THEATER • Robert Wilson
His productions are long, slow, and stylized, but also hypnotic, seductive, and very much his own.
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THE QUESTION IS NOT whether Robert Wilson is interesting or important or one of the most innovative theatrical minds of the century. He is all of those. The question is, Is he a Texan in any meaningful sense?
The answer is, Sure. While he is certainly like many who have left Texas to seek the wider world, he retains something more inherently Texan than a lanky body, a squinty stare, and the twang you can hear when he’s had a few vodkas. There is something irreducibly of the state about him, in particular of its openness. With his luminous empty stages, his striking props and effects and sudden coups de theatre dotted like armadillos and giant lizards and cacti amidst the void, and his stretches of theatrical space and time, he carries Texas with him wherever he goes.
Wilson was born in Waco in 1941. His parents were Baptists; his father was the city manager. Everyone calls him Bob. (Director Anne Bogart, an acolyte, even conceived a play called Bob, in which an actor imitates Bob with a monologue consisting entirely of oracular Bob quotations. It sold out for six weeks earlier this year in downtown Manhattan.) But he left Texas more than thirty years ago, and except to fulfill commissions from the Houston Grand Opera and Houston’s Alley Theatre, he has rarely returned. He works mostly in Europe and has often expressed regret that he isn’t more welcome at home. By home he means America in general and New York in particular, Houston’s enthusiasm notwithstanding.
But that native recognition is slowly coming. For years he’s had a loft in lower Manhattan, near the west end of Canal Street overlooking the Hudson River and the sunsets. More recently he’s established his Watermill Center in the fashionable Hamptons on Long Island, where he spends as much of the summer as he can, works with disciples (ranging from young Germans to Susan Sontag) preparing a dizzying range of projects, holds swank benefit galas, and hopes one day to create a shrine to his work in the manner, one suspects, of Richard Wagner at Bayreuth. He’s even getting more and more work from the stuffier institutions of New York—not just from the Brooklyn Academy of Music, which has long championed him, but from the Lincoln Center Festival and even the Metropolitan Opera. True, his staging of Wagner’s opera Lohengrin at the Met this past spring proved highly controversial, but his work always seems to be that.
How so? What is it that Wilson actually does, and why is it mocked and praised in awestruck verbiage usually reserved for religious epiphanies? He is often called a theater artist, and that’s probably the best term. He is a director, but he is also a set and lighting designer. He stages operas and plays like Lohengrin and Parsifal. But he also makes his own radical adaptations of the classics, like his HAMLET: a monologue; he played all the parts, acting a sequentially shuffled, cut-down version of the text. Most significantly, some devotees say, he creates his own works, often enlisting starry collaborators (Philip Glass many times, Umberto Eco, David Bowie, famous actors and singers and dancers) but always making the outcome uniquely his own.
Wilson productions are slow, stylized (to the point of mannerism, some say), and visually hypnotic. He has translated the glowing minimalism of painters like Barnet Newman and Mark Rothko into stage pictures, then has peopled them with figures who sometimes seem reduced to barely animate visual elements. True believers, of whom I am one, find the results at their frequent best to be compelling on an almost literally seductive level. After you’ve breathed the air of Wilson’s theater, too much other theater seems manic, wordy, cluttered, ill considered.
His career may arguably have been foreshadowed by the strange little plays he put on in school in Waco and in his family’s garage. “Any mother who lets a child see this is sick,” one parent cried as she stormed from a performance in which Wilson wrapped a schoolgirl chum in cellophane. He stuttered; he felt weighed down by the oppression of religion and a small-town mentality. He needed the encouragement of a dance teacher named Bird Hoffman to fuel his confidence.
After a brief stop at the University of Texas at Austin, he found freedom in New York, as so many have done. His first mature plays—1971’s Deafman Glance was six hours of ritualized silence—won him a bohemian audience. He used largely amateur actors pulled together from his circle of downtown Manhattan admirers. But after an enormous triumph with Deafman Glance in Paris in 1971, he was hailed as the new genius of the day by the French intelligentsia, and his international career began. After a few more cult hits—the 168-hour KA MOUNTAIN AND THE GUARDenia Terrace in 1972, the 12-hour Life and Times of Joseph Stalin in 1973, the merely 5-hour Einstein on the Beach in 1976—he undertook his first work with well-known actors in Germany in 1979 and was henceforth largely lost to Europe.
But what of Texas? In the past few years Wilson has truly been lured back to Houston, where he is an associate artist at the Alley and a favorite of Grand Opera director David Gockley. Beyond that, however, it is no stretch to sense the state at the core of his work. There is an emptiness to the Wilson stage, a flatness of contour and mood, a lucidity that would be instantly familiar to anyone who has seen the light, land, and overarching sky of West Texas. I once flew with Wilson in a private jet from Houston to Marfa and back, and the landscape looked very much like his art. He created his style in partial reaction to what he saw as the busy overactivity of most New York theater. He’s come a long way from Waco, yet one can hear the debunking practicality of his father in the way he talks to this day about Broadway.
So the answer to the question of what’s Texan about Robert Wilson these days isn’t “not much”; that may be technically true, but it’s totally wrong. The answer is, Everything. And whatever he now thinks of his home state, his home state should be very proud of him.