PRINT October 1984


WHEN ROBERT WILSON’S WORK first appeared internationally it was generally seen from a single and limited viewpoint—as a return to the image. Wilson was understood as a proponent of two-dimensional theater, of theater to be looked at only. This was because he came into the public eye at the beginning of the ’70s, when the figurative gesture ruled supreme on the stage, and the body, in its expressive entirety, was at the center of a tendency to involve the spectator. But Wilson’s push was to stretch the visual; it was a recuperation of the grand deliriums of the Surrealist painters, basing dramatic narrative on a simple sequence of backdrops and the unfolding of a tableau vivant, immobile yet in continuous and unstoppable evolution.

With the 1972 Paris production of Overture (premiered earlier that year in New York), which lasted 24 hours and was devoid of truly theatrical action, it was the first and last hours that stayed in one’s mind. These were impressed in one’s memory by the emotions aroused by the revelations of the stage, with its arrangement of horizontal strips, a lake at the center, and, to the left, a gilded and autumnal forest of birches skillfully illuminated and suspended in the air. One was gripped by the gradual closing off of the stage achieved by the manipulation of transparent scrims at an almost unimaginably slow pace. Then there was the skeletal outline of a dinosaur through which one could glimpse the fiery crater of a volcano rising up along with the backdrop on which it was painted, and, in mid air, the outline of a deer which very slowly advanced. Meanwhile, in front, along the first scrim, an endless procession of old people took an entire hour to cross the stage, seemingly congealed within a static frame due to their imperceptible movements. This infinitesimal fragmentation of space offered a clear demonstration of the paradox of Zeno of Elea, whereby the distance between two points seems unending.

Wilson divides space into moments, not segments, and the length of the stage can be measured in hours rather than feet. Yes, there is an image, but it must be lighted by time in order for it to be perceived. Time is presented to the spectator as a key for entering Wilson’s theater. Through sheer physical effort, one moves beyond the passive contemplation of an image, beyond the estheticizing charm of his friezes. Wilson’s performances are abnormally long—from 7 hours, to 12 hours, to 24 hours, to 7 days and 7 nights; the first part of his most recent work, the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down (excerpts of which have been shown throughout Europe in 1983 and 1984), extends for 9 hours. This introduces a rhythm different from the usual one of life, thanks to the extension of gesture. This rhythm conquers the spectators’ resistance, making them share the rarefied tempo of the actors. When the experience is drawn out to as much as 24 hours, the audience shares the actors’ unedited reactions (as in Overture, when in the hours approaching daybreak sleep created an unforeseen syntony between actors and audience).

Time is a determining factor in musical discourse, too, and musical organization has determined structure in Wilson’s work as early on as Deafman Glance, 1970 (Iowa City, Iowa; music collage by Igor Demjen. Restaged in 1971 in various cities including Paris, Amsterdam, and Rome). This work introduced Wilson to Europe and consequently was the basis for much of the mythology about him, despite the fact that it was an essentially mute performance—that is, the universe of the protagonist to whom the entire performance is dedicated is a mute one. The deaf actor of Deafman Glance was truly a deaf-mute, just as Christopher Knowles was not simulating his psychophysical uniqueness in Wilson’s collaboration with Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach, 1976 (staged in Paris, Vienna, and New York, among other places; to be restaged this fall at the Brooklyn Academy of Music). Wilson, who was particularly uncommunicative during his own adolescence, never presumes to instruct these actors in an impossible and not very persuasive “normalization”; rather, he fully accepts their natures and asks for their contributions as coauthors. Thus in Deafman Glance Raymond Andrews’ participation becomes the unpredictable element within the disciplined rhythms of a visual score which alternates or contrasts accelerations, freezes, drawn-out slowdowns, fast tempos, and dead stops. This performance was conceived as an opera, an opera of silence, or “deaf opera,” according to Louis Aragon’s definition. Only very few, remote, sound motifs emerge episodically from the background, and the vocal texture is all but nonexistent.

Prior to Wilson’s full-blown operatic collaborations with Glass and with Alan Lloyd (on I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating, staged in 1977 in various cities in the U.S. and in 1978 in Europe), sound had emerged in schematic fashion on many levels in Overture—a true prelude. On one level there is live sound, both with and without microphone, never in the form of dialogue; then there is the taped counterpoint of private conversations, radio transmissions, or natural sounds; and finally there is a musical tape which often returns to the same pieces, lending an “atmosphere” to the whole. The same mix (though perhaps with less complex combinations and with a more insistent tendency toward wordplay, reminiscent of Dada works or directly drawn from Gertrude Stein) regularly recurs in many of Wilson’s performances, which as often as not are still being developed while they are in production.

This same type of simultaneous superimposition determines the many visual levels of the early work, as in Deafman Glance or The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, 1973 (Copenhagen and the Brooklyn Academy of Music). These are subdivided spatially into separate strata or horizontal strips, which seem usually to be fixed at the magic number of seven. The entire visual field does not depict seven stages in a unifying synthesis; rather, it shows the accidental sum of a series of self-sufficient addenda, offering the spectator a pluralistic possibility of options, of combinations or interpretations of various images which through their assemblage can bring to mind Surrealist figurations and, upon close analysis, evoke the decompositional technique of Proust. What is intended is the reproduction of thought in all its processes—the velocity of associations and dissociations, the accumulations and schizoid fragmentations—so that each spectator, seen as a thinking subject, might be able to wander visually among the seven possibilities offered up, thereby increasing or reducing the number of events from moment to moment.

With A Letter for Queen Victoria, 1974 (various cities in the U.S. and Europe), Wilson begins to deemphasize the schematic organization of his earlier and more fascinating works, but the same mental process has continued to determine each of his projects. Even when the stage regains its unity, the construction of the performances does not hinge on logical order. Notwithstanding its formal framework, it instead follows associative/dissociative principles, in pursuit of an ideal of conceptual freedom. The idea for Einstein on the Beach, for example, was suggested by an old photograph of the scientist on a beach. The compositional criterion that underlies the work is neither narrative nor logical, but follows simple figurative associations. Three images are chosen—a train; a court scene, symmetrical and with Surrealist intrusions; an open field. These images each return three times in three changing relationships, played out against a varying succession of pictorial fields. Finally the exterior of the field gives up its place to the interior of a spaceship, which in preceding stages has been floating in the air and gradually coming closer.

The piece, or more correctly the opera, is built around a fabric of rhythms which continually reinforce the relationship of the characters to the area that contains them, and to the regularly occurring “Knee Plays” (or entr’actes) performed by two homologous female presences. The structure corresponds to the few, repetitive notes of Glass’ music, with singers in the orchestra pit impassively and ceaselessly intoning their serial litany of notes or numbers. The sound reinforces the obsession with the number three—one two three, one two three—that structures the movement of the scenes. Meanwhile, Andrew deGroat’s choreography asserts the relationship between actor and space, which is central. The specter of Einstein is present, conjured up by personal references scattered throughout the evening (there is also a sham Einstein holding a violin in front of the stage), and by the intersection of the issue of space with that other crucial issue—theatrical time.

At the culmination of Einstein is a scene that in its studied choreography, accompanied by the explosion of Glass’ music, recalls the abstract geometries of Busby Berkeley, if not the luxuriant chorus line of the Ziegfeld Follies. The three sections of the extremely long opening scene of another work, Death Destruction and Detroit, 1979 (Berlin), make up an almost direct quotation of Busby Berkeley. In the second part, a troop of couples in black evening dress dance in the black space, their white profiles accentuated, while diagonal shafts of light are cast from a series of doors twinkling in the background. These are the same doors from which a quintet of identical waiters parade forth to serve a meal before the dancing couples change into a row of isolated, immobile figures. One person, a lone old man, continues among and around them, following the steps of his endless dance, drawing it out for over an hour, suspended between nostalgia for a lost waltz and the endless spinning that has become a hallmark of Wilson’s early fantasies.

The formalism of grand American spectacle underlies Wilson’s work after Einstein on the Beach. American culture had already played a role beginning with Deafman Glance, with its Deep South atmosphere, and, for example, in the American happy-ending genre alluded to by the ecological eulogy to the quiet life in the epilogue of Einstein. There is also I Was Sitting on My Patio . . . , with its slick, graphic, Broadway-style perfection. Against the light musical line of Lloyd’s music, absurd psychological prattle interweaves with sociological, somewhat Edward Albee–like contortions.

Wilson’s investigation of America leads to the new classicism of Edison, 1979 (Lyons, Paris, Milan, and New York), where there is an enervated predilection for visual perfection, like that of Italian theater director Giorgio Strehler, but within itself and fixed in its denial of contents outside the form. Edison makes his appearance after Sigmund Freud, Stalin, Queen Victoria, Einstein, and the unnamed Rudolf Hess—all of whom accompany (along with Edison) Lafayette, Washington, Ford, Westinghouse, and other lesser-known builders of the American miracle. In response to the need for a structure other than the score to provide an argument and a pretext for action, Wilson throws himself into hagiography, and more specifically into that most popular and American of genres, biography, with a preference for heroic figures of the American epic. Thus the pretext for Edison’s organization is a maniacal gathering of anecdotal details taken from the life of its protagonist, but these are utilized as mere coloristic or combinatory data, deliberately made unrecognizable, perhaps in search of pictorial quality. In the first act the great inventor exists within the world of an Edward Hopper with all its 1950s charm, and in the fourth act within that of a Ben Shahn. The America of bygone times is represented by white neoclassical houses facing green lawns; New England has replaced the South of Deafman Glance.

But this is a tormented America. We are presented with light and sound, the mechanical reproduction of which was guaranteed by Edison’s inventions. (The musical collage for the work was assembled by Jacob Burkhard, with original music by Michael Riesman.) The actors move and walk in time to the music, counting their steps and the rhythms of their gestures before coming to a halt at the point where the sound and light require them to do so. There is no attempt to harmonize the visual elements with an underlying score; rather, their discrepancy is emphasized, negating all illustrative meaning from the very moment that the possibility exists to see and to hear each of them autonomously.

Wilson’s work found its ideal realization in a small jewel of a work entitled The Golden Windows, 1982 (Munich), created with the Munich Kammerspiele’s breadth of means and technical facilities. Employing repetition and symmetry and with increasing respect given to the text, which was entrusted to well-known, accomplished actors, the work once again hinged on a natural and spontaneous oral quality, approaching the absurd. The spoken text, a German translation of an American fable of the same title, has insistently theatrical references and the existential flavor of a Samuel Beckett work. The performance is in three parts, corresponding to three times of day, from evening to morning. The orientation of a triangle seen on the floor of the stage also changes three times, from right to left, before a fixed horizon of stars with a very slight crescent moon. At the vertex of the triangle is a house (styled like a sentry box) with a French window. This window opens to emit a ray of light modulated by the size of the opening. The light swathes the stage and allows different areas to be seen according to a rhythm of precise time changes and the musical tempos of the classical score (by Tania Leon) or the harpsichord of Gavin Bryars, to the taped or amplified vocal arrangements, to the recurring, wandering, and mysterious solitary whistle heard previously in Edison.

At the center of The Golden Windows are the characters, and foremost the relationship of a couple, taken from Death Destruction and Detroit: an older man and woman who emerge from or enter the sentry box, or levitate, suspended, above this no-man’s-land. They prolong an uncommunicative relationship, expressed with absolute formal perfection, where even the slightest movement of a hand or a finger is controlled and emphasized by a spotlight. Just as every scene finds a homologous one, this couple is duplicated by a younger twosome who reproduce their situation with an impending sense of apprehension—something that has always been present in Wilson’s work, from Deafman Glance to the monumental performances staged in Shiraz, Iran, in the early ’70s, from Einstein to the CIVIL warS. Drama is immanent. Suddenly a revolver is passed from the hands of the man to those of the woman. She remains alone, brandishing the weapon at the center of the earthquake-devastated scene with streams of light rising up from the fissures, while meteorites slowly fall in the background. An apocalyptic uneasiness invades this black and white piece, an uneasiness deeply rooted in the supreme image of harmony of light, sound, and movement—the sinister expression of an order of impossible beauty, achieved and then lost.

Beyond its internal structural geometry, The Golden Windows was conceived almost in anticipation of the complexity of the CIVIL warS, Wilson’s grand multinational fresco. CIVIL warS is a montage of segments, each of which is self-sufficient and autonomous, even in terms of the genres employed—lyric poetry, prose, film, painting, oriental theater. (In its various stagings it has also incorporated music by Philip Glass, Jo Kondo, David Byrne, Gavin Bryars, Hans-Peter Kuhn, and Nicholas Economon, among others.) The work revives rhythms and figurative motifs from Wilson’s early work—as did his collaboration with Jessye Norman, Great Day in the Morning, 1982 (Paris)—expounding them within a thoughtful and synchronic conceptual design. Pulling off the whole production—with its endless web traced among the various world capitals, economic juggIings with theaters and sponsors, inter-weavings of two timeframes realized within each section, in other words “the Project” in all its technical-organizational elaborations—becomes in itself an integral part of the expression (like the endless studies that precede Christo’s actual interventions). It is like the grand construction projects of ages past, when the cathedrals were built thanks to collective contributions from wide-ranging sources over long periods of time—the individual pieces meticulously fitted together here by the demiurgics of Robert Wilson, architect of time.

Franco Quadri is an Italian theater critic and the director of the theater section of the 1984 Venice Biennale. His most recent book is Il Teatro degli anni settanta (The theater of the 70s), Turin: ed. Einaudi, vol. 1, 1982, and vol. 2, 1984.

Translated from the Italian by Meg Shore.