Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3428
Wilson, Robert 1944–
Wilson is an innovative American playwright. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 49-52.)
After 12 hours of Robert Wilson's "The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin" it's hard to find fast words about what you've seen/heard/thought/felt. The idiosyncratic seven-act "opera" is so rich and spectacular, its progress through time so stately and antic, the magic of Wilson's art so suave and self-contained, the huge cast's devotion so eloquent, that merely to list the ingredients of any one sequence would exhaust this little column of space….
The work is a kind of retrospective of what Wilson and his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds have done to date. The first four acts, lasting from 7 p.m. until around 2 a.m., have been seen here before as parts of "The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud" (1969) and "Deafman Glance" (1970). Close followers of the work can compare these with the earlier versions. The basic mode is enormous, elaborate, slowly moving tableaux vivants, big set pieces in which all kinds of often incongruous elements interact. The acts and their various prologues and inner scenes are like giant living paintings with sound, with huge backdrops in painted perspective and fantastic and elaborate costumes. Wilson revives all the scenic conventions of old-fashioned theatre, as well as inventing conventions of his own, always making their concreteness consciously felt.
But here I go generalizing, and this is an art of the relentlessly particular….
[The] eccentric, apparently arbitrary "art" elements [serve] to hold it all together, to reinforce the sense of something more, and to enrich the texture. A runner in red runs across the stage every few minutes almost the whole night. Even more abstractly, a bunch of chrome hoops strung high above the audience are periodically moved slightly with a long pole. There is always so much going on that even at the long night's deliberate pace the eye never catches up with it. Some of it is always changing, some of it always stays the same. You get interested in watching something on the left side of the stage—a giant turtle, maybe—and when you look back over on the right, everything is different. Or a new backdrop will suddenly slowly fly in and the whole reality be changed….
I went out to dinner during the third act but I remember how incredibly beautiful the cave scene was in "Sigmund Freud." Later I regretted having missed even a minute.
When I came back Medea had apparently just murdered her children and their bodies were being carried out by Joseph Stalin. The forest scene, Act IV, which is apparently the whole of "Deafman's Glance," is extraordinarily beautiful, strange, and long, lasting a good three hours and tripping everybody right out.
Wilson's work doesn't have the loose focus of oriental all-night theatres…. I expected to be uncomfortable, but I wasn't. It seemed quite natural to sit in a theatre all night. (But I hope this doesn't start a trend: the next day is wiped out.) In fact, amazingly, my attention was held throughout. Once my normal bedtime had passed, I gave in to it and liked it more and more….
[By the fourth act] I was drawing conclusions, thinking the work was getting simpler and overcoming its tendency to morbidness. But the last and latest act is imagistically and formally as intricate as anything Wilson has done and by the end grew somewhat grating, maybe on purpose….
What is performed and witnessed doesn't translate into anything. I often knew, even when I was paying close attention, that I wasn't actually "following." I didn't know what...
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to follow; I didn't know if there was anything to follow. I didn't even try to make sense of it. It's in another language, one that has its meaning on another level than this one I'm playing with at the moment. It's a slow, heady language, its content accumulated through years of work and elusive as any esoteric communication. In a sense it is a projection of Wilson's head. But it deliberately goes beyond that, calling itself a school, initiating devotees, reaching back to a deeper level of theatre. What Wilson is making is mysteries. (p. 69)
Michael Smith, in The Village Voice (reprinted by permission of The Village Voice; copyright © by The Village Voice, Inc., 1973), December 20, 1973.
Robert Wilson calls ["A Letter to Queen Victoria"] an opera. True, it is accompanied by music … but it is speech that is the chief sound of the evening, and not song. Speech and screaming, of which more in a moment. Mr. Wilson is a solemnly prankish man…. The letter itself turns out to be a sort of round, recited simultaneously by several actors at the beginning of the evening and so reduced to near gibberish. As far as one can tell at a first hearing, the letter amounts to an analogue of Saul Steinberg's brilliantly drawn nonsense epistles and proclamations….
Mr. Wilson's weak suit is humor. I have called him prankish, which is often a sign of a lack of humor, and which often leads to a portentousness that, in Mr. Wilson's case, threatens to overwhelm whatever little action he appears to have it in mind to present….
Mr. Wilson is a radically inaccessible writer, and his opera is filled with the mere tips of tails of clues. We catch fugitive glimpses of the Civil War (no more real than Queen Victoria), of conflicts among neighbors, of family quarrels; above all, we see the attempt being made again and again, in Forster's formulation, to connect—"Only connect!"—and the attempt would appear to be nearly always in vain…. Mr. Wilson's symbol for the baffled attempt to communicate is the scream; "A Letter" is charged with screams, most of them anguished…. If [his devices] do not signify something substantial, they have no artistic right to be there. A hundred puzzles of that order are to be found in this unsung opera. Worry them out as best you can. (p. 47)
Brendan Gill, in The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), March 31, 1975.
Robert Wilson … is one of the theater's most lauded aesthetic anarchists—a modern child of Dada. While his current experiment is called A Letter to Queen Victoria, it has nothing to do with Queen Victoria. She does appear briefly in the person of Wilson's 88-year-old grandmother, Alma Hamilton, who is adorned in a white gown, black sunglasses and a regal red sash. Unlike The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin …, which lasted twelve hours and centered on painterly images evolving in glacially slow motion and almost total silence, Queen Victoria consists mainly of verbal anarchy. In a typical scene, characters shoutingly reiterate the following word-sounds contrapuntally: "HAP-HATH-HAP-HAP-HATH—O.K., O.K., A-O-K, O.K., O.K.—SKY-SKY." This sort of thing is punctuated by screams of primal therapy.
Wilson is skillful in combining 20-20 dream vision with auditory parody. In one scene, the backdrop carries the words CHITTER CHATTER printed several hundred times. Half a dozen or more couples are seated in silence at small café tables. Simultaneously, they all begin gesticulating and making high-pitched gibberish conversation. In comedic nonsense, this replicates every cocktail party that anyone has ever attended.
All of this is well and good, as are Wilson's command of visual space and dance consciousness, but in the realm of language he makes Gertrude Stein at her murkiest sound like a paragon of pellucid clarity.
T. E. Kalem, "Exquisite Anarchy," in Time (reprinted by permission from Time, The Weekly Newsmagazine; copyright Time Inc.), April 7, 1975.
The season's scandal—if something that deadens you with its boredom more surely than Novocain could can still leave you with a sense of scandal—is Robert Wilson's A Letter for Queen Victoria. This is not quite so megalomaniacally absurd as Wilson's twelve-hour Stalin I languished through last season; here the nonsense words and nonsense action or inaction are spun out to a scant three hours. Though the work calls itself an opera, it is merely tableaux vivants done to monotonous nonmusic and accompanied by meaningless verbalizing and gyrations. The visuals are derived principally from Chirico, Magritte, and (except that they are nowhere near so heterosexual) Delvaux, and the words are Dada, but with the wit left out. That such things should succeed in a world that has lost all sense of what is art (to say nothing of all sense of what is sense) is not astonishing. But what is queer is that people who should know better, e.g., Jerome Robbins, should invoke the word genius for this mindless farrago.
What is truly pitiful, though, is that [an] … autistic boy should be a kind of co-author and main performer here, his sad condition put on tasteless display. Wilson has worked with handicapped children, and his writing and cast may themselves be specimens of a dementedly self-induced autism, but all that does not justify having the poor boy whirl about like a deranged dervish and spout insensate and ill-articulated verbiage—even if Wilson proclaims it genius and matches it with similar cavortings and cacophony of his own. Unless we also bring back bear-baiting and visits to asylums for entertainment, this sort of thing, however cloaked in euphemism, is not to be countenanced. I am also leery of Wilson's making his grandmother, aged 88, stay up late and fatiguingly in order to perform in this and other Wilson works: it is one thing to give one's life for art, another for autism.
To reiterate, there is nothing here that hasn't been done already by Surrealism or Dada, lettrisme or spatialisme, which rules it out as innovation; Letter is, moreover, visually barren and aurally empty, which rules it out as theater and leaves only mindlessness. "If you try to think, to decipher meanings in the spectacle, you are missing the show," says The Voice. Says Clive Barnes: "Let the mind freefall like petals floating down the Grand Canyon." Better yet, check your mind at the coatroom, or, best of all, do not bother to bring one. (p. 80)
John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), April 7, 1975.
For true, disaffected middlebrows,… there is The $ Value of Man, which Robert Wilson co-authored with his protégé, the sixteen-year-old autistic youth, Christopher Knowles. Wilson himself was a bit of an autist, not beginning to speak till he was seven or eleven (I forget which), and here we have a kind of theatrical transvestism: autism posturing as authorship. The show is … a farrago of meaningless stage images, nonsensical verbal fragments, and purposeless actions endlessly repeated and dribbling into numbing inertia. Compare this with something like the recent Max Ernst retrospective at the Guggenheim Museum, and you have the difference in a nutshell: Dada and Surrealism had something left to kick over, a few conventions of art and life to cock a snook at. The importance of being Ernst lies in the man's wit and intellect, the gaya scienza with which he was able to make fun of stock ideas and artifacts. But the know-nothingism of Wilson and Knowles, ridiculing things they have barely heard of and surely not comprehended (a close parallel is the cinema of Jean-Luc Godard), and all this perpetrated without a compensatory Ernstian vision of an alternative universe, in which intensity of feeling and ideation are not canceled but transmuted, give The $ Value of Man the human value of zero….
What is truly heartbreaking, though, is to note among the gaping, milling, aisle-blocking crowd of doubtlessly self-styled avant-garde intellectuals, people of genuine culture and even a few respectable critics giving this drivel their undivided attention. That strikes me as the supreme middlebrow phenomenon: becoming so disaffected with a culture which, to be sure, is in a state of paroxysm and aridity as to embrace those very symptoms of sickness as if they were health-giving innovations. (p. 75)
John Simon, in New York Magazine (© 1975 by NYM Corp.; reprinted by permission of New York Magazine and John Simon), May 26, 1975.
The fragmentation of personality in modern literature has gone along with a breaking up of traditional time schemes…. It is in the work … of Robert Wilson, that we see the most extreme manipulations of time in the theater as well as some of the most interesting aspects of psychological deconstruction in art. [No other experimental] contemporary theater … can rival Wilson's productions for sheer spectacle. The dozens of players in each work, the dizzying number of things going on, the elaborate sets, the hundreds of costumes, the rich colors and symphonies of variegated sounds make Wilson the Cecil B. DeMille of the avant-garde. But Wilson's intentions as a grand entertainer are, to say the least, ambiguous. His work—especially The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud and The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin—seems calculated to realize Lautréamont's intention of "cretinizing" the artist's public. Each of the productions I've just mentioned lasted twelve hours, from early in the evening to early the next morning. And neither production was "about" Freud or Stalin; most of the tableaux which constituted each work had no discernible relation either to one another or to the "serious" topic parodistically announced in the title.
Now during the twelve hours of Freud or Stalin we are obviously not "moving anywhere" in the traditional sense of working through complications that will in some way be resolved by the end of the play. No one moment in Wilson's works seemed designed to be more dramatic or more significant than other moments. Wilson likes to repeat episodes or gestures and to have them played in slow motion, the effect of which is not to increase our awareness of dramatic significance, but rather to make us unable to locate any salient moments at all in a pleasingly or maddeningly drawn out movement or episode. The monstrous length of these works, and the fact that they were played all night not only drowned any potentially dramatic episode in a seemingly endless duration; our most elemental sense of time became confused and distorted. Wilson encouraged his audiences to sleep for a while every now and then, and dozing off a few times during the night naturally had a rather chaotic effect on our sense of the spectacle. We moved from waking time to the time of dreams, and then, without knowing how much we had missed, back to the theatrical performance. The juxtapositions of different modes of awareness of time, the temporal extensions, condensations and discontinuities destroyed our usual securities about the linear movement of time. Somewhat like Proust's narrator in the experiences described in the first pages of A la Recherche du temps perdu, we could find our knowledge of who and where we were upset by our disturbed sense of how much time had passed, of what time was, and of what kind of time we were in.
Wilson's work realizes that confusion between the subjective and the objective which we have encountered in the spectacular literary example of Rimbaud's Illuminations…. Wilson's hypnotic theater brilliantly succeeds in passing itself off not as a world to be reflected on, but as scenes indistinguishable from our fantasies. The tableaux in The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, for example, without resembling the dreams we may have had while sleeping, are nonetheless a continuation of the type of relation between the self and the world which dreams exemplify. Temporally discontinuous, obsessively repetitive, indifferent to rationality and to the discursive or informational function of language, Wilson's tableaux, like our dreams, briefly transformed the world into the diversified scenes of a desiring imagination…. The irresponsible and exhilarating lesson of Wilson's theater … has frequently been that we don't have to know anything; we have only to be ready to enlarge our repertory of desirable spectacles. And if we are ready to do this, it is because we have also been pleasantly coerced into recognizing the superiority of Wilson's dream tableaux to those from which we may have just awakened. Wilson constructs and embellishes each scene with artistic resources obviously unavailable to the extremely ingenious but anxious and hurried imagination which makes our dreams. (pp. 280-82).
The sort of theater which Wilson has given us also lacks the complicity of dreams with the structured personality. Dreams are subject to interpretations, which means that they have a recognizable hierarchy of meaningfulness, as well as significant repetitions and affective centers. Wilson invites us to sleep, to dream, and to awake in order to lose ourselves in a spectacle which prolongs the dreamer's ignorance of the distinction between the world and the scene of his desires. (p. 282)
During a performance of The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, one awoke from the perennially significant dreams of individuals and entered a world where, as in the most original of Rimbaud's Illuminations, a scene appeared to be an insignificant collection of heterogeneous parts. And Wilson's spectacles are psychologically anonymous because they accumulate only specificities. His tableaux don't illustrate a personality; they give space to and orchestrate various scenes which have occupied the imagination of this man or this group. Sounds, gestures and costumes in Wilson's theater are particular and momentary concretions, and this sort of particularity could belong to anyone. It is not what we usually call a psychological particularity. It has nothing to contribute either to a portrait of individual personality or a myth about human nature. Unlike the objects and gestures of dreams, objects and gestures in Wilson's theater don't designate feelings hidden behind them. Furthermore, the anonymity of Wilson's theater makes it universally accessible. But the universality of his work is not that of dream-symbols (which is a universality of content and therefore contributes to theories of human nature). It is rather a performative universality: the range of scenic fantasies which his work presents is available to the human imagination in general merely as spectacles which might be performed. These spectacles are neither necessary nor significant; they merely illustrate some of the entertaining uses to which a discontinuous desiring imagination can put the "material" of the world.
Much of … contemporary theater [especially Wilson's],… could be thought of as engaged in decentralizing the audience's attention. Numerous aspects of traditional theater work to centralize our attention. For example, no matter how cluttered the stage may become, we always know where the main action is. In scenes where several things are going on at the same time, dramatists and directors have never hesitated to use a variety of devices to keep our attention focused on the principal part of the scene. Also, the movement toward climaxes or dénouements could be thought of as a way of closing in, during the time of the drama, on its central significance. (pp. 283-84)
One of the most effective strategies for undermining centrality in contemporary theater is Wilson's use of multiple actions occurring simultaneously. In Stalin and in Freud, we frequently are unable to see and hear everything going on at any one moment…. As a result, we were continually discovering that we were in the "wrong place"—or, more accurately, that there was no right place, or that there were always other places. Instead of discovering where to look most intently, we were constantly seeing things we hadn't noticed before. And it can't be said that these things distracted our attention, for there was nothing genuinely central from which our attention might be distracted. The action was always somewhere else, but not because we haven't yet reached the right place (the sacred depository of a central truth), but because nothing was ever "entirely" in one place. (pp. 284-85)
[In] contrast to the usual effects of visual wandering, our moving around a field of vision doesn't help us to absorb its various elements into a single structured scene. The peripheral never lends itself to a centralizing process; centers turn out to be fictions which can be disposed of for the sake of the multiple dramatic fictions which Wilson is offering us. Wilson's theater teaches us that visual mobility doesn't necessarily reduce heterogeneity. And this luxuriantly fragmented theatrical scene can serve as a model for the spectator's renunciation (however momentary) of his "organized identity" and for his enjoyment of multiple partial selves. With Wilson—and, in different ways, with the Open Theater, with Brook and with the Theater of the Ridiculous—theater becomes the laboratory for the recovery and even the fabrication of psychic diversity, of the heterogeneity of desire. (p. 285)
Leo Bersani, in his A Future for Astyanax: Character and Desire in Literature (copyright © 1975, 1976 by Leo Bersani; reprinted by permission of Little, Brown and Co.), Little-Brown, 1976.