The key to Robert
Wilson

The key to Robert
            Wilson

Don’t
bother looking for Robert Wilson’s gay sensibility
onstage: The controversial queer king of avant-garde
theater has built an oeuvre of works so surreal that
parsing them for gay undertones is almost beside the
point.

Although he has
certainly had his share of lovers over his four-decade
career, Wilson has never drawn attention to the fact that he
is gay. So it comes as a surprise to hear him say
wistfully in Absolute Wilson—the New
Yorker Films documentary about his life and
work—“There hasn’t been a great romance
in my life.”

Not that
he’s worried. Bounding into the café of the Four
Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills, neatly attired in a
gray suit, the Texas-born Wilson, 65, sits down to
chat with the elegant ease of a homegrown Noël Coward.
“I guess in the early part of my life I was very much
looking for a relationship and trying to make it
work,” he admits. “But like the Chinese
say, ‘Don’t run after your horse; it will come
back of its own accord.’ Maybe it’s a
bit like that.”

Judging by the
evidence in Absolute Wilson and its accompanying
coffee-table book,Wilson’s most passionate love
objects have not been men but art and fame.
“Robert always really wanted to be famous,”
his friend Susan Sontag comments in the film. Among
theater cognoscenti, particularly in Europe, Wilson
has been a rock star for years. Now—with Wilson
doing things like photographing Brad Pitt in his underwear
for the cover of Vanity Fair—the U.S.
mainstream is getting the idea.

Wilson’s
’70s masterpiece Einstein on the Beach (a
collaboration with composer Philip Glass) made him one
of the most sought-after theatrical craftsmen on
earth. He’s unmatched in his ability to
reorganize theatrical space with light, color, and
startlingly surreal images. And then there’s
the almost glacial pace of his productions, which
holds spectators in a quasi-hypnotic state akin to waking
dreams.

Wilson’s
dreams hark back to Waco, Texas, where he was born in 1941,
the son of the town’s most prominent political
figure. He didn’t fit in, of course. As a child
he had a severe stutter. Byrd Hoffman, a local speech
teacher, taught him to overcome his impediment through
“slowness”—a technique he would
later apply to his art. Still, it was the idea of a
“normal” life and how in the world he would
manage one that troubled Wilson.

He came out to
his father and then left home to study architecture in New
York City. The move was so overwhelming that Wilson
retreated to Waco, attempted suicide, and was briefly
institutionalized. A sympathetic psychiatrist helped
Wilson see that being gay didn’t worry him as much as
his father’s feelings about it. The young man moved
back to New York City, and this time he found his way.

America Hurrah, an absurd farce by out performance
pioneer Jean-Claude van Itallie, with sets and
costumes designed by Wilson, ran for a year
off-off-Broadway. Wilson followed with mind-bending works of
his own. The King of Spain is famous for its set with
a pair of gigantic cat’s legs hung over the
proscenium.

Deafman Glance, staged at the Brooklyn, N.Y., Academy
of Music in 1971, is a dream spectacle involving an
Egyptian pyramid, a rain forest filled with waltzing
“mammy” dolls, and giant bunny rabbits who
danced to “We Belong to a Mutual Admiration
Society.”

The show’s
surreal imagery put Wilson on the map. Yet Deafman
Glance
was based on something very real: the imagination
of Raymond Andrews, a deaf and mute African-American
boy whom Wilson rescued from a police beating and in
1968 legally adopted.

“One
morning Raymond made a drawing of a frog sitting at the head
of a table drinking martinis, and a man with one eye.
Then he did a larger portrait of this man with one
eye, and one of a woman with a bird on top of her
head. She was sitting at the table with a plate of bones.
And that was all in Deafman Glance. God knows
where that came from.” Raymond appeared onstage
in the production, seated on the branch of a tree.

“There was
a film made of it,” Wilson tells me, “and a
journalist who saw the film and learned about my
adopting Raymond said, ‘This is a long time
before Brad Pitt and Madonna started adopting black
kids.’ I hadn’t thought of that. I was
the original Angelina Jolie.”

Wilson
didn’t adopt Christopher Knowles, another young man
who made his way into Wilson’s work, but this
autistic youth, who was about to be institutionalized,
became Wilson’s chief collaborator in the early
’70s. Together they coauthored—and
Knowles starred in—A Letter to Queen
Victoria
and several dialogues, which Knowles and Wilson
performed together as a kind of avant-garde vaudeville
act. It was the seemingly abnormal behavior, like
Knowles’s obsessive chanting of the phrase
“Emily likes to watch TV,” with
different words emphasized each time, that fascinated
Wilson.

As when he
himself was younger, Wilson rejected the idea that Knowles
should be shoved into a box called “normal.”
“With Chris, [therapists] were
‘correcting’ him,”Wilson says.
“I just took what he was doing and put it in a
play and encouraged him to do more. So it wasn’t
therapy or trying to teach him. His mother was
concerned that he would be unable to lead a normal
life. I said, ‘Barbara, what if he’s not? What
if we have to support him all his life? Does he have
to be like you and me? Don’t put him under that
pressure.’ So we took him out of the institution, he
stayed with me, we wrote A Letter to Queen Victoria,
and he performed it. And what happened without trying
to make it happen—he did become
independent.”

Wilson has built
his own great success on the same premise. For all his
soigné sophistication, Wilson remains a big kid
himself. And, like a child, he has learned to live
with contradictions. “It’s very strange how
our lives end up full of opposites,” Wilson says
toward the end of Absolute Wilson. “I
say I like to be alone, yet I am always surrounded by
people. My theater is slow and calm, yet my life is fast
and hectic, going in all directions. Yes, I’ve been
in love, but I guess I’m too involved with
myself and my work. I think I’m in love with my
work, and I’m in love with the people I work
with.”

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