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Lovely to Look At

The CIVIL warS

a tree is best measured when it is down by Robert Wilson, by Heiner Müller
The American Repertory Theatre

Since 1976, when Einstein on the Beach, written with the composer Philip Glass, was performed at the Metropolitan Opera, Robert Wilson has acquired a reputation as an all-around showman, a hip, Texan Wagner who produces enormous, expensive “intermedia” spectacles in Europe and is followed by swooning disciples and donors. Few people had seen his work, however, until Einstein was revived late last year at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Next Wave” series. And only travelers to Europe were familiar with the ambitious work that Wilson has been preparing for the past six years, entitled The CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down. Conceived as an “opera” combining the contributions of artists from six countries, including Philip Glass and the East German playwright Heiner Müller and a pop musician, David Byrne of the group Talking Heads, The CIVIL warS has five immense acts and lasts twelve hours. For the opera’s thirteen intermissions, Wilson has created what he calls “knee plays,” the “joints” of the opera; these usually consist, as far as I can see, of a small group of actors performing simple actions such as holding up an arm or standing up and sitting down. It has yet to be produced in its entirety, although portions of it have been seen in Rotterdam, Tokyo, Cologne, Marseilles, and Rome.

At one point, it was hoped that the entire work might be performed with an all-star cast, including David Bowie and Hildegard Behrens, as part of the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, but the $2.5 million needed for three performances could not be raised. In late February the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge produced under Wilson’s direction the opera’s “German” section, a part of the opera that Wilson thinks can be seen on its own. Written in part with Heiner Müller, an East German whose plays are popular among the West German avant-garde, the segment of the opera consists of Scene E from Act III and Scene A from Act IV, both of which have previously been produced only in Cologne, and the epilogue of Act IV, which was also seen in Rome.

What is The CIVIL warS about? In a booklet issued for this production, Wilson says the work began as “an exploration of the American Civil War, the Industrial Revolution, and Matthew Brady’s photography. Then I began thinking about the whole last half of the nineteenth century: Jules Verne, the opening up of the East to the West, Commodore Perry and the black ships going to Japan.” The title, he says, refers not so much to the American Civil War as to all civil wars, to “historical confrontations, not necessarily violent, which comment on man’s long journey towards brotherhood.” That is why he “capitalized CIVIL and the plural of warS.”

Wilson has a broad and somewhat arbitrary notion of civil war. As it turns out, most of the German section of his opera is about Frederick the Great, the enlightened despot of Sans Souci and the founder of modern Prussia. Wilson and Müller present a succession of incidents from Frederick’s life, from a fight with his autocratic father (who disliked his dandyism and his friendship with another young man, Katte, and forced Frederick to witness Katte’s execution as a deserter from the army) to his death. As Wilson explains, “Act IV, Scene A of this play begins with Frederick the Great as a young man standing up to his father, separating from his father, and eventually becoming king. I took it as a prototype of a world family.” The separation between father and son is a form of civil war, he says; indeed, “how the soldier puts his sock on before marching off to battle is a civil war; even a child learning to tie his shoe could be considered a civil war.”

The incidents from Frederick’s life are portrayed at great length by Wilson in short scenes involving twenty-six actors, often in conjunction with film montages on a large screen showing mug shots of ordinary people, swimming turtles, flying eagles. The overall effect is to suggest that Frederick became a tough, militaristic ruler; and by showing us archival footage of the bullet-ridden ruins of the Reichstag in the Second World War, Wilson reminds us that Hitler shot himself in his underground bunker before a portriat of Frederick. The texts for the production were written by Müller and Wilson and include extracts from Racine, Hölderlin, Shakespeare, Kafka, Goethe, and Frederick’s own writings. In the epilogue to Act IV, a huge white owl perched on a tree recites Hopi Indian prophecies to actors representing King Lear and Abraham Lincoln. Under the circumstances, the ART felt it wise to append to the booklet distributed to the audience a statement that “Robert Wilson’s theatrical technique represents a significant departure from customary forms of dramatic storytelling. Events rarely occur in sequence and follow no discernible causal pattern. Like a dream or a hallucination, the action of a Wilson ‘play’ takes shape, dissolves, overlaps, fragments, and reforms. Two or three ‘stories’ may be told simultaneously, using characters drawn from different historical epochs, from different geographical locations.”

Wilson is one of the most imaginative people working in the theater; he has an eye for arresting images and a remarkable sense of how to use light, color, form, volume to create them. For example, in an interview in Theatre magazine (1983), Wilson explained that he had been asked by the Wagner family to come to Bayreuth to direct Parsifal. The production did not come off, but Wilson had already thought through the imagery of his production. “There’s no house curtain,” he said. “Instead there’s a curtain of light. Then a wall of water with the beams of light coming vertically across. Eventually a lake appears at the back and that’s the prelude. The whole piece is in blue. Gurnemanz appears here at the downstage edge of the lake.” Elsewhere in the opera, he would use

a great disk of light that moves on stage from the side and an iceberg floating upstage. Eventually the disk of light settles on the center of the lake. Parsifal stands downstage watching with his back to the audience the way the audience watches it. I don’t have the knights or any of that. Amfortas is carried out in his litter and he goes into the iceberg and takes out an Egyptian box. Inside is a clear glass chalice which is shaped like an X.

At the end of the second act, “Klingsor throws his spear at Parsifal. Here it’s a rod of light. The scene is all back painted and at the moment Parsifal picks up the glowing rod we turn on all the lights from behind and everything appears in cold black and white like a skeleton.”

The CIVIL warS is full of remarkable images. In the Cambridge production, a woman “scribe” wearing a conical hat and a costume of wrinkled cloth walked out onto the stage with a giant pencil strapped across her shoulder; then, like a John Tenniel drawing for Alice in Wonderland, she walked briskly up a ramp built over the orchestra section of the theater followed by a man wearing a gas mask and dressed entirely in black. In another scene, seven faces with grotesque death-mask makeup created by Wilson pop up out of trap doors in the orchestra. In the epilogue to Act IV, an extremely tall and thin Abraham Lincoln enters from the right of the stage. Perhaps twenty feet tall, his stovepipe hat seeming to brush the top of the proscenium arch, he walks slowly across the stage, then falls backward even more slowly and floats on his side on the left.

Wilson has also created elegant props: a pointed hat with a tiny lightbulb affixed to its tip; wooden chairs with square frames for backs; a wooden horse on which Frederick rocks back and forth while wearing a Japanese mask. If one looks at the drawings and photographs of three-dimensional models of the sets Wilson has created for other parts of The CIVIL warS1 one will find further evidence of Wilson’s flair for creating visual impressions. In Act I, for example, the “World’s Tallest Woman” enters stage right carrying a tiny man in her palm; in Act II, eleven pairs of feet appear just below the top of the stage; thereafter, historical characters like Mata Hari and Karl Marx move vertically up and down the stage. In Act III, ten Lincolns are shown lying in hospital beds. (In the exhibition catalog one finds photographs of the extraordinary pieces of furniture Wilson has made for his other productions: a flying bench made of wire mesh; a chair made of galvanized pipe, and another draped with crumpled sheets of lead.)

But in The CIVIL warS, as in Einstein on the Beach, one is constantly struck by the impression that Wilson does not really know what to do with his images once he has presented them. He never joins them successfully to each other so that their aesthetic values can accumulate or develop; more often than not, one feels that the oblique and wispy spoken texts and stage movements that follow their first appearance could be cut without much being lost. The images are not used in an effective collaboration with music, dance, or text; in Wilson’s productions, these tend to provide either a pale background for the images or else to interfere, in an irritating and pretentious way, with our appreciation of them. We never really learn much about the American Civil War, or about Frederick the Great or Einstein. Wilson’s “subject matter” and titles seem arbitrarily chosen to illustrate vague ideas about the menace of technology, the evils of violence, and popular myths of fame and power. Parts of Einstein might just as well have been titled Edison (one of Wilson’s other productions) and part of what I saw of The CIVIL warS might have been titled The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, another work by Wilson.

The German section of The CIVIL warS is, however, more coherent and consecutive than Einstein, in which the actors moved about like somnambulists or puppets, reciting banal snippets of conversation from daily life, such as “Have you found it yet? No, I haven’t found it yet. I’ll just have to keep looking,” or counting, “1-2-3; 1-2-3-4.” The music by Philip Glass was anesthetic, like Oriental bell music. What stayed in the mind after leaving the theater was images—a slowly descending white line bisecting the black backdrop of the stage; a ring of light hovering over whirligig dancers; a solid bar of light being lifted slowly into the flies.

In The CIVIL warS Wilson has used a greater variety of theatrical effects. The scene from Act III, for example, with which the production in Cambridge begins, shows us a band of Civil War soldiers at reveille. The setting is a camp of pitched tents as in a Brady or Houghton photograph. All that occurs is that the soldiers wake up, get dressed, drink coffee, hum a song, and march out. After the others have gone, a soldier mounts a rock or tree stump to stand watch. Wilson has him mount the platform as slowly as possible, so that we can see each phase of each act he performs; the effect is like watching a sequence of Muybridge photos. Once he is fully standing, the soldier waits and very slowly scans the horizon from side to side. In a second, he snaps his head in the direction of a noise only he has heard and the lights are shut off. The entire scene is effective, even though the actors were mostly Harvard undergraduates who did not always move with the disciplined economy Wilson can sometimes achieve with his actors.

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    These may be seen in the catalog of an exhibition of Wilson’s work at the Contemporary Arts Center in Cincinnati that was organized by Robert Stearns in 1980, reissued last year as Robert Wilson: The Theatre of Images (Harper and Row, 1984).

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