Robert Wilson, America's avant-garde ambassador

MOSCOW — Robert Wilson, native of Texas, citizen of the art world, glides easily in conversation from acting to painting, literature, dance, opera, set design, philosophy and on to American cultural policy.

He has come to Moscow to perform Samuel Beckett’s “Krapp’s Last Tape” in a festival of one-man shows. The Theater Center on Strastnoy (it means passionate) Boulevard admired his work, as many theater-mad Russians do, and asked the U.S. Embassy if it would provide a grant to bring him here for the Solo series it stages every October.

A giant crane (L) that will lift up the sunken 'Sewol' ferry is silhouetted against the sunset in Jindo on April 24, 2014. Furious relatives of missing victims from South Korea's ferry disaster attacked a top coastguard official accusing him of lying about efforts to retrieve bodies still trapped in the submerged vessel. AFP PHOTO / Nicolas ASFOURINICOLAS ASFOURI/AFP/Getty Images

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Wilson began his visit by meeting with a group of journalists, almost all of them Russian. A young woman was told she had the first question:

“Happy birthday,” she said.

Wilson, often described as the world’s most famous avant-garde playwright and director, turned 71 on Saturday. On Sunday, he gave two performances of “Krapp’s Last Tape,” charged throughout with jolts of emotional undercurrents.

He arrived here from Prague, where he is creating the set for and directing “1914,” a parable about war that opens next year. By the end of the week, he’ll be in Los Angeles, putting on “Einstein on the Beach,” the five-hour, intermission-less opera he created with composer Philip Glass. Wilson has five productions on in Paris this fall.

Here and there he’ll be home, putting on the New York stage production of “The Life and Death of Marina Abramovic,” which runs in December. By then, he should have finished his video portrait of Lady Gaga. He had staged her MTV Video Music Awards performance in August.

Next question: “Is it difficult to be a legend?”

It’s not something Wilson, a tall man with a sonorous voice, thinks about. In fact, he’ll tell you, it’s best not to think too much. Once, Gertrude Stein was asked what she thought of modern art. She replied: “I like to look at it,” Wilson said.

“It’s living,” he said. “I don’t see much difference between living and working. I think living is a part of my work. People often say, ‘How can you work so much?’ I don’t think about it as work. I think of it as a way to live.”

Postmodern theater

Art, for Wilson, is experience. “It can be disturbing, new, unusual, but it’s something I look at and experience,” he said. “I don’t try to intellectualize it.”

People describe him as being part of a group that started postmodern theater, he said. He doesn’t pay much attention to that, either.

“I don’t know what postmodern theater is,” he said. “It’s just something I did. They call it minimalism. If anything, it’s baroque. It’s not something in the mind. It’s in the body.”

Now he quotes Susan Sontag: “To experience something is a way of thinking.”

A television journalist wanted to know whether America appreciates him the way Europe does. The French know his work better, Wilson said. He’s had nine premieres in 12 years in Berlin. “Einstein on the Beach,” which has been called one of the most original works of the 20th century, was commissioned by the French minister of culture. Never would the U.S. government commission two Frenchmen to write an opera, Wilson said.

The United States remains provincial when it comes to theater and the performing arts, he said, cut off from the rest of the world; just try to read the bylaws of the National Endowment for the Arts.

“They make no sense,” he said. “We have no clear cultural policy in the United States. We have a Bill of Rights and a Constitution with which we govern ourselves as citizens, but for the arts, we have no cultural policy. When we look back at the Mayans or ancient Egypt, we look at their art.

“The artists are the recordists, diarists, journalists of our time. If we lose our culture, we lose our memory.”

He takes it as a good sign, however, that Marina Abramovic sat in the Museum of Modern Art for three months in 2010 as part of a performance piece. “Things are changing,” he said. She later brought the performance to an avant-garde gallery in Moscow.

Wilson, who has won awards for sculpture, has done choreography and designed furniture, said he performs occasionally as a way to get inside his work and learn more from it.

He likes Beckett — they met in Paris a few times before the Irishman died there in 1989. The two avant-gardists discovered they had a favorite actor in common: Buster Keaton.

‘Do you understand?’

Wilson said he thought the actress Madeleine Renaud had been brilliant in Beckett’s “Happy Days.” Beckett agreed. He said it was because she didn’t know what she was saying — and her timing was impeccable.

“It’s okay for an audience to get lost,” Wilson said. “So much of theater today reminds me of television. Every two or three seconds you have to get the message. ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ ‘Do you understand what I’m saying?’ After awhile, you don’t understand.

“In a work like ‘Einstein on the Beach’ there’s nothing to understand. We’re so afraid to lose the audience. Let the audience go. Let them experience it.”

This proved invaluable advice for “Krapp’s Last Tape.” The play is about a 69-year-old man looking back on his life, listening to a recording he made 30 years earlier, and then recording his contemporary thoughts.

It opens with crashing thunder, so heavy the theater seems to vibrate. Krapp, his face as white as a death mask, sits, motionless, at his desk for several minutes after the curtain rises. A boxy, reel-to-reel tape recorder sits on the desk. Wilson, as Krapp, says his first words 33 minutes into the play.

Ah! Box . . . three . . . spool . . . five.

The set is dark, streaked with hard edges — a metal bookcase, shards of light. Plenty of grimness follows, but there’s humor, as well. As Wilson had said, you need light to make sense of the darkness.

Beckett ends the play this way:

Here I end this reel. Box — [pause] — three, spool — [pause] — five. Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn’t want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn’t want them back.

The audience gave Wilson repeated ovations and a bouquet of blood-red roses. Tatyana Ivanidze, an 18-year-old aspiring theater critic, knew the play and loved the performance. “I’ve always wanted to see him perform,” she said.

Maxim Prasolov, a 24-year-old Muscovite, was not ready to speak about the play as he left the theater Sunday night.

“You need some time to talk about it,” he said. “But I can tell you this: It showed us life.”

 
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