Robert Wilson on the Fly

Photo courtesy

ROBERT WILSON LIVES IN ONE OF THE LAST ungentrified warehouses in Tribeca, and, aside from its size — about 7,000 square feet partitioned into three large rooms and several smaller ones — his loft is unremarkable, with white walls, a floor of gray cement and exposed piping. The contents, however, (and the arrangement of them) are another matter.

The largest room contains a collection of perhaps 150 chairs placed in straight lines along the floor, although some hang from the walls. Chairs have always figured prominently in Wilson's work — the chair slowly descending from the flies in The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud is a memorable image. The collection includes several versions of the Freud chair and of chairs constructed for other pieces, but there are also chairs from all over the world and from other eras. In the presence of all these variations on the theme of the chair, one can't help but think that although sitting is an act that all humans have in common, how and on what one sits differentiates individuals, cultures and histories. In other words, standing in what one might call Robert Wilson's living room, I am connecting concrete objects with abstract ideas exactly as I do when I watch his performance pieces.

"Look around," Wilson says to me, as he lopes by. He is a large (6 feet, 4 inches), somewhat awkwardly constructed (short waisted, long legged) man. His face is pale and rather round — the paleness emphasized by dark-rimmed glasses.

In the room with the chairs is also an impressive array of primitive wood and stone sculptures, numerous vessels (pitchers, pots, vases) and a few choice pieces of contemporary art. In the smaller, slightly less cluttered front room, a 3-foot-high Richard Serra sculpture stands a few feet away from a pair of Marlene Dietrich's silver shoes on a low plexiglass pedestal. This room is also a work room, and at 6:10 p.m., Wilson is standing with several other people around a large table, all of them trying to locate his plane ticket to London. He seems in no hurry despite the fact that his flight leaves in less than two hours and, given that this is rush hour, it's going to take at least an hour and a quarter to get to JFK, enough time for a last-minute interview.

FOR THE PAST 25 YEARS, ROBERT WILSON HAS spent more time directing plays, operas and his own unique spectacles in Europe than in the U.S. His music-theater production of German playwright Georg Büchner's 19th-century play Woyzeck, a collaboration with Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan who together wrote the music and lyrics, originated in 2000 at Copenhagen's Betty Nansen Theater and is performed in English by a Danish cast. The production (now at UCLA's Ralph Freud Playhouse through December 15) toured European cities from Sarajevo to London before its U.S. premiere at the BAM's Next Wave Festival.

Left incomplete when Büchner died of typhus in 1837 at age 23, Woyzeck was eventually published in a version cobbled together from several drafts and was first produced in 1913 as Europe hovered on the brink of the Great War. Elliptical in structure but dense with metaphors and allusions, it describes the descent into madness of a poor soldier who, to make extra money to support his mistress and their child, participates in a medical experiment devised by an army doctor. For nine months, Woyzeck is allowed to eat only peas, and it's this diet as much as his jealousy that drives him insane. Given the institutionalized brutality and exploitation he endures, his apocalyptic visions, like those of Shakespeare's Lear, have the ring of truth — and contemporary truth at that. Woyzeck was embraced by adherents of naturalism and expressionism, and, later, by the postmodernist theater in which Wilson is a dominant force. It has been interpreted as both a poetic psychodrama ä

and a political critique, with the character of Woyzeck hailed as the first proletarian tragic hero.

Wilson explains that he had seen many productions of Büchner's Woyzeck, and also of Wozzeck, the Alban Berg opera adapted from it. They all seemed rather flat to him, he says, although one of them was "very bloody." Wilson's Woyzeck is also very bloody, albeit in a transubstantiated way. When Woyzeck is driven into a jealous rage by the infidelity of Marie, his common-law wife, his outstretched hand is stained crimson by an invisible overhead spotlight, focused so perfectly that it barely spills onto the floor. And when Woyzeck escorts Marie to her doom, a huge black disk — like an eclipsed sun and moon rolled into one — descends in front of a vast cyclorama that turns bright red as Woyzeck takes his razor to Marie's throat. Light, which has always been a central element in Wilson's work, becomes the primary means of expression for one of the darkest plays in the history of Western drama.  

Woyzeck is not the only Büchner play Wilson has directed. In 1993, he mounted a production of Danton's Death at the Alley Theater in Houston, and he has plans to do the playwright's Leonce and Lena in the not-too-distant future. This production also marks his third collaboration with Waits, who scored The Black Rider and Alice, both initially performed at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg in the early 1990s and a few years later in New York.

Conceived to travel, Wilson's Woyzeck uses skeletal scenery combined with computerized lighting. The visual style is eclectic, mixing elements of Weimar expressionism with 1960s minimal art and the kind of 1980s kitsch design popularized by the Memphis group (think Michael Graves tea kettles). With their lacquered, asymmetrical hairdos and stiffened costumes, the actors look like refugees from a Klaus Nomi concert, and their poses resemble Egyptian friezes. The Danish actors speak flawless English and, technically, are quite adept. Jens Jørn Spottag, who plays Woyzeck, offers something more impressive — the suggestion of a visionary inner life. But Woyzeck's tortured introspection and the gentle interplay between Woyzeck's young son and his grandfather (whom Wilson has renamed the Fool) are no match for the winking cabaret-styled delivery and one-note cynicism of the other performers. The result is an emotional impasse that even the energetic grind-house score can't overcome. This Woyzeck is visually elegant and mean as spit. It depicts a world no one would want to live in and leaves you with the sinking suspicion that perhaps we all do.

It's the sheer nastiness of the production that makes it such a disturbing contrast to the work that Wilson did during the first decade of his career. My memory of those spectacles — The King of Spain (1969), The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud (1969), Deafman Glance (1970-71), The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973), and Einstein on the Beach (1976) — is of their overwhelming tenderness and their slightly scary, dreamlike quality.

Wilson found what was potentially arresting in each of his performers, many of whom were nonprofessionals. There was Sheryl Sutton, the Medea figure of the four-hour-long Deafman Glance, standing impossibly erect in her high-necked black Victorian dress and moving in slow motion as she took a knife to her children. There was Cynthia Lubar, screaming in what sounded like a half-dozen voices at once in Letter for Queen Victoria. There was Andy de Groat, spinning like a Sufi — so fast that he turned into a blur of white light. There was Wilson himself doing a kind of spastic dance in which every joint of his body seemed to move independently or leading a chorus of 60 dancing mammies in doo-rags and blackface, all of them hovering at the far side of the stage as if they knew they barely had to show themselves to make an impact.

WILSON GREW UP IN TEXAS AND CAME TO New York in 1963. He had studied painting and architecture, but he was also involved in doing dance and speech therapy with differently abled children and with the elderly. Two of the children he worked with — Christopher Knowles and Raymond Andrews — directly influenced his early work. Andrews, a deaf and mute African-American boy whom Wilson adopted, is the titular deaf man in Deafman Glance. Knowles, who is severely brain-damaged, wrote the poetic Gertrude Stein­like texts that Wilson incorporated into almost all of his performance pieces through Einstein on the Beach. Knowles' reading of his own texts on the CD of Einstein suggests the haunting quality of Wilson's work in the '60s and '70s far better than any photographic documentation. Knowles and Andrews, like Lubar, Sutton, de Groat and several other adults, became the core of a loosely knit performing troupe, the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds. It was from the work Wilson did with this company that the distinct aesthetic of his theater developed.

Which is to say that, during the first decade of his career, Wilson's work was collaborative in a way that it has not been since 1980. Wilson has become the most peripatetic of directors, staging pieces with repertory and opera companies all over the globe. And although he has directed some great performers — the German actor Edith Cleaver and the opera diva Jessye Norman among them — some of us still miss the surprise, trust and, yes, tenderness that was evident in the bond between Wilson and the Byrds.  

"I'VE ALWAYS THOUGHT ABSTRACTLY — through theme and variations rather than narrative. Or through counterpoint — putting two different things together so that you see each of them more clearly. But they have to be the right two things," Wilson says, explaining the aesthetic principles that guide his work during the ride to the airport. He and I and another man (whom I take to be his manager) are crunched together in the back seat of the car, and Wilson is still rifling through his pockets looking for his ticket.

Wilson (left) with longtime collaborator
Tom Waits

(Photo courtesy

"How are we doing, James?" he asks the driver, who, on the way back, tells me that he drives Wilson whenever he does a piece at BAM and that he's always late getting to the airport. Now the manager is calling assistants, the travel agent, the airline, while Wilson rummages through his carry-on bags, dumping their contents piece by piece onto my lap.

"It's hysteria," he announces, not unhappily, as he attempts to answer the questions I am intermittently trying to pose.

"European actors are into naturalism, so in the beginning they feel restricted by me. They find it hard to maintain a line of tension. They fight it, but once they master it, they find a different kind of freedom. And now, with the computerized lighting changes, they have to be even more precise about being exactly in the right place. But if you look at Chaplin or Keaton or Astaire, their timing was meticulous. All theater is dance. Do you think we can be there in 15 minutes, James?"

During another phone call, it is ascertained that in addition to the 8 p.m. flight, there's one at 9 p.m. The hysteria abates somewhat. "Christopher Knowles, Büchner, Heiner Müller, Burroughs, Chekhov, Shakespeare — it's all one body of work," he says. At 7:25 p.m., we pull up at British Airways. Wilson leaps out and disappears into the terminal.LA


Woyzeck is being performed at UCLA's Ralph Freud Playhouse, Tuesdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., and Sundays at 7 p.m.; through December 15. Call (310) 825-2101 or

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