Robert Wilson: orchestrator of theatrical images. In his hands, the stage becomes a slowly shifting kaleidoscope
New York — THEY have a mysterious logic to them,'' says director-designer-playwright Robert Wilson, speaking of the grand but elusive stage productions that have made him a leading figure in the theatrical world. Some observers fault his offerings as having too much mystery and too little meaning -- especially such ambitious works as ``The Golden Windows,'' a chamber play, and ``Einstein on the Beach,'' an opera written with composer Philip Glass.
Others cheer his style, finding both beauty and wit in the plotless, immaculately composed, gradually shifting stage-pictures that make up his ``theater of images,'' as some critics have dubbed it. Other stage artists, from director Elizabeth LeCompte to choreographer Lucinda Childs, have also drawn from his ideas in the course of evolving their own distinctive approaches.
My most recent meeting with Wilson took place at the Brooklyn Academy of Music here, as he busily prepared ``The Golden Windows'' for its American premi`ere. (His next work, ``Alcestis,'' will be premi`ering tonight at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass.) After years of working mostly in Europe, where his productions have been more readily welcomed than in the United States, he seemed pleased at being able lately to stage more and more pieces in his own country -- even though this native of Waco, Texas, has at times sharply attacked what he sees as American resistance to new artistic experiences. Especially his.
When it opened, ``The Golden Windows'' proved to be a characteristic Wilson work. The stage is dominated by a small house-like structure that changes position in every scene. The characters include a man sitting on a bench, a woman in white hovering spectrally in the sky, and a cheerful ``hanged man'' who whistles ``A Bicycle Built for Two'' while dangling from a noose. Deliberately, the pace is glacial. Deliberately, the dialogue is a series of non sequiturs with no clear relation to the visual action. Deliberately, the show has no conscious ``meaning,'' and no purpose but to generate a flow of dreamlike images.
The same description, with different particulars, would fit such Wilson videos as ``Deafman Glance'' and ``Stations,'' as well as most of his stage works. Advance hints indicate it will also go for ``Alcestis,'' his new show based on Euripides, at the American Repertory Theatre, which put on a dazzling portion of his 10-hour epic ``the CIVIL warS'' last season. (A planned production of the complete ``CIVIL warS'' in Texas has been canceled for financial reasons, as was a planned production at the Los Angeles Olympics Arts Festival two years ago, but portions of it have already been staged in countries around the world.)
Long fascinated with the odd resonances of Wilson's work, I asked why he was so attracted to a ``mysterious'' brand of logic.
``I think mystery . . . allows us time to dream,'' the lanky director replied, peering dreamily through his horn-rimmed spectacles. ``It allows for the knowledge within us to come forth. Socrates said we were born with knowledge within us -- it's just the uncovering of the knowledge we need. It's through the mysteries we do this.
``That's why I don't like [realistic] theater. It kills the mysteries for me.''
Wilson's disdain for ``normal'' theater is legendary. ``In a Broadway theater,'' he says in a biting tone, ``they almost always tell you at the end what it's about. I haven't seen that many Broadway shows, but I did see `Death of a Salesman,' and at the end [actress] Kate Reid was very upset when Willy Loman died. I felt like saying, `Relax, lady! We knew it was gonna happen! When I bought my ticket, it said: Death of a Salesman!' It's all tied up in a little box with a string on it. . . .''
Wilson prefers an experience that's harder to pin down. But this doesn't mean he cuts himself off from tradition. Just the opposite: Recent years have found him working with such classic texts as ``Medea'' and ``King Lear,'' respecting their ``richness'' but bringing his own touch to them in matters of stagecraft.
Nor does Wilson indulge his visual ideas willy-nilly. He molds them rigorously -- consciously shaping every detail of every image, down to the smallest nuance of light and shadow. In doing so, he tames the ``mysteries'' he loves without losing their haunted moods and atmospheres.
He likens the rules and structures of his work to the banks of a river, channeling and containing what might otherwise be chaotic and out of control. ``They are the boundaries,'' he says. ``And inside them you have a flow. . . .''
In dealing with actors, Wilson asks them to ``leave your ideas in a little black box at the side of the stage . . . so . . . you're like the audience, you're a reflection of them. We don't tell them what to think. We invite them to get an exchange of ideas. We don't say, `This is it.' Instead we say. `What is it?' And people will have many different interpretations. . . .''
As for critics, Wilson wishes they would have the same ``open-ended'' attitude he has, instead of searching for meaning all the time. ``If a critic says, `This is what it is,' then there's no reason for people to go see it,'' he asserts. ``That narrows and limits the experience of the audience. Only philosophers -- over a period of time -- can say, `OK, this is this and that's that.'
``That's why I usually work [on a piece] over a long period of time . . . so there's time to live with it. That's the only way I know whether I like it or I think it works. . . .''
Wilson admits that even he must ``stay on guard'' against imposing narrow, limited interpretations on his essentially ``mysterious'' texts and images. But it's worth the effort, in his view.
``I'm not a philosopher,'' he says, ``or an intellectual. I'm an artist. Most artists don't understand what they do, and I don't think we have to. Other people do that better -- they understand what I do better than I do!''