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Ask Robert Wilson if his latest creation, THE DAYS BEFORE, Death, Destruction, & Detroit III, is postmodern, and he laughs. Then the former Texan quips in a robust twang: "I don't even know what that word means. Today, everything's 'postmodern.' "
Maybe so. But with his painterly mise-en-scène, alienated actors, and dreamily fractured tableaux, Wilson has done more to usher in the postmodern on stage than any other living theater artist. His new piece opens July 7 as part of the Lincoln Center Festival.
"Naturalism is based on a lie," Wilson is fond of proclaiming. Still, he owes as much to the surrealists and absurdists as he does to postmodernism. In 1971, after seeing Deafman Glance, one of Wilson's first "plays" in Paris, the poet Louis Aragon, then in his seventies, wrote that it was "an extraordinary freedom machine." And after seeing Death, Destruction, & Detroit I at Peter Stein's Schaubuhne in 1979, Eugène Ionesco wrote that certain images in the play revealed how, in the late 20th century, we are already inside "the realization of menace." Absurdists and surrealists being in short supply in America, how-ever, Wilson has worked here infrequently.
"I've directed a play every year in Paris since 1979 people there have grown up looking at my work," the director says wistfully, recalling how, that same year, a series of productions of Death, Destruction, & Detroit I slated to be performed at the Metropolitan Opera had to be abandoned after he refused to back down on plans to insert lighting in the Met stage floor. THE DAYS BEFORE is the final part of this same trilogy and the first Wilson premiere to take place in New York in almost 15 years.
Compared to some of Wilson's earlier works, this new piece seems almost Chekhovian at first. After all, it runs a mere 200 minutes and uses only 13 actors and four dancers. (By contrast, Wilson's 1969 Life and Times of Joseph Stalin clocked in at 12 hours.) And instead of Philip Glass's minimalist music or Hans Peter Kuhn's stark sonic environments, Wilson has used the somber techno-pop of the Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto.
Does this mean that our most famous theatrical exile is going mainstream? Certainly, Wilson is more interested in working in a wider array of theatrical vernaculars than he has been, especially in the U.S. Last year, his Lohengrin was produced at the Metropolitan Opera. In 1996, Lincoln Center staged his production of Gertrude Stein's Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights. And the director of CIVIL warS and Einstein on the Beach makes a point of saying that he has directed not just original avant-garde works, but also the more standard repertoire. "I just did Madame Butterfly," he says. "There was no abstraction there."
THE DAYS BEFORE's biography is fairly straightforward: Wilson began work on it three years ago, inspired by Umberto Eco's 1995 novel, The Island of the Day Before, which tells the story of Roberto della Griva, a 17th- century nobleman shipwrecked in the Pacific at the longitudinal point where, as Wilson puts it, "yesterday becomes today.
"Eco's novel takes a point in time when you see someone in the distance and you don't know if they're going forward or backward," says the director known for slowing down stage time.
And yet THE DAYS BEFORE is only based on Eco's 1995 novel in the way that Death, Destruction, & Detroit I was "about" the life of Nazi war criminal Rudolf Hess or Death, Destruction, & Detroit II staged at the Schaubuhne in 1987 was "about" the life of Franz Kafka. None of the trilogy actually puts its subject on stage. Instead, these works refer and allude to them in a tapestry of eerie meditations and strange, stark scenes.
"I like to say that the first part of the tri- logy was about a man who refuses to die," Wilson notes, "The second was about a man who refuses to live." All three parts of the trilogy dramatize their alleged subjects' inner lives. Death, Destruction, & Detroit I "takes place" when Hess is incarcerated in Spandau Prison at the end of his life. But the play reverberates around Hess's mind, moving the audience from a Louis Quinze gallery to a Greyhound bus. THE DAYS BEFORE is about Roberto's spiritual journey; as his life slips away from him, his mind ignores spatial and temporal realities and carries him from a volcanic island to New Jersey in the spring.
Veering from Judgment Day scenes to natural disasters to the moment the Russian czar is exiled, THE DAYS BEFORE reflects on the world's end: the text weaves together apocalyptic visions from the poetry of Christopher Knowles, Wilson's longtime, autistic collaborator; the epilogue of Moby Dick; a scene from Bergman's The Seventh Seal; and an excerpt from The Catcher in the Rye. By collecting these opposing visions, THE DAYS BEFORElimns the essential doubleness of life, an enduring Wilson theme.
"Heaven doesn't exist without hell," Wilson says. "As long as we're crossing the millennium, we look to the past."