In Berlin last May, after lack of money forced his gigantic multinational spectacle the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down to be cancelled at the Los Angeles Olympics, after Humanité called the cancellation a “crime against the spirit,” after he himself verbally withered a system that would prefer to sell hamburgers and jogging gear to supporting his art, just before leaving for Tokyo to apologize formally for the failure of his grandiose plan to which the Japanese had subscribed much energy and expense, I asked Robert Wilson whether he ever wanted to work in the United States again. He replied, “I don’t want to be an expatriate.”
He has been just that, in effect, for the past eight years. Einstein on the Beach, his operatic collaboration with composer Philip Glass, was performed two times at the Metropolitan Opera in 1976. Since then, audiences on the East Coast have seen three small pieces, and had access to a couple of exploratory workshops for projects that ultimately came to fruition in Europe. The short scenes called “knee-plays” which would have been used to connect the major sections of CIVIL WarS were created at the Walker Arts Center in Minneapolis and presented in concert in New York.
All of the large works, however, have been created elsewhere, made possible by large government subsidies: Death Destruction and Detroit (Schaübuhne am Halleschen Ufer, Berlin), THE MAN IN THE RAINCOAT (Theater der Welt, Cologne), GREAT DAY IN THE MORNING (Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris), THE GOLDEN WINDOWS (Kam merspiel, Munich), CIVIL warS (Rotterdam, Tokyo, Marseilles, Lyon, Nice, Rome, Cologne, in addition to Minneapolis). It is in Europe that Wilson “grew up” (his words) as an artist. There his art has had its most immediate and profound impact, and his almost mythic reputation has been made (Promethean genius to some, modish charlatan to others).
This winter, with CIVIL warS still lying scattered around the world like a dismembered colossus perhaps never to be whole, Wilson is returning to this country in a big way. In December, Einstein on the Beach will be restaged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music as part of its annual Next Wave festival. Audiences will be able to see what has been called the most important piece of musical theatre of the generation performed on its original sets and with many of the original cast. Most important of all, the production is planned to tour.
After this exposure to the past Wilson, audiences in Boston during February and March can see the present, and possibly future, Wilson when the American Repertory Theatre reproduces the climactic fourth act and epilogue of CIVIL warS.
Created in Cologne, this piece has the added significance of bringing attention to Wilson’s collaborator, the East German Heiner Müller. Considered by many the heir apparent to Brecht and by some the most important living playwright next to Beckett, his work is seen throughout Europe—in fact, a festival was recently devoted to him in Holland. But here he is known only to specialists, and then by reputation and reading instead of through production. About him Wilson simply states, “He changed my life.
Seeing the Cologne section of CIVIL warS in Berlin this spring, a presentation of the annual Theater-treffen (Theatre Meeting), was, for me, a reintroduction to Wilson’s work. What Müller wrote upon receiving the news of the Olympics cancellation (printed in this issue) gave me an extraordinary means of poetic “re-entry” into Wilson’s world. In Müller’s words:
…the history of mankind can no longer be separated from the history of animals (and plants, stones, machines) except at the price of its fall…
Much of what happens in Act IV of CIVIL warS centers on a family—father, mother, child, young man, young woman, aunt, grandfather. Some of that material is taken directIy from a play by Müller about Frederick the Great, the father of the Prussian state in whose tormented relationship with his own father the author finds the seeds of Germany’s future woes. Wilson makes this fundamental family conflict share a gigantic canvas which, if the entire opera were seen, would also be occupied by huge wrestling bears, grazing giraffes, a plodding tortoise, a talking snow owl. Icebergs rise from the stage, rockets land, a whole continent splits and splits again, and in filmed sequences volcanoes erupt, buildings collapse, fish float by, ruins stretch before us, which might be Hiroshima, wartime Germany or Southeast Asia.
As Müller indicates, the civil wars extend from classes and races to species and sexes, but in Wilson’s gigantic vision the conflict reaches even beyond, from the elemental to the cosmic. This scale certainly holds true in Einstein on the Beach—the scientist’s very name invokes the basic forces of nature. There are three main scenes of activity around which this great masque of relativity is performed and around which the rich complex of images form: a train seen from various perspectives as it moves through space; a courtroom which can transform itself into, among other things, a prison; a meadow on which people dance as a spaceship hovers overhead, coming ever closer until finally we are taken inside of it. Apart from all this, often seated on a chair raised above the orchestra pit, is the shabby, tousled figure of Einstein, playing the violin as he really did at times of meditation, a spectator of his own imagination.
The scientist himself used the train image to illustrate his principles; for Wilson it becomes an occasion for the poetic interplay of space, time and mass. The courtroom seems to add a human, hence ethical, dimension to the piece: Is mankind on trial here? That human endeavor called science? The possibility of moral judgement? The meadow of dancers beneath a descending spaceship which eventually encompasses everything suggests both an impending apocalypse and a possibility of trans-cendence.
Glass’ music surrounds Wilson’s imagery in a perfect envelope of energy made audible. Probably the one scene remembered by everyone at the original performances is that of a huge bed, lit with laser-like precision, slowly, so slowly lifting from the stage and disappearing into the flies to the mounting rhythms of the Glass score—an ecstatic, almost mystical commingling of weight and force, matter and spirit.
…his theatre is a resurrection…
I am not sure what resurrection is for Müller; for me it is both social and imaginative. Wilson has called his theatre a forum, a unique place where everyone in society can come; somewhere universal. Perhaps this is an unexpected thought from one who has been the darling of the international cultural elite, the obsessive, megalomaniacal creator of spectacles that have seemed to many so personal that they are inscrutable, so formalized that they reduce performers to puppets. However, by uniting human history with all history—animal, vegetable, mineral—Wilson has given public expression to those who do not ordinarily have it: Raymond Andrews, the deaf-mute black boy in Deafman Glance; the autistic Christopher Knowles in many works, including Einstein; Alma Hamilton, Wilson’s own grandmother, in A Letter for Queen Victoria (“I always get along with the old ones best”).
With the gates so open, in come all languages and all of language, from the purely alphabetical sound of Einstein to Knowles’ disjointed poetry in the same piece, to the complete “Tower of Babel” which is CIVIL warS. Instead of destroying language, of which Wilson has been accused, he might actually be said to be rebuilding it by revealing all its possibilities, and all of the means of expression within, around and beyond it.
And in, also, comes the audience. Wilson’s pieces might have the potential of containing everything, but it is an everything presented in a very tightly structured form, a creation kin to music with its repetitions and variations of theme and imagery, moving in a way that is sometimes glacially slow, sometimes somnifaciently mechanical. But the very speed, along with the richness of imagery delivered with a neutrality of tone, allows the audience (the most important participants in the forum) a range of response that is far beyond that of other theatre. If there is an imaginative resurrection, it comes here: The experience is one of continual change in awareness from the most abject boredom to sensual overload, from literal sleep to hallucinatory awake-ness, from the ticking away of fragmented moments to the loss of all sense of time and self. You really have to be there.
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