Robert Wilson
Stanford Humanities Center

From Selected Reviews of
Robert Wilson’s Works



Deafman Glance (1971 production)

A play like Deafman Glance is an extraordinary freedom machine.  It’s as such that I beg you to go see it, all of you who see and hear, all whose hearts beat at the mere word freedom.  Never as here, from a dark hole in the theatre, have I ever experienced the felling, in confronting the spectacle of Robert Wilson, that if ever the world finally changes, and ceases to be this hell one sees at the end of almost four hours on the stage, and it is the hell where there is the slag pit and the mine, that if ever the world changes and men become like the dancer I spoke of, free, free, free . . . it’s through freedom man will have changed.  Freedom, radiant freedom of the soul and the body.

Aragon, Louis. "An Open Letter to Andre Breton on Robert Wilson's ‘Deafman Glance’." Performing Arts Journal 1, no. 1 (1976): 3.

Einstein on the Beach (1976 production)

Behind the theatrical high jinks, something magically beautiful (the night train, the spaceship blazing with galactic energy), sometimes meager and strained (a giant diagram of the atomic bomb, a tiny rocket that's as cute as a cockroach), Wilson is working with the moral energy of his community of performers, from the 10-year-old Paul Mann to the 77-year-old Samuel M. Johnson, and his "stars," the beautiful and riveting Lucinda Childs and Sheryl L. Sutton….Wilson sees his art as both an expressive and a healing process. A former architect and a gifted therapist, he wants to design beautiful forms for both objects and human behavior. His sensibillity shimmers with a subtle naivete—his Einsteinian spectacle ends in mid-sentence, "My love for you . . . ." That is one equation that can only be finished by the grace and strength of action.

Kroll, Jack. “Mind-Bender.” Newsweek, December 6, 1976, p. 101

You are either interested by its ritualistic pictures, its verbal and musical convolutions and its languorous sense of fantasy, or you are not.  You then are bored rather than sedated, annoyed rather than excited, insulted rather than intrigued.  But for me, and obviously for most of Sunday’s audience, an evening with Mr. Wilson is more than a performance, it is an event with the feel of reality to it.

Barnes, Clive. “‘Einstein on the Beach’ Transforms Boredom into Memorable Theater.” The New York Times, November 23, 1976, p. 33.

the CIVIL WarS (1984 production)

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 brilliantly 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 capitalized culture and lower-case belligerence.

Walsh, Michael. A Tree Grows and Grows. Time, May 21, 1984.

Hamletmaschine (1986 production)

While not alleviating the playwright [Heiner Müller’s] bitterness, the director succeeds in objectifying it.  Repeatedly, he changes the audience’s perspective, reordering the scenery (a picket fence, a tree, a table), playing scenes against blank screens facing different directions.  The result is itself a kind of Cubism, so that even as we sit still we seem to be viewing the events from alternate angles.  Instead of disembodying the text, Wilson places it within an environment that is as eye-impelling as it is mind-provoking.

Gussow, Mel. "Stage View; Cranking Up a Powerful 'Hamletmachine'." The New York Times, May 25, 1986, sec. 2.

The Black Rider (1993 production)

Even with Wilson, anti-naturalism takes a breathtaking variety of guises. "The Black Rider" falls somewhere among opera, cabaret and Mardi Gras. In spirit, if not style, it is akin to Stravinsky's mini-oratorio "L'Histoire du Soldat," whose plot about selling one's soul to the Devil also links up with the Wilson; in style, if not substance, it is closer still to the Brecht-Weill "Threepenny Opera." But the Wilson-Waits-Burroughs amalgam engendered a spontaneous combustion of its own — a large part of its fascination. Wilson, the cool, surreal visionary, whose tools are pictures and movement; the avant-rock Waits, whose score for "The Black Rider," by turns acidulous, spooky, sentimental and jocular, is what critic Robert Palmer aptly called "music that is beyond category"; and Burroughs, whose scenario fuses incantation, absurdity and blunt, scabrous wit — the emergent totality is plainly sui generis.

Kriegsman, Alan M. “‘Black Rider’: The Hand of a True Original.” The Washington Post, November 22, 1993, sec. D.

Lohengrin (1998 production)

Robert Wilson's theatrical reach, so varied and eclectic, has in recent years turned to standard operatic repertory. Here he applies (or imposes, according to your taste) the magical images and glacial time continuums so memorable in "Einstein on the Beach" or "Time Rocker" to the likes of "Pelleas et Melisande" and "Madama Butterfly." On Monday, it was "Lohengrin" at the Metropolitan Opera, and in Wagner Mr. Wilson seems to have met his match….The ingredients—walls of shifting color, descending and crossing monoliths, silhouetted figures, sober dress and stylized gesture—all bear the seeds of earlier successes. It is the receptacle in which they are mixed that causes trouble. Achieving the precision necessary to Wilsonian theater is not easy in a big and busy repertory house. Then there are the people themselves. In his "Parsifal," Mr. Wilson solved the opera-singers problem by more or less banning them from the stage altogether. In "Lohengrin," he is not so lucky.

Holland, Bernard. "Opera Review: Robert Wilson Adds Theater to ‘Lohengrin’." The New York Times, March 11, 1998, sec. E.

14 Stations (2000 production)

Like sweet suburban houses inhabited by dysfunctional families, those harmless-looking little huts contain visually and viscerally explosive interiors….Wilson’s “Stations” are total theater, a wild ride of architecture, sound, light, sculpture, and choreography.

Temin, Christine. “‘Stations’ Interprets Christ’s Last Journey.” The Boston Globe, December 28, 2001, sec. D.

Woyzeck (2002 production)

It’s hard to resist reading this performance as a comment on Wilson’s own ideas of naturalness.  The director’s well-known insistence on actorly precision and scorn for sentiment can seem uncomfortably close to the many forces denying Woyzeck his own freedom of movement and emotional expressiveness.  Yet there has always been in Wilson a movement away from exactitude.  The boy isn’t the first child charged with preserving the spirit of play and even mischief in Wilson’s theater; not the first, moreover, with a strong identity impossible to subdue with art.  The boy shooting paper airplanes in Einstein on the Beach is only the most memorable in a series of Wilson children allowed to subvert his mise-en-scène in the interest of getting us to think about how else, and how futilely, we impose our will on the world.

Robinson, Marc. “Woyzeck’s Wild Years.” The Village Voice, November 6-12, p. 62.

Voom Portraits (2007 production)

One of the works in Robert Wilson’s “Voom Portraits” at the Paula Cooper Gallery—an exhibition of high-definition video portraits of celebrities posed nearly motionless in drolly theatrical costumes and settings—is a 30-minute, continuously looped, stunningly beautiful video of Winona Ryder as the character Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s play “Happy Days.”…The collection of portraits (which includes Brad Pitt, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Isabella Rossellini) is the product of a commission Mr. Wilson accepted several years ago from Voom HD Networks, a company devoted to high-definition television channels, which provided the technology and production expertise for the shows.  “Winona Ryder,” however, a 15-by-27-foot image projected in Paula Cooper Gallery’s large, main space, is truly a work apart. It shows Mr. Wilson at his most perceptive concerning the implications of both his means and his subject, and it deserves to be considered one of his most penetrating theatrical creations.

Kalb, Jonathan. “Robert Wilson, Beckett and a Celebrity From the Neck Up.” The New York Times, January 30, 2007, sec. E.

Selections by Anna Fishaut, Assistant Art Librarian,
Stanford University Libraries and Academic Information Resources


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