Robert Wilson
Stanford Humanities Center



Robert Wilson portrait
Robert Wilson demonstrating movement technique during rehearsal for Symptômes, Warsaw.
Photo © Lesley Leslie-Spinks, 2007

My theatre is, in some ways, really closer to animal behavior. 
When a dog stalks a bird his whole body is listening....
He’s not listening with his ears, with his head; it’s the whole body. 
The eyes are listening.

— Robert Wilson[1]

Robert Wilson is an acclaimed director, stage designer, performer, writer, furniture designer, draftsman, and educator of international and multidisciplinary scope.  A Texas-born American, he has to a large degree made his career in Europe.  An artist of the stage, he has come to that profession by way of business school, architectural training, painting, and chance encounters with uniquely inspirational individuals.  Perhaps because of this non-linear trajectory, he has again and again felt cause and had vision to test and question all of the presumed essential elements of the theater: the spectator, the performer, the writer, the stage, the story.  His productions are lengthy yet highly controlled, minimalist yet intricately detailed.  “I never studied theatre,” he admits.  “If I had studied theatre, I would not be making the theatre I’m making.”[2]

Born in Waco in 1941, Wilson was exposed to the performing arts as a child only in the most peripheral of manners, by way of a dance instructor whose teaching has since then manifested a steady presence, directly or indirectly, within his work:

[Byrd Hoffman] was a dancer — she was a ballet dancer — she was in her 70’s when I met her.  She taught the dance — she understood the body in a remarkable way….[S]he talked to me about the energy in my body, about relaxing, letting energy flow through….She was amazing because she never taught a technique, she never gave me a way to approach it, it was more that I discovered it on my own.[3]

The initial result of his interaction with Hoffman was, according to Wilson, the correction of his childhood speech impediment.  But years later, when he was a young adult and had begun his career in earnest, he named the group with which he was creating and performing experimental theatrical works in New York the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds.[4] More than anything this seems to have been a tribute to the way in which Hoffman directed Wilson toward a knowledge of the body — or, better, a knowledge of the body’s own knowledge, innate and unconscious.

Photo from Deafman Glance Deafman Glance at the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
-Source: Robert Wilson website
Photo © R. Nusimovici, 1970

Video clip from Deafman Glance: a work for television
[New York, N.Y.] : Electronic Arts Intermix, Inc., 1981.

The challenge Wilson set for himself, then, was to create works that drew upon this bodily knowledge from both sides of the invisible boundary that divides the stage from the audience.  An early, resonant example of Wilson’s approach was Deafman Glance (1970).  Inspired in part by Wilson’s important friendship with a deaf boy named Raymond Andrews, whom he adopted as his son, the mostly silent work was constructed of fantastical scenes composed purely of performed images: this was not performance that resulted in images, but images that, essentially, called for performance.  It was a feat of theater innovative enough to incite Louis Aragon, the Surrealist poet, to compose a fervent letter to his colleague André Breton:

The world of a deaf child opened up to us like a wordless mouth.  For more than four hours, we went to inhabit this universe where, in the absence of words, of sounds, sixty people had no words except to move...I never saw anything more beautiful in the world since I was born.  Never never has any play come anywhere near this one, because it is at once life awake and the life of closed eyes, the confusion between everyday life and the life of each night, reality mingle[d] with dream, all that’s inexplicable in the life of [a] deaf man.[5]

Directing the stage toward the presentation of images, while avoiding the traditional notion of what constitutes “plot,” Wilson had undertaken what he describes as a formalist approach, one that has not faltered in the intervening years.  “I prefer formalism in presenting a work because it creates more distance, more mental space,” he asserts.[6] He has always believed that the more structurally, procedurally, emotionally, and visually controlled a theatrical situation is, the more “space” there is for real truth — not represented truth — to crystallize in the openness that remains.  “Often I feel that what I’m seeing onstage is based on a lie,” he says about traditionally acted theater.  “You know, an actor thinks he’s being natural but he’s not, he’s acting natural and that is something that is artificial.  By being artificial, I think you can…know more about yourself, be closer to…a truth.”[7]

Video clips of Robert Wilson directing Einstein on the Beach.
From Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera. Los Angeles, Calif. : Direct Cinema, 1987.

Thus Wilson directs his performers’ movements down to the smallest minutiae (the way a wrist turns; the precise angle of the shoulders) and, very often, compels the performers to reduce their actions to a strikingly slow pace.  The delivery of lines requires equal control; he instructs actors to speak in regulated monotones: not robotic, yet not dynamic.  And Wilson’s attention to the intricacies of stage design is as intense as, or more intense than, his interactions with the performers.  In fact, even as Wilson began to move beyond mostly silent works and into productions that included language (narrative or not), beginning with the linguistically deconstructive A Letter for Queen Victoria (1974) the visual design remained the foundational focus.  In reference to his work for two actors I was sitting on my patio and this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating (1977) Wilson describes the transition from writing to envisioning the production:

…I began making sketches, often on long rolls of paper (as well as in my notebook), of the image I was thinking of using for a basic stage set.  I made about twenty-five drawings a day for two weeks, sometimes making slight alterations in them.  I often follow a similar procedure before arriving at a final image used as a model for scenery.[8]

Photo: I was sitting on my patio and this guy appeared I thought I was hallucinating.
I was sitting on my patio and this guy appeared I thought I was

Source: Robert Wilson website
Photo © Nathaniel Tileston, 1977

His fervent interest in formal control — how each theatrical element fits together — extends to his personally designing the often-spare set pieces, which are most notably chairs thematically suited to the mood or character(s) of the theatrical pieces.  Both his drawings and his chairs have been exhibited numerous times and are considered legitimate works of art in their own right by Wilson and critics alike.

Parzival: a Chair with a Shadow, 1987.
Prototype for Parzival: a Chair with a Shadow, 1987.
Photo © Thomas Ammann, courtesy Byrd Hoffman Foundation, Inc.
Source: Trevor J. Fairbrother, Robert Wilson's Vision: An Exhibition of Works,
Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with H. N. Abrams, New York, 1991, p.56.

Esmeralda’s Bed, 1989
Esmeralda’s Bed, 1989
Photo © Paula Cooper Gallery, New York, courtesy Byrd Hoffman Foundation, Inc.
Source: Trevor J. Fairbrother, Robert Wilson's Vision: An Exhibition of Works,
Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with H. N. Abrams, New York, 1991, p. 89.

Wilson also pays a great deal of attention — perhaps the most — to a more ineffable part of his productions: the lighting.  This is not to say that he is formally trained as a lighting technician; indeed, as with so many of the elements of his works, including choreography, set construction, dramaturgy, and even directing, “Wilson” implies a collaborative effort.  But it is he who, in painstaking planning sessions, determines exactly how light should define any given scene.  Beverly Emmons, who has worked with Wilson on many projects, describes his method:

What Bob does with light which is extraordinary and difficult and unusual is to separate all the elements from each other and control them independently….He wants the floor treated as a whole unit and separately painted with light.  He wants the background treated as another whole, with maybe one color shaded into another….Then he wants the human figure separately etched out with light, and very often he wants the head or even nose of that figure separately lighted.[9]

And it is because he can create this particular sort of structured visual control that Wilson is — and has been to an increasing degree over the years — willing to include elements that are, as it were, outside of himself.  The most well known early example is Einstein on the Beach (1976) the spectacularly reviewed, four-hour-long opera that he created with composer Philip Glass.  The two chose their subject jointly — Albert Einstein becoming the mythic focus around which images of motion, space travel, and justice in the twentieth century circled — and then Wilson led the discussion regarding the visual structure.  It was not until that dialogue had been mostly completed that Glass began to compose his minimalist, mathematically measured score.  Glass remembers:

I put [Wilson’s notebook of sketches] on the piano and composed each section like a portrait of the drawing before me.  The score was begun in the spring of 1975 and completed by the following November, and those drawings were before me all the time.[10]

Robert Wilson's storyboards for Einstein on the Beach, 1976.

Robert Wilson's storyboards for Einstein on the Beach, 1976.

Robert Wilson's storyboards for Einstein on the Beach, 1976.

Images © Byrd Hoffman Foundation, Inc.
Source: Katharina Otto-Bernstein, Absolute Wilson: The Biography, (Munich: Prestel, 2006), p. 145.

Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera, 1976.
Einstein on the Beach at the Metropolitan Opera, 1976.
Photo © Byrd Hoffman Foundation, Inc. Source: Katharina Otto-Bernstein, Absolute Wilson: The Biography, (Munich: Prestel, 2006), p. 152.

As his career moved forward, hitting bumps in funding and critical response, and always, for better or worse, achieving more acclaim in Europe than in America, Wilson began to diversify the works upon which he applied his formal structure.  In the 1980s, while continuing to craft productions purely Wilsonian in character — the multinational, multi-site epic the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down (1981-83); The Golden Windows (1982); a revival of Einstein on the Beach (1984); The Knee Plays (scenes that had been presented as “joints” between acts in the CIVIL wars; 1984) — he began to more regularly approach texts that he had had no part in writing.  He produced Hamletmaschine (1986), in conjunction with its author, Heiner Müller.  He staged Euripides’ famed tragedy Alcestis (1986), Shakespeare’s King Lear (1985), and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt (2005).  And he continued to demonstrate a dedication to the theater’s intersection with music as well, not only in such collaborations as that with Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs in the musical The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets (1990), but also in classic works of opera.  In 1991 he produced both Mozart’s The Magic Flute at the Opéra Bastille in Paris and Wagner’s Lohengrin at the Opernhaus Zürich (the latter also at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1998); he went on to stage the entire Ring Cycle, starting in 2000 at the Opernhaus Zürich.

the CIVIL wars, Rome section, 1984.
the CIVIL wars, Rome section, 1984.
Photo © Gabriele Henkel. -Source: Katharina Otto-Bernstein,
Absolute Wilson: The Biography, (Munich: Prestel, 2006), 190.


The Magic Flute at the Opéra Bastille, Paris, 1991.
The Magic Flute at the Opéra Bastille, Paris, 1991.
Photo © Christian Leiber. Source: Katharina Otto-Bernstein,
Absolute Wilson: The Biography
, (Munich: Prestel, 2006), 205.

A striking feature of all of these later works is the fact that, as Wilson refracts the original text or score through his unmistakable, structured aesthetic, the result again and again is a production that remains true to the artist’s earliest tenets.  Hamlet: A Monologue, an adaptation first produced in 1995 and starring Wilson himself as the sole actor, is a focused example of this skillful mediation.  In the midst of fifteen disjointed, disordered scenes, he maneuvers the iconic work, so well known to so many audiences, into an entity both discernible and utterly strange.  By setting the play in his typically visually spare and location-less zone, stripped even of the directorial structure that Shakespeare had given it, Wilson allows the text to form open-ended meanings, freed from a singular plot.  Ann-Christin Rommen, who has collaborated with Wilson in a director’s role numerous times, explains this strategy:

Bob will always try to keep [the text] as open-minded and as inexpressive as possible.  He doesn’t want [the actors] to express the meaning too much.  He wants them to leave it open for the audiences to experience and hear it for themselves and make up their own mind.[11]

Video clip from Hamlet: A Monologue.
From: The making of a monologue: Robert Wilson's Hamlet [New York : Cinema Guild, c1995]

Indeed, Wilson has always been willing to consider interpretation the most collaborative of exercises.  He has always hoped that each spectator, each critic, each performer might approach his work directly and truthfully, through eyes that have begun to listen.


Drawing for A Letter for Queen Victoria, 1973. Drawing for A Letter for Queen Victoria, 1973.
Image © Paula Cooper Gallery, New York
Source: Trevor J. Fairbrother, Robert Wilson's Vision: An Exhibition of Works, (Boston: Museum of Fine Arts in association with H. N. Abrams, New York, 1991), 2-3.

Throughout his career Wilson has won numerous awards, including two Guggenheim Fellowships, a nomination for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the Golden Lion for sculpture at the Venice Biennale, and the National Design Award.  Yet these are only confirmation of what a viewer can sense instinctually: that a production by Wilson is complex, uniquely beautiful, often difficult to summarize, and best experienced firsthand.  The artist’s Presidential Lecture and Performance at Stanford, entitled “1. HAVE YOU BEEN HERE BEFORE” / “2. NO THIS IS THE FIRST TIME” promises to carry similar qualities.  Bearing elements of autobiography in a multimedia format, the event — a talk? a demonstration? a performance? — will most certainly provide an experience that can only be described as purely Wilsonian.

Footnotes divider


[1] Robert Wilson and Fred Newman, "A Dialogue on Politics and Therapy, Stillness and Vaudeville. " The Drama Review 47, no. 3 (Fall, 2003): 120.

[2] Ibid., 116.

[3] Stefan Brecht, The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson, Original Theatre of the City of New York; Bk. 1 (London: Methuen Drama, 1994), 14.

[4] The Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, though dissolved in the mid-1970s, was certainly a precursor to Wilson’s current educational pursuit.  The Watermill Center in Southampton, Long Island is the largest enterprise of the Byrd Hoffman Watermill Foundation.  Its mission is to provide a laboratory-like atmosphere for students to train and experiment in the performing arts.

[5] Louis Aragon "An Open Letter to André Breton on Robert Wilson's ‘Deafman Glance’," Performing Arts Journal 1, no. 1 (1976): 4.  Aragon had seen Wilson’s 1971 production in Paris.

[6] Robert Wilson and Umberto Eco, "Robert Wilson and Umberto Eco: A Conversation," Performing Arts Journal 15, no. 1 (January, 1993): 93.

[7] "Dialogue on Politics and Therapy," 120.

[8] Robert Wilson, "... I Thought I was Hallucinating," The Drama Review 21, no. 4 (December, 1977): 76-77.

[9] Laurence Shyer, Robert Wilson and His Collaborators (New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1989), 192..

[10] Ibid., 220.

[11] Ann-Christin Rommen and Maria Shevtsova, "Experiencing the Movement: Working with Robert Wilson," New Theatre Quarterly 23, no. 1 (February, 2007): 64.


Text by Anna Fishaut, Assistant Art Librarian.
Stanford University Libraries & Academic Information Resources ©2008


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