PROCESS // Some Questions About the Seven Doors of Bluebeard's Castle

Musings on the opera A Kékszakállu Herceg Vára (Duke Bluebeard's Castle)

by Béla Bartók, drama by Béla Balász



Philip Guston, Forms on Lock Ledge (1979)

AT THE THRESHOLD of the Castle, he asks, 'Judith, why do you hesitate? Do you wish to go home?'

'I abandoned my father, my mother, my brother, my lover, to come with you to your castle. Bluebeard! If you shut me out, I will stay outside, I will sleep on your doorstep.'

Bluebeard and Judith enter the Castle. She abandons her past and enters his. The door shuts behind them. They are plunged into darkness.

The Castle is alive. It moans, it weeps, it bleeds and shudders. What is the Castle? Who is the Castle? Bluebeard protects it fiercely as he protects himself. He knows it is dark. He knows it is gloomy and forbidding. Who is Bluebeard? His name is a frightening one, the name of a murderer of women. Is he the serial killer of the old story? Is he a lonely recluse, mired in the past? He is remote, troubled, taciturn. He guards his secrets. Who is Judith? The new bride, the innocent lover? The decapitating warrior heroine of the Apocrypha, ready to rid the world of an evil king? She wants to know Bluebeard’s secrets. She has heard rumors, but she is not afraid. Is she his angel of death? His destiny?

‘I came here because I love you,’ she says, ‘I want to bring light to your castle, I want to warm the cold stones with my body!’  She sees seven doors in the gloom.

Seven closed doors. Why seven? Seven days of creation. Seven days of the week. Seven chakras. Seven pillars of wisdom. Seven deadly sins. The seven seals of Revelation.

The Seven Locked Doors of Bluebeard's Castle. One after the next, swayed by Judith's relentless demands, he reluctantly gives her seven keys.

The First Door: The Torture Chamber. The Second Door: The Armory. The Third Door: The Treasury. The Fourth Door: The Garden. The Fifth Door: The Infinite Landscape. The Sixth Door: The Lake of Tears. The Seventh Door: The Past.



Mark Rothko, The Seagram Murals, Red on Maroon Mural, Section 3 (1959)


The first door opens, deep red, like a wound, a gash in the side of the Castle. ‘What is this room?’ ‘It is my torture chamber, Judith.’


Why does Bluebeard have a torture chamber? And why reveal the torture chamber to Judith first? Is it a warning? A test? The music is restless, violent. 'Are you afraid?’  ‘No, I’m not afraid,’ says Judith. But then she sees the bleeding walls. And the Castle grows lighter.


Torture: Of others? Torture is deliberate, a methodical, cold-blooded act. Implements of physical torture: ‘Lances, knives, sharp swords, branding irons!’ says Judith. Shackles, the rack, whips, chains, cages, fire, molten lead, ice, cold, water, hunger and thirst. Means of psychological torture: solitary confinement, psychoactive drugs, sleep deprivation, misinformation, lies, manipulation, threats, coercion. Making the victim lose touch with reality.


Torture: Of self? Means of self-torture: self-inflicted pain and wounds, self-blame and self-hatred, relentless review of the past, of terrible things done, of things not done, of mistakes, of loss, of the dead. What are the tortures we all undergo in normal life? Loss. Losing loved ones. Failing our loved ones. Failing ourselves. Being helpless. Illness, physical and mental. Torture of the mind. Being in pain. Seeing our strength slip away. Seeing time slip away.


Is Bluebeard’s torture chamber a place within the Castle (within his soul) in which he undergoes torture? Was Bluebeard himself tortured here? Is it the room within where he revealed too much, where he lost control, lost power, lost his first joy, first love, the room from which he emerged damaged, scarred, never again able to trust, the room where he lost his innocence? For Bluebeard too was once a tender child.


Images: A wound, deep and dark inside. A crack in a wall or in a cliff, eroding, crumbling, beaten, punished by the rain, punished by the wind, the blinding sun, the freezing cold. A pile of broken rocks, once proud, something that can never be mended.





Yves Klein: Fire Painting F31 (1961)

THE ARMORY: Deep Orange

Behind the second door, an armory. A place to store weapons. What are weapons? Anything can become a weapon, but real weapons are made with the express purpose of inflicting harm. They are war tools. War toys. Mostly for men.


Bluebeard has an armory. To attack, to defend, to make him safe. Or to make him feel safe. His world is a world of weapons, of war. The light is gleaming orange. The music is rhythmic, exciting, jagged. Judith exclaims, ‘A hundred cruel, terrible weapons of war!’ ‘Are you afraid?’ ‘No, I’m not afraid.’ But then she sees blood on the weapons. And the castle grows lighter still.

Is she brave? Foolish? Does she feel protected by his power? Does she admire his strength? Or does she believe that she is the stronger? Does she sense that she will be his end? Judith took a sword and cut off Holofernes’ head as he slept in a drunken stupor. 'How strong you are, how cruel,' she says.


An arsenal of weapons could include: knives, swords, clubs, hatchets, bows & arrows, crossbows, maces, guns of all kinds, grenades, cannons, all sorts of bombs, poison gas, chemicals---also stones, water, anything heavy or sharp, even a pillow can be a weapon. Psychological weapons: words, intimidation, bullying, lies. The body can be a weapon---fists, feet, elbows, teeth. Other things can be used as weapons: cars, buses, trains, planes. A necktie, a stocking. A needle. Power can be a weapon. Wealth can be a weapon. Charisma can be a weapon. Sexuality can be a weapon. The key is the intention, not the means.


Why does Bluebeard show Judith the armory? Is he threatening her or showing her that he can protect her? And how is it different from the torture chamber? Torture is secretive, clandestine. The armory is an outward show of strength, a challenge. He is proud of his strength. Does he use violence against her? He is never violent in the opera. He doesn’t rape her, or threaten her. In a way, it could be argued that she is the violent one, always insisting on violating his privacy. 'I love you, tell me everything. There must be no closed doors between us.' 


Images: So many weapons. What conveys the menace?  The gleaming edge of a razor blade perhaps? Or a glowing piece of steel, a hot poker, glowing orange? Or simply, fire?




Yayoi Kusama, Beyond My Illusion - Butterfly (1999)

THE TREASURY: Bright Yellow

Behind the third door, the Treasury. Gold, jewels, riches beyond compare. Power that comes from being able to buy anything, to buy anyone. Why did Bluebeard not show Judith this door first? Perhaps now that she passed the test of courage, she is rewarded with the prize? She had to earn this room of jewels with her fearless determination. The music is sensual, gleaming, tender. Golden light flows from the opened doorway. Jewels and gold are so beautiful. Rare, precious things that take light into themselves and send it glimmering, dancing out, back to our thirsty, confused, darkened eyes. We crave light and clarity. And yet these seductive, longed-for jewels have a dark side. The darkness of their origins, the mines, the lives lost in their excavation, in their fashioning. Gold ore and gemstones are hard-won, and they are hard themselves. They have a cold fire, they are indifferent, and they pass from hand to hand without conscience. Riches are stolen, appropriated, spoils of war. People kill, die for these precious things. Did he win these jewels with the weapons of the previous rooms?


’How rich you are, Bluebeard.’ ‘All this is yours now, Judith.’ ’There are bloodstains on the jewels! Your most beautiful crown is bloody!’ ‘Open the next door! Let the light in! Open, open,’ he commands her, for the first time urging her on.


Images: Gold. Bars of gold, gold coins, golden jewelry. Cascades of light. And, the underside, the mines where gold is dug out of the earth. The darkness of the mines. The harshness of the miner’s life. Money, dirty cash.




Henri Rousseau, Femme marchant dans un forêt exotique (1908)

THE GARDEN: Blue-Green

After the treasure, the green garden. The beautiful garden, symbol of all that is good. Flowers, growing things, life, light, and fertile earth. The castle grows lighter still. The music is lyrical, lush. The flowers are uncannily human, the lilies, "as big as people," Judith says in wonder. Do they stand for children? For conjugal love, for procreation? Flowers are the essence of fertility, of female sexuality, of unabashed sensual beauty, of gorgeous, burgeoning, swelling creation.


'All the flowers bow to you, Judith. You give them life.' 'There is blood on the roses! There is blood on the earth! Who watered your garden?' 'Judith, love me, ask no questions. Open the Fifth Door!'


Images: Swollen, sexual flowers, lilies, orchids, rich roses. Ripe fruit, persimmons, split open to show the red flesh inside.



Yayoi Kusama: INFINITY NETS [AIG] (2013)


Landscape, infinity, brilliant sun, a huge, crashing C Major chord. Judith screams, a great high C.


Bluebeard, so quiet before, now opens up in praise of his infinite lands. 'See my domain, see the mountains, see the flowing rivers. Now all this too is yours, Judith, as far as the eye can see. Is it not a beautiful, great, great country?' But Judith is cold, muted, subdued in front of this grandeur. She seems overwhelmed, troubled. Why? Here it is, the light she said she wanted to bring to the darkness of his Castle.


Is it the realization that his life extends outside the Castle, away from intimacy? Is it that she wants him all to herself in the Castle, the dark, wounded man surrounded by the defenses which only she can breach, secrets which only she is privy toand then the huge domain reveals itself, larger than anything she can fathom. Perhaps she wants to feel sorry for him, to have the power of pity over him. But in his pride, his boastful, unabashed, expansive ownership, he slips away from her. He is no longer the furtive, melancholy, hunted prey, the distressed creature weeping for loneliness, desperate for her warmth and light. She sees him, in the light of this door, not as a victim but as a victor. And there is no room for her in this huge, sunlit landscape.

Or is it simply that the light too bright, too unforgiving, destroying her illusions forever? Does it show him, and herself, as they really are? Too harsh, the light, too revealing. ‘The clouds cast bloody shadows,’ she says quietly.


Images: An absence of imagery. Harsh, blinding light, revealing reality as it is in the moment.



Philip Guston, To JS (1977)


The sixth door conceals the lake. The lake of tears. The white lake. The silent lake. The mute lake. The motionless lake. The lake he begs her not to see. The lake of grief, the lake he wants to hide from her. The deep lake of pain. 

'How mute, how still.’


From the brilliant, expansive, infinite landscape stretching out over earth, sea, and sky, the journey through the doors takes her inward to the silent, glowing, still lake. As she opens the door, a deep sigh is heard. The castle darkens. Even the music shivers, the harmonies go nowhere. Nothing can touch the depths of this silence, of the mysteries of suffering which it envelops.


‘What is this water, Bluebeard?' 'Tears, Judith. Tears. Tears.'


Whose tears? His tears? The tears of his victims? The tears of humanity? A lake, never to be filled, which will someday contain her tears as well.


Images: Drops dripping. Tiny far off lights glistening like stars in the fog. Deep shining of deep waters.



Pablo Picasso, Homme et femme nus (1971)


‘Tell me, Bluebeard, whom did you love before me?’


At last we come to the seventh door, the most complex and ambiguous of all. This is the door from which there is no turning back. It represents the end of life, but also the beginning of the final mystery. It brings Judith to her end, for she will be immured in the Castle forever. But it is also Bluebeard’s end. There will be no more light, no more time after this.

The loves of the past reveal themselves: Dawn, Noon, Dusk. And Judith takes her place among them as Midnight. Midnight is the nadir. The point of nullity. The still point where everything has folded within itself, where everything has subsided, and waits. The pivot point. There is a dark eternity before dawn.

In an agony of suspicion, on the threshold of this last door, Judith accused Bluebeard of killing his past wives. But when she opens the final door, she sees that she was mistaken. ‘They are alive!’ she gasps. ‘They always were, they always lived,’ says Bluebeard, ‘they are a hundred times beautiful—and you were the most beautiful.’


Why the most beautiful? Because life is most beautiful when we know it is ending? Most precious because we are losing it—it is slipping away while every cell and particle of our being screams out for life? He uses the past tense about Judith now. And she is his Night, the end of everything for him. It is almost like a suicide pact these lovers have. For I believe that these two do love each other, even as they destroy each other. Judith takes her lover’s life just as surely as he, and the Castle, take hers. Perhaps Bluebeard resists her so much because he knows that each door brings him closer to his own death. And so they missed their chance to dally in the fertile garden, or to explore the infinite landscape, to be bathed in sunlight. Everything is reduced to its essence, time is foreshortened. He will never leave the Castle now, and neither will she.

They have not understood each other, and there is no time now for that. But the intellectual grasp of the mystery is, in the end, the most imperfect. What it requires is faith, and, ultimately, surrender. And so we surrender the lovers to darkness, to their painful, imperfect, eternal love.

'And now, it will be forever Night. Night. Night.'

Images: The Castle is alive, and the former loves, Dawn, Noon, and Dusk ARE the Castle. Bluebeard is the Castle, and Judith is also the Castle. We are the Castle too. We each have and exist as our own eternal Castle. How does this translate into images? That is a question for another time.


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