Robert Wilson, Transmutation of Archetypes:
Robert Wilson is celebrated as the brilliant creator of a radically avant-garde
version of total theatre; a theatre which transcends plot and language
to become a complex work of visual art. His remarkable drawings are studies
for these productions.
Until 1981, Wilson's scenarios were based on original conceptions devised in collaboration with his actors, notably a deaf-mute child, Raymond Andrews, and an autistic boy, Christopher Knowles, whose condition caused him to use words in an unusually poetic and evocative manner. Over the past five years, however, Wilson has turned from his earlier dreamlike, hermetic scenarios to some of the grandest mythic themes of Western literature. His version of Medea, with a score by the British composer Gavin Bryars, was first performed in an open rehearsal at the Kennedy Center in Washington D. C. in 1981, and premiered in Lyons, France, presented on alternate evenings with Wilson's staging of the 18th century opera Medée by Marc-Antoine Charpentier. The Wagner family approached Wilson to design the centennial production of Parsifal for the Bayreuth Festival of 1982. But the project was opposed by James Levine, the production's conductor, and never materialized; it has yet to be staged. Wilson's production of Euripides' Alcestis opened at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in March 1986, and will be presented in alternation with the Gluck opera in Stuttgart during the 1986-87 season. His staging of a contemporary version of Hamlet by Heiner Müller is in preparation, with a studio production scheduled for New York in May 1986. King Lear is projected for September 1987 in Hamburg. The drawings for Medea and Parsifal, which are the subject of this exhibition, thus constitute the beginning of this new phase in Wilson's theatre.
Wilson was trained as an artist. His stage work is in the tradition of artists' theatre; the visual theatre of the Constructivists and the Dadaists, the Happenings of the '60s and contemporary performance art. Yet Wilson has always used the proscenium stage, and elaborate sets, lighting, and stage machinery in ways more characteristic of grand opera than of alternative theatre. While music remains the core of the opera, it is the visual elements that carry the emotional charge and the deepest significance of such Wilson works as Deafman Glance, Einstein on the Beach, Edison, or the CIVIL warS. For Wilson, dramatic structure is neither narrative nor episodic. It consists, rather, of the slow unfolding of a sequence of stage effects: apparently unrelated images that seem almost hallucinatory in their vivid strangeness. These images are endlessly astonishing. Lucid, rich, and sensual, they possess a dreamlike density and proceed in an orderly elaboration. They are connected by a mysteriously convincing inner logic: not one of causality, but of aesthetic coherence. Action and speech or song are subordinated to this visual scenario. Fragmented, dislocated woven into recurrent patterns of sound, dialogue seldom conveys literal meaning. Drained of the power to communicate, describe, or analyze directly, words are used primarily for their sonic and associative content. In the absence of normal discourse, the action seems at once incomprehensible and intensely, almost painfully significant. What is memorable is not what happens or what is said, but what is seen.
Dissociated from language, time becomes strangely dis tended. Wilson uses time in the same way as he uses light. Extraordinarily subtle, almost imperceptible modulations of action and lighting bring scenes and events into being. Time is a continuum within which certain moments congeal into visions of dazzling clarity. One of the most resonant of these images occurs in Deafman Glance of 1973, in a sequence which Wilson used again three years later in The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin. The "Byrd Woman, " played by the black actress Sheryl Sutton, dressed in a black Victorian gown, slowly draws on long black gloves, pours milk for each of her two children, and slowly stabs them each in turn. Here private imagery meets universal myth, for the "Byrd Woman" is clearly a variant of Medea. She is the woman of another race, the exile, the victim, the unknowable. In Medea, Wilson deals for the first time with a known story, a powerful myth which has provided the inspiration for dozens of other artists, writers, and composers over the past 2,500 years. The libretto for the opera is based on Euripides. Although Wilson takes some liberties with the text, he does so in ways that renew the original for the contemporary audience.
Euripides' verse is recited alternately in French, ancient Greek, and modern Greek translation, preserving the structure of the original play while pursuing Wilson's con cern with discontinuities of language. A prologue has been added, recounting how Medea, princess of Colchis, helped the Greek hero Jason to steal the Golden Fleece and how she murdered her brother Apsyrtus and cast his limbs into the sea from the Greek ship Argo to foil her father's pursuit.
The slow pace and hieratic, processional disposition of figures on the stage set a ritual tone and establish a distance between actors and audience. To some extent this is the distance of antiquity, a world remote and yet familiar, one that is evoked as well by the costumes of Franca Squar ciapino which recall Pompeiian painting, Attic vases, and Hellenistic sculpture. Moreover, this Medea takes place both in Corinth and in a conceptual place of Wilson's devis ing. Jason, the expedient and political man, prepared to sacrifice loyalty to achieve success, is dressed in a business suit. At the end of Act II, when Jason attempts to justify his decision to abandon Medea and marry (Creusa, daughter of the king of Corinth, and Medea resolves to kill their two children, a chorus of living statues depicting wise menˇMoses, Confucius, Marx, Einstein, Gandhiˇwitness the confrontation and seem to absolve her.
The last scene of Act IV ruptures the action. Nineteen actors in modern
dress, seated around a table, address the audience, discussing in several
languages Medea's murder of her children as well as recent cases of child
abuse, neglect, or infanticide, emphasizing her kinship with other unfortunate,
exploited, and desperate women. Placed in this context, Medea's act, classified
and explained sociologically, seems even more painful, even more diffficult
to comprehend or accept. Wilson's Medea, like Euripides', declares the
implacable logic of Fate and the arbitrariness of the gods which surpass
Wilson rings the final act of Medea with fire. In a brief prologue, projected images show Creusa, consumed by the poisoned golden cloak Medea has sent her as a wedding gift, casting herself from a cliff. Medea refuses to allow Jason to bury his children, ascends to the temple of Hera in a magic chariot drawn by serpents, and Jason walks naked into the flames as Corinth burns.
The settings for Medea are relatively simple: four columns and the entrance into a dwelling. The scenes proceed as though viewed from a long-shot to a close-up: all four columns are visible at first, then two, and then one, as the yawning void of the entrance grows larger until the climactic scene of the children's murder shifts back to the initial distance. Wilson, who draws constantly, produced numerous preparatory drawings which, he says, describe the placement and the tone of the light, and consequently the atmosphere and meaning of the scenes. A few of these drawings are story boards that describe an action, or, more often, the progression of a stage effect. Most repeat almost obsessively the image of the empty stage, in sequences that show the successive transformations of stage space by stage lighting. As Bernice Rose has written, the drawings "deal with the transparent volume of the space of the stage, relating chiaroscuro drawing to the light and shadow of the stage space."1 The drawings are minimal, austere, scribbled in graphite line, laid down with casual authority. The expressive, almost automatic touch, the sobriety of images, the extraordinary evocation of light are masterful. Many seem completely abstract. These are also conceptual drawings. They are a way of thinking, a pool of ideas which will be transformed into three-dimensional stage images; meditations on the underlying themes addressed by the theatrical works.Parsifal, the most mystical and hermetic of Wagner's operas, has obvious affinities with Wilson's early work. The tale of Parsifal, the "guileless fool" who heals Amfortas, the incurably wounded guardian of the Holy Grail, proceeds in a series of powerfully symbolic episodes. Parsifal's arrival at the temple of Montsalvat where the Grail is guarded by a brotherhood of dedicated knights, is announced by the death of a swan. Despite the fact that Parsifal has killed the sacred bird, the orphan who has lived in ignorance in the forest is protected by the gatekeeper Gurnemanz, and enters the service of the knights. He seems scarcely to understand their religious ceremonies, yet it is he who will ultimately destroy the magician Klingsor who has stolen the spear that pierced Christ's side and used it to wound Amfortas.
In the second act, Parsifal becomes a formidable knight. Klingsor summons Kundryˇa woman who had laughed at Christ as he suffered on the cross and is condemned to wander until her sin is expiatedˇand demands that she seduce Parsifal as she had once seduced Amfortas, thereby delivering the knight, too, into the magician's power. Klingsor's castle disappears, and in its place an enchanted garden appears, where flower maidens sing seductively to Parsifal. Kundry, in the guise of a beautiful maiden, tells
Parsifal that he is the son of a king who was slain in battle, and that
his mother raised him as a peasant to prevent him from becoming a warrior.
She claims to bring him his dying mother's message, and a kiss. But Parsifal
rejects the kiss; Klingsor hurls the magic spear at him, the youth siezes
it in mid-air and strikes Klingsor dead. The garden vanishes and Kundry
is revealed as a pitiful old woman, crouching on the ground in guilt and
Years later, Parsifal returns to Montsalvat, heals Amfortas, and becomes the keeper of the Grail. As he holds it aloft, the temple is flooded with light and the Holy Spirit descends in the form of a dove.
One can scarcely overestimate the role of the drawings in the creation of Wilson's theatre. At this stage, his Parsifal exists only in drawings and yet it is already possible to see the entire shape of the finished production. In an interview with Laurence Shyer, originally published in Theater, Wilson describes how the action unfolds:
There is no house curtain. Instead there's a curtain of light. Then a wall of water with the beams of light coming vertically across.
Eventually a lake appears at the back and that's the prelude.
The whole piece is in blue. Gurnemanz appears here at the downstage edge of the lake.
Just before Parsifal enters I have this enormous white swan, the swan that he's just shot, falling very slowly into the lake.
For the transformation sceneˇ"Time becomes space here"ˇI have a great disk of light that moves on stage from the side and an iceberg floating upstage.
Eventually the disk of light settles in the center of the lake. Parsifal stands downstage watching with his back to the audience the way the audience watches it.
I don's have the knights or any of that. Amfortas is carried out in his litter and he goes into the iceberg and takes out an Egyptian box. Inside is a clear glass chalice which is shaped like an X.
He holds it up and then he disappears. At the end, Gurnemanz comes into the ring of light and asks Parsifal, "What have you seen?"And there's just the light, the whiteness. The idea is to make this mysterious temple of light. IYs as if one were to see this big ring of light floating out here in the middle of the Hudson. IYs all about light. And that's the first act. The second act starts the same way with the vertical beams of light crossing the water. We're still at the lake but now it's night and a metal tower rises out of the water.IYs like a fairy tale....
Klingsor appears in a window in the tower and he's a bad guy almost the way Ivan the Terrible is in the movie. Kundry is next to himˇand I want to do it with Jessye Normanˇand her hair falls out of the tower. After their scene, the doors close and the tower sinks beneath the waves. Then we go underwater for the flower garden scene.There are ferns and painted flowers that open. They're all flat with lights inside them, only the rocks are dimensional. The flower garden is all in color. It's like Chinese flowers that open in the water. At the end of the act Klingsor throws his spear at Parsifal. Here it's a rod of light. The scene is all black painted and at the moment Parsifal picks up the glowing rod, we turn on all the lights from behind and everything appears in cold black and white like a skeleton. Parsifal takes the rod of light and draws the outline of the chalice in light, and that's the end of the second act. The third act begins the same way as the first except I've put the singers on the other side of the stage. For springtime (the Good Friday Scene), I've created an enormous tulip that's lowered into the lake, like the big swan you saw in the first act.
I also bring all the chorus onstage for one brief moment when they're trying to convinceAmfortas to perform the "rail ceremony. We have him Iying in his litter and they rush on and form a huge wall of bodies downstage.
The ring of light comes back on. IYs now a black disk, which slowly falls into the lake, turning white when Parsifal stands on it. He takes the chalice from the Egyptian box in the iceberg and holds it up. The iceberg disappears.
At the end he leaves the stage. No one is on stage. Fire comes out of the ring of light and stars appear in the sky. 2
Wagner's timing, his sense of mystery and the symbolism of light m the myth of the Grail are clearly very close in spirit to Wilson's own creations for the theatre. Through the drawings, we can imagine how his profound visual intelligence will illuminate Wagner's vision of Parsifal.Nina Castelli Sundell
1 Bernice Rose, New Work on Paper 3, The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1985, p.l5.
2 "Robert Wilson: Current Projects" in Robert Wilson: The Theatre of Images, The Contemporary Arts Center, Cincinnati, The Byrd Hoffman Foundation New York. Harper & Row, New York, 1984, pp. 113-114.
The drawings in this exhibition are on loan courtesy of Paula Cooper Gallery. I would especially like to thank Steve Wolfe of the gallery staff for his generous assistance, and of course Robert Wilson, without whom the exhibition would not have been possible.
Medea, (Act 1), 1984.
Medea (Act II, Scene C), 1984.
Parisfal (Act I), 1985.
Parsifal (Act II), 1985.
Works in the Exhibition