Robert Wilson
by Laura Hernandez Andrade

Robert Wilson is probably one of the most prolific theatre artists alive. Susan Sontag has said of Wilson's work "it has the signature of a major artistic creation. I can't think of any body of work as large or as influential." The most fascinating aspects of Robert Wilson's work are the visual plasticity of his stage compositions, his conception of time and space, and the nested structure of juxtaposed rhythms. This paper will focus on these aspects of Wilson's work, his influences and inspirations, with references to some of his early work where these concepts were applied.


Robert Wilson was born in Waco, Texas. He studied at the University of Texas but left before graduating to start working with the Baylor University group Children's Theater. In the summer of 1962 he went to Paris to study painting with George MacNeil, and later returned to New York to study architecture, interior architecture and painting at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn. There he graduated in 1966. Architect by education and theatre artist by devotion, he continued his involvement with children's theatre, working during the winter in New York with brain-damaged children, and in the summer in Waco, with his old Baylor group

He was contemporary of the Avant Garde group, well known for his work in both Europe and the US, but he always separated himself from the theatre Avant Garde approach in both continents. While the Avant Garde movement was concerned with the expressiveness of human body and human gesture, and their capacity to blur the separation between the actors and the spectator, Wilson was more interested in visual plasticity as a stage composition. His work was highly experimental but at the same time he understood the theatrical space in the classical approach, where the proscenium arch creates a divisory line between the performers and the audience. Avant Garde artists were experimenting with openness of space, all around. Wilson, however, believed in concealing structures, in creating void spaces, in the proscenium arch. He is interested in creating mental spaces, something that he already found in the work of early pioneers of the Avant Garde group, Martha Graham, John Cage, Merce Cunninghan and George Balanchine, to whom he refers as the major influences in his work.

Description and Analysis

For Wilson, the experiments that David Stern was doing in his research about a mother's response to the cries of their babies, were crucial to his conception of space. Wilson watched more than 300 video tapes about the response and interaction of mothers to the cry of their babies. At a normal speed, this response was of love and affection. However, the analysis of the tapes frame by frame revealed that some of the mothers reflected an instinctive gesture of discomfort, even anger, which was invisible to the naked eye. In a few seconds of motion, a whole universe of contrary emotions took place. Space wasn't made of two points, he understood, but of moments where drama occurs.

From these premises, a lot of his work, especially the early ones, were extraordinarily long: Deafman Glance (1970)(7 hours), King of Spain (1969) (3 hours), Overture (1972) (24 hours), KA Mountain and Guardenia Terrace (1972) (7 days and 7 nights). He wanted to allow the audience time to reflect, to mediate on other things besides those happening on the stage. In the scene, the slow motion, the natural time, is contrasted by accelerated time. In Deafman Glance (1970), for example, the actions stretch to exhaustion. This play is about a mother who kills her two children, seen through the eyes of a deaf-mute child. Every move is slowed in juxtaposition with accelerated internal movements. While the mother kills the children in painstaking slow motion, she is frantically chewing gum. Another example occurs in Overture (1972) where a procession of elders takes an hour to cross the stage. The advance is imperceptible, like an immobile tableau suspended in time and space.

Wilson conceives space and time as horizontal and vertical planes respectively. The horizontal divisions are made of lines and the vertical layering of these two planes creates the rhythm of the performance. Movements are straight or diagonal, turns are right angle, no curves. Space is not made by two points but by movements. In the opera Madame Butterfly, recently presented in Los Angeles, Wilson reduced the sets to its essential elements to focus on the movement of the actors, who defined the space and rhythm by tracing, with their movements, diagonal and parallel lines on the stage.

From his encounter with Raymond Andrew, a deaf-mute child he adopted, Wilson understood that silence is not the absence of sound, but non-verbal communication. Andrew's deafness had heightened his attention to visual events, signs and gestures. There were no words, but noises, voids, and abstract sounds. When he finally introduced words in a performance using a text by Chris Knowles, another influential figure in Wilson's early work, in A letter to Queen Victoria (1974), words were not used to communicate meaning, but as music, sound and image. Chris Knowles was a boy diagnosed as autistic who eventually went to live with Wilson. Chris will repeat sentences with mathematical structure of time and voice volume, as if analyzing the sound of the story itself. In A letter to Queen Victoria the actors had to learn parodies of sounds while performing mechanical, automatic movements. Once the actors learned the movements, and repeated them over and over again, they didn't have to think about it anymore. The movement becomes automatic and the actors themselves can experience a mental space, where, like the audience, they have time to think and reflect.

Finally, another major aspect of Wilson's work is that his pieces are constructed with light. Morey and Pardo (1997) describe Wilson's lights as visual librettos that the director composes like the finest opera librettos. Wilson's lighting scripts are poetic, dramatic literary structures. Light moves the drama. In the last act of Einstein on the Beach, a bar of light moves over the stage for 16 minutes.


Wilson understands the theatre space as a place of contemplation where the audience is stimulated from the emanating source that is the stage. The proscenium arch emphasizes this separation and Wilson is not interested in blurring the line that divides these two realms. The flow of his plays allows both actors and audience to drift away into a mental space that Wilson considers important for a complete theatrical experience, where, as explained, space is not made by two points but by dramatic moments, and time is conceived as natural (the growth of a flower, the passing of a cloud, the erosion of a mountain).


Morey Miguel, Pardo Carmen, Robert Wilson, Ediciones Poligrafia, Barcelona (2003), pg. 11-27, and 71.
Bertoni Stearns Quadri Robert Wilson, Rizzoli, New York (1997).
Memory/Cage Editions, Robert Wilson RWWM, Zurich/Switzerland (1997).