A tree is best measured when it is down. --Robert Wilson
Down is not out. Robert Wilson's "the CIVIL warS" came back to life last weekend at Cambridge's American Repertory Theatre and made your reporter feel quite foolish for not knowing what to make of it last winter in Cologne. Clearly, this is a major work by a master theater maker.
"Clearly," because the work is being performed here in English. And that does make a difference. Wilson's train of images is remarkable, but less dazzling than in his "Einstein on the Beach," which wouldn't lose much if it were spoken in Esperanto. "CIVIL warS" has a real text, and the listener needs to understand it.
Boston is not seeing the entire work. It isn't even seeing everything that Cologne saw. An astronaut's section is gone (and not missed); so is a slow-motion battle scene, with 18th-Century soldiers falling in wave after wave (missed).
We are given the last scene of Act III, the complete Act IV and the latter's epilogue. At three hours, most viewers will find that enough for one sitting. (One can imagine this as Part 2 of a three-part "CIVIL warS" marathon, akin to the Royal Shakespeare Company's trilogy, "The Greeks.")
The excerpt stands on its own as an individual work. Part 1 (text by Wilson) refers to the American Civil War, with its candle-lit tents and its soldiers rustling up their morning coffee. Part 2 (text credited to Wilson and to the German playwright, Heiner Mueller) refers to the "civil wars" of family life, with particular reference to the split between fathers and sons. The epilogue features an enormous walking stick-figure of Abraham Lincoln declaiming, in Latin, that there is a time to kill and a time to heal.
That last sounds a bit pompous, and the reader may be tempted to abandon this report altogether on learning that the major example of father-son tension is Emperor Frederick William vs. his "weakling" namesake, Frederick the Great.
But if there's one thing this piece isn't, it's pompous. Grandiose, to be sure. And it has a point to make about war's being literally a matter of brother savaging brother in order to prove to an absent father what men they are. But the point is made so theatrically that it doesn't weigh on the shoulders.
The Lincoln figure, for instance, suggests a funny sideshow image--the world's skinniest man, probably riding on stilts. Frederick the Great ends up underneath the chair, still scared that Daddy will beat him. The spirit here is not that of camp humor. It's more like the pure delight of children's theater, but on a grand scale, with waltzing polar bears and spooky lit-up faces that might come from a Halloween fright show.
Indeed, without the text, the piece can be taken as a narcissistic celebration of whatever popped into Wilson's head. But Frederick the Great is under that chair for a reason. For all Wilson's remark in the art program that "structure is boring," his piece has a common route system. It is a carnival, one might say to a serious purpose.
Or--another word that Wilson commentators keep bringing up--it is a dream. Just so. Dreams commonly yoke unlikely images that the dreamer somehow accepts as congruous--only in retrospect does it seem that one's uncle should appear riding a sea horse.
Here, too, it does not seem impossible that a touring car from 1904 should roll, at about 1 m.p.h., into a Civil War tenting ground; or that one of the passengers in the back seat should be our friend Frederick the Great. Perhaps we are on the verge of the battle of Fredericksberg.
The first part of the show works pretty much as it did in Cologne, except that the tents and the auto read as larger figures and that the voices planted around the house seem more at your elbow. (A curtain problem last weekend reminded you that Wilson's stage pictures need to be carried off like magic, or we start doubting them.)
The second part of the show struck me as being tighter and more telling than before, aside from the obvious gain of hearing the text in English, read by actors whose work one knows--Priscilla Smith and Ben Halley Jr., for instance, old friends from the La Jolla Playhouse.
The text has been beautifully translated by Christopher Martin and Daniel Woker. It is a collage, partly composed by Mueller and partly selected from such apposite sources as Frederick William's bullying letter to his "effeminate" son and Franz Kafka's accusatory letter to his once-bullying father. Two hundred years separate these communications, but they might have crossed in the mail.
We also hear Gertrude assuaging Hamlet and Phaedra tempting Hippolytus--mothers and sons are also a concern. Finally there is a dark passage that sums up the feelings of everyone victimized by the family romance, attributed to the Brothers Grimm:
My mother the drab
she did me to death
my father the villain
killed me in wrath
my sister so small had my bones one and all
in a silken shroud laid ...
This is not the chance, "found" language that Wilson has tended to use in other pieces, nor is it an ironic sendup of classical modes. Even when the accompanying images do smack of burlesque (a fat lady lip-synching Schubert's "Elf King"), the texts strike a note of true dismay about the lessons that grandfather passes onto father, and father passes on to son. Don't build your tower of bricks too high, for someone will kick it over, and laugh at your tears. Toughen up, learn to kick down the other fellow's house.
One later section plays a film loop of collapsing apartment blocks and a tape loop of Philip Glass music, while a squad of actors lines up with grins on their faces.
In Cologne, this struck me as a mean-minded parody of the curtain-call process, almost as if the audience's applause were being thrown back in its teeth. In Cambridge, it seems, rather, a comment on modern man's habit of destroying the universe with a smile in order to keep him from acknowledging the blood on his hands. This way to the showers, ladies and gentlemen, you will soon be quite relaxed.
But another viewer might draw a different conclusion from the image. Wilson has said, rightly that the viewer can add up the piece any way he likes--and that it won't come clear until after he gets home. This was borne out by my experience. For instance, I couldn't remember hearing "My Merry Oldsmobile" in the campfire sequence, as delineated in the ART program. Later, I realized that this was the source of the pensive sequence played over and over again on the banjo during that scene. Like one of those time-released capsules, this work takes a certain number of hours to detonate.
In Cologne, one German critic compared Wilson to the tailor of invisible fabrics in "The Emperor's New Clothes." The misty poetifying tone of some of the other German reviews made an American wonder if indeed Wilson's popularity in Europe related to his skill in laying down a miasma of intellectual hype so thick that no one dare to stand up in the middle of a work and say: "I don't get it."
This was cynical. Wilson's worshipers do get a little gaga when they start comparing him to Wagner. But this is no mountebank. There is a there there--an artist with vision and not just a shrewd worker of the international-festival run.
Nor is the Wagner comparison totally off the wall. Surely Wilson's is at least the biggest theater imagination since Wagner's. The latter took about 20 years to work out "The Ring." In contrast, "the CIVIL warS"--all 12 hours of it--was only a five-year project, worked out on stages throughout the world, for delivery during a specific week of the Olympic Arts Festival. Wagner himself might have said: It can't be done.
As we know, it wasn't done. Distracting as that was in the short run, in the long run it should make for a better piece. The Cambridge section is better framed and more clearly focused than the Cologne section was, and this should be the pattern as other sections get separate American productions, as they deserve to. Just as important, the audience and the critics are getting a clearer picture of the work's ground plan and philosophy. When it finally emerges as a whole, we'll be in better shape to negotiate it without fatigue.
Wilson really does offer a new way to look at theater, or perhaps a very old way that we had forgotten. He offers a theater where suspense to see the next thing that will happen is replaced by pleasure in this thing, for as long as it takes to happen. The rhythm isn't that of one event leading to another, but that of one event playing against another, both of them then vanishing for another cluster of events, which may refer backward to previous events, or may not.
After a while one begins to be aware of leitmotifs: Frederick under the chair, a little boy under the table; real polar bears and people in polar bear suits. The triangles formed by the tents in the first scene of "CIVIL warS" turn up as the tag of the epilogue, now in the form of shining magical shapes that might be cut from pillars of salt or from ice, and it's surprising how one welcomes the resolution of the figure. (The triangle also turns up in Wilson's miniature linking pieces, the "Knee Plays," one or two of which would have been welcome here.)
This is manifestly theater for the eye, but it is also theater for the ear, especially read by these actors. The sentence fragments in the Cologne production sounded purposely random. Here, they contain hints of subtext, so that we had the sense of people speaking to some purpose, which we can't quite catch. We might be telephone operators plugging in and out on the wire.
Another way to say this is that the American Civil War has more human interest than the German one--at least to an American. But we never forget that the family in the second half is a specifically German family, with grandpa in his cap (Jeremy Geidt) and Aunt in her apron (Frances Shrand.) Nor do we overlook the references to the Fatherland in the film of ruined cities and immigrant camps. It would take a German to write this section of the work. It has the hardness of a man criticizing his own family, from knowledge.
But it is the larger human family that is at fault in "the CIVIL warS," ever mourning for its children, ever banishing them to darkness. But capable, maybe, of healing its civil wars, if it ever learns to see into its own inner darkness, as Lear did. A minute later, of course, he was dead. We end with Lear and those magic icebergs, which do seem to have some hope in them. We leave refreshed by the knowledge that Wilson is not just an innovator, not just a manipulator of shapes, but an artist with concerns for the species.
One leaves as well with respect for ART's Robert Brustein, in taking on this expensive and important American premiere, and with equal respect for his literary manager, Jonathan Marks, for having composed a superbly informative program.
Finally one leaves wondering who Wilson has to impress in Los Angeles in order to get a major work done here. "the CIVIL warS" was a blind item, to be sure. But "Einstein on the Beach" was there to be seen this winter at Brooklyn Academy, and despite fund-raising efforts, it will not come to the West Coast. One would think that our museums, very much including the Getty Museum, would have some interest in work with so many alliances to painting and to performance art. And the Philharmonic has already showed an interest in its concert rendition of Philip glass' "CIVIL warS" music. If Boston can afford Wilson, why can't we?