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Robert Wilson's Civil WarS amount to nothing

(Editor's note: The Tech has already carried a review of The Civil WarS. The play has been highly controversial, though, and Eric Ristad asked if his view -- different from that of Tech critic Michiel Bos -- might be printed.)

The Civil WarS, by Robert Wilson, American Repertory Theatre until March 23.

In theater, how do we know if what we see and experience is "the same" as what our neighbors see and experience?

How do we know if the production has universal meaning? In public theater, we know because we share some common culture and biological endowment and this shared basis makes it possible for us to have a meaningful experience.

In private theater, the production does not rely on any shared basis of understanding. We can attempt to describe our theatrical experiences to each other, but any similarity is apt to be purely accidental. Private theater is intensely personal.

Now consider this. Three Confederate soldiers stand in a thick mist, arms stretched upward to receive guns, which slowly descend from the sky into their waiting arms while a loud buzzing noise fills the theater.

The scene changes to their encampment: the dreamlike soldiers are now sentries cradling their weapons; the sky is now diffusely lit, and the buzzing has metamorphized into the buzzing of crickets and cicadas.

One by one, the camp wakes up, readies itself, and then forms a marching column, all in slow deliberate motion. While the soldiers go about doing this slowly, the occupants of a large "horseless carriage" argue, using prerecorded and indistinguishable voices, as the car drives across the front of the stage equally slowly.

In the following scene, stagehands assemble a stage for the following scenes. Subsequently, stiff humans slowly oscillate in four dimensions, all across the stage, over an endless period of time. Fredrick the Great poses for us extensively. All this and more during Robert Wilson's three hour ten minute (intermission-free) image sequence.

The Civil WarS is private theater with a vengeance; it is without content, and immune from criticism. It consists of a sequence of structured images, not related in any generally meaningful way. Robert Wilson may have been thinking about civil wars, but I was thinking of everything from doing situps to feeding actors to food processors.

There is nothing to compare the performance to (except itself), and there is absolutely no way to judge it. Even if one were to compare one performance to another, no criterion would apply. You could describe what events differed in the two performances, but that would be all you could say; neither can be better or worse. The piece just exists, and we react to it individually, in much the same way we might react to a drop of water.

We can individually admire or dislike trivial aspects of the performance (e.g. the props), but we cannot rationally criticize anything. We do not know what was intended, and being unable to see into Wilson's mind, there is no way for us to find out.

In effect, the Civil WarS is a presentation of something we know nothing about. We cannot even say whether the performers do a good job, because we do not know what job they are supposed to do. Even the fact that half the audience walked out each night I saw the show is not meaningful criticism.

Private theater cannot be good or bad; it can only be interesting or uninteresting to each individual person, and the Civil WarS is private theater.

Stanislavski advised actors:


"you must love [acting] because it gives you the opportunity to communicate ideas that are important and necessary to your audience. Because it gives you the opportunity, through the ideas that you dramatize on the stage and through your characterizations, to educate your audience and to make them better, finer, wiser, and more useful members of society..."[it0]

In private theater, no such opportunity exists for the actor.

The actors know nothing about the Civil WarS, except what Wilson explicitly tells them. Wilson expects them to be automata, following his finest detail choreography night after night with no deviation. During the performance, Wilson is on a headset communicating backstage and to the light crew, constantly "correcting" the performance and making it conform to his own private image.

The amusing thing, of course, is that from our point of view it does not matter at all. No audience would be able to meaningfully distinguish Wilson's private theater from a corrupt "uncorrected" version of the same thing.

After the performance, I talked to a few actors and watched Robert Wilson give them notes. The actors clung to all the jargon and concepts of conventional acting. Priscilla Smith (Fredrick the Great) talked about intentions and rational motivation, even though no audience would be able to interpret or appreciate her efforts.

To her, the essence of Wilson's private theater was "spending all [her] time waiting for an elevator to arrive." In public theater, where the actors, director, playwright, and audience can all share their experiences, the actors do not relate their performances to the technical aspects of the show. In private theater, that is all they really have.

The many published reviews of the Civil WarS are intensely personal descriptions of the Civil WarS' images. Some reviewers even interview Wilson, hoping he will imbue their private fascination with meaning. Or at least the semblance of meaning. This review differs from these in that it offers an explanation of what happens on the A.R.T. stage at night: nothing.

Eric S. Ristad->