Robert Wilson Biography


(Critical Edition of Dramatic Literature)

Born in Waco, Texas, to white, middle-class, Protestant and southern parents, Robert Wilson attended high school in his hometown. A gangly, shy, but likable young man, he had a speech impediment that was “cured” by a dance teacher, Mrs. Byrd Hoffman, who simply made Wilson realize that he could “take his time” to express himself. Following his early impulse to be a visual artist, Wilson studied at the University of Texas and privately in Paris, graduating from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn in 1965. During these years, his patience with and sympathy for learning disabilities led him to work with autistic and disturbed children in Texas, where he discovered not only a unique talent for helping them but also a personal metaphor for his own anguish at the virtually universal inability to communicate that is part of the existential condition.

After several striking visual projects such as “Poles” (an “installation” of more than six hundred telephone poles in rural Ohio) and the creation of giant puppets for Jean-Claude van Itallie’s experimental play America Hurrah (1966), Wilson found that performance art offered the best medium for self-expression. Several small works in which Wilson was the primary performer were followed by increasingly ambitious projects, incorporating more and more “actors” (many of whom were untrained laypersons drawn to Wilson’s charismatic personality) and more and more special effects, stage props, and scenery. By 1967, he had gathered a group of friends and theater experimenters into the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds (named in honor of the woman who helped Wilson in high school) and began an impressive series of long performance works, first in the modest studios of downtown New York, then at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and finally throughout Europe, where the combination of his genius and the more benign attitude of political and cultural...

(The entire section is 780 words.)


(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 898 words.)