Post Dramatic Theatre
Theatre of Visuals
Manipulation of time
Robert Wilson: Landscape Images and Post-Dramatic Theatre
The end of the Avant-garde movement in the 1960’s brought about several theatrical conventions and styles, grouped together as ‘Postdramatic theatre” by German theatre scholar Hans - Theis Lehmann. These stylistic traits were recognized in the works of various theatre practitioners such as Tadeusz Kantor, Heiner Müller, The Wooster Group, Robert Wilson and many more. However, Lehmann asserts that “Over the last thirty years hardly any theatre practitioner has changed the theatre and the scope of its means and at the same time influenced the possibilities of reimagining theatre as much as Robert Wilson” (Lehmann 77).
Robert Wilson is an internationally acclaimed experimental theatre stage director. His style of theatre is referred to as ‘Theatre of Visuals’ or ‘Theatre of Images’ coined by New York based critic, Bonnie Marranca (Hurstfield). Since 1960s, Wilson's productions have had a significant influence on the world of theatre and opera (Goethe Institut). Theatre of Images is Wilson’s endeavor at freeing the audience from text specific interpretations, which he found prevalent in Western theatre. He wanted to create theatre where the audience was free to “explore individual meanings from his visual and aural experiences”(Hurstfield). Wilson focuses on detail like precise gestures, movements, shapes of objects, time, lighting and theatre aesthetics in order to heighten the audiences viewing experience. Everything included in Wilson’s performances has an intension. All theatrical elements in his performances have a relationship and are not meant to be seen in isolation (Foreman 39). Visual aesthetic plays a crucial role in Wilson’s work. He approaches his performance space in an architectural manner, as a “flat picture space and a sculptural volume to be composed” (Goethe Institut) using light, actors, props and movement. Sound, language and time play a more abstract role in Wilson’s work; he makes use of distorted sounds and music in many of his works. Wilson approaches his space as a landscape made up of images independent of written text or ‘dramatic’ theatre conventions; Hans - Theis Lehmann terms this as Post-dramatic theatre (Lehmann 23).
Furthermore, this essay will investigate some of the theatrical aspects of Robert Wilson’s work that make up what Lehmann terms ‘Landscape theatre’ and analyze them according to his concept of Post-dramatic theatre articulated in his book Post-Dramatic Theatre from 1999. In order to do this, first, the Post-dramatic theory of Lehmann will be examined and the various features that make up Post-dramatic theatre will be scrutinized. Next, Lehmann’s articulation of Landscape theatre along with three important aspects that it comprises off will be analyzed as post-dramatic performance conventions: the use of ‘images’, metamorphoses, and the distortion of time. This will be done using predominantly Lehmann’s theory, as well as input from other theatre scholars and supported by examples from Wilson’s performances. A conclusion will be drawn regarding how these conventions work together in Wilson’s work to provide the audience with a true Post-dramatic theatre experience. This essay will examine three theatrical aspects used by Robert Wilson that make up ‘landscape theatre’: theatre of visuals, metamorphoses and the distortion of time and how they function together in accordance to Hans Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic theatre theory.
Before delving into Robert Wilson’s post-dramatic theatre, it is important to define and explain Postdramatic theatre as it is a complex term embodying many different theatrical notions. The term was coined by theatre scholar Hans- Thies Lehmann in his book Post-Dramatic Theatre, published in 1999. The book was originally published in German but a revised, English translated version was released in 2006. The book surveys theatre history as well as includes Lehmann’s own theoretical approaches which combine dramatic theory and theatre history, as a way to approach emerging technologies and the paradigm shift from text-based drama. He combines a plethora of examples from post-dramatic performances as well as theories of other practitioners to amalgamate a survey of Post-dramatic theatre. His revisiting of the postmodern debate sets a scene for the more recent post dramatic explorations. In order to understand what Post-dramatic theatre is, Lehmann starts by differentiating the dramatic style of literary based theatre from the post dramatic; which is not bound to text. He writes, “The adjective ‘postdramatic’ denotes a theatre that feels bound to operate beyond drama, at a time ‘after’ the authority of the dramatic paradigm in theatre” (Lehmann 27). This paradigm shift that Lehmann is referring to encompasses the shift from text and actor focused theatre, the increase in physical theatre, the use of technology, the focus on the audience and their sense of interpretation as well as the development of performance studies as its own discipline.
Moreover, Post-dramatic theatre makes use of a combination of heterogeneous styles which “differentiate themselves from representational theatre by offering actors and audiences theatrical experiences that are not tied to the vicissitudes of either character or plot but seek to investigate broader issues, free of drama’s limitations” (Barnett). The post dramatic theatre aims to have an effect on spectators through its multi-perspective form of viewing. The text may be used in performance but the work is far from focused on the text, which he asserts is a reaction the previous dominance of text based theatre (Lehmann 16). There is no particular plot as it predominantly focuses on the interaction between performer and spectator. The simple causal sense of theatre is rejected in post dramatic forms. Furthermore, Lehmann tries to analyze the past to gain insight into the more present or what we may call ‘recent past.’ Karen Jürs-Munby, the translator of the book comments that Lehmann analyses new theatre forms by analyzing their “resonances with (and divergences from) the historical theatre avant-gardes" (Lehmann 1). In this book, he forges a new language and set of terms to understand post dramatic theatre as a multidimensional process. Lehmann’s revision of modern theatre history focuses on performance rather than plays, which in turn reveals the logic of post dramatic theatre as a natural progression. Theatrical aspects of Robert Wilson’s works demonstrate the separation of theatre from text based, literary drama, and encapsulate the true nature of theatre as a performance art.
Robert Wilson’s Theatre of Visuals encapsulates several aspects of writer and playwright Gertrude Stein’s ‘Landscape plays.’ Lehmann recognizes the “affinity between Wilson’s theatre and Gertrude Stein’s notion of ‘Landscape Play. In both there is minimal progression, the ‘continuous present’, no identifiable identities, a peculiar rhythm that wins out over all semantics and in which anything fixable passes into variations and shadings” ( Lehmann 81). Lehmann argues “prehistory of postdramatic theatre includes conceptions that think of theatre, stage and text rather like a landscape” much like Stein did (Lehmann 62). Wilson is one of Stein’s contemporaries that also used landscape-like staging in his spatial aesthetics. He directed three of Stein's works in 1990s and attributes Stein to changing his way of thinking forever, “especially with her notion of seeing a play as a landscape” (Wilson). However, it is important to note that Wilson did not call his own theatre, ‘landscape theatre’; Lehmann draws similarities between Stein’s landscape plays and Wilson’s approach to theatre. Non-Hierarchal structure, aural and visual elements, stress on experience, physical characterization and use of continuous present are some of the aspects of Stein’s Landscape theatre. Wilson approached his space architecturally, using light and actors to sculpt his stage, transforming his stage space into a landscape.
Theatre of Images
The ‘main’ prominent aspect of Robert Wilson’s work is his spacial aesthetics. Robert Wilson’s Theatre of Images uses light and movement to design his ‘landscape.’ He focuses on details like precise gestures, movements, shapes and light as he aims to create a heightened theatre watching experience. Wilson sees the stage as a flat space with sculptural volume, arguably due to his training as an architect (Foreman 37). The main visual aspects of Wilson’s Theatre of Images are light and movement of the actors. These aspects employ physical characterization and the importance of visual elements much like in Stein’s landscape plays. In regards to Wilson’s treatment of actors, the way they move and their physicality; Wilson treats the body as sculptural, and uses movement along with light to define the structure of the body. Actors in Wilson’s theatre are merely tools used to form images. His characters do not converse in the way that characters in traditional dramatic theatre would. There is no particular narrative to follow as his performances lack linear plot sequences. Wilson’s actors move in a rhythmic and structured manner. He designs the movement to stand on it’s own, independent of the text. Wilson argues that in his performances there is “no emphasis on the importance of any particular performer, this alienates the audience since they can no longer identify with any protagonist” (Hurstfield). This divergence from mimesis in theatre is key in Wilson’s post dramatic explorations. In his discussions regarding his 1970 production Deafman Glance, Wilson was determined not to include any sort of intentional resolution in the narrative. This stems from his belief that “words are not inherently more important than light, space, and movement, and that the performers may be considered as compositional elements” (Blank). Wilson’s spaces comprise of landscapes of images that are independent of character or written text. Lehmann argues that in Wilson’s work, “The phenomenon has priority over the narrative, the effect of the image precedence over the individual actor, and contemplation over interpretation” (Lehmann 80). Actors are instruments in Wilson’s construction of image landscapes, and function in a parallel way with light.