Critical Context

With the CIVIL warS, Robert Wilson fought a frustrating battle to marry his theatrical aesthetic to the international spirit in art that, in the 1980’s, also manifested itself in theatrical productions such as Peter Brooks’s The Mahabharata (pr. 1987) and popular recordings such as Talking Heads’ Naked (1988). “Internationalism has become a part of our vocabulary, a way of thinking and working,” Wilson stated as he prepared for his work’s premiere.My works are made for people of different backgrounds, cultures and interests and they have been widely seen and responded to by many different publics. That’s what the CIVIL warS is all about: many cultures and peoples together. And doing this work now, today, for the Olympic Games is, I think, a logical step.

On a more personal level, Wilson, who was widely respected in European artistic circles, hoped that the Los Angeles premiere of the CIVIL warS would enhance his reputation in the United States.

As it became apparent that nothing short of a financial miracle would bring the entire work before the public, the CIVIL warS provided the international arts community with a cause célèbre that invited comparisons with Richard Wagner’s attempts to produce Der Ring des Nibelungen in Bayreuth, Germany, in the 1870’s. Ultimately, performances of individual sections received great acclaim in both the United States and Europe, although the Rome Section received some negative criticism, mitigated by the suggestion that it might cohere more effectively in its original context.

Besides securing United States productions of the Knee Plays, the Cologne Section, and the Rome Section, Robert Wilson premiered other works to both domestic and international audiences in the years following the 1984 Olympic Games. These productions were understandably influenced by his work on the CIVIL warS. One notable example is The Forest (pr. 1988), created with Heiner Müller and David Byrne, who once again collaborated on a set of knee plays with Wilson.