The Silence of Storytelling on the Stage: Robert Wilson and (Re-)visualization in Traditional Theatre

To infuse new life into an old, familiar work, you start by going backward, searching inside the work for the initial impulses that created it. Contrariwise, to guarantee that it stays dead and that its familiarity breeds only contempt, you start from conventional expectations of its end result—or, even more unhelpfully, from conventional recollections of the later works it influenced—to produce an inert, dim replica of something that looks like something that resembles something that somebody else did long ago.[1]

This passage opens Michael Feingold’s recent scathing review in the Village Voice of Robert Wilson’s Threepenny Opera with the Berliner Ensemble at the Brooklyn Museum Academy (fig. 1). Putting his clean, cool minimalist polish on a play otherwise chock full of social commentary, Wilson turned the classic inside out, ruffling the feathers of Brecht purists and allegedly inciting some audience members to leave during the intermission. Feingold himself called it “dead entertainment for rich people”, a far cry from Brecht’s and Kurt Weill’s intended provocations. In using his by now trademark theatre fashion—sparse, geometric set pieces; high contrast; and slow, measured actions on the part of performers—Wilson left his own distinct imprint on Brecht’s masterpiece in the same way he has readapted a large number of classic operas in recent years. He has carved himself a niche in the highbrow landscape that it seems is as black and white in its praise and condemnation by viewers as the makeup his actors often wear, but from this review, it is clear not everyone is buying it.

Wilson has put his arguably “dead” touch on a number of classic plays and operas in the last decades, this has been a point of contention for seasoned theatergoers unfamiliar with his work. A comment posted on a video from the Los Angeles Opera’s YouTube channel sums up the controversy in applying his signature style to works in the theatrical canon: “the problem with Wilson productions is that if you turn off the sound you do not know if you are watching Butterfly, Tristan or Aida.”[2] But is this perhaps what Wilson actually wishes viewers to take away from a performance? A traditional production of Madama Butterfly is not very different from other traditional version, but a Wilson Butterfly is, well, a Wilson Butterfly.

Nonetheless, his work has not always been so problematic. Early on, he not only avoided drawing form the canon of traditional theatre and opera, he even turned down work on large, mainstream productions.[3] When Einstein on the Beach (1976) was not invited to London, Wilson allegedly said: “They tell me to do Shakespeare. I do what I do, someone else can do Shakespeare.”[4] In the aftermath of Einstein on the Beach’s popularity, however, we begin to see a shift in his work towards such grand, mainstream productions that include Shakespeare and classical music theatre. We can surmise that money had a lot to do with Wilson’s change of artistic direction. The prospect of widening his audience and gaining financing certainly fueled his move toward designing for this more conventional repertory. In what ways did these (financial) concerns manifest themselves visually, and how did his own “brand of theater art”,[5] as one critic referred to it with its stockroom of visual elements implanted onto a variety of productions, develop? In this paper, I will explore Wilson’s oeuvre since his early activity as a member of the avant-garde’s last wave; its relationship to his late, somewhat repetitive, aesthetic; and what this switch meant for Wilson’s productions. Because the scope of Wilson’s oeuvre is overwhelming and continually growing, I will not address the influence of Eastern theatre on his work and will consider only a selection of classic plays and operas, which bear the brunt of criticism regarding Wilson’s stylistic decisions. There is of course a split between his canonical dramas and “music theatre” as theatre historian Maria Shevtsova calls it,[6] but for the purposes of this paper, I have truncated the two under the broader heading of ‘classic(al) works’ and focused on his adaptations of Shakespeare and opera.

Wilson has made his position as a Renaissance man in the arts clear; he has worked and continues to work in a variety of media and was even the honoree of a retrospective mounted at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts in 1991. Wilson declares that he “never studied theatre. If I had studied theatre, I would not be making the theatre I’m making.”[7] Thus his productions occupy a peculiar place between theatre, painting, sculpture, music, installation, and dance. As a student of architecture at the Pratt Institute in the 1960s, he became acquainted with New York School of painting, the influence of which left a marked impact on his work in its two-dimensionality. Wilson’s works are not smooth, fluid performances but rather series of snapshots or tableaux vivants, each framed accordingly. Wilson calls his works “a collage of different realities occurring simultaneous [sic] like being aware of several visual factors and how they combine into a picture before your eyes at any given moment…the focus here is neither verbal nor concerned with specifying the physicality of people in virtual space. It’s simply more visual.”[8] Thus, he presents a two-dimensional scene in three dimensions, counteracting the traditional move from live image to flat and plastic representation or early photographic processes—for instance, the photographs of Edward Muybridge that when seen in quick succession create a moving image. Wilson, on the other hand, slows down reality to produce a sequence of images controlled by limiting objects’ movement on stage and choreographing actors’ motions to match. In the end, Wilson creates a complete mise-en-scène that looks all his own.

To understand Wilson’s current role in American and European theatre, we must return to his origins. In the 1960s, he sought out untrained performers and handicapped children, who became a key component of his collaborative project Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds. For Wilson, performance was developmental; nonprofessional actors thus cultivated their talents in the process of rehearsing. The King of Spain (1969), his first play on a proscenium stage, featured a cast of some seventy actors as young as seven years old filing on the cluttered stage, awaiting the arrival of the “King” in a grotesque mask (fig. 2). A series of disconnected, Surrealist happenings unraveled, layering on top of each other against backdrops vaguely evoking a Victorian parlor. Enormous cat legs danced across the stage, Thonet-esque chairs floated beneath the proscenium, and actors shuffled silently along “being interesting by themselves” for an hour, in a manner that appeared improvised although it was not.[9]

The following year Wilson staged Deafman Glance (1970) at BAM (fig. 3), a silent opera which inspired the French Surrealist author Louis Aragon to write in his “Open Letter to André Breton” that Wilson “is what we, from whom surrealism was born, dreamed would come after us and go beyond us.”[10] Wilson references his childhood in Texas and the speech impediment he was able to overcome as integral to his later work, and this interest in regression, subconscious, and control is already visible with the Byrds. He also adopted a deaf boy, Raymond Andrews, at this time. With Andrews’ special circumstances in mind, Wilson conceived a decidedly personal work; Deafman Glance (1970) was the neo-surrealist brainchild written from Andrews’ perspective. Wilson gave Andrews’ deafness a voice and presented Andrews’ unique perception devoid of sound to the audience. Wilson has noted the impact of John Cage’s famous 4'33" as an important influence on sound and silence in his work, and that is perhaps most apparent in these early “silent operas”. Aragon also called Wilson “a surrealist by his silence, although this can be said about all painters, but Wilson binds gesture and silence, movement and what cannot be heard.”[11] This attention to quiet and personal experience is the thread that holds the rest of Wilson’s oeuvre together.

By the mid-1970s, Wilson began to develop his own distinct visual vocabulary and moved away from his early silent pieces. Instead Wilson adopted a sort of optical silence, wherein minimalism substituted the lack of sound in earlier works. The personal connection remained for Wilson, as Einstein on the Beach and A Letter to Queen Victoria (1974) also included writings by Wilson’s autistic friend Christopher Knowles. As the first true piece of music theatre for Wilson with the help of Philip Glass, Einstein on the Beach (fig. 4) foresaw Wilson's later similarly austere forays into opera. It premiered in July 1976 in France and toured through Europe, coming to the Metropolitan Opera in November of the same year. As the turning point in Wilson’s career, Einstein anticipated the color, lighting, and highly stylized and ritualized movements of actors in his later works.[12]

In terms of picture, color, and lighting, Wilson assembled Einstein by using what he calls “the three traditional types of painting…portraits, still-lives, and landscapes,”[13] to return to his awareness of theatre as moving two-dimensional images in a three-dimensional space and thus a type of the painted moving image. His interest in light to emphasize color and pictorial representation was to become a central element of his work, linking his vision in some ways to that of Josef Svoboda. According to Christopher Baugh, for Svoboda light is “atmosphere…the material quality of light beams…the projected image with its possibilities for reflection and refraction,” which became “the fundamental ingredients within the process of scenic transformation.”[14] Although Wilson’s working methods and final products are considerably different from those of Svoboda, their use of light provides a commonality, as the properties of light for Wilson enable him to manipulate the tableaux vivants he stages or “paints”. Actress Marianne Hoppe wrote (with an air of antagonism) that Wilson is not a director but “a lighting designer. A Wilson actor runs here or there only because there’s a change in the lights. On a Wilson stage, light pushes the actors around.”[15] Hoppe was not entirely incorrect, as lighting and acting are for Wilson of at least equal importance, as the dances in Einstein on the Beach show. Lucinda Childs’ choreography was central to Wilson’s later interest in movement; continued manipulation of the physical body in space; and the slow, controlled motions of his actors.

Most importantly, Einstein marked a moment where Wilson’s work in avant-garde circles met the mainstream. Over the next ten years he expanded his repertory to work on large-scale productions would not have been possible before Einstein’s fame. Surprisingly, Wilson avoided staging canonical plays until his production of King Lear in 1985, revived in Frankfurt in 1991 (fig. 5). The influx of commissions from larger theaters and opera houses at this time, however, did not shift his work entirely away from the intimate and dreamlike style that defined his early years. Hoppe went on to say that in a Wilsonian production of Shakespeare “I can speak the lines the way he [Wilson] wants, but I don’t believe Shakespeare wrote the part of Lear to be recited by an autistic child,”[16] referring no doubt to his collaborations with Christopher Knowles. Perhaps for this reason, Wilson used non-professional actors and singers less frequently after the dissolution of the Byrds in the mid-1970s. New commissions and thus a new audience may have also fueled his retreat from the acting methods he employed in early productions.

Stills of Wilson’s King Lear seem more like a production of Waiting for Godot, whether intentional or not, particularly when we consider his cutting and parodying of the text as well. There is little to remind us of the plot as we know it. Wilson’s own words give the simplest and most complete understanding of the logic behind his Lear and perhaps later with grand opera: “I don’t have to make theatre with Lear. I don’t believe in talking back to a masterpiece. I let it talk to me.”[17] Thus Wilson’s visual and textual interpretation is based on his personal relationship with the play. His storyboard (fig. 5) illustrates at once Expressionistic, Surrealist and minimalist trends. Just as the built model was for Svoboda “the projection of the mind…into the as yet unarticulated scenic space”,[18] so are Wilson’s two-dimensional storyboards, giving a sense of what Wilson himself receives in his commune with the text.

From King Lear we move to his second and last Shakespeare play (discounting his visualizations of the sonnets with the Berliner Ensemble and Rufus Wainwright in 2009), Hamlet: A Monologue (1995). A one-man show starring Wilson himself and cut down to a mere one and a half hours (fig. 6), Hamlet becomes “very much Wilson’s Hamlet”[19] in its combination of perhaps the most canonical text in the history of Western theatre, minimalist design, and vaudevillian theatrics. Maria Shevtsova notes that “it has strong cabaret, vaudeville and camp components, but is nothing less than deeply moving,”[20] a theme which runs throughout much of his work in the 1990s, beginning with his first collaboration with Tom Waits, The Black Rider (1992). His stop-and-start movements amplify the drama and the tension between high- and lowbrow art. The piled, rectangular slabs on which he poses are the only reference to any sort of architecture, meant to signify fortified castle walls falling to ruin as Hamlet himself falls. Wilson calls the work “autobiographical”,[21] returning once again to the personal experiences which supplied the inspiration for early productions like Deafman Glance. Once again, sound and silence are crucial components; his movements are paralleled by the sonic dynamism happening around him—loud, crashing symbols that punctuate his soliloquy.

If Wilson’s interpretation of Shakespeare is documentary of his own relationship to those works, what then can be said about his interpretations of classic operas? I argue that Wilson supplants the emotional eccentricity, uncomfortable silence, and skewed spatial reasoning of his early works (in which he glorified the worlds of the children who inspired him, Raymond Andrews and Christopher Knowles), Einstein, and interpretations of Shakespeare onto his late monumental operas. Hence, his operas can be directly tied to his artistic progression as a final manifestation of his personal associations with theatre. His 1997 production of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande (fig. 8) is a musical drama of even more extreme minimalist proportions. Vertical, dark screens and bright, horizontal backdrops create a contrast with the cool-colored lights and are a reminder of Wilson’s own predecessors who he has credited as influences, Adolph Appia and Edward Gordon Craig. Appia’s Rhythmic Spaces and Craig’s design for a 1911 production of Hamlet featuring moveable, rectangular columns are obvious reference points for him. Nonetheless, it is Wilson’s measured control over the sparse elements that brings us full circle, back to his first pieces, and expresses a pictorial sense of this silence.

Two years later his version of Gluck’s Alceste (fig. 8) remains unchanged, even utilizing the same vocabulary taken from Appia and Craig. The floor-length screens Wilson once again uses as backdrops recall Appia and Craig while also referencing the minimalist constructions by Donald Judd. To evoke time and place, Wilson projected a double-life-size image of the famous Greek kouros from the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a navy backdrop above the stage. The choice of this statue is interesting, as it is both an icon in the museum's collection, and a controversial work of unknown provenance and possible forgery. Here he pulled from the art historical canon in a surprising way that is less connected to his early influences than to his self-portrayal as a figure in highbrow culture, making this production an apt endpoint. An ominous and slow-moving cube lurks like death across the stage in the climactic scene in which Admetus learns that his life will be spared but his wife will die in his place; the cube seems to be an oblique visual cue to the bar of light in Einstein on the Beach. Above all, Wilson has maintained his visual silence through the repetition of spare details pulled from his own theatrical stockroom.

One reviewer wrote that “historical purists” would not agree with his Wilson’s production of Gluck’s Alceste.[22] His tendency to utilize history while removing its context has come to define his work. Even after nearly four decades, Wilson still “gets caught between the almost pure surrealism of his earliest work and the limited conventions of opera and the Broadway musical.”[23] Wilson thus treads a precarious tightrope between the avant-garde, marginalized music theatre of his formative years and the large-scale, costly productions he stages for more mainstream audiences today. There is, however, something to be said for his unorthodox processes and his ultimate aesthetic decisions. Although his visualizations may not derive directly from the known canon of operatic productions, they come directly out of his own past and his personal relationship with the text, sound, and vision. For Wilson, “historical content…is never direct or straightforward. It is dislocated and deviated through his productions”[24]; thus, his vision is the overriding one, and that is probably as Wilson intends it. The thread of Wilson's early influences and subsequent works are reflected in Wilson's penchant for a visual silence through minimalism and control, which he exercises strongly over all aspects of a given production.

Wilson, although somewhat taciturn on the matter, is fully aware of the deadening effect of his vision on existing literary and musical works. The scenographic constancy for which he is known he made him into a brand of sorts; traits such as similar colors, lighting, minimalism, and measured, slow choreography now immediately mark the works of others “Wilsonian” to a degree. So have his classic works and operas all begun to look the same? Yes and no. Wilson has undoubtedly marketed his own trademark correctly, allowing for high production value and budgets to match. Whether or not audiences embrace it is another thing entirely. Looking back on the last century of theatre, the productions that broke out of the box and caused a (negative) commotion generally left the biggest impression on history and earned their place in the canon themselves. While Wilson's sterile environments may not be universally loved today, there is no doubt that he is one artist whose impact will be remembered, if not aesthetically then for his ability to transcend a work and truly mark it as his own. And so we return to Wilson’s “dead entertainment for rich people”,[25] as he opts not historicity but instead for his signature cool, colored lights; powdered faces; and stark spaces. After all, Wilson isn’t concerned with words; his work is “simply more visual”.[26]

Footnotes
1. Michael Feingold, “The Threepenny Opera Enters the Dead Zone,” Village Voice, October 12, 2011, http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-10-12/theater/the-threepenny-opera-s-dead-zone/.
2. CONTESTAR, 2009, comment on “LA Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly,” YouTube, February 7, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikI9YhaGxdI.
3. After The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1970), Wilson was asked to stage a production of Wagner, which he turned down. He has since designed for a handful of Wagner’s operas.
4. Robert Wilson in Geoff Moore, Moving Being: Two Decades of a Theater of Ideas, 1968-88, 45; in Steve Dixon, Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007), 99.
5. James C. Taylor, “Avant-Garde in the City—Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Mikel Rouse,” SundayArts Blog, November 17, 2009, http://www.thirteen.org/sundayarts/blog/performance/avant-garde-in-the-city-robert-wilson-richard-foreman-and-mikel-rouse/769/.
6. Maria Shevtsova, Robert Wilson (London and New York: Routledge, 2007), 36.
7. Robert Wilson and Fred Newman, “A Dialogue on Politics and Therapy, Stillness and Vaudeville,” The Drama Review 47, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 120.
8. Robert Wilson, “Speech Introducing Freud,” in Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography, ed. Jane Collins and Andrew Nisbet (London and New York: Routledge, 2010), 387.
9. Stephen Smoliar, “Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, Anderson Theatre,” Dance Magazine (March 1969), 93; in Trevor Fairbrother, Robert Wilson’s Vision (Boston and New York: Museum of Fine Arts and Harry N. Abrams, 1991), 112.
10. Translated in Shevtsova, 9.
11. Shevtsova, 9.
12. Wilson also notes the impact of the work of the choreographer George Balanchine on his stage directions for actors and their movements. See Shevtsova, 16.
13. Robert Wilson, in “Einstein on the Beach, segment III,” YouTube, April 17, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZMvA0w6phU; from Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera, directed by Chrisann Verges and Mark Obenhaus (1985).
14. Christopher Baugh, Theatre, Performance and Technology: The Development of Scenography in the Twentieth Century, (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), 137.
15. Arthur Holmberg, The Theatre of Robert Wilson, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 138.
16. Holmberg, 138.
17. Holmberg, 30.
18. Baugh, 214.
19. Shevtsova, 33.
20. Shevtsova, 34.
21. “The Making of a Monologue: Robert Wilson’s Hamlet Screener,” YouTube, June 12, 2009, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpzgbMnEDko.
23. Michael Vanden Heuvel, Performing Drama/Dramatizing Performance: Alternative Theater and the Dramatic Text (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1993), 176; in Shevtsova, 115.
24. Shevtsova, 27.
25. Feingold, “Threepenny Opera”.
26. Wilson, “Speech Introducing Freud,” 387.

Bibliography

Arens Katherine. “Robert Wilson: Is Postmodern Performance Possible?” Theatre Journal 43, no. 1 (March 1990): 14-40.

Baugh, Christopher. Theatre, Performance and Technology: The Development of Scenography in the Twentieth Century. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005.

Bernheimer, Martin. “Opera: Robert Wilson Stages an Abstract Vision of ‘Alceste’ in Chicago.” Los Angeles Times. September 17, 1990. http://articles.latimes.com/1990-09-17/entertainment/ca-466_1_robert-wilson.

Collins, Jane and Andrew Nisbet, eds. Theatre and Performance Design: A Reader in Scenography. London and New York: Routledge, 2010.

Dixon, Steve. Digital Performance: A History of New Media in Theater, Dance, Performance Art, and Installation. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2007.

“Einstein on the Beach, segment III.” YouTube. April 17, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vZMvA0w6phU.

Fairbrother, Trevor. Robert Wilson’s Vision. Boston and New York: Museum of Fine Arts and Harry N. Abrams, 1991.

Feingold, Michael. “The Threepenny Opera Enters the Dead Zone.” Village Voice. October 12, 2011. http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-10-12/theater/the-threepenny-opera-s-dead-zone/.

Holmberg, Arthur. The Theatre of Robert Wilson. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

“LA Opera’s production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly.” YouTube. February 7, 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ikI9YhaGxdI.

“The Making of a Monologue: Robert Wilson’s Hamlet Screener.” YouTube. June 12, 2009. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WpzgbMnEDko.

"A Robert Wilson Retropsective," Performing Arts Journal 15. no. 1 (January 1993): 1,3-24.

Shevtsova, Maria. Robert Wilson. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

Taylor, James C. “Avant-Garde in the City—Robert Wilson, Richard Foreman, and Mikel Rouse.” SundayArts Blog. November 17, 2009. http://www.thirteen.org/sundayarts/blog/performance/avant-garde-in-the-city-robert-wilson-richard-foreman-and-mikel-rouse/769/.

Wilson, Robert and Fred Newman, “A Dialogue on Politics and Therapy, Stillness and Vaudeville,” The Drama Review 47, no. 3 (Fall 2003): 113-28.