Robert Wilson


Robert Wilson’s version of A Dream Play—August Strindberg’s odd mix of proto-Surrealism and ur–New Age kitsch—is, of course, a theater production. But it’s also a sequence of quite extraordinary images: thirteen tableaux in which actors, props, lighting, and sound play equally important roles. Empathy and psychological identification would seem to be excluded from the outset. In a work of art, nothing is for real—why pretend otherwise? Wilson makes that clear from the opening curtain. Here everything is mechanics and artificiality: The actors move like automatons; their voices, dodging the traditional laws of physiology, live their own lives in an abstract space. In fact, different voices—light as well as absurdly dark—pass through the same body, and at times several bodies seem to deliver the same monologue. We are leagues away from that form of fiction known as realism.

With a number of Wilson’s productions fresh in my memory, my expectations were, admittedly, low. His special composite of lecture and performance can be painfully affected, the formal precision easily degenerating into a series of self-indulgent poses and pregnant silences devoid of real substance. (I remember suffering through one of his plays in Venice some years back. When I finally gave up and stole off to the bar, most of the audience, I discovered, had beaten me there.) But in Wilson’s encounter with Strindberg’s textual labyrinth something truly interesting happens. And in hindsight it seems obvious that to transform this drama into a work of visual art really isn’t that far-fetched. What is A Dream Play if not a series of images, a sequence of views on mankind as seen through the eyes of a divine child? The recurring line “Pity on mankind” gives expression to sympathy, but at the same time establishes an essential distance. Peter Szondi, the German critic, has pointed out that the structure of Strindberg’s drama is that of the medieval revue, a series of scenes that follow one another like precious stones on a thread: “The revue, in contrast to the drama, is presented to someone who stands outside.” A Dream Play is thus not so much a human drama as a play about human beings viewed by an inhuman eye, an eye interested primarily in form.

Should one characterize Wilson’s thirteen tableaux as paintings? Actually, they remind me more of imagery on a video monitor. Occasionally someone happens to touch the pause button—the image freezes. Then rewinds, then fast forwards. Repetitions and loops already present in the play are emphasized in a fashion that makes the technological differences between our times and Strindberg’s conspicuous. In fact, I’m tempted to see technology as the central concern of Wilson’s production. Strindberg mentions the telephone, for example. Further, one finds an oblique reference to mechanical reproduction:

Daughter: Do you know what I see in the mirror? The world set to rights. It is twisted out of true.
Advocate: How did it become so?
Daughter: When the copy was made.
(Michael Meyer, trans., Strindberg, Plays, vol. 2 [London: Random House, 1982].)

Wilson repeats this scene, where the theosophical speculation of the play is phrased in terms of photography: The world is a duplicate wherein everything is turned inside-out, a duplicitous repetition introducing falsity into the cosmos. Since 1901, when the lines quoted above were written, other technologies have emerged, making other metaphors possible. Strindberg’s ideas about the essential repetitiveness of life—borrowed from Kierkegaard—can be phrased in new ways in the era of mechanical reproduction. And what about the next, the digital age? It is as if Wilson lets Strindberg’s play pass through every mode of modern technology: photography, film, video, even the computer. Some of the sound effects seem to issue directly from a Nintendo game.

The history of art and theater is over: All previous styles can be quoted infinitely. This seems to be the predicament of Wilson’s production, and yet it bears his own strong signature. These stage sets make me think of many other artists’ work, including Hiroshi Sugimoto’s photographs, James Turrell’s light installations, and Henrik Håkansson’s artificial zones of nature, but at the same time no one but Wilson could have been behind these elegant and superbly superficial tableaux. A Dream Play has been staged by Max Reinhardt, Antonin Artaud, and three times by Ingmar Bergman. It’s great to see a truly American version that pays no attention to Stockholm’s architecture or Scandinavian melancholy, but instead sets the play somewhere between Texas and eternity.

Burlesque dances, marionette movements, ballet positions: The Stockholm City Theater ensemble has been forced to make motions that must seem very strange to the actors. Jessica Liedberg’s rendering of the Daughter as some sort of Japanese doll is admirable in its complete lack of humanity. The scene in which the four academic faculties quarrel is transformed into a bizarre form of children’s theater: pantomime performed by four jockeys in front of three huge cows. Over and over again the dialogue vanishes into a humming of monotonous melodies. “Voice-over” coughs and loud spitting mark the rhythm in a sad and repetitious blues. Is this grand theater? I really couldn’t say, but it’s clearly one of the most interesting and confusing works of art I’ve seen this year in a city that’s been declared the Cultural Capital of Europe.

Daniel Birnbaum is a frequent contributor to Artforum.