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Music: A Tree Grows and Grows

8 minute read
Michael Walsh

Robert Wilson’s “opera,” the CIVIL warS, unfolds brilliantly

The collaboration involves four European countries, Japan and the U.S.

Such figures as East German Playwright Heiner Müller, Argentine Film Maker Edgardo Cozarinsky and American Composer Philip Glass are contributing their talents. The plot, if it may be called that, embraces history, from mythological Greece to the distant future, and has as its centerpiece the violent, haunting images of the American Civil War. For the mastermind of it all, Texas-born Robert Wilson, 42, it is the boldest venture yet in an avant-garde theatrical career that has specialized in audacity. It is the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, a multimillion-dollar “opera” that, when its segments are finally brought together, will last up to twelve hours.

Since last September, when Act I, Scene B startled Rotterdam, the CIVIL warS has been unfolding in impressive national installments. The German module, which comprises parts of the opera’s first, third and fourth acts, was unveiled in January to popular acclaim in Cologne. It was followed in March by Act V, with music by Glass, in Rome. Late last month the U.S. made its contribution to Wilson’s epic with the premiere in Minneapolis of the Knee Plays, crucial connecting episodes tinged with delicate orientalism that link the vast work’s 15 scenes. All the sections, including the still unperformed French and Japanese portions, were to be presented next month in Los Angeles at the Olympic Arts Festival. But the funds to stage Wilson’s grandiose epic were not raised, and the performance was canceled.

The cancellation is America’s loss and a cultural embarrassment in the eyes of the Europeans and Japanese, who had budgeted money to ship their productions to the U.S. For the CIVIL warS is a magnum opus that outdoes in richness and complexity even Wilson’s previous essays in theatrical gigantism, such as The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (1973) and his best-known work, Einstein on the Beach (1976). Spare and elliptical, yet also bril liantly colorful and chillingly perceptive, the CIVIL warS is a radical concatenation of allusions whose theme is destruction and death but whose message is the importance of civilization and the value of life. It is all summed up in the title: an ironic juxtaposition of capital ized culture and lower-case belligerence.

“I don’t like the theater much,” says Wilson, who has been challenging conventional notions of what constitutes the genre for 15 years. “But I love the abstract, fluttering visual patterns of ballet, and I think that is basically what I’ve done in theater: architectural landscapes that are structured.”

Wilson’s landscapes are painted with striking images whose very incongruity lends them a poignant power.

His predilection for nonverbal, intuitive communication derives in part from his experience of teaching body awareness and movement to brain-damaged children during his undergraduate years at the University of Texas and at Brooklyn’s Pratt Institute (where he majored in architecture). The opening scene of his latest work is set in outer space, with two astronauts suspended on huge ladders above what appears to be Africa; the finale is in the primeval forest, with Hercules singing an a cappella aria as wild animals snort and trumpet an obbligato in the distance. In between, such characters as Garibaldi, Robert E. Lee, Voltaire, Shakespeare’s Duke of Burgundy from Henry V, Dorothy and the Tin Woodman, and Mary Todd Lincoln wander through a vast, dreamlike tableau vivant. Continents split violently apart, Frederick the Great looms over a model of Berlin while his soldiers are slaughtered in ranks behind him, and a Gay Nineties family, out for a Sunday spin in its merry Oldsmobile, serenely surveys a Civil War encampment. Towering, literally, above them all is Abraham Lincoln, a 16-ft.-tall figure formed by a singer suspended in a harness and wearing a long coat. He is, in the folk adage applied by Carl Sandburg, the tree that is best measured when it is down.

A second element in the Wilsonian aesthetic is a spacious, almost primordial sense of time. The actors move with exaggerated slowness, and the stage pictures flower only gradually; to Wilson, becoming is more important than being. In the German section, an entire scene is devoted to the evolution of a smile across the faces of 20 people. In the fifth “knee play,” lines of red, yellow and blue light gradually lengthen on a scrim and then turn into graffiti on the side of a foundered boat. “I just like structured silences, long physical pauses,” says Wilson. “They have a sense of natural time, like the time it takes the sun to set or clouds to pass.” The disjunctive dialogue, too, adds to the impression. A fragment of Act III goes like this: “The photographer’s ears … one hears in mind … do you want some coffee… no… the vicissitudes of collodion applications in the field wet plates…” The words, like the visual images, are meant to evoke, or provoke, a state of mind. Says Wilson: “My goal is to have people listen to the text, not listen for a narrative structure.”

No aspect of the CIVIL warS is more impressive than its construction. Although the national sections form coherent entities by themselves, with one exception they are not discrete acts. Act III, for example, is composed of bits of the ” French, Japanese and German segments, and the Knee Plays can function either as a two-hour series of stylized entractes that develop several of the opera’s primary images or as interludes in a larger scheme. Wilson’s ability to keep these interrelated fragments straight in his mind resembles Mozart’s knack for writing out the parts of a string quartet individually before bothering to make a full score.

Baldly summarized, Wilson’s work can sound arbitrary and pretentious. But far from being a melange of odds and sods, the CIVIL warS is a tightly knit, carefully planned work that uses visual, verbal and musical images the way Wagner used leitmotivs: to unify and clarify complex relationships among ideas and to weave of his various strands a single tapestry. The tree of the first “knee play” is transformed into the astronauts’ ladder and finally into the oaken Lincoln of the last act. The detritus of war — the toppling bodies of mortally stricken soldiers, the bombed-out city of Cologne — is swept away by the final “knee play” as a new tree grows from the pages of a book. Wilson’s dream world is informed by the perspective of the hypnagogic state: the sleep of reason may produce monsters, as Goya thought, but it can also call forth visions.

Although Wilson calls the CIVIL warS opera, there is little singing in it.

The music ranges from the unexpectedly relaxed, New Orleans-style brass band score for the Knee Plays, by David Byrne, who is best known as the aggressive lead singer for the progressive rock group Talking Heads, to the sound collages of Germany’s Hans Peter Kuhn. At least one section, however, amounts to a full-fledged opera: Glass’s Act V, from Rome.

Glass, 47, in recent years has become a leading opera composer through such works as Satyagraha (1980) and Akhnaten, which was premiered in Stuttgart in March. Glass describes Act V of the CIV IL warSas his “romantic” opera. The repetitive rhythms and melodic figurations that are his trademark are still present, but the score is suffused with an Italianate warmth and passion that explicitly recall Verdi in some passages. The most dramatic of these occurs when Garibaldi, who has been sitting in a box placidly viewing the action onstage, suddenly interrupts to deliver an aria about his life that has the fervor of Di quella pira from Il Trovatore. Whatever the ultimate fate of the CIVIL warS, Glass has a piece that can stand on its own.

And what is to become of the CIVIL warS 1 Its director-designer is practically a cultural expatriate, far better known in the more adventurous European theater world than he is in his own country. “I thought this would be the thing that brought my work back to America,” says Wilson, with some bitterness. The Knee Plays will tour Europe next fall, and plans are afoot for performances of various other sections in the south of France and in Mu nich in 1985. The best prospects for the world’s first complete production, though, seem to be at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in October 1985. American audiences, who are accustomed to timid, representational productions of safe repertoire in their theaters and opera houses, could use a taste of the freewheeling iconography that now dominates in Europe. If it is Wil son’s dream to come home, it is the phantasmagorical allegory of the CIVIL warS that ought to bring him.

— By Michael Walsh. Reported by William Blaylock/ Paris

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