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Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

From the peculiar typography of its title to its enigmatic mix of images, the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down reflects Robert Wilson’s freely associated and often ambiguous reflections on the human condition. Admitting that the styling of the title may seem “pretentious,” he has stated that he had a reason for spelling it as he did. The play began with Wilson’s interest in the American Civil War, particularly as depicted in the photographs of Mathew Brady. It was the first war to be documented by photography, which provided a visual record of what war was actually like. Wilson then began to discover parallels between nineteenth century American and Japanese history; he focused on presenting historical images not as they would appear in a history text, but as they would seem in “a work by an artist, poetically interpreted.”

According to Wilson, his work’s title refers to “historical confrontations, not necessarily violent, which comment on man’s long journey toward brotherhood.” Besides the Civil War, these events include conflicts between the young Frederick the Great and his father, and other, more routine, occurrences that normally do not find their way into history books. The emphasis on the word “CIVIL” reflects his desire to portray civil strife and struggle. Wilson intended to depict “any kind of conflict one can imagine throughout history, from a child learning to tie his shoes, to someone leaving his family, to the situation now in Lebanon where there is very little difference between civilians and soldiers.” The phrase “a tree is best measured when it is down” was derived from a reflection by Carl Sandburg on the death of Abraham Lincoln.

According to Wilson, the CIVIL warS presents “a panorama of man’s struggle and survival through all history showing the shared nature of human experience among all peoples” before ending “as a great affirmation of the oneness of humanity and the possibility of universal accord.” In this respect, the work shares an affinity with the Olympic Games. Marked throughout their modern history by intense competition between the participating athletes as well as the...

(The entire section is 545 words.)