As I recently screened a video for my students of Robert Wilson’s celebrated Hamburg production of The Black Rider—I had seen a performance two summers ago at the Vienna Festival, where Wilson adapted it for Austrian television—I was reminded of what a loss it was for American audiences when the appearance of this remarkable work at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1991 had to be canceled for financial reasons.
The good news is that The Black Rider is still running in repertory once or twice a month at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg. The collaboration with novelist William Burroughs (text) and singer-composer Tom Waits (music and lyrics) is quite non-traditional Wilson. For one thing, the running time is only two-and-a-half hours. For another, it’s a musical, and it is fun—so much shameless, reckless fun that it has prompted some concern among German critics: Who could imagine German audiences, respectable Hamburg burghers to boot, jumping to their feet and screaming with delight after each performance? Has Wilson, theatrical genius, lone visionary of the esoteric and the sublime, finally succumbed to popular taste and the pleasures of entertainment? Has he, like young Wilhelm in his production, sold his soul to the devil?
As one respected commentator suggested, at the very least Wilson has sacrificed the soul of his quintessentially German source material, a darkly romantic legend set in the depths of a forest haunted by ancestral guilt and nightmarish visions. (The story also provided the libretto for Carl Maria von Weber’s popular Romantic opera Der Freischutz.) A bookish young man makes a pact with the devil in order to prove himself as an accomplished hunter, the prerequisite for marrying the forester’s daughter. He receives 60 magic bullets guaranteed to hit his targets, but the last shot belongs to the devil. At the end, the devil’s bullet strikes the young maiden.
At the core of Burroughs’s playful adaptation is a parable with many ironic autobiographical resonances about the making of a shooting addict, a bullet junkie who ends up killing his bride. Legends have grown up around Burroughs himself and his involvement in what was reportedly a William Tell-style shooting game in which he accidentally shot and killed his own wife. But what makes this production more remarkable, particularly in these times of global preoccupation with multiculturalism, is the consistent emphasis on its binational premise, often with hilarious results. The excellent German translation casually slips into the American vernacular to complete a rhyme or a pun, such as: “Put down a pen/put up a gun/ easy said und schwer getan,” or “Der und mein/ das kann nicht sein/ he’s such a piece of slime.”
In the process, classic quotations, limericks and the sorts of sayings found on Hallmark cards as well as on Edelweiss-framed Bavarian souvenir plates are gleetfully subverted to debunk cultural icons on either side of the Atlantic. All the lyrics are kept in English. When the German actors sing and deliver the punch-lines in their heavy accents, with all the intensity of their classical training, they seem almost unwittingly to parody themselves. At the same time there are sharp impersonations of Las Vegas, rock and media idols, in the (sacrilegiously appropriated) spirit of Brechtian alienation techniques.
Punctuated by Waits’s wildly eclectic music, Wilson’s German-American uber-musical celebrates with endearing irony a wide range of dramatic genres and aesthetic conventions, notably German Romanticism in its various manifestations, from operatic kitsch to expressionist movies. Musical leitmotifs transform Eisler and Weill, Irish and Yiddish folksongs. Variations on Western movie scores and teasing tributes to vaudeville, music halls and silent movies undermine the story’s various cross-cultural myths to true love, high art and masculinity. There are echoes of Grimm’s fairy tales and Lewis Carroll in the oversized abstracted furniture pieces that expand into gigantic archways, and traces even of Peter Schumann’s Bread and Puppet Theater in the story-book silhouette of the enchanted forest, with its cut-out animals suspended on a clothesline suggesting a shooting gallery. The lush tableau of the forester’s daughter’s nightmares filled with ominous creatures dissolves in the silence of a dreamscape that is superlative Wilson.
Unlike most transfers of stage productions to the screen, Wilson’s immaculately filmed and edited TV version not only conveys the full scope of the live performance; it stands on its own as a brilliant video production. It is most revealing to watch Wilson the film director “read” his own work as he isolates and reconnects images, symbols and minute visual details that on stage are easily overwhelmed by his design.
The Black Rider is Wilson’s most sensuous work, testifying to his great love for theatre in all its manifestations. Watching the video with my students, I couldn’t help falling in love with the generous spirit conveyed by the music, the text, the direction and in the superb performances by the German actors (all members of the Thalia Theater’s resident company). At the beginning of the show, they appear, one after the other, out of a big black box which could also be a coffin. They are conjured up by the devil, a slender androgynous figure played by Dominique Horwitz. Sporting a daintily mischievous limp, this magical young actor has the sexiest smile and the most seductive eyes that ever cracked through heavy white make-up. He manages to invest even his leprechaum ears with a delicious eroticism.
At the end, the figures line up against squares of canvas hung on a clothesline for a frantically condensed rerun of previous scenes and then disappear into the box like scarves and birds in a magician’s fist. Only the devil is left on stage. He teases us with the opening bars of “I’m just a little devil” before he goes into a melancholy song about the last rose of summer.
Leave it to the Germans to agonize over whether this is the ultimate in postmodern irony or sentimental kitsch. All of us left the screening room stage-struck like kids who had just seen their first big Broadway show. If that’s high treason for any serious student of theatre, what does it bode for Wilson himself? Is the grand master of post-literary theatre mellowing into a master storyteller? The answer may be learned next year, when the Thalia Theater presents Wilson’s newest collaboration with Tom Waits: Alice in Wonderland. Unfortunately, American audiences won’t have the opportunity to follow Wilson’s tantalizing transformations through the Hamburg looking glass.
Gitta Honegger is a professor at the Yale School of Drama.
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