of this is intended to imply that Steiner took his ideas either from conventional art history or even from Marie von Sievers. She was above all a guide to the art treasures of the places they visited together, while at the same time proving an appreciative listener for all that he was able to reveal from his own spiritual insights in the realm of art. Her own very considerable talents, and especially her organizing abilities, made it possible for her to translate Steiner’s ideas into reality, and the arts to be discussed in this chapter owed a great deal to her cooperation even though the original ideas stemmed from him.
Steiner always held that art was a necessary part of life, that man could no more live a full life without participating in art both as spectator and creator, than he could live without religion; and he was fond of repeating that at one time art, religion and science had been inseparable from each other. It was only in relatively recent times that they had become separated. Science no longer felt any relationship with religion; on the contrary religion and science are now only too often opposed to one another. Scientists are inclined to look upon religion as superstition, and faith as a weakness that ought to be outgrown in our modern age. Few scientists look upon art as anything more than a form of enjoyment or entertainment, certainly not as a necessity; though scientists, like other men, are entitled to take up some form of art as a hobby if it pleases them. Most people do not look upon architecture as an art at all. When they call in an architect, it is usually for the purpose of solving some practical problem, such as how to make the most efficient use of a limited space; the same people are likely to prefer naturalistic sculpture or painting—a good likeness—to the experimental work of modern sculptors or painters. They may think that a painted landscape should be an improvement on nature. In our day comparatively few people enjoy poetry; if they do it is likely to be poetry in rhymed verse with meaning and rhythm, as music also should have both melody and rhythm. Drama should be arresting and if possible moving, or it can be entertaining. In any event it should be closely modeled on real life and the characters should be realistically drawn. None of these forms of art can be easily associated with religion, still less with science; nor indeed can they be supposed to rest on a spiritual basis. Yet Steiner proposed to bring new life into all the arts by linking them once more with the world of the spirit, and from his spiritual knowledge to contribute to a renewal of the arts. In this chapter and the following one we shall try to show how he fulfilled this self-imposed task.
When Steiner insisted that in the not so far distant past science, art and religion all formed a single unity, he was, from a historical point of view, on firm ground. In ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, for example, no separate science existed. Although the Sumerians invented much of the mathematics of the ancient world, their very considerable knowledge was used primarily for the purpose of constructing their ziggurat temples. Their observations of the stars may have formed the basis in later years for a real astronomy, but astronomy at all times was the servant of astrology, which was used primarily for the purpose of predicting the will and intentions of the gods. So also with the dances and music of the Sumerian and Babylonian peoples, which formed part of the temple ritual. Egyptian art was devoted almost if not exclusively to the religious cult of the dead, including the funeral rites for the Pharaohs, who were regarded as gods. So also with the cave-paintings of prehistoric man, which are usually held to have had a magical or religious purpose, and few would claim that this art was created for its own sake. In the case of the Greeks we are on even firmer ground. There can be no doubt that Greek tragedy had its roots in the Greek Mysteries, and it was never presented except at the great religious festivals, for which also most of the Greek odes and lyrics were composed. Even the Olympic Games were celebrated at a religious festival, and the odes composed for the winners by such a poet as Pindar were suffused with religious feeling. The first Greek philosophers, men like Thales and Anaximander, could certainly be thought of as at the same time the first true scientists. But among them they counted such a man as Heraclitus, an initiate and priest of the Mysteries of Ephesus; while the philosophy of Plato, who was likewise an initiate, was based on Mystery knowledge. Such a dialogue as the Timaeus is comprehensible only as an example of the old Mystery wisdom. It was not until Aristotle had thoroughly worked through Plato’s philosophy that it could be considered as a possible basis for science.
Very little was known about the ancient Mysteries when Steiner began to speak of them from his own spiritual knowledge. One important writer, however, the Alsatian Frenchman Edouard Schuré, who was mentioned briefly in the last chapter as the theosophist who introduced Marie von Sievers to Theosophy, had been writing for some decades about the Mysteries, especially those of Greece, and also about the great initiates of the past. The fact that his books after a slow start had suddenly become bestsellers in many languages shows that there was a latent interest in the subject that could be awakened. But Schuré himself was the first to admit that he did not have any direct knowledge of or access to the spiritual world, contrasting in this respect with Rudolf Steiner who could speak with authority out of his own spiritual experience.
At Christmas, 1906, Steiner gave out for the first time, to a restricted audience in Berlin, a meditative verse, in which he said that ”the deepest import of the Christmas Mystery is mirrored,” adding significantly that ”in all ages these words resounded in the ears of those who were pupils of the Mysteries before they were allowed to participate in the Mysteries themselves.” It would seem that this verse, which begins with the words ”Behold the Sun at the midnight hour,” had therefore been used in the Mysteries of Egypt as well as Greece, and though it was now given for the Christmas festival in a Christian country it could not be considered as a purely Christian meditation. It was at all times Steiner’s expressed intention to fill his own work in the field of art with the spiritual content of what had in ancient times been revealed in the sacred Mysteries. His own Mystery Dramas, to be discussed later in this chapter, conceal within them a profound knowledge similar to the knowledge that a great Greek tragedian like Aeschylus had drawn from the Greek Mysteries, though Steiner presented it in a form suited for modern consciousness, and specifically for the age in which we are now living, when what he called the consciousness soul has to be developed. The art of eurythmy, at the heart of which is the new form of speech developed by Rudolf Steiner and Marie von Sievers, is likewise closely linked to the Mysteries, and this first verse from the Mysteries of which we have just spoken was one of the first to be put into a eurythmic form by Steiner himself.*
Steiner once defined ”true art” as ”an expression of man’s search for a relationship with the spiritual” and in numerous lectures throughout his life he enlarged on this theme. He had no use whatever for naturalism in art. Nature, he used to say, must always be a better artist than man, who cannot improve on nature’s landscapes when he paints them realistically, while photographically exact portrait painting was for him the lowest form of art, scarcely worthy of the name. But it was not so easy for him to introduce his artistic ideas to most theosophists, who as a rule paid little attention to art, and his efforts to bring an artistic element into a Theosophical Congress attended by foreign theosophists, was found extremely shocking by many of the participants. This effort, which took place in 1907 when the biennial Theosophical Congress was scheduled to take place in Munich, is worth considering in some detail, since, at least in part, it was a factor in the later separation of the Anthroposophical Society from the parent organization.
By way of preparation for the Munich Congress Rudolf Steiner gave several art lectures in different German cities late in 1906, culminating in the Berlin Christmas lecture on Signs and Symbols of the Christmas Festival, delivered in front of a Christmas tree decorated according to his specifications. The lecture concluded with the speaking of the meditative verse from the Mysteries to which we have already alluded. During the early months of 1907 it was decided that a play by Schuré should be presented at the Congress. This was, most appropriately, a dramatic presentation of the ancient Greek Mystery Drama that was performed every five years at the close of the Eleusinian Mysteries, as Schuré had pictured it in his imagination. Called simply The Sacred Drama of Eleusis, it included the story of Persephone and her failure to obey her mother Demeter, as a consequence of which she was imprisoned by Pluto in the underworld, from which imprisonment she was eventually rescued by Dionysus. Schuré was later to say of this performance that ”the truth of what I had instinctively visualized and represented was recognized by Rudolf Steiner, who justified my creation. He recognized the Eleusinian Mystery to be the point of departure for true drama.”
Steiner also commented himself on the play later in the following terms: ”This drama reaches up into those ages of European cultural development in which the spiritual currents of humanity which confront us separately as science, art, and religion were not yet sundered from one another but were bound intimately together. Through it we find that our feeling reverts in a certain measure to distant ages of European cultural development, to those ages when a unified culture, born directly out of the deepest spiritual life, imbued souls with religious fervor, in the highest degree of attainment possible for the human soul, so that, in this culture, there pulsed directly a religious life. And it may be said that this culture was religion.”37
It was of the utmost importance for Steiner that the German words of the Schuré drama should be not only appropriate to the content, but should also, as words, carry with them a spiritual element. When he lectured, and even in ordinary conversations, he spoke words in a different manner from that employed by other men. His auditors often spoke of the spiritual quality he imparted to them, even when they could not fully grasp their content. Even those who could not accept his teachings paid tribute to this quality in his speech. So when he wrote his own dramas, or when he revised Marie von Sievers’ translation of Schuré’s Sacred Drama of Eleusis, as he did for this Congress, supplying just those German words that seemed right to him, he regarded it as vitally important that the words themselves should be capable of being declaimed in a certain manner. It was an extraordinary stroke of destiny, if we wish to call it that, that Marie von Sievers at once intuitively perceived Steiner’s intentions, and that her own voice was uniquely suited to the kind of speech required to carry them into effect on the stage. As the only trained actress she herself played the part of Demeter, and it fell to her also to train all the willing and enthusiastic amateurs who played the other parts. A few days before his death Steiner was to explain in his autobiography exactly what was here being attempted.
”The ‘Word’,” he wrote, ”is exposed from two directions to the dangers that may arise from the evolution of the consciousness soul. It serves as means of communication in social life, and it serves for imparting what is logically and intellectually known. On both these sides the Word loses its inherent value. It must fit the ‘sense’ that it has to express. It must allow us to forget that in the tone itself is the sound, in the modelling of sound, a reality exists. The beauty, the shining quality of the vowel, the characteristics of the consonant, are being lost from speech. The vowel becomes soulless, the consonant void of spirit. Thus speech leaves entirely the sphere in which it originates—the sphere of the spiritual. It becomes the servant of the intellectual-cognitional, and the social life, which shuns the spiritual. It is snatched wholly out of the sphere of art.
”True spiritual vision slips, as if wholly by instinct, into the experience of the Word. It learns through intimate feeling to experience the soul-sustained resounding of the vowel and the spirit-empowered painting of the consonant. It attains to an understanding of the mystery of the evolution of speech. This mystery consists in the fact that divine spiritual Beings could once speak to the soul by means of the Word, whereas now the Word serves only to make oneself understood in the physical world.
”An enthusiasm kindled by this insight into the spirit is required to lead the Word again into its sphere. Marie von Sievers developed this enthusiasm. So her personality brought to the Anthroposophical Movement the possibility of fostering artistically the Word and the modelling in Words. As an addition to the activity of imparting truth from the spirit world, there developed the fostering of the art of recitation and declamation (Wortgestaltung), which now became more and more an important part in the programme of events taking place within the Anthroposophical Society.”38 This statement should be recalled when we discuss later in this chapter the beginnings of eurythmy, an art which, in essence, is the outward manifestation of the Word or the musical tone in the movements of the human body, thus distinguishing it completely from any form of dance. Eurythmy is visible speech and visible song.
For weeks before the Congress preparations were being made by Rudolf Steiner, Marie von Sievers, and by the devoted band of helpers who believed wholeheartedly in what was being done, and who knew that they were pioneers in developing a new approach to the artistic—although they could scarcely have foreseen how, under the successors of Steiner, annual summer conferences would be held in Dornach, at which either Goethe’s Faust, I & II complete, Steiner’s own Mystery Dramas, or other works by anthroposophists, would be presented, as they now are, in accordance with Steiner’s own ideas as he first expressed them in 1907. The attempt was made by these pioneers to create, under Rudolf Steiner’s direction, ”a harmonious concordance of color, space, and the spiritual content of the spoken word,” as Marie Savitch, Marie von Sievers’ biographer, was later to express it. Workshops were created where some members painted and others sculpted, while others prepared for their roles in the Schuré play. When the participants in the Congress arrived they found the Munich concert hall with its walls and windows draped in dark red and seven carved pillars with capitals corresponding to the seven planets. Seven seals painted by two theosophical artists framed the stage on which the drama was to be presented, while busts of Fichte, Hegel and Schelling, the masters of German idealist thought, occupied a prominent place. The seven seals were adapted from the seven seals perceived and described by St. John in the Apocalypse.
On the subject of these seals Rudolf Steiner in a lecture given later in the same year to a Stuttgart audience (September 16th) commented as follows: ”You can see how the whole world presents itself in such seals, and because the magi and initiates have put the whole cosmos into them, they contain a mighty force. You can continually turn back to these seals and you will find that by meditating on them they will disclose infinite wisdom. They can have a mighty influence on the soul because they have been created out of cosmic secrets. Hang them in a room where such things are discussed as we have been doing here, discussions in which one raises oneself to the holy mysteries of the world, and they will prove enlivening and illuminating in the highest degree, although people will often not be aware of their effect. Because they have this significance, however, they are not to be misused or profaned. Strange as it may seem, when these seals are hung around a room in which nothing spiritual, in which only trivial things are spoken, their effect is such that they cause physical illness. . . . Signs of spiritual things belong where spiritual things are enacted, and become effective.”39
For the drama itself Steiner directed the staging, designed the costumes, and made suggestions to the actors as to how they should stand, move and gesture—all in such a way as to approximate as closely as possible to the Mystery Plays of antiquity, as Steiner himself had perceived them in spiritual vision. There can be no doubt that the effect of the performance was overwhelming, though opinions were decidedly mixed. Annie Besant’s comments were carefully neutral, cordial and tolerant but by no means expressing unstinted approval of the ”German innovations.” Others were more outspoken in their disapproval. In the last chapter of his autobiography Rudolf Steiner wrote, in particular, of the opposition of many of the Dutch Theosophists, as well as members from France and Great Britain, where Annie Besant’s influence was strongest. Very few members, Steiner said, grasped the fact that ”in the anthroposophical stream something of an entirely different inner attitude was introduced from that of the Theosophical Society. In this inner attitude lay the true reason why the Anthroposophical Society could no longer exist as a part of the Theosophical Society.”
Although this break did not in fact occur for several years yet, Rudolf Steiner and Annie Besant used the occasion of the Congress to discuss several important questions privately. Undoubtedly these conversations cleared the air, but no compromise was made on either side. It was evident to both leaders that the parting of the ways could not be very far off, but neither as yet wished to take the decisive step that would lead to an open rupture. As it happens, a letter is extant dating from exactly the time of the Munich Congress, in which Annie Besant took pains to reassure an old theosophist named Hübbe-Schleiden that there was no fundamental opposition between her and Steiner. This letter reads in full as follows:
31 St. James’s Place
Dear Dr. Hübbe-Schleiden:
Dr. Steiner’s occult training is very different from ours. He does not know the eastern way, so cannot, of course, teach it. He teaches the Christian and Rosicrucian way, and this is very helpful to some, but is different from ours. He has his own School, on his own responsibility. I regard him as a very fine teacher on his own lines, and a man of real knowledge. He and I work in thorough friendship and harmony, but along different lines.
Yours ever sincerely
There is no reason to suppose that Mrs. Besant was anything other than sincere when she wrote this letter, and its content may well represent her personal opinion at the time. Her attitude was to change radically only when she accepted Charles Leadbeater’s advice and decided to put Krishnamurti forward as the reincarnated Christ.
When the next Theosophical Congress took place in the Hungarian capital of Budapest in 1909 Steiner gave a series of fundamental lectures to the theosophists present, but no attempt was made by the organizers to continue the initiative taken by Rudolf Steiner two years earlier. The Budapest Congress therefore resembled all those held before 1907 which had followed the custom of contemporary learned societies. Papers were read, sometimes followed by discussions, but nothing artistic was included. It was the last time that Steiner was to meet Annie Besant personally, and from their private talks it was evident that the task that had brought them together was almost over. This was understood by both of them.
Disappointed though the Munich members were at the neglect of the artistic work by other theosophists, they themselves remained extremely active, under the leadership of Marie von Sievers, who began to recite poems in the new form of speech that had been used publicly for the first time at the Congress of 1907. These poems were recited by her on the occasion of lectures to the Munich group. A workshop was opened in Munich where preparation was made for a new dramatic presentation by those members who were enthusiastic and anxious to continue the artistic impulse. In this venture they had the wholehearted support of Rudolf Steiner himself, who felt that the time had now come when another play by Schuré, translated seven years previously by Marie von Sievers, could be presented to the members. This play was entitled The Children of Lucifer, and it had been written by Schuré at a time when he was an active theosophist. The play itself which portrayed a profound relationship between a Christian woman and a man who had been initiated in the East under the Star of Lucifer and had remained uninfluenced by Christianity, shows clearly the influence of Blavatsky’s Secret Doctrine. But Steiner believed that a performance of this play might provide an opening into Anthroposophy; and immediately after the first performance in Munich on August 22nd, 1909 he linked it to Anthroposophy by giving a remarkable cycle of lectures entitled The East in the Light of the West, to which he gave the subtitle The Children of Lucifer and the Brothers of Christ. In these lectures he showed how greatly Oriental religion and philosophy now stood in need of the impulse that had been given by Christ, in spite of the profundity of Oriental thought itself, which Rudolf Steiner would have been the last to deny.
Later in 1909 Steiner began to introduce his ideas on art to members in other cities. On October 28th he gave a lecture to the Berlin members, in which he presented an imaginative picture of two sisters who are later identified as human Knowledge and Art. Stranded in a frozen waste Knowledge almost died, but her sister Art, who had found sustenance for her soul even in the frozen landscape, nursed her back to life. The lecture is a most beautiful one, and even today it is moving to read, especially when its purpose is taken into consideration—Steiner’s desire to impregnate with art all the knowledge he was imparting to the members of the Theosophical Society, who had hitherto been content with the knowledge, and lacked the realization that they needed art also. On May 10th, 1910 Steiner gave another lecture in Berlin, this time to the public, in which he took his audience through the evolution of poetry, from Homer to Shakespeare and Goethe, for the purpose of illustrating man’s changing consciousness from clairvoyant perception of the ancient gods to the development of human individuality in modern times. This lecture was a kind of advance commentary on what he was to present in Munich in the four years from 1910 to 1913 as modern Mystery Dramas, linked in spirit to the ancient Mysteries, but concerned with human beings of our own age who are consciously seeking higher knowledge and a new relationship to the spiritual world.
The second and last performance of Schuré’s Children of Lucifer was given in Munich on August 14th, 1910. The following day Rudolf Steiner’s first Mystery Drama, The Portal of Initiation was given to the same audience. It was followed by three more Mystery Dramas in 1911, 1912 and 1913, called respectively The Soul’s Probation (or, as it was called by a recent translator, The Ordeal of the Soul), The Guardian of the Threshold and The Soul’s Awakening. Schuré’s Sacred Drama of Eleusis preceded the Mystery Dramas in 1911 and 1912. In 1913 the third Mystery Drama, The Guardian of the Threshold preceded the new fourth play, which was in turn followed by the first performance in public of the new art of eurythmy, for which Steiner had given the indications earlier in the same year.
It is very difficult to do justice in a short space to these four Mystery Dramas which had been maturing in Rudolf Steiner, as he explained later, for more than twenty years, but which were written down over the course of a few weeks just before the actual production of each play, as he squeezed out the time from his killing schedule of lectures. For the first drama conditions were especially difficult. Many of the parts were quite long and had to be memorized by men and women, very few of whom had had any stage training and who were therefore unaccustomed to memorizing lines. The memorizing also had to be done in a minimum of time, especially for the last scenes, which were handed out only a few days before the dress rehearsal. Each morning new passages of the drama were made available to the players, as they were written down by Rudolf Steiner. All the scenery had to be constructed and painted in accordance with Steiner’s instructions in combinations of colors selected by him, and there were many scenes requiring different scenery, some of it representing the ordinary earthly world, some representing various parts of the spiritual or elemental worlds, as well as a final scene called The Sun Temple, a hidden Mystery Center at the surface of the earth. Every costume had to be specially designed also and then assembled by the devoted band of helpers; if an unsuitable costume had been worn the entire effect of the scene might well have been spoiled. In short, the mere physical difficulties to be overcome would have daunted a less dedicated group, and it is truly extraordinary that each time a Mystery Drama was staged there were no outstanding defects, and the general impression seems to have been what Steiner intended. Of course there were no strangers to Anthroposophy among the members of the audience, and at all times Steiner insisted that no one who was not an anthroposophist should play any of the parts.
It may be worth noting here that when the Goetheanum was being built the difficulties to be faced were even more formidable. Yet the construction proceeded as planned, and all the amateur artists were able to do their share of the work side by side with the more experienced professionals. The construction of the first Goetheanum, and indeed the performance of the Mystery Dramas, may properly be compared only with the building of the medieval cathedrals when everyone worked harmoniously together under the direction of the leader in whom all had confidence, no one working for pay or for profit, but all trying to bring to realization the ideal they had consciously accepted as their own.
In the first Mystery Drama, The Portal of Initiation, there are two scenes which do not belong to the play itself but nevertheless form an integral part of the performance, curious as they may appear to those who are present at the drama for the first time. In these two scenes, usually called the prelude and the interlude, which are in prose, two cultured modern women are presented, whose views on the theatre, and on life in general, are diametrically opposed, though in a conventional sense they are friends. One of the friends, Estella, tries to persuade the other to come to the theatre with her to see a modern naturalistic drama, evidently of a high quality and concerned with a serious subject, as is evidenced by its title Disinherited in Body and Soul (or, more simply, The Uprooted). Her friend, Sophia, however, has a prior engagement. The Society of which she is a member is staging its own play, for which it has for a long time been preparing. Estella cannot understand how she could prefer to attend a performance by and for amateurs of a play of which she complains that it is couched in an old-fashioned didactic and allegorical style, with characters who are little better than puppets and types, engaging in symbolical events remote from anything that happens in real life, when she could be watching a play which portrays characters who arouse our compassion and active concern. Sophia defends her point of view in a spirited manner, denying the ”didactic” nature of the play in which she is to take part. ”Our ideas do not teach,” she insists. ”They pour themselves into our being, enkindling and bestowing life. To the ideas which have become accessible to me I owe everything that gives my life meaning.” She then proceeds to criticize the naturalistic drama that so entrances her friend, with the remark that what appears to Estella as genuine art is only a ”useless criticism of life. No hunger is stilled, no tears are dried, no source of moral degradation is uncovered, when merely the outer appearance of hunger, or tear-stained faces, or degraded characters are shown on the stage.”
To this Estella replies that she can understand what Sophia is saying, but it only goes to confirm that she prefers to indulge in fantasy rather than face the truths of life. So she departs alone for the theatre. The following day the two friends meet again in an interlude inserted after Scene 7 of the drama. Estella is full of enthusiasm for ”the great artistic power with which the playwright had presented not only the outward misfortunes but also the profound soul sufferings of the characters, which had been portrayed with astonishing insight.” She then relates the story of the drama which has many close resemblances with the seven scenes of the Mystery Drama just presented, but of course without the scenes from the spiritual worlds that formed an essential part of the latter. Sophia tells her friend that she does indeed appreciate such plays as the one Estella had seen, but nevertheless, like all naturalistic art, she feels there is a basic untruth in it, concluding her criticism with the revealing sentence. ”It is distressing to look at an imperfect representation of sense reality when even the most imperfect rendering of what lies hidden from external observation may prove to be a revelation.” In other words, the Mystery Drama aims higher, however imperfect it presently is; and without the scenes revealing what is taking place in the invisible worlds, there is no real understanding of what is happening to the characters, even in a supposedly realistic play like the one Estella has just seen. To Sophia the story related by Estella is simply empty and indeed meaningless, in spite of the ”outward appearance of hunger and the tear stained faces.”
It might be thought that these two scenes are attempts by Rudolf Steiner to disarm criticism of his drama by showing that he himself was fully aware of what the critics would say of it. After all, he himself had been a drama critic (see Chapter 5) and was well aware of what was expected of playwrights in the early part of the new century. He was also well aware that his Mystery Drama laid itself open to the charge of being ”didactic” and ”allegorical,” charges which would be levelled by all those who are unwilling to accept the reality of spiritual beings. The fact that these beings are invisible to ordinary sight does not make them any the less real. For Steiner, Lucifer and Ahriman, the Spirit of the Elements, the Guardian of the Threshold, were real spiritual beings, not allegorical figures. The soul powers of Maria, one of the two principal characters of the dramas, are pictured sometimes as persons, her friends, sometimes objectively as soul forces, visible to spiritual sight, and inseparable from Maria herself. The Spirit of Johannes’ Youth, and his Double, are also portrayed objectively as beings with whom he can hold converse. The main characters who appear in all the four dramas are not to be thought of as wholly exceptional people. They are presented rather as individuals at different stages of spiritual development, who are subjected to definite trials and temptations simply because they are following this path. But the path itself is open to everyone who wishes to tread it, and the spiritual realities portrayed as personages in the dramas also accompany other human beings, whatever their degree of development. These individual characters are in no way unique; and what Rudolf Steiner shows us in the dramas are the spiritual truths behind their external lives. These had to be shown objectively as beings on the stage, and the characters either are able to perceive them consciously if their spiritual development has made this possible, or they are able to experience them only unconsciously.
For anyone watching the dramas these beings and truths are either real, as they were to Steiner, or illusory (even allegorical) as they must appear to the majority of mankind in our present age. Steiner of course knew this, and there was therefore no need to disarm criticism, especially since the first audiences would be made up of members of the Society, most of whom would surely be in sympathy with his aims. The prelude of The Portal of Initiation in fact led directly into another modern scene in which almost all the characters appear. They had just attended a lecture given by their leader, and it is shown how each had reacted to it in a different manner. Johannes, the painter—there was also a painter as hero in the play Estella had seen—experiences the discussion following the lectures as a soul-shattering experience, and in the next scene, which actually represents his inner experience while the first scene was taking place, he remains in deep meditation, and his soul experiences are in effect the entire content of the scene. Thus the prelude, the first scene, and the second scene are all bound together by an inner link; but it is also true that Estella’s critical remarks in the prelude are representative of the average person’s attitude toward the science of spirit, and her comments on Sophia’s fellow members within the Society to which she belongs, are quite penetrating. It says much for Steiner’s realism and objectivity that he was entirely aware of how he and his followers were regarded by the ”outside” world. But it cannot be supposed that he would have begun his first drama with such a prelude if he had not regarded it as artistically and spiritually necessary, leading the spectator by stages from the world of ordinary reality right into the heart of the drama in the soul world, into which Johannes must enter.
Of course the dramas cannot be judged by Estella’s standards, nor is it possible to judge any of Steiner’s work in the field of art without taking into consideration how the world of spirit was a reality to him, and accepted as such a reality by his pupils and followers, even when they did not have a direct perception of it. And if, indeed, it is a reality it will necessarily follow that all old ideas in every field must be modified or abandoned to take account of it. So there can be no real meeting of minds between Sophia and Estella, whose very name—”away from the Star”—is intended to suggest she is earthbound by contrast with Sophia whose name means ”heavenly wisdom.” Within the dramas themselves all the ideas are perfectly consistent. It is true, as has often been remarked, that almost all Rudolf Steiner’s teachings about man, his successive incarnations, his pre-earthly and post-earthly life, the destiny that he weaves for himself in successive incarnations and his relationships with other human beings—all these appear in the dramas, as do the spiritual beings who aid and hinder man. It has therefore been said that if the Mystery Dramas are fully understood—and possibly there is no one alive who would make this claim!—all Anthroposophy is contained within them, and there would be no need to study either Steiner’s books or his lectures. Moreover this comprehension through feeling as well as thinking would be at a far deeper level than could ever be reached simply through study of his written or spoken works.
The Mystery Dramas are not quite like anything that has ever before been created in Western culture, but the resemblance is perhaps closest to the Greek tragedies, which themselves were derived from the Greek Mysteries. The earlier the tragedy the stronger, in some respects, is the resemblance, in spite of the manifest differences. It will be recalled that Aristotle held that the purpose of Greek tragedy was to arouse pity and awe in the spectators, leading to a catharsis of these and similar emotions, that the theme should possess a certain grandeur, and that it should nevertheless be an ”imitation of life.” The modern spectator who has witnessed all four dramas in succession as they are given at regular intervals at the Goetheanum at Dornach, or who has studied deeply all the four dramas, may well find that his primary emotion at the end is in fact the ”awe” referred to by Aristotle, and that he has indeed experienced something resembling a catharsis. It would be difficult to deny that the dramas possess ”a certain grandeur,” and yet they are very close to real life—as long as one takes into account the reality of the world of spirit as well as the earthly life, and accepts the fact that the world of spirit is peopled by beings concealed from our ordinary earthly senses. It is doubtful indeed whether the same could be said for any other dramas written in recent times, though some of Shakespeare’s tragedies may fulfill several of these criteria.
Steiner’s dramas, however, are in no sense tragedies and it is not the ”tragic” element, in the sense in which we understand the word, that arouses our sense of awe. We are also not inclined to have pity or even compassion for the characters, such as Aristotle believed the spectators in his time ought to have for them. The reason for this is that we are now living in a different age, when we are called upon to understand, not to have pity; and we are enabled to understand because we are shown the spiritual realities behind the events in the lives of the characters. It is these spiritual realities that excite our feelings of awe, when we perceive how at every stage of our life spiritual beings are active, and how beset with obstacles is the path of initiation trodden by those who seek higher development.
It is impossible to exaggerate the virtuosity with which Steiner constructed these dramas, especially when it is realized that they were written with an interval of a year between each drama. Yet events throughout the four dramas dovetail in an astonishing manner. For example, the significance of an event in the first drama or of a few words uttered by one character in the second may become apparent only in the fourth. Many events are understood only in the light of a scene in ancient Egypt which occurs in the fourth drama, in which the earlier incarnations of the leading characters are shown. If Steiner had written a fifth drama, as he had intended, and shown a Greek incarnation, it is probable that even more would have been clarified. Indeed, the intricacies of karma can be appreciated only when it is seen how it works in the lives of human beings, and a few specific examples, such as are given in these Mystery Dramas, are certainly far more enlightening than simple explanations, however valuable these too may be.
There appears to be little action in these Mystery Dramas. Almost everything is conveyed through speeches, sometimes of great length, just as in the older Greek tragedies. Yet the characters evolve throughout the thirty years or so covered by the four dramas, unlike the characters in, for example, the tragedies of Aeschylus, who are usually made to suffer more as the result of the deeds of others, or from outside events, than from their own actions. In Steiner’s drama, in which we are enabled to see not only the consequences of former earth lives but also the reflections in the spiritual worlds of the deeds now being enacted on the physical plane, to say nothing of the actions of the adverse powers who are trying to turn the characters from their chosen path, we are given so much more than in the Greek tragic dramas. Nevertheless the similarity with the Greek dramas is evident, and the Greek parentage of Steiner’s dramas is unmistakable. In short, it is difficult to disagree with Steiner when he gave them the name of Mystery Dramas, and when he linked them, in particular, to the Mystery Dramas of Greece. When, with the drama of Aeschylus, Greek tragedy first emerged from the Mysteries, only gods, demigods, and partly divine human beings were the protagonists. Only by degrees did this drama become ”humanized,” culminating in the realistic dramas of Euripides, when ordinary men and women occupied the stage, and even the gods themselves were given strongly human characteristics.
It seems evident, therefore, that Steiner did, quite consciously, return to the origin of the drama in the Mysteries, but inaugurated what we may think of as another line of development than that of Greek tragedy from Aeschylus to Euripides. He too presented spiritual beings on the stage, but at the same time he created also characters in more than one dimension, showing them as they were in earlier lives on earth, and as they were evolving or striving toward goals that belong especially to our age. His characters were aware or unaware of the spiritual beings according to their stage of spiritual development. An achievement of this kind could not even have been attempted in the time of Aeschylus because human consciousness had not yet evolved far enough. The five centuries from Aeschylus to the Mystery of Golgotha, and the nineteen and a half centuries since, have wrought changes in human consciousness that cannot be ignored, while the Mystery of Golgotha itself is always present as a determining event throughout Steiner’s dramas. It is therefore perhaps understandable that a small group of fervent admirers of Rudolf Steiner and believers in his mission, should have had the necessary enthusiasm to set to work to overcome all obstacles, and should have been able to present for four years in succession a new Mystery drama, and at least one of the earlier ones in addition. Nor that they should have been so seriously dissatisfied with the conventional theatres available for rent in Munich that they determined to build for themselves a new theatre suitable for the staging of these dramas, as will be discussed in the next chapter.
Although it was Rudolf Steiner who wrote the dramas, designed the scenery and costumes, and chose all the colors for the scenery and costumes, the major work of organization fell upon Marie von Sievers, and it was she who trained the actors, all except three of whom had never performed in public before. This work involved training them in the new kind of speech in which she herself was the pioneer, though always in accord with the indications given her by Rudolf Steiner. She also played the part of Maria while the first Johannes was Mieta Waller, a tall, highly gifted woman, a Dutch painter, who, like Marie von Sievers, was exceptionally endowed for the new art of speech, and was able intuitively to grasp at once and follow all that Marie von Sievers was doing, and could then do the same herself. Several other members of the cast seemed almost destined for the parts they played and continued to play in the later dramas. Thus the performances were far more successful and moving than one could have had the right to expect; and especially the new kind of speech, unfamiliar though it was to members of the audience, seemed, according to them, to have been made part of themselves by the actors, and issued spontaneously from them. Even in the quite unsuitable theatres in which they were played, the mood was such that after the performances of the last two dramas the audience melted away in complete silence, pondering on the truths that had been presented to them through the lives and trials of the characters and the spiritual beings, who could not but remain present in their thoughts after having been experienced on the stage.
The new speech used in the dramas was an integral part of the new art that came into being from 1912 onwards. In order to appreciate any art, but particularly the art of eurythmy, the aphorism of Goethe so often quoted by Rudolf Steiner should be taken very seriously and an attempt should be made to grasp its full significance. ”Works of art,” Goethe declared, ”reveal Nature’s secret laws, which, without art, would remain forever concealed.” Eurythmy may be defined as visible speech and visible song (or tone). But how is speech or song made visible, how can they be converted from sound to something that the eyes can perceive? The sounds of speech and music can be made visible as movement, and this new art of movement is eurythmy. There is nothing arbitrary in this art, but someone with Rudolf Steiner’s spiritual perception was necessary to see that the human larynx as instrument for enunciating the Word is not simply converting thought into speech, saying something that can be understood by the hearer once the sound has passed through his ears. Speech does, of course, have a meaning; it signifies something to the speaker and the hearer. But it does more than this. Simply as spoken word, it affects the hearer, even if he does not understand a word that is spoken—as sound affects him, whether it is the brutal sound of a klaxon or a beautiful melody. What Steiner was able to perceive was that when words are uttered through the medium of the larynx, they are not only carried into the air and as air movements are converted into sounds by the human ear, but these air movements can also be made visible through the medium of the entire human body, which thereby becomes an instrument for making the sounds of speech visible. Though the sounds of music do not pass through the larynx, they do pass through the air and can likewise be made visible as movement. Eurythmy is therefore a totally new art, owing nothing to either music or dance. In Goethe’s terms, Steiner perceived the ”secret law of nature” concealed in the sounds of speech and music, and made it known to those of his pupils who wished to make use of it. In doing this he created the art of eurythmy, at present taught in almost all schools which follow the curriculum and methods of instruction taught by Rudolf Steiner (see Chapter 10 below), as well as being publicly performed in every country where the anthroposophical movement is established. It became at once an integral part of the Mystery Dramas, and a curative branch was later inaugurated, which will be discussed in due course.
Although eurythmy is visible speech and song, it is also an art. But it is by no means a simple one, and the eurythmy course given in the schools of eurythmy now established in most Western countries requires four full years of intensive training. It is not simply a question of translating musical sounds or the vowels and consonants of a poem into appropriate movements of the arms and hands. Patterns of movement of the single eurythmist on the stage or the often most intricate movements of the ensembles have also to be designed. Thus a special kind of choreography is needed, and not all eurythmists who are otherwise skilled and experienced are equally proficient in this part of their art. Rudolf Steiner created numerous eurythmy forms and used to delight the eurythmists by suddenly presenting them, for example, at a eurythmy rehearsal. Sometimes in the course of a lecture he would give out a new verse for meditation, and then a short time later create a beautiful eurythmy form for it. For the long meditative verse that he gave to the members at the Christmas Foundation meeting in 1923 when the new General Anthroposophical Society was founded (see Chapter 12) he created a uniquely beautiful and meaningful form which was presented for the first time on the stage at Easter, 1924. These forms given by Rudolf Steiner are quite naturally regarded by eurythmists as scarcely capable of being improved upon by themselves, except perhaps in detail in accordance with the number and quality of the eurythmists available and the circumstances of the presentation. Marie Steiner also in the course of her long life created numerous eurythmy forms which are still used as models. So it is clear that there remains still very much for present-day eurythmists to do, and all feel that it is an art that after more than sixty years is still in its childhood and is still far from having realized all its potentialities.
It was an interesting destiny that led a young German girl of eighteen to become the pioneer eurythmist instead of a somewhat older Russian painter who was, without realizing it at the time, given the opportunity. For many years Rudolf Steiner had carried within him the impulse for creating eurythmy, but the need for it had not yet become so apparent as it was later. So when Margarita Woloschin, after hearing a lecture on the Gospel of St. John, was asked by Steiner if she could dance the Prologue to the Gospel, she replied that ”one can dance anything that one feels.” Steiner was obviously dissatisfied with the answer, for he commented that today ”feeling is not the crucial thing.” When Margarita said nothing he repeated his comment. But she still had nothing to say, so he gave up for the time. Several months later, after a lecture about rhythm in the cosmos and man, he told her that the rhythms of the dance go back to the very origin of the world, but that today’s dances have degenerated from the ancient temple dances. Again Frl. Woloschin had no comments although Steiner, as she related later, ”stood expectantly” in front of her. Only later did she realize that he had been giving her the opportunity—the year was 1908—to ask a question. For example, she might have asked how else than through feeling could one find a way to dance the Prologue to the Gospel of St. John, thus giving him the chance to answer that the very words themselves could be expressed in movement, not necessarily in either Greek or German. Or the second time she could have asked what form the dance could take in modern times that would not be degenerate, giving him the chance to reply that the dance, with its degenerate modern rhythms, should now be replaced by a new art of movement which would express directly man’s relationship to the cosmos.
But she asked neither question, so that Rudolf Steiner knew that the time was not yet ripe for speaking of the new art. Either it was not yet mature enough in himself, or the person to whom it would be given had not yet presented herself—or the times were not yet propitious. In fact it was not until the end of 1911 that the right person did appear, and she was six years younger than Margarita Woloschin had been when he spoke to her. At 17 Lory Smits was too young for him to expect that she could answer such questions as he had put to Frl. Woloschin—and indeed he never put them, nor did Lory herself ever ask such a question as he had been hoping for. Nevertheless destiny did clearly mark her out as the person to receive the impulse.
Lory’s parents had been theosophists for many years, and Steiner used to visit them when he went to Düsseldorf. Then the father suddenly died in November 1911, whereupon Steiner sent his widow a telegram of condolence. Having an unbounded faith in him she paid a visit to him in Berlin to consult him about the future of her eldest daughter Lory, who would have to support herself soon because the death of her father had left the family in straitened circumstances. When he asked Frau Smits what her daughter was planning to do she told him that Lory was interested in either gymnastics or dancing, whereupon Steiner replied that he could teach her ”something of the kind,” but based on ”theosophical foundations,” as Lory was to tell the story in later years. Frau Smits then asked him a question regarding the possibility of making rhythmic movements which would have the effect of strengthening the etheric forces. Thus encouraged, Steiner without more ado gave Frau Smits the first exercise for Lory, but neither she nor her mother had at the time any idea where this would lead. In this case, therefore, it was not the asking of a crucial question that led to a new initiative in Anthroposophy so much as a clear opportunity that presented itself just at the right moment.
During the course of 1912 Lory made very great progress in the numerous preliminary exercises that Steiner gave her at the beginning of the year, and it was clear to him that she was indeed specially gifted for the task he had in mind for her. Often she did everything correctly from instinct, but it was also necessary to teach her to do all the movements consciously so that she could later teach others. All this instruction Steiner had to give to her at odd moments when he was in Düsseldorf or wherever Lory and her mother were available to work with him, but the need for eurythmy became specially visible in August 1912 when the third Mystery Drama, The Guardian of the Threshold was to be presented in Munich. In this drama Luciferic and Ahrimanic spirits appear on the stage. Rudolf Steiner had to tell the performers how to make movements in keeping with the character of these beings, but this was not at all the same thing as being able to show in eurythmy the forms that belonged to their speech.
It was therefore almost at once after the August performance of The Guardian of the Threshold that Rudolf Steiner gave Lory the first indications for the vowels, and followed this up by asking her and her mother to go to Basel, where he was soon to lecture on the Gospel of St. Mark. There, in September, 1912, in a small suburban room with too much furniture, eurythmy was at last brought fully to birth. During the fourth lesson Marie von Sievers was present, and at the last of the Basel lessons she gave the new art its name. Thereafter she undertook most of the organizing of the performances which began a year later, and she was herself the speaker. Meanwhile Lory worked with a few companions, to whom she taught at once what she had learned from Rudolf Steiner. These few young women constituted the first eurythmy troupe.
The first public performance of eurythmy was given at the close of the 1913 annual summer conference held at Munich, at which the two last Mystery Dramas, The Guardian of the Threshold and The Soul’s Awakening, were presented for the last time in Rudolf Steiner’s lifetime. With the coming of the War and the necessary scattering of the few trained eurythmists, Marie Steiner, as she became after her marriage to Rudolf Steiner in December, 1914, gathered together those eurythmists who could live in Dornach, where the new ”House of the Word,” as Rudolf Steiner called it, was being built. Lory Smits could not be there except for brief periods, though she kept up the work in Germany. But others whom she had taught were able to work with Marie Steiner throughout the War; and when the War at last came to an end eurythmy quickly picked up momentum under the direction of Marie Steiner. Rudolf Steiner constantly made new forms and elaborated his earlier indications. In due course curative eurythmy also was born, and in the last year of his life, as will be discussed in a later chapter, he gave two complete courses on Eurythmy as Visible Speech and Eurythmy as Visible Song, which remain the basis today for all eurythmy throughout the world.
*The so-called consciousness soul is discussed in several passages in my book Man and World in the Light of Anthroposophy, as is also what is here called the age of the consciousness soul. During this period man should develop the wide-awake consciousness of the scientist who looks upon the external world as a kind of outsider, penetrating the world of nature with his intelligence, while at the same time he should strive to develop another kind of knowledge of it through which he will come to recognize the spiritual element that underlies everything material.
Rudolf Steiner: Herald of a New Epoch