Robert Wilson: ‘Your island is so cut off. It’s very provincial’

The Times

August 1, 2012


The English have never really taken to my work, and I’ve never really taken to the English either,” says Robert Wilson, the sun king of American avant-garde performance art, when we meet in his sculpture-filled apartment in the Hamptons, Long Island. “There’s nothing more boring in the world than having to see theatre in London. It’s horribly mannered and so ugly visually. It’s very provincial. Your island is so cut off.

“You had a revolution at the end of the 20th century in visual arts with Francis Bacon, nothing else. Sylvie Guillem was a great dancer: she could jump higher than anyone, but poor girl, she was at the Royal Ballet which is stuck in the 19th century.”

This cheerfully brutal outburst is at odds with Wilson’s otherwise detached air. The 70-year-old, famed for pieces including the “musical fable” The Black Rider created with Tom Waits and William Burroughs, and his opera Einstein on the Beach with Philip Glass, is coming to the UK this month for two productions under the umbrella of the London 2012 Festival. Wilson’s production of Samuel Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape, receives its premiere in the British Isles at the first Happy Days Enniskillen International Beckett Festival, features 50 minutes of silence. Walking, a summer installation in Holkham, Norfolk, is a 45-minute walk recast by Wilson into a four-hour visual and aural odyssey.

Wilson, handsome with silver hair and mournful grey eyes, explains why he was attracted to Beckett. “One reason to be an artist is to say ‘What is it?’, not what it is. If you know what you’re doing, there’s no reason doing it. Everything should remain open-ended.” In Krapp’s Last Tape, the challenge is to “hold the audience for 50 minutes before anything is said. I don’t use much movement, but there is movement within stillness. Krapp is sometimes performed with heavy, pathetic humour. But Beckett’s favourite actors, mine too, were Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin. You see Chaplin’s tramp starving, eating shoes, and you laugh at the tragedy. Beckett was a visual playwright: you saw one image, you heard something else. I liked that.”

Wilson’s work-occupied mind seems, inevitably, somewhere not entirely here. During our conversation, he breaks off abruptly to call someone; he stops talking to write, beautifully with outsized letters, a “get well soon” card. He lives here for six weeks every summer, the longest he is in one place. This restlessness is an adult affliction: growing up in Waco, Texas, Wilson asked “Do I have to come?” when his family holidayed.

His mother was poor, the oldest of seven who worked to put her siblings through college. “She was hugely intelligent, organised, hard-working. Three suit dresses, two in each style — that’s almost all she had in her closet. She was distant, didn’t talk much. I first remember kissing her when I went to university.” Before dying of cancer aged 57, she said to Wilson: “You’re gonna get along just fine in the world. You know how to be alone.”

Wilson would return from school, “go to my bedroom and close the door. It’s curious I have this life, working with lots of people, because I was such a loner.”

His father was a “spoilt rich boy” who became a lawyer. “I grew up in a very conservative community. It was a sin to go to the theatre. Women wearing trousers and social dancing were ‘sins’. At junior high school, if someone had been seen ‘sinning’, you were encouraged to write their name on a piece of paper, place it in a box, then everyone prayed for them.”

The young Wilson had a stammer, cured in six weeks by a ballet teacher, Byrd Hoffman (after whom he named his foundation): “She told me to ‘slowww down’. She was an artist, gave recitals, made sets, costumes.”

Wilson studied law at the University of Texas to please his father, but before graduating decided to study painting, then changing his mind to architecture, again “to please my father”. But his father said architecture “wasn’t serious” and recommended engineering. Wilson decamped to New York where he worked with mentally handicapped children. “I went to the theatre. It was horrible. The opera was even worse, so ugly. I’m still pretty bored with Broadway. New York is so provincial. They should burn all the theatre design schools down. I don’t know a good one in the world.”

At 25, Wilson returned to Texas and tried to commit suicide. “I had no idea what to do. I didn’t do anything well. I couldn’t imagine how I would make it in the world. I was in a deep depression. I took pills, drank a bottle of Scotch and threw it all up.” He was institutionalised for a couple of months and says he hasn’t suffered from depression since.

Was realising he was gay difficult? “It was more of a problem for my father. He said [Wilson puts on a Texan drawl]: ‘Son, they can cure that’.” Wilson went to gay bars “a little bit” when he came out. He lived with someone for ten years, “and that was great.” Now he’s single, but sees people “in Munich, Berlin, Taiwan, whatever”. Did he ever want to settle down? “Maybe at one time, but so many people work with me, that’s my family.”

Returning to New York, he was inspired by choreographers George Balanchine (“the Mozart of the 20th century”), Merce Cunningham and Martha Graham, musicians like John Cage and artists including Donald Judd. Wilson adopted Raymond Andrews, a deaf-mute African-American boy, in 1968. “For my father not only was I gay, I had a black son: that was the end for him.” Wilson’s father came to his shows and said: “Son, not only is this sick, it’s abnormal”. They never reconciled.

In 1969, Wilson produced his first work, King of Spain. European opera houses commissioned pieces. He created Deafman Glance, conducted in seven hours of silence, with Andrews, and A Letter for Queen Victoria with an autistic boy, Christopher Knowles, who is still a close friend. “My point to his mother was: ‘Why should we change him? Let’s encourage him,’ ” recalls Wilson. Andrews lives in New Jersey, and “has a girlfriend [and] a blue Buick”.

Of his collaborators — among them Brad Pitt, Rufus Wainwright, Lou Reed and Marianne Faithfull — Wilson has particularly enjoyed Willem Dafoe (“funny and terrifying in the same moment”). Wilson is most appreciated in continental Europe, he says. “In the 20th century, the French gave a home to Braque, Picasso and Stravinsky. They commissioned me to do the inauguration of the new Opéra Bastille.”

In his homeland, “the big problem I have with Broadway is that everything is geared to be understood, like television: this constant ‘Are you getting this?’ from the actors. After a while you don’t understand anything.” With something like Einstein on the Beach there’s no story. If you try to make sense of it you’ll end up walking out. It’s something you experience.”

In Walking, visitors will enter a soundproofed space, then pass through different landscapes until a spot where they hear the recorded sound of crickets: “We’ve slowed it so they sound like angels singing.”

The indefatigable Wilson is planning a musical based on the life of Clementine Hunter, a black artist who worked on a plantation. A musical about Hans Christian Andersen is being created with Waits and the Irish playwright Martin McDonagh. Wilson will oversee a “Monteverdi Cycle” in Paris and Milan and a Berlin production of Peter Pan with the art-music duo CocoRosie. If he ever mounted a Broadway show it would be that: “I like the 19th century horror story, not the Disney version.” A production of Tristan and Isolde, conducted by Daniel Barenboim, is planned. He wants to “do King Lear again” and build “a library of inspiration” at his Hamptons arts centre. “The avant- garde will always have a future.”

Does he mind ageing? “The legs begin to ache, back hurts, knee hurts.” And mortality? “I’ve had a good life and I’m ready to go.”