In this week's New Republic Stanley Kauffman has a review of the new documentary about theatre legend Robert Wilson.
Absolute Wilson a film by Katharina Otto-Bernstein contains interviews with critics and also footage of Wilson productions.
Most people I have met only know Wilson the legend, they have never seen a Wilson production live. Actually, I have met raving enthusiasts of Wilson's work who have never even seen a filmed piece of his shows. In fairness, I have met vicious detractors of his work who have never seen a minute of it either.
Then again, we have never seen a Brecht production live, or a Globe Shakespeare production. (Unless in some type of novelty production that tries to recreate the effects of seeing Shakespeare done as Shakespeare's contemporaries would have seen it.) Beckett's spare and minimal pieces, coupled with his demands for productions to keep to his stage directions, help to preserve a little of what his original concepts were.
We really do rely on second hand information about theatre. I see much theatre here in my Boston outpost, but, aside from the occasional splurge, I am reliant on New York critics to describe the latest BAM production.
So much of our academic and even cultural theatrical canon forming is done for us. We can read the texts, but the performance is something we cannot do alone.
So then we have the question of Robert Wilson and his aesthetic. So much of it is conceptual, though much of it is indeed text-based. How many professors of drama, teaching about Robert Wilson in our universities have seen a Wilson production? Those who haven't seen a production may be able to describe it from other accounts, and use critical assessments to triangulate it. However, it remains ephemeral.
I know this is really true for any director, but I am talking about the pure Robert Wilson show, not, as Kauffman terms it: "a Wilson production of a fixed work."
I am thinking out loud, and I am probably beyond my capacities to convey a coherent thought about this at this particular time. But I think Kauffman has given a clue near the end of his essay about the documentary:
For those who know Wilson's work and for those who may meet him here, this film presents a question of interest in all arts, a persistent question. What are artists to do in an age with few credible compass points? The matter besets serious artists of all kinds. From the beginning, however, Wilson ignored the absence of compass points. Without regard for tradition or anti-tradition, he plunged into himself, his imagination, his vitality, his quirks, and has progressed through them. His work is not always engrossing, but it is always
unique, with no aesthetic obligations to the past or present.
Originality is so often praised in our artistic landscape as of late, as is "quirky" and "interesting." Perhaps this explains the awe of Wilson. An artist who so boldly goes after his own imagination that he jettisons all tethers to traditions or principles. Though seemingly meticulously musical and exacting in the minute details of his work, he lets his larger canvases fly free from the yardarms.
But I wonder about the fine line of personal vision and artistic vision. How much of your friend's dream journals would you be able to take in one sitting? Interesting for a few entries I'm sure, but reading 200 pages would be another matter.