The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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.

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...

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Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

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...

(The entire section is 474 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.