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.
Moreover, in The CIVIL warS Wilson has been much more successful than in Einstein in showing his humorous or whimsical side, which owes not a little to vaudeville and cabaret. He brings on a woman chewing a cigar who tells a story about the difficulties of getting her car repaired; a second woman stands nearby extravagantly chewing gum and wiggling her hips. The scene is not really funny; it relies on a kind of music-hall or burlesque humor, and we laugh only because the types are so exaggerated. In an earlier scene, a giant bullet-shaped spaceship lands on the stage in a cloud of smoke and then ascends, leaving behind two enormous grappling bears. The audience was so relieved by the presence of such a circus effect in a long evening of often unintelligible juxtapositions of texts and images that it laughed nervously and uproariously at the bears (as it did later at the cigar woman). After Wilson had presented two or three more of such broad effects, the audience seemed to await more of them as eagerly as other audiences await the leaps of Baryshnikov. Wilson obliged them, but sometimes in overly camp episodes, as when the mother of Frederick mouths the bass melody of Schubert’s Erlkönig, or when the penis of Abraham Lincoln—the arm of the hidden actor propelling the Lincoln statue—takes a curtain call.
But the same difficulties that arose with Wilson’s earlier work were present in The CIVIL warS. If he seeks the effect of a dream or a hallucination, as the program claims, he cannot supply the emotional continuity that underlies such states of mind. One also felt that Wilson failed again to incorporate the music and language into his work, to make the aesthetic force of his images work effectively with either. The music for the German section of The CIVIL warS was composed largely by Hans Peter Kuhn, a German composer whose music resembles that of Glass—the notes played on what appeared to be an electronically amplified organ and held for long periods or combined with other notes in simple chords and arpeggios. The texts written or chosen by Müller and Wilson were at times as foolish as those of Einstein. The soldiers in Act III say to each other “yeah,” “ha,” and “hunh,” or “I don’t care what it means,” and their voices are carried by microphones distributed through the audience, so that we constantly felt we were being addressed by the person sitting next to us. The woman with the giant pencil repeats over and over again the words “Stone Scissors Paper. Stone Sharpens Scissors Scissors Cuts Paper Paper Wraps Stone,” a contribution of Heiner Müller. The death masks in the orchestra chant “american motors, american capitals, american control” and “ibm forever/never [repeated seven times] dream of selling ibm” and other sophomoric patter.
As with Einstein, people in the audience began to walk out, some of them just at the moment an actor on the stage was saying the words, “oh stay by me and go you not / for my heart is the loveliest spot.” Those of us who stayed were as relieved when Wilson and Müller had actors recite Racine and Shakespeare (even if we did not understand why) as we were by the monologue of the cigar woman. The problem was to understand why Wilson, who has a brilliant visual imagination and a superb sense of timing, and who knows how both to interest and to please audiences, should have felt obliged, as he has in the past, to hold on to his images until they become tedious and to accompany them with soporific music and words no more interesting than those used in a Senate filibuster.
Part of the answer lies in Wilson’s idea of what theater should be and do, an idea which seems to have arisen from an early concern with children’s therapy. In Texas, where he was born in 1941, Wilson was cured of a speech impediment by Mrs. Byrd Hoffman, a dancer and teacher then in her seventies. She succeeded in doing so, he has said, by giving him exercises to “release tension,” so that “by relaxing and taking my time” he overcame the disability. Mrs. Hoffman was “amazing because she never taught a technique, she never gave me a way to approach it, it was more that I discovered it on my own.”
Wilson became an adherent of this kind of therapeutic work and produced children’s theater at the University of Texas. When he arrived in New York, he took a job as consultant to the New York City Board of Education and Department of Welfare and subsequently became a special instructor in the public schools. He was also a consultant with Head Start and organized theatrical works with paraplegics on Welfare Island and with other disabled people, including iron lung patients. Stefan Brecht, the son of Bertolt Brecht, who has worked with Wilson as an actor and written a long book about the development of Wilson’s “theater of images”—a book at once acute and somewhat nutty—says that Wilson’s “therapeutic work with children judged retarded, autistic, or mentally impaired, often with apparently organic deficiencies or lacking in coordination,” was the source of his theatrical ideas.
Wilson, he says, “seems to have focused on getting them to do simple things on the principle that this activation by fostering their bodily self-awareness and giving them self-assurance would generalize into a general mental activation.”2 Wilson tried to overcome the disabilities of these children by constant repetition of simple movements. At some point, Brecht writes, “he got into similar work with more or less normal, functioning repressed adults: awareness sessions. The general point seems to have been to start people doing things for the sake of doing them, naturally expressive of their individuality.”
Another kind of influence on Wilson’s idea of the theater arose from his exposure to the experimental dance and theater of the early Sixties, when he was a painter and a student of architecture at Pratt Institute. Wilson speaks more explicitly about the influence of children’s therapy on his theater productions than he does about the influence of other artists, but much of his work recalls the experimental “painter’s theater” of the early Sixties, largely created by painters and attended mostly by people in the art world. This form of theater was influenced by the “action painting” of the abstract expressionists, such as Jackson Pollock, whose paintings were held to be expressive of emotion and intuition and were also thought to be the records of movements and actions, and by the collages of Kurt Schwitters. It was also influenced by the musical theory John Cage taught at the New School in the Fifties, which owed much to Dadaism. Cage sought to exploit indeterminacy and chance in composing his music, and to present unrelated events at the same time. He extended his view to visual and other arts, and, as musical adviser to Merce Cunningham’s dance company, had a part in the creation of Cunningham’s spare dances, which often had no “story” or “characters” and which also were sometimes organized by chance methods.
Cage also influenced Allan Kaprow and others in the art world—such as the painters Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg, and Jim Dine—who created the “assemblages” and “environments” which led to the “happenings” of the Sixties. Kaprow and others intended that happenings would avoid what they felt to be the artificial devices of traditional theater, such as its emphasis on plot, or development, or exposition, or indeed “acting,” but especially the subordination of the theater to the text. In happenings, language was used in a different way from that of traditional theater; for example, actors spoke ad-lib or used words chosen randomly and repeated them many times. The creators of happenings often gave up the idea of the “stage” and the proscenium arch and tried to include audiences in its spectacles, sometimes abusing them and trying to shock them out of their comfortable cultural assumptions by presenting them with startling juxtapositions of images and movements. Brecht quotes an early collaborator of Wilson’s who claims that he was “influenced a lot” by Cage.
In 1970, Wilson started a foundation and a school named after his old teacher, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, made up of amateurs who were taken with Wilson’s ideas and who performed in his early plays. In these productions Wilson seems to have tried to combine the emphasis on therapy and “nonverbal communication” he had promoted in his work with children with some of the ideas of the “painter’s theater.” The theater would be a form of “communication” similar to the relations he was able to have with the children he instructed; he would communicate with us as he had with them, through “images,” not words. As he said in an interview published in the program, “most theatre that we see today is thought about in terms of the word, the text. Everything is subservient to the text: the actors’ gestures, the lighting, the decor, the costumes—everything is there to interpret, or to comment on, or to illustrate the text…. In my theatre, what we see is as important as what we hear.”
Wilson’s idea was to try to increase our “awareness” by freeing our imagination through images and by showing ordinary people, not performers, doing simple things and having “authentic experiences.” Furthermore, he wished to do so in such a way that the theater would be a place where the audience would be able to think in unexpected ways and to meditate. Unlike that of a play on Broadway, the audience, he said, would be able to “choose” what to see. The CIVIL warS, for example, “tells many stories, some of them simultaneous, and you put them together, probably after you go home.” Time is needed if the audience is to turn inward and to reflect on itself: “Most theater deals with speeded-up time, but I use the kind of natural time in which it takes the sun to set, a cloud to change, a day to dawn. I give you time to reflect, to meditate about other things than those happening on the stage.”3
This therapeutic conception of theater is shared by Heiner Müller, who Wilson claims was important to him because “for the first time I had a collaboration with someone that dealt with language in terms of pictures.” Müller claims that theater should be what has been called “a laboratory for the social imagination.” It should, he says, “mobilize imagination,” which in all industrial societies, “the German Democratic Republic included,” is “throttled.” He claims that “the worst experience I had during my stay in the United States was a film I saw called Fantasia, by Disney…. The most barbaric thing about this film, something I learned later, was that almost every American child between the ages of six and eight gets to view it. Which means that these people will never again be able to hear specific works by Beethoven, Bach, Handel, Tchaikovsky, etc. without seeing the Disney figures and images. The horrifying thing for me in this is the occupation of the imagination by clichés and images which will never go away: the use of images to prevent experiences, to prevent the having of experiences.” The theater, by contrast, should present images that unsettle the imagination and prevent it from hardening.4
The emphasis in Wilson’s work on slowed-down action, on repetition, on “natural” body movement in “natural” time; the preference he has for working with composers like Glass and Kuhn, or writers like Müller, who treat music and language as he treats images; his insistence that audiences be able to “choose” what they see in the theater and that they have time in which to meditate: all this seems to derive from his therapeutic conception of theater. More often than not, however, the analogy between children’s therapy and theater betrays Wilson into absurdities, conferring virtue on repetitiousness and tedium and diminishing the aesthetic force of his images by encouraging him to hold them longer than they can bear. Is there in any case any reason to believe that ordinary adults benefit from Wilson’s theater in the way he intends? Are his images therapeutic?
Most of Wilson’s audience, I suspect, are drawn to him because they know that he is among the few living theater directors and producers who have any new ideas. They see about them the rustling of ashes: Broadway revivals of older plays and imports from England; unsuccessful “adaptations” of old movies. They hear in teen-age dance music the 1950s réchauffé. Many of them are willing to follow Wilson and to suspend the conventions of narrative, plot, and character. But they soon find, I think, that he offers no coherent alternative to traditional theater. They are startled and fascinated by the visual surface of his work and by the unusual juxtapositions of images and characters he creates, in which, say, Charlie Chaplin might meet the Nibelungs. They enjoy his bears and music-hall effects. But after a short while, I suspect, they go back to thinking about their medical bills, or doze, or parade up and down the lobby of the theater. It is not clear how they are to go home to “put together” the “stories” Wilson has shown them. Nor is there much reason to believe that the kind of images Müller speaks of prevents the “throttling” of imagination any more than Fantasia or that our imaginations are as susceptible to the deadening effects of popular culture as he supposes. Audiences, moreover, “choose” what to see and how to direct their attention in Broadway theaters no less than in Wilson’s operas.
Not only is the analogy between theater and therapy that is implicit in Wilson’s work strained, the idea of theater it supports is ill suited to Wilson’s real gifts, which are for conceiving visual forms and are not easily placed at the service of an external purpose like therapy. He has a cool aesthetic temperament, which expresses itself in precise, architectural décor and imagery; he is at his best in using light and staging to create such visual effects. His talent is for the fantastic and the bizarre, not the natural and redemptive. When he strays from the use of these gifts, when he uses shallow, incoherent texts, his work becomes pretentious and awkward. He has been straying, however, for some time now and the result is one stunning flop after another.
April 11, 1985
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). ↩
Stefan Brecht, The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson (Frankfurt: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1978), p. 212. ↩
The New York Times (December 2, 1984), sec. H, p. 5. ↩
Heiner Müller, Hamlet-machine (Performing Arts Journal Publications, 1984), p. 138. ↩