Robert Wilson Wilson, Robert (Vol. 9) - Essay

Wilson, Robert (Vol. 9)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Wilson, Robert 1944–

Wilson is an American playwright, novelist, and painter who is expanding the boundaries of theater with his extraordinary and often monumental works. His plays often have a definite disregard for time: The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, for instance, ran for twelve hours while Ka Mountain and Gardenia Terrace took a week. Joseph Parisi claims that in Wilson's productions "both the actors and the spectators … seem engaged as much in a therapeutic as in a theatrical experience." He collaborated with Philip Glass in creating Einstein on the Beach for the theater and with Robert Shea in the fictional trilogy Illuminatus! (See also CLC, Vol. 7, and Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)

With their [Illuminatus!] trilogy (The Eye in the Pyramid, The Golden Apple and Leviathan,…) Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson have if nothing else brought off the longest shaggy dog joke in literary history. To briefly summarize the more than 800 closely printed pages: a journalist, a sort of modern-day Candide, sets out to investigate some mysterious doings in Mad Dog, Texas, and innocently trips over one of the many feet of the Illuminati, the greatest conspiracy in history—or, to put it another way, the conspiracy that is history…. A hundred pages in I couldn't figure out why I was wasting my time with this nonsense, after 300 I was having too much fun to quit, and by the end I was eager to believe every word—even if the only conspiracy really at work here is Shea and Wilson's devilish exploitation of our need to make ordered sense out of everything under the sun; their exploitation, in a world, of the narcissism of rationalism. Anyway, I loved it.

Greil Marcus, "Nonsense," in Rolling Stone (© 1976 by Rolling Stone Magazine; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission), Issue 207, February 26, 1976, p. 89.

Einstein on the Beach is a continuous, nearly five-hour "theatre piece with music" by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass….

Like Wilson's earlier works, Einstein is a dream-play, only this time with music. There is no coherent narrative: There are some words, but even the apparently linear stories are so disoriented by the context that they become dreams themselves. More often the texts are disjointed, stream of consciousness. Instead of dialogue, the characters dance or chant numbers or solfege syllables (do-re-mi). They pose and gesture, purposefully acting out roles whose purpose seems, at first, impossibly private….

The work is divided into nine scenes, none longer than half an hour, with five "knee-plays" (so named for their function as joints) flanking and separating them. The nine principal scenes can be grouped into three trios. There are three train scenes…. There are three trial scenes…. Finally, there are three space-machine scenes….

On the page all of that must seem impossibly schematic. In performance, Einstein is full of teeming life. Each moment is a subtly layered network of detail….

Questions about "meaning" are agony for Wilson. And Glass, for all his relatively greater verbal fluency, doesn't do much better. Wilson works on an inspirational basis very close to free association, and then judiciously winnows those associations down to art….

The most immediate "meaning" of the first trial scene is that the accused is science itself: One of the characters actually says so, and there are enough symbols of science on hand to remind one of Galileo and drive the point home. But it's more than that. Wilson has built his major works around famous figures of the past—Freud, Stalin, Philip II, Queen Victoria. Like those earlier pieces, Einstein takes the scientist as the starting point for a metaphorical examination of the age. Hitler and Chaplin, the demonic and the comic, have been subsumed into Einstein, and since Wilson works above all in painterly visions, their physical resemblance serves to deepen our view of the scientist. Einstein is certainly about the uses and misuses of science. But science is a product of the imagination, like art and like dreaming. Einstein is about human beings dehumanized, about justice and Patty Hearst, about the apocalypse (Nevil Shute's On the Beach), and, in the final knee-play, about the flowering of simple human love. And at all times, it's about higher forces that illumine our lives. If that sounds too bold, so be it; both Wilson and Glass owe their artistry in large part to their ability to translate simplicity into sophistication without dimming the purity of their naivité. (p. 52)

The slow tapestry of shifting images is occasionally punctuated by a sudden coup de théatre, as when a "spaceman" swings into view, suspended by a rope, during the penultimate scene of Einstein. Even within the prevailing slow sequences the speeds of change vary; part of the richness of texture in a Wilson piece is the overlapping rates at which different kinds of images are transformed. Binding it all together, one realizes soon enough, is an intricate series of recurrent leitmotifs: not only the large ones, like the trains and the trial and the bed, but smaller visual devices (the clocks, the periodic eclipses), gestures, and, of course, sounds. (pp. 52-3)

Wilson has always called his works "operas," even if the music was only very occasional. They were silent operas, in the sense of the Italian usage, as a blend of the arts. Now, with Glass's music, Einstein is more an opera than any previous Wilson work….

[The] idea of "opera" remains our principal repository for a supra-rational theatre of style and symbol. Both Wilson and Glass work in a manner that can easily be called Wagnerian….

[What] is curious about the mystical romanticism of both Wilson and Glass is the lucid, balanced form in which it expresses itself—so cool that it strikes some as lacking in incident. As one of Einstein's last assistants put it, "Beauty for him was essentially simplicity." (p. 53)

David Sargent, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1976), November 22, 1976.

Two points are immediately clear [on seeing The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin]: narrative is not the object; and the title … is irrelevant…. More important, the first glance—but only the first—makes us think there are connections here with the surrealist theater of the 1920s. In fact, after Wilson's last Paris show a commentator wrote: "One convert to [Wilson's] style was Louis Aragon, who saw in Wilson the logical heir to the Surrealists." Heir, perhaps, but with a distinct difference. The surrealist theater for me—archetypally, Artaud's Jet of Blood—is usually one of speedy bombardment, a rapid series of disjunctive phenomena making their effect as much through their speed of sequence as through their contents and disjuncture. Wilson's tempo is largo. His intent is not the surrealist fracture of our "defenses" with speedy sequences of illogic. He wants us to savor pictures. He wants to create picture after picture with theatrical means, but not tableaux vivants—he wants them to flow or melt into one another, to move. He wants to connect them more by visual themes than by verbalizable ones, to provide combinations of people and lights and things and sounds that are striking. Perhaps they will stimulate the viewer to invent his own play; perhaps not. No matter.

Wilson creates these pictures, ingeniously, delicately, wittily…. [He's] been trained as a painter, has worked with deaf children, and knows how to speak to the eye. He has great skill in using theater means to present a (let's call it) flowing gallery of pictures. This does not keep the performance from frequently being boring; I have more expectations and interests in the theater than to see a series of pictures, however good. But paradoxically, a certain quotient of boredom seems part of the plan. Wilson, though serious, is not solemn. (pp. 42-3)

My own reaction in sum: Why shouldn't there be a Robert Wilson?… Why shouldn't the theater's means be used by a painterly sensibility to thrust pictures into the element of temporality—of duration and motion? In film many painterly talents have tried it, though rarely at this length or with Wilson's invention and humor. His theater work is more difficult and in some ways more rewarding than the film attempts because he's doing it before us, with real people … and animals and lights and scenery and sounds. Boring as it is residually, his work is nevertheless authentic and authentically daring. I would hate to see Wilsonism take over theater and dance completely (small risk), but I'm glad he exists. (p. 43)

Stanley Kauffmann, "Robert Wilson," in his Persons of the Drama (copyright © 1974 by Stanley Kauffmann; reprinted by permission of Harper & Row, Publishers, Inc.), Harper, 1976, pp. 41-7.

The effect [of the "knee plays" in Wilson's Einstein on the Beach], similar to staring at a closed loop of recorded videotape, is to lull the audience and wear down its expectations. (p. 107)

The title Einstein on the Beach has no literal meaning. Images of Albert Einstein fill the work, but the closest we come to being "on the beach" is a conch shell that appears on stage right in several scenes…. There is no plot or action in the sense of traditional theater or opera. Instead, we are given a number of visual ideas or, more accurately, notions that are taken, often obscurely, from Einstein's life and the effects his work had on the world. Some of the notions are obvious; others assume a more than passing knowledge of the scientist. In any event, none is explained, and you just have to try and catch them as they go by. These references include Einstein's love for fiddling on the violin, for steam engines (a steam locomotive and a train are among the principal sets in the first two acts), his theoretical contribution to the atomic bomb and to space travel, and his exercise of pure reason. All these lead to the last scene, in which flashing lights, violent dancing, and loud, churning music hint at some sort of cosmic cataclysm set inside a space machine.

Even this simple list, however, implies a specificity to the opera which it lacks. For instance, the longest visual reference in Einstein to his theoretical work is in act four: a high rectangular building on an empty plain, seen from its narrow front, but slightly angled to give an idea of its depth. Near the top of the building is a window and through it we see a man, his back to us. His right arm describes ceaseless writing motions on an imaginary surface in front of him. A crowd gathers slowly at the front of the building and spends its time looking up at the window. The first to arrive is a child on a skateboard; as the crowd wanders off, he is the last to leave. The scene ends as it begins, a building set on a lonely plain; through a high window we see a man, his right arm in motion. We assume the man is Einstein. Is the building Science? Is he, in his furious scribbling, working out formulas that will save—or destroy—mankind? Why does the building look more like a prison than a scientific institute? Are scientists prisoners? Whose? The silent people who gather below—are they prisoners of Science? Are they kept away from Science? (The building is massive, it has no door that we can see, the scientist inside is too high to reach.) One wants to know more, but feels embarrassed to ask.

Wilson's background as a painter is clear in Einstein. His sets are surrealistic…. The play seems to have any number of visual references. The scene inside the space machine could be based on Fritz Lang's Metropolis; an entire scene is given over to a pillar of light … that rises slowly from the floor until it disappears into space, like the monolith in Kubrick's 2001. There are allusions in the sets to Max Ernst and Giorgio de Chirico. Indeed, the foreboding quality of the Einstein building left a more lasting memory than the action in and outside it. (pp. 107, 110)

The score, though no musical revelation, is far more concrete an experience than Wilson's drama, a result of its spare nonmelodic concept.

Einstein on the Beach adds up to distinctly less than the sum of its parts. One senses an innocent humanism at work here. From the dancing in the two "field" (space machine) scenes, one could gather that Wilson would like the human race to survive. It is a nice sentiment, but it isn't developed, and repetition flattens it to a veneer.

One possible thread through the opera is a figure made up as Einstein (as is, at times, the entire cast). He appears in several scenes sitting on a raised chair between the orchestra and stage and fiddles—continuously, loudly, lamentingly. He has neither facial expressions nor lines to speak….

All the elements of our universe are somehow connected, this opera seems to say—Einstein-trains-assassinations-Patty Hearst-space travel—but if our universe is to survive, we must first learn to love. There's nothing wrong with that, but without examination, development, without a hint of dialectic, it has all the force of a nice pop song—"All You Need Is Love," by the Beatles, comes to mind. As such, Einstein doesn't begin to accommodate the epic scale of a five-hour opera.

Anything can be art, if only because people calling themselves artists have done all sorts of things and called them art, and sooner or later critics and the marketplace have responded to them as art. Einstein is art, but a quite limited art of static visual images put to motion, not dissimilar from choosing a series of interesting and pretty postcards and moving them, in accompaniment to music, back and forth in front of one's eyes. (p. 110)

F. Joseph Spieler, "Adrift among Images," in Harper's (copyright © 1977 by Harper's Magazine; all rights reserved; excerpted from the March, 1977 issue by special permission), March, 1977, pp. 107, 110, 112.