Robert Wilson, “the CIVIL warS”

Rotterdamse Schouwburg

To judge from the disappointed tone of Dutch press reviews of the world premiere of the first episode of “the CIVIL warS,” Robert Wilson can still shock even the most faithful of his fans. What the critics disliked most was what they termed the use of clichés: notable figures from Dutch history, such as William the Silent, Queen Wilhelmina, and World War I female spy Mata Hari, people décors of frozen seascapes alternating with sun-drenched scarlet tulip fields. The stage image is unremittingly colorful, showing a marked resemblance to a collection of picture postcards. The music has no affinity with Philip Glass’ minimal sound; Nicolas Economou’s work is melodious and more impressionistic. The production is in all respects unlike anything Wilson has done previously.

Images of red tulips and Wilhelmina in fur coat on skates are irritating if you think of them as representing a typically superficial American view of Dutch society. But they are part of a complex whole. The two-hour spectacular also features a wounded soldier from the American Civil War, who marches at intervals slowly from right to left across the stage; the central character in this first part of Wilson’s project is Jack, of “Jack and the Beanstalk,” played by a small Dutch boy speaking his text in Dutch, as do several other participating Dutch actors. The innocent little boy and the soldier symbolize the duality which is the underlying concept of the work. The theme is repeated in the contrast between stage settings like romantic paintings and the repeatedly projected photographs of cities devasted by bombs; and again as hope versus despair, enterprise versus obedience, boldness versus fear. Like a modern version of Siegfried, the truly free hero in Wagner’s Ring, Jack seeks the truth—in this case in the form of his father, whom, he’s been told, he will only be able to recognize “through the eyes of fear.” Ignorant of fear, however, he fails to recognize the powerful father figure, and has to continue on his journey.

I have no clear idea whether Wilson has a message in mind with “the CIVIL warS.” The way the characters relate to each other seems too episodic to indicate one, and a large cast (including Abraham Lincoln, Cain and Abel, the Marx Brothers, and Frederick the Great of Prussia) has yet to appear. But the deliberation with which idealistic images are alternated with scenes of disillusioning reality rouses suspicions of an admonitory pastoral intent. It’s nonsense, of course, to consider only the purely iconographic and thematic aspects of Wilson’s opera; he has always shown an exceptional talent for giving theatrical expression to highly abstract ideas. His virtuosity is immediately recognizable in the blend and contrast of rhythms and colors in the voices, in the diversity of rhythms in movement (folk dances, the skaters’ pas de deux, the polar bear that keeps lumbering onto the scene), and in the lighting, which is perfect. But none of the performing can as yet hold a candle to that in Wilson’s earlier partnerships with Christopher Knowles and Lucinda Childs. Childs’ precise geometrical movements are missed the more dearly during Mata Hari’s violent dances, even by those charitable enough to view these as an attempt to convey wild expressiveness.

The Dutch production happily includes some superb images: the transition from a stage scene of Jack and the Beanstalk to a film fragment showing him arriving in the heavens is fascinating. The Giant and the Giantess are seen as the black-and-white figures of a silent film, moving swiftly in a loose-painted setting of pastel-colored brush strokes through which little Jack wanders like Tom Thumb; the product of a collaboration with video artist Jaap Drupsteen, the scene shows master-fairytale-teller Wilson at his inspired best. If he continues to invite encounters of this kind with eminent artists of other countries, then the world premiere of the complete performance at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles will really be a monument to art on a par with the sports spectacular.

Saskia Bos

Translated from the Dutch by Angela Hood.