Short stories I wish that I had written: “A Wagner Matinée” by Willa Cather

A common plot in British and American literature is the tempestuous romance that erupts between a beautiful, wealthy, cultivated woman and a handsome proletarian dude with no money or life prospects whatsoever. Think of the notorious Lady Chatterley, Cathy with her Heathcliff, and other wildly romantic British pairs, Faulkner’s Miss Emily and Homer Barron — or most recently Jack and Rose, the ill-fated lovers in the film “Titanic.”

Like most of the great romances of world literature — think about it — many of these tales end with one or both of the lovers dead, their lives burned out ecstatically like meteors plunging through Earth’s atmosphere.

And probably — a good thing, too! The overpowering moment involving the throwing away of all material possessions and social status for forbidden love makes for great melodrama. But could wealthy, privileged socialite Rose really find happiness with Jack — a nice enough fellow but without a dime to his name — once the emotional roller-coaster ride ends and they are living together in a cold-water tenement in a seedy New York City neighborhood?

The film solves the problem by having Jack sink into the watery abyss but re-uniting the two after death in a heaven that perfectly resembles the great ship. The Germans called this situation “Liebestod” — “love-death.” Many of the great operas by Verdi, Puccini, Wagner, and others end similarly, the lovers singing glorious arias in praise of passionate love as they expire, their ultimate rejection of reality and common sense. But these endings evade the unpleasantness of watching the lovers face life when the honeymoon is over.

Willa Cather is probably best known for her wonderful novels of life on the frontier, “My Antonia” and “O Pioneers,” both of which were once staples of every high school English curriculum. Much less well-known are her short stories, but “A Wagner Matinee” in recent years turns up frequently in college English anthologies, exposing her work to new generations of students who might otherwise never have heard of her.

It is a brief work that in a few beautifully composed pages deals with the perils of letting emotion govern one’s life choices, particularly when those choices involve love and marriage.

The story begins in the early 20th Century in Boston and then involves a series of jumps backwards and forwards in time starting when the narrator — an affluent young Bostonian named Clark — informs the reader that he was visited at his home by his elderly Aunt Georgiana whom he had not seen since his childhood. She has come from a farm in the Midwest to Boston for a brief stay in order to collect a small inheritance.

As a young woman, Georgiana came from a wealthy family and had been well educated, had traveled to Europe, and was cultured in the arts — especially classical music, which she had also taught. One summer while teaching in New Hampshire she had been introduced to Howard Carpenter, a good-looking young field hand who — like Rose’s Jack — had no money and no prospects, but evidently was a smooth talker and she was captivated by him.

He wooed her with the notion of marrying him and following him to the Great Plains to become homesteaders. This was a time shortly after the Civil War when the slogan “Go west, young man!” with its seductive notion of a life of self-reliance and freedom must have seemed irresistible to both the young man and to Georgiana.

Anyone familiar with J.D. Salinger’s classic novel “The Catcher in the Rye” will remember that young Holden Caulfield who has just failed out of yet another prep school runs away to New York City and meets up with an old flame, Sally Hayes. Holden tells her that they both need to escape the “phony” world full of “phony” people and tries to persuade her to come with him to the Rocky Mountains where he will build a cabin for them to live in while she bakes bread and raises their children.

Being considerably more mature and realistic than Holden, Sally essentially tells him “people just don’t do that,” sending Holden into a rage. But like Rose and so many passionate heroines of romantic novels, Georgianna falls for her lover’s pipe dreams and ignoring the shock and warnings of her friends and family marries him and sets off with him for the Great Plains.

Cather’s narrative then presents a series of flashbacks involving visits that Clark makes to visit his aunt and uncle when he was a child and the scenes are grim. The family now includes six children and they live a hand-to-mouth existence on a farm in a ramshackle house next to a muddy pond from which they draw drinking water and in which their cattle wallow.

Cather describes the scene in bleak and barren images, as far from a romantic landscape as could be imagined. Since her own children are too busy with farm work to absorb any of her culture, worn and tired Aunt Georgie passes on to Clark what she can, especially her love of the music of Richard Wagner whose operas with their misty mythological settings, doomed lovers, and lush melodies appeal to her romantic impulses.

Cather’s description of Aunt Georgie when she arrives in Boston is heart-rending: old before her time, motion sick from her long train ride, she barely recognizes Clark who compares the woman to a sleepwalker. Referring to the old notion of the supposed dangers of waking a sleepwalker, Clark bids his housekeeper to put her immediately to bed to recuperate.

Overwhelmed by his desire to divert her from her sad state, he decides two days later to take Aunt Georgie to a matinee concert by the Boston Symphony, which will be performing musical selections from a number of Wagner’s operas.

Up to this point, Cather’s visual images are presented in dark, drab colors representing Aunt Georgie’s hard life. But upon her entrance with Clark into the concert hall, descriptions suddenly explode brilliantly with color — an effect that has always struck me as similar to the scene in “The Wizard of Oz” when, having come from the gloom of Uncle Henry’s dirt farm filmed in black-and-white, Dorothy opens the door into the Land of Oz and at once the screen is ablaze with Technicolor. 

Encountering the stylish gowns of the affluent, mostly female audience, Aunt Georgie sees “the shimmer of fabrics soft and fine: red, mauve, pink, blue, lilac, purple, ecru, rose, yellow, cream, and white, all the colors that an impressionist finds in a sunlight landscape.” But the scene brings her no pleasure, instead making her acutely embarrassed by what Clark terms “her queer country clothes.”

Settling into her seat next to Clark, Aunt Georgie grips his hand in hers as the orchestra opens with the overture from “Tannhauser,” Wagner’s moody opera of innocence seduced by beauty. Clark comments, “Then I realized that for her this broke a silence of thirty years,” and she proceeds to weep over the beauty of the music and her lost opportunities.

One orchestral piece follows another from “Tristan and Isolde,” “The Flying Dutchman,” “The Meistersingers of Nuremberg,” and concluding with selections from Wagner’s massive “Ring of the Nibelung,” climaxing with the thunderous “Funeral March of Siegfried,” the opera’s blond Teutonic hero.  

Willa Cather chose these operas carefully; for to the opera-savvy, each of them has plot elements and characters that echo on a much-reduced scale events in Aunt Georgie’s own life, leaving her at the end of the concert weeping uncontrollably. After the musicians have departed, Clark describes the stage as being “empty as a winter cornfield” — the empty cornfield to which Aunt Georgie is now to return.

But she explodes into tears and pleads with him: “I don’t want to go, Clark, I don’t want to go.” Understanding now the danger of “waking up a sleepwalker,” Clark realizes that, far from uplifting her spirits, the concert has evoked too many of those aspects of her early life that she has lost and emphasized the bleakness of the life she had chosen.  And both Clark and the reader are left with the question: “What now?”

But Cather leaves the question unanswered. As in so many tales of young romantic love, we are left with the realization that life-altering decisions made in passionate moods rarely end with “And they lived happily ever after.”  When the blazing fires of romance turn to embers, and cold reality intrudes, the partners may find themselves down a long, desolate road from which there is no turning back.

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