The Play

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1599

Commissioned for performance at the 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, Robert Wilson’s the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down was, appropriately, conceived as an international cooperative venture. Consisting of slowly shifting tableaux visualized by Wilson through pencil sketches, its fifteen scenes were to be prepared in six countries and brought together in a single Los Angeles premiere; however, logistical problems—most notably insufficient funding—prevented the plan from being fulfilled. Portions of the CIVIL warS, each lasting roughly two hours, have been presented to the general public on separate occasions. Four of these, named after the city or country in which each first appeared, are commonly known as the Dutch Section, the Cologne Section, the Rome Section, and the Knee Plays, or the American Section. Act 2, scene A of the French Section was used as the prologue to a production of Marc Antoine Charpentier’s Medea (1693) in 1984.

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Performed to music by David Byrne, the Knee Plays are relatively light interludes between the lengthier, more difficult scenes of the CIVIL warS. These short segments are titled “knee plays” because they act as “joints” between the main sections of the work; in addition, the first and last knee plays provide the work with its framing image, a tree.

The first knee play, set in East Africa, involves several dancers. The Man, actually a Bunraku-style puppet, is held by three; the Lion is a brass sheet controlled by a single manipulator. Another dancer brings a book for the Man to read. Travel and transformation dominate the following knee plays: The tree from the first segment is chopped down in the second; its timber is used to construct a boat hull in the third; three people embark on this craft in the fourth. Later, the boat is beached on a rock and sunk by cannon fire, although its cabin floats onward to Japan. The abandoned hull, discovered in a tropical jungle, is used to make a book in the eleventh knee play. In the twelfth, a bush grows out of a book, metamorphosing into the same tree that appeared in the first knee play. The fourteenth knee play concludes the opera with the image of this tree, a book in its upper branches.

Collaborating with Robert Wilson in the creation of the Cologne Section were composer Nicholas Economou, Hans Peter Kuhn of Germany (who helped create a sound collage), and German playwright Heiner Muller, who stitched together text fragments from a variety of sources, including passages from one of his own plays. Also incorporated are texts by Friedrich Hölderlin, Empedocles, Voltaire, Franz Kafka, Jean Racine, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, and William Shakespeare. The popular song “In My Merry Oldsmobile” is employed as well, as are recordings of music by a gagaku orchestra, Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Schubert, Michael Galasso, Philip Glass, David Byrne, and Frederick the Great.

The central figure of the Cologne Section is Frederick the Great, the maltreated son of Frederick I and founder of modern Prussia. He appears in both the fourth and fifth sections of act 1, scene A, as well as act 3, scene E, which opens upon the pitched tents of Confederate soldiers. Spotlights illuminate three rifles that descend into the soldiers’ arms. When they fall into place, the stage goes dark. As lights begin to illuminate the stage again, suggesting dawn, soldiers slowly emerge from translucent tents. While a piano plays faintly, voices from speakers placed around the theater intone lines relating to weapons, coffee, and other subjects. A squabbling family then crosses the stage in a turn-of-the-twentieth-century automobile that also contains Frederick the Great. About twenty minutes into the scene, the car reaches center stage, and the soldiers march out in the opposite direction, eventually leaving only a single sentry onstage. As the lights continue to brighten, he slowly rises to survey the horizon. When he suddenly turns his head, the stage goes black.

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Frederick the Great appears in most of the scenes of act 4, which involves twenty-six actors and a cinematic montage that includes headshots of ordinary people, slow-motion sequences of buildings collapsing, and nature footage. In one scene, a uniformed Frederick, wearing a mask, emerges from beneath the stage astride a prop horse. He recites Goethe’s lyrics to Schubert’s “Erlkönig,” echoing a recitation of the same lyrics by a woman floating in space behind a scrim. A twisted old woman (Frederick the Great’s mother) clutching a small live dog lip syncs along to a German recording of the work; behind the floating woman is color footage of an eagle in flight.

Other sequences offer similarly enigmatic images. A large bullet-shaped spaceship descends and then launches, its dissipating smoke revealing a pair of dancing bears. A woman chews a cigar and talks about getting her car repaired; at the same time, another woman wiggles her hips and chews gum. A woman wearing a conical hat and wrinkled garments walks onto the stage with a giant pencil strapped across her shoulder, saying the Heiner Müller text “Stone Scissors Paper. Stone Sharpens Scissors. Scissors Cuts Paper. Paper Wraps Stones.” Walking briskly on a ramp over the audience, she is followed by a man wearing a gas mask and black clothing. In yet another section, music by Philip Glass accompanies the demolition footage as twenty cast members gradually broaden their smiles until they become grotesque grimaces.

A recording of a piano lesson introduces the act 4 epilogue, which has served as both the epilogue of the Cologne Section and the prologue of the Rome Section (act 5), an opera for five singers, a chorus of forty to fifty singers, a black gospel octet, twenty dancers, and a full orchestra. As Giuseppe Garibaldi (a nineteenth century Italian nationalist leader) observes the stage from a box in the audience, the curtain rises to reveal a battlefield after a battle. On the stage are a giant Snow Owl, a twenty-foot puppet of Abraham Lincoln, and an Earth Mother. To music by Glass, the three characters sing text from Hercules Furens (from the first century c.e.) by Seneca (Earth Mother and the Snow Owl in Latin, Lincoln in an Italian translation). The Earth Mother expounds on the arrival of a new day to music reminiscent of Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” (1801), the Snow Owl cries out to dead children in the night, and Lincoln asks that he be allowed to struggle with the world’s evil. After the female voices invoke peace, Lincoln slowly topples and then floats off in a horizontal position.

After another piano lesson interlude, act 5 begins, showing two spaceships linked together in space. Garibaldi sings an aria accompanied by an offstage chorus singing a translation of Lincoln’s prologue text. On the bridge linking the two spacecraft, Hopi Indians dance in celebration of the feast of their sacred bird, the eagle. Garibaldi’s soldiers enter and salute their leader, who delivers an aria that includes commentary by Maita di Niscemi on the Native American ceremonies.

A recording of a tennis lesson precedes scene B, which is set in a barren landscape with a spaceship in the background. Through a porthole, Robert E. Lee can be seen floating in space. A young man made to look old, he observes his surrender to General Grant at Appomattox. A scrim painted with the clipped hedges and trimmed trees of a formal garden crosses the stage. The mourning Mrs. Lincoln enters, followed by a black robed octet, which sings “remember try to remember there must be something/ else it must have been a terrible war” and “look don’t loose it everyday is wonderful when/ I am with you don’t go away it’s over it’s over.” Following an orchestral prelude, Mrs. Lincoln begins a lament. Lee’s Italian text, echoed in English fragments by Mrs. Lincoln, and commented upon by the octet, describes his post-Appomattox journey back to Richmond. The words, from a letter written by the Baptist minister William E. Hatcher, who witnessed Lee’s passage, are interrupted by gibberish written by Wilson.

A recording of a music lesson introduces scene C, which also opens on an empty landscape. Mrs. Lincoln sings, then a ladder descends; Hercules enters by climbing down it. The offstage chorus sings the final chorus of Seneca’s tragedy Hercules Oetaeus, imploring Hercules to return to earth to benefit humanity. Trees of all continents slowly travel across the stage as Hercules perambulates. Eventually a spaceship appears; a porthole opens to reveal Mrs. Lincoln as a young girl. She recites a speech by Wilson that ends with the announcement of the end of a war. A human-sized Lincoln then descends to reiterate his lines from the prologue: that he wishes to combat the world’s evils.

Next enter the labors of Hercules: Chiron the Centaur, Persephone, Omphale, Jason, Atalanta, Atlas, Jupiter, and Juno, who slaps the hero. This octet sings the end of Young Mrs. Lincoln’s speech, a paraphrase of Prospero’s monologue from the final scene of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (pr. 1611). Bearing the Olympic torch, Hercules’ mother Alcmene enters. Mother and son sing a duet to a text from Hercules Oetaeus in which Hercules describes his descent to the underworld and implores his mother to cease her lamentation. Alcmene hands the torch to Hercules and exits. Alone in a lion skin, Hercules sings an aria about his victory over death and ascent to heaven. After he leaves the stage, an electronic recording of animal sounds wells, and the parade of trees coalesces into a thick tropical forest.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474

The length and slow pace of the CIVIL warS create an atmosphere in which minds are very likely to wander—a situation welcomed by Robert Wilson, who has stated that his worktells many stories, some of them simultaneous. . . . Most theater deals with speeded-up time, but I use the kind of natural time in which it takes the sun to set, a cloud to change, a day to dawn. I give you time to reflect, to meditate about other things than those happening on the stage.

Wilson’s tableaux consist of unusual and precisely arranged images that sometimes suggest animated Salvador Dali paintings. Fully exploiting contemporary theater technology and traditions from around the world, they range from the amusing to the nightmarish. In act 1, the “World’s Tallest Woman” enters at stage right carrying tiny William the Silent in her palm. In act 2, eleven pairs of feet appear just below the top of the stage; thereafter, Mata Hari, Karl Marx, and other historical figures move vertically against the backdrop.

Sound is also employed in an inventive and unsettling manner by Wilson and his colleagues, who wished to “make the sound independent of the visual and bring it under our control.” In the original conception of the work, every actor was to have had a “body mike,” permitting the electronic channeling and processing of individual voices through any speakers in the theater. Taped sounds would provide music and sound effects, including text prerecorded by the actors so that they could engage in dialogues with their own voices. Also planned were single speakers mounted on each seat that would facilitate numerous effects, including a computer-aided “wandering” of sound around the theater. The script itself comprises a daunting melange of phrases in different languages.

Props and lighting accentuate the play’s dreamlike, free associational atmosphere and motif of transformation. In the fifth knee play, lines of red, yellow, and blue light gradually lengthen on a scrim and then turn into graffiti on the side of a boat. Throughout the American Section a squad of stagehands manipulates modular props to form objects—a tree, a boat, a large wooden bird, and a puppet among them—that play an integral part in the action. Elsewhere, historical characters appear; Abraham Lincoln, for example, appears in various manifestations ranging from a giant puppet to the ten Lincolns in hospital beds in act 3.

Because the CIVIL warS was a pioneering attempt to make use of the technological, theatrical, and financial resources of a large sector of the global village, the sheer spectacle of the event would alone have comprised a dramatic device serving to underscore its internationalist themes. Performed as intended, its successive modular sections would have provided spectators with a uniquely shaped theatrical travelogue. The sections that have been presented independently are, nevertheless, generally acknowledged to be substantial enough to stand alone.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 131

Sources for Further Study

Arenas, Katherine. “Robert Wilson: Is Postmodern Performance Possible?” Theatre Journal 43 (March, 1991): 14-40.

Davis, P. G. Review of the CIVIL warS. New York 17 (June 4, 1984): 81.

Howell, John. “Robert Wilson and David Byrne: The Knee Plays.” Artforum 25 (March, 1987): 131.

Kroll, Jack. “An Epic of Civil War in the Human Family.” Newsweek 105 (March 18, 1985): 72.

Lieberson, Jonathan. “Lovely to Look At.” New York Review of Books 32 (April 11, 1985): 18.

Nelson, Craig, ed. Robert Wilson: The Theater of Images. 2d ed. New York: Harper, 1984.

Rockwell, John. “An Efficient Battle Plan for Wilson CIVIL warS.” New York Times, December 11, 1986, p. 26.

Rockwell, John. “Stage: In Cambridge, Wilson’s CIVIL warS.” New York Times, March 4, 1985, p. 18.

Rogotf, Gordon. “Time, Wilson, and What a Play Should Do.” Theater, Summer/Fall 1991, 52-53.

Walsh, William. “A Tree Grows and Grows.” Time, May 21, 1984, 85-86.

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