Robert Wilson and Interculturalism
“One day i discovered the habits of a porcupine fish,” Charles Darwin recorded in his journal while traveling about the world on the Beagle. Gilgamesh’s Mother relates his curious pleasures in a monologue that precedes Jean-Henri Fabre’s lesson on the need for air. Darwin’s theory of natural selection finds a playful theatrical allusion in this gathering in The Forest of texts and images that have no reason to be together, mating in the same production, wandering in and out of each others’ realms. (Theatrical production is always reproduction.) A ballerina walks a lobster, the forest overwhelms a great hall. Even the moon comes down to earth. Words drift through centuries. All life forms cohabit effortlessly in the desert, the city, the forest, the mansion, under ancient or industrial skies. Adaptation is the cornerstone of natural selection.
This theatre is one of fortunate hybrids. Here the origin of species is no longer an issue, genre courts possibility not principle. Animal and human metamorphose, and reptiles, birds, fish, people, and rocks settle into narrative. Words are a form of sedimentation. In this new theatrical enlightenment natural history shares the scene with human history, for an alternative view of culture. Aesthetics is a branch of natural science.
The ecology of theatre: Wilson chooses texts and images from the collective ancestry to situate in multiple environments, then documents (stages) their adaptability. The seasons are sensational. His theatre has biological perspective. A production is an organism, its very joints called “knee plays.” Structure is a body of thought, nature and art inseparable.
Lizard, warrior, sea creature, raven, a Renaissance man, a child called Berlin: the already there is imagined in extraordinary landscapes. Oh, wonderful kind of rapture. Not since surrealism has there been a new visual ethnography.
Wilson treats history not as a body of fact but a landscape of experiences. An anthology of images, of texts: knowledge as database. A menu. Food for thought. (There is always a dinner table in the work.)
His theatre does not make history, only its poetic other side, memory. He lingers in myth, the space between literature and history. Intuition is the way to his encyclopedia, and one must have the watchfulness of an angel in a library. In the great sweep of his search for images in the dreams of cultures, Wilson adds a new chronotope to theatre: the archival.
(The interplay of history and memory suggests a way to consider the mysterious collaboration of Robert Wilson and Heiner Muller, the mystic and the materialist. Muller wants to be a machine, Wilson is always inventing the wheel. Muller believes in the blood of time, Wilson in the color red. Wilson prefers the cave, Muller the bomb shelter. Wilson loves the moon, Muller the sun. Their work plays out the struggle of the text and the image, or figuration and abstraction, in the art of the twentieth century. In this post-Brechtian world, theatre after the final purges from paradise, the collective now only alludes to myth. Symbolism is just an earlier mode of Gestus: it depends on the sign of the times. Artaud waits in the shadows, with Janus/Chaos, two-faced mask of time. Who better tells the story of the human race?)
The Dramaturgy of the Dispersed Text
The cultural displacement of contemporary life finds its double in the lives of texts. These are the dispersed, refugee texts from lost civilizations, those of unknown or forgotten authors, the texts of books languishing on library shelves, texts found in archives, texts exiled into oblivion. They find a home in today’s world, preoccupied by restoration.
A Wilson production elaborates distinctions between the “Text” and the “Book.” In The Forest credit for the text is given to Darryl Pinckney who wrote several sections, including the kneeplays, and Heiner Muller, a portion of whose play Cement is used. Pinckney and Muller also collected texts of other writers. The Book is the actual literary document in which texts are arranged and fitted, and on which the staging is made. There is also a visual book comprised of lights, costumes, and gestures, research for which is drawn from photography, film, and painting sources. The Book then is the basis of the production. Wilson is the only visual artist working in theatre in the twentieth century who has a fully developed style conceived over a period of time, and embracing every aspect of a work: performance, narrative, design. Once the proscenium arch was thought to reflect the shape of perspective, now in Wilson’s theatre it is the book that shapes the arch.
Wilson’s way of making theatre, as the act of living and creating in many cultures, finds a parallel in his own displacement, precisely in his artistic emigration from the U.S. to work in European theatres. He inhabits the cosmopolitan’s kind of homelessness, the capacity to live anywhere and nowhere. The natural state of his work is translation. If the idea of the “dispersed” describes the lives of texts, Wilson’s own manner of working only stylizes this general condition of literature.
In this collection of texts that comprise The Forest there is a significant factor at work: the recovery of the dispersed text is not only a way of constructing theatrical narrative, but an attitude toward the past as an archive (remembered cultural artifacts). A remarkable hidden order characterizes the organization of literary material, not mere randomness, as even a few facts drawn from the program and outside research reveal.
Gilgamesh, a Middle East epic dating back to about 2600 B.C.E., and rewritten by multiple authors over a period of two thousand years, was discovered buried in the ruins of Ashurbanipal’s library in Mesopotamia in the middle of the nineteenth century, then deposited in the British Museum. The epic began to be written down only centuries after the invention of writing, on twelve clay tablets. Parts of the text, which has never been completely recovered, were found in other cities besides Nineveh—Ur, Sippar, Uruk, Megiddo, Sultantepe, Ashur—in the languages of Sumerian, Akkadian, Hittite. Though The Forest is modeled after themes of Gilgamesh, it doesn’t use the work itself as text material.
Another old text collected for The Forest is the Florentine Codex (General History of the Things of New Spain), the pre-Colombian work originally written in Aztec, with Spanish added later, completed by 1569 by the Spanish missionary Fray Bernardino de Sahagun. Its twelve books were scattered during the Inquisition, and later found in the 1880s in the Laurentian Library of Florence where they have remained since the 1790s. This major historical document, whose text is supplemented by visual illustration, may have served as model for the frescoed ceilings by Buti in the Armory of the Uffizi Gallery.
Two stories by Edgar Allan Poe provide the organizing frame of The Forest. “Silence—A Fable,” an 1839 work that was originally called “Siope,” opens the production. Its Orientalist, stylized setting evokes the ancient world of myth and startling nature, ruled by mysterious forces. In “Shadow—A Parable,” from 1835, a fragment of which closes the work, seven men grieve at the ghostly deathbed of a friend during a time of pestilence: outside the planets cross in an unusual configuration. The actual background was linked to an American cholera epidemic at the time, and, coincidentally, the appearance of a comet which greatly troubled the populace. Poe’s tales weave through and around The Forest.
(The literary and the visual compel the restless voices of allegory “in the well-remembered and familiar accents of many thousand departed friends,” the ending of “Shadow” that concludes The Forest. Here one finds resonance in setting this text beside tile story of Gilgamesh and Enkidu, perhaps the first story of a great love between two men, and then placing both texts in the context of AIDS. So, too, does one recall that Gilgamesh and Enkidu cut down the Cedars of Lebanon to build a city, and the forests are still being cut down to build cities, and the forests arc dying…)
The only Muller text in the work is the section HERAKLES 2 OR THE HYDRA from his own play Cement, which is based on the celebrated Russian novel of 1928 by Gladkov. Herakles had twelve labors, the second in the forest. (By now it should be clear that “12” and “7” are recurring numbers in The Forest.)
The methodology for constructing the visual hook follows the same fastidious technique of composition: research culled from books of Oriental art, images from the period of the industrial revolution, sources of architecture and painting. Caspar David Friedrich’s work suggested backlighting in silhouette for one of the scenes.
Perhaps the most intriguing visual source is the use of the book New and Curious School of Theatrical Dancing by the Venetian ballet master Gregorio Lambranzi. This recovered text, a manual with fifty engraved plates of dancers, was first published in Nuremberg in 1716, and discovered in the British Museum in the first quarter of the twentieth century. The movement, which looks remarkably like postmodern dance, serves as inspiration for the knee plays between the seven acts.
In our world where time is now told by the rings of trees, the forest of symbols is an archive. Dispersed texts then create a mosaic pattern in which the refracted light of ancient suns turns old books into illuminated manuscripts.
Hands of Time
Splayed fingers on a surface, ravenous fingers, a wrist slightly bent, the palm held sideways, a hand pointed downward, palms turned upside down, arms pointed in opposite directions, one arm at an angle to the body, elbow angled behind the back, an arm a triangle.
Hands are the points of energy in Wilson’s work. This is the feeling of portraiture he has brought to the theatre (where hands fall down at the sides of the body like defeated lines of dialogue. Or hide under the dining room table, its cloth their shroud.) Everything in his theatre exists in space. How one looks is what one is. Reality is geometrically beautiful.
These are the most beautiful hands in theatre, this theatre is hand-made. First it is drawn, then it is staged. Fingers are destiny.
Economies of Theatre
In the world of global trade America is becoming more and more a purchaser of things, less a manufacturer. On (lie artistic level tins situation is reflected in the example of Wilson who now creates most of his work outside the U.S., in countries where the culture industry is heavily subsidized.
The Forest then was experienced in New York as an import, a design from Germany. Many scenes quoted the overall “look” of German theatrical vocabulary, namely expressionism—the familiar captains of industry, a grid, a cabaret, the Krupp residence, the mask-like actors’ faces, their language. David Byrne’s music alluded to German musical references. The Oriental epic Gilgamesh was taken as a starting point for a work that treated the theme of nineteenth-century industrial Germany, for a presentation during the year (1988) Berlin celebrated its 750th anniversary as a city.
Work is made on the body of a culture, as dance is made on the body of a dancer. Every culture has the self-satisfied feeling of understanding the world, and the world of emotion, through its own artists. Experiences may be “Proustian” in France, “Kafkaesque” in Central Europe, and life itself in the West is described more and more as “Beckettian.”
But Wilson’s success in Europe is due to his Otherness. Aesthetically, he can work anywhere outside his own culture because he lives entirely in artistic process as a form of travel, discovery, sights. His way of working subverts the sense of making, and (for audiences) of viewing theatre from one’s own cultural center. If earlier in this century the avant-garde expressed nationalist tendencies, while at the other end of the spectrum reflecting interculturalism as an avant-garde theme and technique, now at this century’s close the intercultural mode) Wilson presents—work that is, literally, between cultures—outlines a changing political economy. The worldliness of Wilson points to new possibilities for allegory, in art that lives here and mere.
The Fractal Text
Wilson problematizes the issue of rupture, dislocation. His Forest is part fable, part fiction, now epic, now science. Genres are temperaments that shout across millennia in long forgotten grains of the voice. Side by side, underneath, through and on top of each other, words are folded into a promiscuous forest of sounds, echoing the plenitude of species.
This text is fractal, chaos theory’s word an aesthetic principle. Fractal now a way to tell of, to think about the surface that is irregular, broken-up, non-linear.
The shape of Wilson’s book of knowledge: not smooth, casually ornate, crackling with strange attractors. The fractal text is the one without clear definition (border), the text that falls out of a book, an exile from its source. Elastic, punctured, cross-hatched by its own inner rhythms of image and sound: pattern inside of pattern, self-similar. At once turbulent and coherent, a self-organizer, infatuated with scale. A theatre of process rather than state, of becoming more than being. Pocked with promises of a glance into the texture of infinity. Wilson takes a quantum leap of the theatrical imagination over mountains of well-made play.
He welcomes chaos theory to the theatre. A remarkable coincidence: the application of the principle of chaos to a system is global, not local. Which is to say that this new knowledge of the way events can be described is unobstructed by borders. Wilson works, theatrically, by the same guidelines: he takes as his laboratory the art and artifacts of the world, measuring them with new technologies of time. His vision is global. A theatre of memory, which is a kind of mathematics.
This theatrical model outlines a new (scientific) perspective from which to consider the theme of interculturalism: the intercultural text as fractal.
The Writer, the World
In the year 2000 B.C.E. an Egyptian scribe lamented:
Would I had phrases that are not known, utterances that are strange,
in new language that has not been used, free from repetition,
not an utterance which has grown stale, which men of old have spoken.