Robert Wilson’s “Theatre of Visions” can best be described as a series of stage tableaux and slowly moving, apparently nondramatic activities which, in the individual minds of the witnesses, connect to form a nonreductive, nonrhetorical, nonnarrative but subjectively unified theatrical experience. This experience may or may not bear a relationship to the piece’s title, often referring to a famous person, as in The King of Spain, The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, A Letter for Queen Victoria, and Edison. In the course of the performance (always extremely long by traditional standards), the witness is presented with an opportunity to form whatever subjective connections the images suggest, either intellectually or subconsciously, during which process new “bisociations” are created. Although appearing arbitrary and unrehearsed, the activities are carefully arranged for maximum visual effect. Wilson, however, does not prescribe that effect; it remains for the witnesses to make what they will of the series of “visions,” adding to the mix the private experiences and perceptions each one brings to the theatrical event.
All of his productions explore the relationship between time and space, onstage, and vis-à-vis the audience. He is most noted and often criticized for his “slow motion” technique in which, it has been said, he attempts to create a sort of “mythic time.” One critic, Brigid Grauman in the Wall Street Journal, took Wilson to task, saying, “His actors in Aida in fact look more like fish swimming slowly in an aquarium, or people performing Tai Chi.” As a “concept” director, Wilson opens himself up to such criticism. His choices are bold and he often deconstructs texts—perhaps one reason why he steers clear of published scripts by living playwrights and works exclusively on collaborative projects with living authors, classic dramas, or opera.
Nevertheless, no discussion of modern opera or experimental theater can be complete without taking Wilson’s work into account. He is a writer, designer, and director whose avant-garde, multifaceted works combine operatic size and musical complexity with the visual possibilities of the stage and the meditative concentration of philosophical speculation. Wilson’s imaginative and demanding productions have forced opera to expand its self-definition to include works as far removed from nineteenth century notions as his collaborators—Meredith Monk, David Byrne, Allen Ginsberg, Christopher Knowles, Laurie Anderson, Richard Foreman, and many others—are different from their classical counterparts in dance, theater, and dramaturgy; he has claimed his place in theater and opera history. His theatrical vision has no limitations of size or duration, and he will be satisfied only when the world stages itself.
The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin
The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, performed first in Denmark, then at Brooklyn Academy of Music, provides access to Wilson’s prevailing imagery, because it is in large part a retrospective of all of his work up to that time. In seven acts, each with its own prologue, the piece lasted twelve hours (from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m.) and survived four performances in December of 1973. The actors cross and move in seven planes parallel to the proscenium arch; objects hang from the flies against a sky backdrop; silent, immobile figures fill the stage (act 2 alone, originally part of The King of Spain, contains “a boy who stands on a stool for the entire act, a blind man and two other men who play chess, Freud, Anna, Stalin, a photographer who takes their picture, a piano player, and a walrus,” as well as the King of Spain himself). Processions, choruses, minstrel-show performers, historically costumed, nude, and...
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