Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898
Robert Wilson has blazed a diverse and unusual artistic trail, becoming known as one of the most prolific experimental theater artists of the twentieth century. His long and highly visual theater pieces could hardly be classified as conventional plays, but they are vivid theatrical endeavors comparable only with the works of experimental dramatists such as England’s Peter Brook, Poland’s Jerzy Grotowski, and a handful of others. Wilson’s works combine dance, drama, and poetry to create highly stylized productions such as the CIVIL warS (which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize) and Ka Mountain, GUARDenia Terrace (unusual combinations of upper-and lowercase letters are common in Wilson titles), the latter a 168-hour event in which cast and audience trekked up a mountain after a prologue delivered by Wilson’s eighty-five-year-old grandmother.
Wilson was born Robert M. Wilson to D. M. and Loree Velma Wilson on October 4, 1941 in Waco, Texas. His early childhood was filled with amateur theatrics, mostly plays and skits that he wrote and performed in the garage. Some of these early playlets were nonverbal: Wilson was already an experimenter of sorts, trying to find a form that would accommodate his speech difficulties (he had a marked stammer). Some of his early professional work was in creating ways for autistic and brain-damaged children and chronically ill adults to express themselves.
The stammer went away when he was approximately seventeen, and Wilson enrolled in the University of Texas as a business administration major. He became increasingly interested in his work with brain-damaged children, and in his painting, and subsequently left Texas for the highly regarded Pratt Institute for arts in Brooklyn, New York. He taught movement to students there, and later used some of the students in his productions. (In general, early Wilson productions featured casts largely made up of amateurs; a deaf student named Raymond Andrews and an autistic student named Christopher Knowles were early collaborators.)
Receiving his M.F.A. degree in 1965 from Pratt Institute, Wilson began his work in earnest. He founded the Byrd Hoffman studios in New York City (which later became the Byrd Hoffman Foundation), designed sets and costumes, and created performance pieces at Byrd Hoffman and other avant-garde spaces. In 1964 he created a dance performance for the New York World’s Fair.
Suffering a nervous breakdown in 1966, Wilson spent some time in a mental institution. Overcoming some of the frustration that led to his hospitalization, he returned to his unusual work, creating a slow-motion “dance” for patients in iron lungs in 1967. In 1969 he created his first truly large-scale work, The King of Spain, which featured everything from a stereotypical Black Mammy to a number of animal legs hanging from the ceiling. Some of these same characters and images populated other of his early endeavors, such as The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud.
Having made little or no money for many years, Wilson was taken by surprise when his production Deafman Glance (later incorporated into The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin) was a financial success. He was given a large gift by the French government to stage the major piece Einstein on the Beach, and he became a favorite of European theatrical intellectuals. (The gift did not go far enough, however, and Wilson was in debt after the end of the production’s tour.) The European tour of Einstein on the Beach occurred in 1976, and the production opened at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York that fall. Wilson’s apparently disconnected visual images sparked comparisons with the work of painter René Magritte and to the early twentieth century Dadaists, whose reconstruction of reality was the basis of Surrealism. Wilson might also be compared with French poet and dramatist Guillaume Apollinaire, whose 1917 play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresius, 1961) contains similarly strange and disconnected images. In Einstein on the Beach Wilson was able to explore his interest in the scientist as destroyer and the role of the innocent in popular culture. He collaborated on the piece with the renowned composer Philip Glass.
Wilson went on to create sensational and whimsical sets and lighting for opera and theater, and he continued to create his strange images for his own hybrid productions such as The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, which juxtaposes a line of apes holding apples and a woman in eighteenth century dress whose parasol is aflame. He directed highly respected opera and dance productions, won numerous awards (both in the United States and internationally), created furniture, and oversaw the formation of the Byrd Hoffman Foundation. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, Wilson began a series of adaptations of classic works including Alice, Hamlet: A Monologue, Das Rheingold, and Woyzeck.
While many critics see Wilson as a visionary pioneer, others have dismissed him as a painter of three-dimensional pictures with no unifying voice. “The fact is,” said Wilson in an interview, “I don’t really understand my own stuff. Artists very seldom understand what they are doing. My work is a mystery to me, and I feel that words only confuse people about my work.” With that, perhaps, Wilson does answer the questions about the meaning of his work. He was a young boy unable to communicate verbally, and he learned to communicate visually. As he told The New York Times, “I don’t wish to mystify people. It’s best not to say anything at all.”