Lovely to Look At

The CIVIL warS

a tree is best measured when it is down by Robert Wilson and 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…

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