It makes sense that Robert Wilson comes from Texas. Sure, his theatrical productions are firmly grounded in the interdisciplinary avant-garde, but they also have much in common with that four-hour dustbowl epic of 1950s cinema, "Giant." His works are massive and... [more]
It makes sense that Robert Wilson comes from Texas. Sure, his theatrical productions are firmly grounded in the interdisciplinary avant-garde, but they also have much in common with that four-hour dustbowl epic of 1950s cinema, "Giant." His works are massive and rangy, ghost towns under a slow heat and a big sky.
Wilson's career was set in motion by his momentous collaboration with Philip Glass, "Einstein on the Beach." Even though its 1976 premiere sold out, the audience dwindled over the course of its five-hour sprawl. Everyone involved lost money. Glass kept driving his cab, and Wilson began working increasingly in Europe, where five-hour Wagner-fests were part of the cultural heritage and state subsidies could support big art. To this day Wilson's works are rarely produced in his home country because of their grand, prohibitive costs.
In works like "Einstein on the Beach," "The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin," and "The Civil Wars," political and historical themes meander more than they state. In long, sometimes unrelated scenes and entr'acte (which Wilson has termed "knee plays"), historical characters appear as hazy accretions of memory instead of neat collections of facts. For Wilson, history is a random point of departure for the fever-dreamscape of a marginalized consciousness.
The roots of such ventures stem from Wilson's work with developmentally disabled and brain-damaged children earlier in his career. Much of the text for "Einstein on the Beach" came from a 13-year-old autistic boy's answer to the question "Who is Einstein?" And 1971's "Deaf Man Glance" was a "silent opera," the result of Wilson's collaboration with a young, deaf-mute boy named Raymond Andrews; Wilson based the work on Andrews' picture-story of a cow swallowing the sun.
The "picture-story" form has echoed throughout Wilson's career. He has come to call his genre-resistant work a "theater of images." It eschews many elements that traditional theater takes for granted -- such as plot and dialogue -- in favor of meticulous, choreographed staging. And even though he has collaborated with dance artists, Wilson's sense of movement seems inspired more by gray whales or tectonic plates than by any sort of kinetic urgency.
Wilson's decadence and seeming disregard for the audience remain controversial. Critic Ethan Mordden asserted, "Wilson's substitution of very, very slow moving pictures for plot, character, and dialogue is of questionable value. Of "Einstein on the Beach," Christopher Caines wrote a touch more kindly, "The opera challenged its audience in ways familiar to the avant-garde tradition since dada and the Bauhaus: the music's unrelenting amplified onslaught, and the agonizing 'largissimo' of Wilson's dissociated staging of a bizarre and fragmentary text, tested the viewer/auditor's capacity to sustain boredom and bafflement, or to find boredom and bafflement somehow interesting." Maddeningly but necessarily repetitive, Robert Wilson's gibberish comes from a modern tower of Babel. His Postmodern visions both echo and regale the oppressive clamor of the canon. [show less]