Robert Wilson’s Theatre of Visuals (postmodernism in practice)

Now that we have investigated some of the basic principles in Postmodern Theatre through how deconstruction can provide opportunities for opening interpretation we can start to explore some postmodern theatre that can be described as postmodern in practice.

Robert Wilson is internationally acclaimed as being one of the most significant visionary artists of the 20th century.  Since the late 1960s Wilson has staged over sixty full-scale postmodern theatrical works in the United States and Europe.  His work is often called a ‘theatre of visuals’ or ‘theatre of images’ as termed by New York critic Bonnie Marranca,[i] and presents an artistic theatre where precise gestures, movements, shapes of objects, textures of sound, and lighting aim to create a heightened experience for the viewer.

The Theatre of Visuals

His theatre produces a constant interplay of visual, verbal and auditory elements, which problematise the relation of image to language and challenges the onlookers…[ii]

Like Brecht and Artaud before him, Wilson reacted against the contemporary Western theatre, calling this style of acting and directing ‘fascist’.[iii]  It was from this feeling that Wilson insisted on emancipating his audiences from the specific textual interpretation enforced by Western theatre directors, allowing them a freedom to translate and explore individual meanings from his visual and aural experiences.

In achieving this, Wilson employs a number of strategies which, including essentially non-linguistic montage, displace any univocal signification, thereby releasing a limitless play of language in a Derridean deconstructive method.  Basically, as Johannes Birringer observes, Wilson contradicts the stage that was “once considered a close space of representation … primarily constructed by words and logocentrism and anthropocentrism of drama” and has now made it “conceivable as an open laboratory of image associations … polyphonic sound landscapes, abstract cultural designs, uninterpretable and self-recursive signs.”[iv]

Wilson integrates non-narrative drama (in the sense that it lacks a linear plot sequence), scenic spectacle, music, sound, silence and dance into a music theatre experience which refuses to enforce interpretation.  Brechtian and Artaudian influences can be seen in this style as “Wilson challenges the dominant tradition of Western drama, grounded in idolatry of the word.  Wilson changed the way the theatre looks and sounds.”[v]

Also reflecting Artaud and Brecht, Wilson states that his overall intentions are to reach a broader audience, to create works ‘on a scale of large popular theater’.[vi]

Of enormous influence in his work is Wilson’s experience of working with mentally and physically challenged children.  Of particular reference is his adopted son, Raymond Andrews – a deaf-mute boy, and Christopher Knowles – an autistic teenager.[vii]  The psychology of Knowles together with the linguistic problems of Andrews generated a lot of material for Wilson.

Andrews did not communicate through words and Wilson encouraged him to communicate through his drawings and body language.  This influenced Wilson in developing a theatre that was independent of text and language, and which relied on visual signs and symbols.

Wilson’s ‘visual’ theatre techniques came entirely into fruition with the creation of a seven hour show entitled Deafman Glance, a ‘silent opera’ structured from pictures and stories inspired by Andrews’ drawings.

Deafman Glance – Captured on Film

Wilson talks about Deafman Glance as the culmination of his approach to … alternative theater:  a determination not to impose on either text or characters the intentional resolution of the narrative tradition; a belief that words are not inherently more important than light, space, and movement, and that the performers may be considered as compositional elements.[viii]

This style of theatre works as a type of collage, or series of montages; that is far removed from being an integrated whole; Wilson relies on disconnecting text from image and music, thus creating a similar effect to Brechtian defamiliarisation and disrupting traditional narrative.

Also there is no emphasis on the importance of any particular performer, this alienates the audience since they can no longer identify with any protagonist – a key ingredient in conventional theatre.

As Birringer notes, “In his operas … Wilson claims, the audience is presented with pure visions and pictures not with interpretation of a text or story.”[ix] However, while Wilson draws on Brechtian Epic Theatre techniques he prefers his performers not to address the audience directly, maintaining that “he cannot tolerate a ‘fascist’ theatre, one that relies overmuch on ‘confrontation and absorption’.”[x]

During his work on A Letter to Queen Victoria, Wilson met composer Philip Glass and, together with choreographer Andrew de Goat, conceived (over eight months) Einstein on the Beach, a five hour long performance with no interruption.  For Wilson it is important that, on stage, ‘real events should occur in real time’, thus destroying the illusionary ‘telescoped’ narrative structure of traditional theatre.

In Einstein on the Beach, the montage of visual and aural oneiric images are structured mathematically over four acts, and the vocal texts used throughout the opera are based on numbers and solfège (‘do, re mi…’) syllables.[xi]

This is a prime example of deconstruction within the work.

Wilson breaks up the langue, being the semiotic use of numbers, by constantly displacing the order in which the numbers one to five are spoken and, together with the incessant repeating of short bodies of fragmented text (in which the word beach only features once), at different tempos, rhythms and textures.  Eventually the actual numbers lose their identity and the text loses its surface meaning, they become a language with no fixed meaning and are open to translation.  As Susan Broadhurst indicates, “As well as seeming appropriate for the subject of Einstein, a vocal text based on numbers could easily be understood by an international audience.  By such means, this work can be seen to challenge traditional … theatrical practices.”[xii]

Einstein on the Beach – The Changing Image of Opera (part one)

Einstein on the Beach – The Changing Image of Opera (part two)

Einstein on the Beach – The Changing Image of Opera (part three)

Einstein on the Beach – The Changing Image of Opera (part four)

Einstein on the Beach – The Changing Image of Opera (part five)

Einstein on the Beach does not attempt to give an historical or biographical account of Einstein, but rather, as Wilson states; “It’s trying to present a poetical interpretation of this man.”[xiii] Wilson feels that the performers need not tell the story of Einstein as it is already known.

Instead, through the non-linear sequences of dance and movement, integrated with explicit set, lighting, music and fragmented dream-like text, the work no longer calls for a representation of Einstein, allowing him to become almost ‘mythological’.  As Glass notes, “what we did with Einstein was to take a person and make him the subject.  It was a way in which the person replaces the idea of a plot or a story.”[xiv]

This sense of subject over plot echoes Brecht in refuting Aristotelian principle; which is grounded in plot over narrative.

Crucial to Wilson’s theatre is the abandonment of a dramatic action that would seek to establish an internal continuity or linear sequence or any kind of mimetic representation of cause and effect.[xv]

For Wilson, the theatre should place emphasis on spectator experience over narrative allowing the spectator to participate and explore freely.  He believes that the absence of any straightforward narrative and dialogue, plot, character and setting as a ‘realistic’ place, emphasises the ‘stage picture’, he exemplifies;

If you place a baroque candelabra on a baroque table that is something.  If you place a baroque candelabra on a rock, that is something else altogether.  For a start it is easier to see the candelabra.  That is what this style of theatre is all about.[xvi]

It is with this aspect of opening interpretation that others such as Pina Bausch also focus their work. We will explore the work of the Tanztheater Wuppertal in our next article…


[i] Goldberg R Performance Art Ch.7 p.185

[ii] Campbell P (ed) Analysing Performance Ch.10 p.185

[iii] Broadhurst S Liminal Acts Ch.4 p.89

[iv] Birringer J Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism Ch.10 p.195

[vi] Goldberg R Performance Art Ch.7 p.189

[vii] ibid Ch.7 p.187

[ix] Birringer J Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism Ch.10 p.194

[x] Wright E Postmodern Brecht p.129

[xi]  Broadhurst S Liminal Acts Ch.4 p.84-85

[xii] ibid Ch.4 p.85

[xiii] Obenhaus M Interview – Robert Wilson in Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera

[xiv] ibid Interview – Philip Glass

[xv] Birringer J Theatre, Theory, Postmodernism Ch.10 p.196

[xvi] Obenhaus M Interview – Robert Wilson in Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Image of Opera


Also published on Medium.

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