New York

Robert Wilson And Ralph Hilton

The Kitchen

Spaceman, by Robert Wilson and Ralph Hilton, invokes many layers of meaning through its title, one of which is the play on man as master of space. One first stands on the stairs waiting for the door to open. Then one enters a small room disclosing what looks like an aqua satin anteater lying on the floor saying, “There . . . [long pause] . . . there is . . . [pause] . . . there are. . . .” with no mouth to eat the wilting head of lettuce placed at its head. One flipper points to a framed page of The Village Voice bearing the headline, “Loch Ness Monster Strikes It Rich,” with a photograph of three of the beasts swimming. Now one can identify the “anteater” creature as a Loch Ness monster. It is also supplied with a television set wrapped in plastic (I overheard: “It’s watching TV underwater. That’s probably what monsters do.”)

After waiting in the antechamber for several minutes, one is admitted into the inner room. Occupying the center of the room is a large plastic enclosure. It is a tableau vivant resembling what one might imagine as an extraterrestrial’s aquarium or terrarium for the display of humans. At one end are four more Loch Ness monsters, snouts together, in conversation. Small video monitors are placed above them. Then comes a desert with cactus and a heavy middle-aged woman in pink plastic curlers with a fishing rod. Suspended above her is a man in a silver lamé space suit. Below, Wilson lies semi-hidden under a board, and with the aid of a microphone occasionally enters into conversation with the monsters. Next are two abutting banks of large video monitors with almost immobile statuelike figures clothed in white set between. At the end, Christopher Knowles, wearing a false beard and resembling a 19th-century telegraph operator, sits at a table bearing a monitor and a keyboard. He continuously punches out his poems, which are relayed onto a larger monitor outside the enclosure. To one side of the room in a brightly illuminated corner are people operating the video controls. The lighting indicates they are meant to be included as part of the piece.

Spaceman is Wilson’s first play to use video. The video scenes vary, but two repeated vignettes define the piece. In one a figure seen from the waist down is seated in a chair on a board which forms a diagonal across the screen. The situation resembles a highly sophisticated version of an imaginary spaceship like the ones I built in elementary school and pretended to use for intergalactic voyages. The colors are extremely beautiful, subtly shifting from a dark red corner to the clear blue of the window in the center of the screen.

Another recurring image relating to the science fiction aspects of the work is that of a burly woman wrapped in a white shawl approaching a pay telephone isolated against a postcard blue sky and placing a telephone call. The dialogue evokes Orson Welles’s 1936 radio drama The War of the Worlds, where, believing the play to be an actual newscast, half of the East Coast thought New Jersey was invaded by aliens. She says, “Help, I’m at the beach . . . it’s really terrible . . . something from the sky . . . I don’t know what it is, should I run? . . . I don’t know what to do . . . I’ll come right away. Should I take a cab?” A man comes and, with his face hidden in shadow almost unintelligibly repeats these same lines. This action occurs many times in the course of the performance.

Many people have been disturbed by Wilson’s abandonment of the elegance and stately rhythms of the expanded temporal reality found in his earlier plays, such as The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin and A Letter to Queen Victoria, where a scene is constructed on geometric premises and repeated slowly, each time with a slight shift in meaning. His recent The Dollar Value of Man and Spaceman can be seen as simultaneously too conceptually simple and too physically confused, overlaid with an almost raucous tone. In Spaceman, Wilson seems to be pointing to something outside the performance, although to some extent all his works are theatrical events with the theatre’s characteristic situation of the action of the performance being surrounded or defined by the audience. Here, Wilson emphasizes this by placing the performance in an envelope which, like the three-story cylindrical tank at the Boston aquarium, defines the surrounding space. The words “There, there is, there are” may be interpreted as referring not to some existential grammar but to the self-contained performance of the audience. Like Brownian movement, a typical action of particles in solution, the audience seemed in constant motion, gaining momentum from rebounding off each other. The action of the audience at times became so insistent it was impossible to see/hear the work and I found myself wishing for a monorail suspended 7 to 8 feet above the ground.

Though I enjoyed the performance, it had an underlying atmosphere of disturbance. Spaceman is a pun on the word “specimen,” and the performance evoked fear as well as zoos, confinement and genocide. The dying lettuce, the desert, the banks of televisions and immobile figures juxtaposed against the chattering of the monsters and Wilson’s occasional shouting, caused a painful internal tension and violence which was exaggerated only by that of members of the audience, both in their contact with the enclosed envelope of the performance and with each other.

––Ann-Sargent Wooster