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 white-draped figures troop on and off;...
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a cave, a pyramid, “two-dimensional trees and a three-dimensional house” are among the stage scenery; the menagerie includes four turtles with a pool on their backs, wooden fish that swim in it, a bull (beheaded during act 4), nine apes, and twenty dancing ostriches. Yet the huge size of the stage and the unimaginably long duration of the performance dwarf the props, performers, and action, and virtually every activity seems to take place in slow motion. The witness, partly lulled by the slow pace and absence of dramatic intensification, and partly prompted by its uniqueness to perceive everything with a new “vision,” eventually succumbs to the rhythms of the performance, coming away from the experience freed from stale habits of passive receptivity and reenergized by the aesthetic euphoria of visual stimulation.
The dialogue passages in this monumental retrospective point to a transition in Wilson’s work about this time. Earlier pieces (such as Deafman Glance) were essentially silent, with occasional songs, incomprehensible utterances, or sounds, but after the ambitious outdoor piece entitled Ka Mountain, GUARDenia Terrace, Wilson turned in another direction, marked by an increasingly concentrated examination of language as partial, failed, or desensitized communication. The spoken word, often in the form of seemingly meaningless phrases repeated and repeated, begins to draw the focus of the work. In stark contrast to the virtual silence of his early work, Wilson now exhaustively examined the nature of the word onstage.
A Letter for Queen Victoria
A Letter for Queen Victoria is the best illustration of this new concern. The “text,” edited by Bonnie Marranca with her introductory essay and a preface by Wilson, immediately identifies the nonnormative nature of Wilson’s language experiments during this period. Although the spoken word transliterates theoretically into the written word, no simple recitation of the “text” could reproduce the immediacy of the spoken performance, especially taking into account the participation of Christopher Knowles, a young man who shares authorship in the piece, clinically “autistic” but, according to Wilson, possessing perceptual powers different from but not inferior to normal perceptions. Knowles’s and Wilson’s “performance” of the phrases, neither linked nor “meaningful,” reduces the text to “architectonic” sounds that express the actors’ personal relationship in untranslatable ways.
From the backdrops of projected sound-words to the concrete layout of the poetry of the script page, Wilson’s main arena of theatrical inquiry during this period becomes the word, the script, and its tenuous relationship to the spoken aspect of theatrical experience. For example, a “press conference” in Yugoslavia consisted of Wilson’s repeating the word “dinosaur” for twelve hours while cutting an onion. A thwarted radio project called for actors to say “Hmm,” “O.K.,” and “There” for five hours. When a word is repeatedly uttered in this fashion, it loses its denotative meaning, resurfacing in the consciousness as pure sound, and, according to Wilson, helping to reestablish emotional responses which have been dulled by the everyday use of language. Wilson’s close association with Knowles, Raymond Andrews, and other children with limited hearing and speech has inspired him to experiment with language as “weather,” that is, as atmospheric pressures that alter accompanying movements and gestures, transforming them into highly subjective but effective personal communications.
The difficulties of “reading” a Wilson text should serve as a reminder: It is important to understand his work as performance art rather than primarily as literary expression. Although the “scripts” of Wilson’s works are sometimes available, often in obscure and out-of-print formats, the complexity and visuality of the experiences are best captured in the form of “performance documentation.” This genre, originating in such journals of experimental theater as The Drama Review and Performing Arts Journal, seeks to record nonscripted or partially scripted theatrical events by means of carefully detailed description of the nature, sequence, and duration of those events, told from the standpoint of a neutral, informed witness who avoids as much as is humanly possible any evaluative or subjective interpretations of those events. Necessarily, some interpretation is inevitable, but the reader can re-create, however imperfectly, some of the visual “semiotics” of the original performance. In Wilson’s case, the German critic Stefan Brecht has reported all the significant performance pieces of the Byrd Hoffman Studio up to 1978 in his exhaustively comprehensive study, The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson (1978), a title that is descriptive of Wilson’s whole aesthetic approach.
the CIVIL warS
After a very successful European tour of Einstein on the Beach (a collaboration with experimental music composer Philip Glass) in 1976, culminating in sold-out performances at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, Wilson found himself with increasingly complex production difficulties, brought on by his limitless vision and his refusal to compromise it with the petty realities of financial exigency. Forced to try smaller works such as I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating, Wilson seemed to be gathering his energy for his masterpiece, the CIVIL warS, a work that was to combine the most striking scenes and activities from earlier work with new visions on a grand scale. Yet after years of preparation in six countries and countless fund-raising trips and meetings, Wilson was forced to abandon his epic cycle, expressly designed in scope and theme for the Olympic Arts Festival in 1984. Efforts to mount it in Austin, Texas, in 1986 fell to financial realities as well; American audiences could only glimpse the tattered fragments of the Wagnerian vision in a tour of the diminutive Knee Plays, whose original purpose was to link the larger segments together.
Perhaps the most prolific of contemporary directors, Wilson’s work in the 1990’s and 2000’s extends itself across geographic boundaries and continues to readdress the classics. His adaptations of classic works include Alice, Hamlet: A Monologue, Das Rheingold, and Woyzeck. His creative processes remain largely unchanged, although enhanced by the Watermill Center facility, where, in his own space, with his own company, he can first storyboard his productions and then choreograph the painstaking movements.