Thursday, January 17, 2008

Freemasonry in Public Entertainment

I asked Don Mosier, Iowa's Grand Master, to write an article about "The Magic Flute" which I knew he was going to see. This was his response when he turned in the following article.

I suspect that this was not quite what you asked for, just as the one before was not strictly just about the 24" gauge. But that's the way it is with GMs. They pretty much do their own thing. You can point them in a general direction, but they usually take the bit into their teeth, spit it out, and then go where ever they think they can.
That is correct. The following is not quite what I asked for but it is really good. Thanks Don. I am proud to have you on my Blog (and Bailey thanks you also)

Over the holiday break, I took the opportunity to view the new movie, National Treasure—Book of Secrets. This coming Saturday, more than 180 Masons, their wives, and guests, will jointly view the movie in Cedar Rapids. Why? Because it contains Masonic Symbolism? No! Because it contains Masonic Secrets? No! Because it contains the names of some Famous Masons and contends that they had a secret. Well… yeah, kinda, maybe. And don’t forget the TREASURE!

Freemasonry has been a hot topic for Hollywood in recent years. The original National Treasure and The Da Vinci Code are perhaps the most well known. There have been others, some good, some not-so-good, and some positively horrible (or so I have been told). I have to admit that I enjoyed both National Treasure movies and The Da Vinci Code. I didn’t enjoy them because of the Masonic links, although I must admit that was one of the major reasons I attended. I enjoyed them because they were fun adventure stories, and involved a little teensy tiny bit of puzzle solving to boot, which appealed to the engineer in me. It’s hard to beat beautiful women, chase scenes, impending death by violence, and the discovery of a great treasure. The Masonic connection was just a bonus. Of course, these movies all included lots of bad information, only some of which was in reference to the fraternity. But if we only went to movies that were one hundred percent factual, Hollywood would have gone out of business decades ago.

Another good movie with a Masonic connection is The Man Who Would Be King, based on the short story of the same name by Rudyard Kipling. Of course, Kipling was a well known Mason. The fraternity is featured in much of his poetry. So at least the Masonic references are a bit more valid than in some of the other movies. Of course, his characters are still rapscallions, so perhaps the fraternity doesn’t come off entirely in the best light. (Disclaimer, that comment is based on having read Kipling’s short story and not having actually seen the movie. That tends to be my approach. When given the choice, read the book rather than see the movie, as long as the movie was based on the book. When the book is based on the movie, it is best to stick to the movie.)

Then there are the not-so-good or downright bad movies such as The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen and From Hell. From what I have read, these are not good movies, and they are horribly misrepresentative of the fraternity. But I suspect that those who go see them don’t really care.

But Freemasonry is long been included or referred to in other forms of popular entertainment. For example, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle includes many Masonic references in his writings, particularly in his novels and short stories featuring the great detective, Sherlock Holmes. If you search the internet, you will find several articles detailing the Masonic references in this body of work. Or perhaps, you should read the stories yourself to search for them. (That would be the truly Masonic Way. Become the investigator. (“The hunt is afoot, Watson.”)

And then there are the works that include hidden Masonic references without ever using the word. Goethe’s classic play Faust is an example. When I started reading that play masquerading as an epic poem, I did not know that Goethe was a Mason. But it didn’t take me long to figure it out. The work was chock full of references which could only be Masonic. For example, there was a lengthy section of conversation where science and nature were discussed, along with comments on the conflict they may have with the church. In another section, Goethe talked about the orders of architecture. Of course, he made this seemingly boring topic fun by including it in a bawdy discussion where several soldiers were comparing their male members to the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian columns. Subtle? Well, yes, as a Masonic reference, anyway. But intentional, none-the-less. These are but two examples of many, many inclusions of Masonic references in this work.

And finally there is one of the best known pieces of Masonic performance art, Mozart’s Opera, The Magic Flute. This opera is still widely performed. A version was presented at Hancher Auditorium in Iowa City about two years ago. Just this past Sunday (January 13) it was presented by Opera Cedar Rapids. I seized the opportunity to view this performance, and am very glad I did. I really enjoyed it, as did the sell out crowd who paid $50 per seat to attend. (How many of you would pay $50 to watch National Treasure? I recognized a few Masons in the crowd, but I must admit that most in the audience were there for the music.)

This was a slightly modified version of the opera. While all the arias were still performed in German, with English translations projected above the stage, the actual dialog had been converted into rhyming English. I was a bit worried that this might be disconcerting, but it actually worked very well. As near as I could tell, all the drama, all the humor, in fact all the story, including the masonic themes, remained intact. Without a doubt, it was easier to just listen than try to read the projected translation.

I was a bit disappointed with the set, or rather lack thereof. Most performances of this nature include rather elaborate stage settings and backdrops. This one did not. Calling this a minimalist set would be an understatement. It was a non-set. I believe that could have been a problem for anyone unfamiliar with the story. But luckily, I had just watched a DVD recording of a Metropolitan Opera performance of the opera that morning. So I could just watch and listen to the performers.

So, does Mozart give away any Masonic Secrets? No! He does not. But anyone familiar with the fraternity will easily recognize significant elements of the story. For example, early in the opera, Tamino, the hero of the story, is depressed, and wonders aloud if he will ever be able to extricate himself from the darkness or to find the light. He then discovers three temples in the woods. These are dedicated to Reason, Nature, and Wisdom. Later he is led, with a hood over his head, into the temple for purification and trial. The chorus then breaks into a song of joy and hope, expressing the dream of a heaven on earth, founded on the virtue and justice of great men. Tamino is informed that he must undergo difficult and progressively more dangerous trials, whereby the Order tests the worth of those who will join it. It is indicated that his success will help to ensure that the realm of the Sun (light) can resist the destructive chaos threatened by the night. Following a prayer to diety for assistance, Tamino is subjected to three trials, during which he is told to maintain silence, and to be strong and true. Of course, he is successful; the Queen of the Night is defeated; and Tamino gets the girl in the end. All in all a good story, great music, and a worthwhile Masonic theme. Go see it! If you cannot find a performance near you, rent or purchase a DVD. You will find it well worth your while. Who knows, you may find it to be a true treasure, unlike the fantasy world created in the movies. And just perhaps, you may find, to your surprise, that opera is not just a bunch of screeching, but rather is some really great music. And that would be an International Treasure.

1 comment:

JOHN said...

I'm certainly not going to disagree with Bro. Don--not because he's the Grand Master, and not even because he's my friend, but because he's pretty much right, at least in this pedant's view.

First of all, opera is about as complete an artistic experience as there is, combining, as it does, theatre, music, dance, literature, the visual arts, and even, to an extent, architecture. The people who most hate opera are those who have never given it a chance, and those who most love it are those who have explored the genre most deeply.

But that's not why I wrote.

It's pretty well known that Mozart was a Freemason, that Emmanuel Schikaneder (the man who wrote the "book" for "Magic Flute") was a Mason, and that, together, they set out to write a Masonic opera that would entertain a wide cross-section of the Viennese public and make them both a stack of money. The opera WAS a huge success, almost from the git-go. Unfortunately, Mozart died soon after performances began, and experienced only the early success of the work.

But that's not the point either. There are several remarkable books on Mozart and Masonry, and on the Masonic symbolism of "The Magic Flute."

The seminal work, decades old, is Jacques Chailley's "The Magic Flute: Masonic Opera," recently re-published as "The Magic Flute Unveiled: Esoteric Symbolism in Mozart's Masonic Opera." It's available in paperback.

Another is Jacques Henry's "Mozart the Freemason: The Masonic Influence on His Musical Genius;" and yet another is Paul Nettl's wonderful "Mozart and Masonry."

I can recommend all of these enthusiastically--with a couple of caveats.

First of all, these are not novels, but rather scholarly examinations of the topics by world-class scholars.

Next, since, that is the case, they assume some familiarity with the topics they discuss, and they particularly require at least rudimentary knowledge of music theory, form, and nomenclature.

But don't let any of that put you off. If you're serious about the topics, these are fascinating books.

Oh--and while I agree with the Grand Master that we saw a stupendous performance last Sunday, I DISAGREE about the set.

Yes, it was decidedly minimalist. But I thought it worked quite well--it just required more imagination than a more realistic set. (Don, I'm certainly NOT suggesting you lack imagination!!)

I DO agree that one's initial exposure to the opera might be served better by a more realistic stage setting.

Now, I will challenge my Masonic brethren to the same challenge I issued on a national forum several years back:

I DARE you to watch "The Magic Flute," even if you hate opera. Watch it as a Mason. Make sure to read the libretto--or at least the story--before you watch it.

And then I double-dare you to hate it!

There are several excellent performances on video tape and DVD, including the Met performance Don mentions. Your public library very likely has a copy. So does, e.g., NetFlix.