PRINT February 1990


Robert Wilson's Orlando

Nineteen eighty-nine was a strange and densely packed year. At its end, History acted out a scenario bizarrely symmetrical to the one designed by Robert Wilson, in collaboration with Darryl Pinckney, for his interpretation of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando. The production had its world premiere in November at the small but sumptuous Schaubühne theater in West Berlin. Outside the theater, the Berlin Wall, shocking signifier of separation and prohibition since 1961, was replaced by a festival of reconciliation both euphoric and anxious. Inside, Wilson’s rigorously dualistic stage design congealed in another kind of reconciliation, one perhaps not intended by Woolf in her delightfully humorous interrogation of the possibility of the coexistence of male and female identity in the same body.

The history of the character in question is well-known, thanks in part to an intense twenty-year period of politicized reevaluation. The young Orlando is a restless adolescent in the era of Elizabeth I of England, a dandy at the court of King James, and then ambassador to Constantinople. During a rebellion of the Turks, from which he defends himself by falling into a sleep that lasts for days and days, he is transformed into a woman, slightly more than 30 years old. Endowed with a graceful and fragile female body, but with the past and the memory of a man, Lady Orlando will pass unharmed through the century of Enlightenment and boredom, will survive the smothering Victorian era, laden with taboos and burdened by omissions, to conclude her adventure in the midst of the 20th century, “at the twelfth stroke of midnight, Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight.” In her 1928 pastiche-novel, Woolf breaks the narrow boundaries of probability (and not just temporal ones), postulating the possibility of moving beyond sexual difference into a hypothetical zone where male and female will converge and recognize one another as parts, perhaps complementary, of a single destiny.

Wilson’s adaptation preserves not a trace of the fraught content of this theme, which was certainly very important to Woolf and to the many admirers of her work. This thematic disappearance is not achieved through cancellation or repression, but rather through excess. For Wilson, “the question of sexual difference has been overcome completely. Today, on an emotional level, men and women have too much in common to maintain the conflict between the sexes as the focal point of the interpretation of this text.” And so Wilson shifts the emphasis of the drama of Orlando’s odyssey away from sexual politics per se and into a more formal, linguistic arena. The split is not between male and female, but between “I” and “you.” “Orlando’s drama,” the director tells us, “is linguistic. The contradiction is completely internal to the existence of ‘words,’ where the oscillation between the past tense and present tense of traditional grammar also plays a role.”

The Berlin Orlando is constructed on the principle of oscillation. A splendid Jutta Lampe plays Orlando, alone on stage for two hours. Orlando’s story swings back and forth from the first-person discourse of the initial act, corresponding to the female phase of Orlando’s life, to the second person of the middle act, where the transformation has occurred, back to the first-person of the third and final act, where Lady Orlando assumes, in the present, an identity that is modified but all her own.

The stage, abstract and spare, discourages naturalistic interpretation; the space of the stage is a black box, closed and empty, starkly illuminated by delicate auroral windows through which cut ice-cold palings of light. Inside, Lampe moves with precise, completely stylized, artificial movements that are intended “to repudiate the possibility of a theatrical language that repeats and imitates life”— millimetric, rarefied, arithmetic movements, following horizontal, parallel, obstinately lateral and two-dimensional trajectories. Illusionistic or mimetic devices are avoided, and Orlando/Lady Orlando speaks without any significant variation in gesture or vocabulary. While discretely female movements prevail in him/her, they are for the most part held on an ambiguously neutral plane. As for the body functioning as a sexual signifier, well, we are virtually at degree zero here. (Apropos this, it will be interesting to see how Wilson will treat his King Lear, to be produced in Frankfurt next May. An actress will play the role of the king, chosen, to quote the director, “because she is the right person for the role.”)

The passage from male to female is accomplished by a quiet but brilliant rhetorical device, with everything hinging on what is not shown and what is left unsaid. A tree trunk (the old oak precious to Woolf?)—metaphysical, abstract, completely symbolic—which might easily be exchanged for a column or any other architectural element, falls like a mysterious deus ex machina, splitting the stage into two equivalent and symmetrical parts. Orlando emerges from behind the tree, transformed into lady Orlando, but there is nothing exceptional here, in what might otherwise have been a coup de théâtre. The transformation has simply occurred: a subtle, ineffable event, simultaneously logical and bizarre. A delicate and mysterious balance, but not ambiguous, between a before and an after, between what is and what no longer is.

In Wilson’s version, Orlando’s transformation—suspended, stylized, deliberately ambiguous—is entrusted to a single, overtly illustrative element: the minimal costumes designed by Susanne Raschig. In the black 17th-century page’s costume worn in the first scene or the modular, three-layered costume in the last, Orlando/Lady Orlando, in the end wrapped only in an essential earth-colored sheath, will take up, both in the syntax of movements and in the textual quotation, what evidently is for Wilson the central theme of Woolf’s work. Both figures recline, Orlando closed off in the attic, Lady O. against the bare earth, losing themselves in daydreams and reveries: to be other than what they are, to return to being what they were, to be that which they are not yet and perhaps never will be. “I was alone,” says Orlando. “But I am alone,” Lady Orlando seems to respond. He is “in love with death” and with “the feeling of being forever and ever and ever alone”; she says of herself, “the cold breeze of the present brushes my face with its little breath of fear.” In spite of the distance of four centuries of history and of changed sexual identity, they are united in their existential solitude, perhaps the only human experience for which the passage of time provides no consolation.

Maria Nadotti is a writer who lives in New York and Rome.

Translated from the Italian by Marguerite Shore.