Front cover image for Syphilis, sin and the social order: Richard Wagner's  Parsifal


Syphilis, sin and the social order: Richard Wagner's Parsifal

In the age of AIDS, few would be surprised to find sexuality connected to suffering and disease; in the age of syphilis - from its arrival in Europe in 1492 to today, when it is on the rise once again - the connection is equally strong, though many of us have forgotten this. The brief respite offered by the discovery of a cure for syphilis (through the use of penicillin) in the 1940s ended with the appearance of AIDS. Over the last five hundred years, the Christian reading of syphilis as the scourge of God directed against the sexually sinful has merged with societal sexual anxieties about the effects of syphilis on the general social fabric and, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, on the family in particular. The perhaps surprising focus of this discussion (by a literary theorist and a physician) of suffering and social decline in the context of sexually transmitted disease is Richard Wagner's last music drama, Parsifal , finally completed in 1882 and called a Bühnenweihfestspiel (a stage consecration festival play) for his Bayreuth theatre
Cambridge Opera Journal, 7, 199511, 261