O Most Pernicious Wilson!

The Brooklyn Academy of Music

The Brooklyn Academy of Music


I hadn’t intended to post this, but what the hell. A few days ago, a friend e-mailed me the following item from The New York Times:

Has anyone ever compared Robert Wilson to a summer’s day? This celebrated director has teamed with the composer Rufus Wainwright to transform Shakespeare’s 14-line poems into a patchwork opera. Under layers of white makeup, the Berliner Ensemble performs the quatrains and couplets. Howard Gilman Opera House, Brooklyn Academy of Music, etc.

Whenever I come across Robert Wilson’s name, the first image that pops into my head is that of Egghead, the archfiend played by Vincent Price on several episodes of the “Batman” TV series back in the sixties. Egghead was a notorious braggart, who claimed to be the smartest man on the planet, a boast he made at least once in every conversation. Though Batman himself agreed that Egghead was a genius, there was no evidence to support this claim, unless one may take the villain’s habitual punning substitution of “eggs” for the prefix “ex” (e.g., eggs-cellent, eggs-actly) as a manifestation of genius. Like all the other criminal masterminds on the show, Egghead was a megalomaniac weirdo who, for some undisclosed reason, surrounded himself with brainless, unreliable henchmen; when he and his imbecile confederates descended upon Gotham, they’d execute a series of random, senseless acts of terrorism that took the form of egg-themed practical jokes. But unlike the other “Batman” villains, Egghead’s goal was not to rule Gotham nor even to rob it, but only to ruin it, to transform order and purpose into chaos and blank perplexity.

Separated at birth? Pudd'nhead Wilson, Egghead

Separated at birth? Pudd’nhead Wilson, Egghead

Now here’s Robert Wilson, whose reputation for genius mystifies me as completely as Egghead’s did; his blinding and uncritical appreciation of his artistic and intellectual genius strikes me as being no less exalted and no more reliable; his productions always seem to me to be an Eggheadesque series of random, senseless acts of tiresomeness in the form of bughouse practical jokes; and though he confines his chaos and blank perplexity to theatres and opera houses, he achieves a more austere and absolute nothingness than Batman’s porcelain-pated nemesis ever did.

Wilson certainly has a loyal following, and I don’t doubt the sincerity of his admirers. I make no doubt that some of them are more intelligent than Egghead appeared to be. But his fans and I apparently go to the theatre for entirely different reasons. The moment I see that the characters on stage don’t look like humans (e.g., faces painted blue or hidden behind elaborate masks), I know that the performance has not been devised to appeal to me, nor is likely to. Moreover, when the performers’ movements have been radically stylized in order to create a dramatic effect, well, that’s when I reach for my hat. That sort of thing may well be valid, but I feel that it o’ersteps the modesty of nature and is therefore “from the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure. Now this overdone, or come tardy off, though it make the unskillful laugh, cannot but make the judicious grieve.”

I wouldn’t dream of restricting or abridging Wilson’s right to concoct all the crazyhouse surrealism he wants. Let him repeat himself to his heart’s content. It’s none of my affair. So he’s partial to the gigantic penny-farthing moving through a void? to trees of triangles? to the jungle gym? to chandeliers amid rows of cypresses? to the painted head protruding from an anthill? Set you to your task. Sic itur ad astra, you asshole. But I reserve the right to believe there’s less to his work than Magrittes the eye. I also wonder — since his work is so immediately recognizable, since so much of his recent work looks so much like what he was doing back in the eighties — how much longer can it reasonably be considered avant-garde? He’s been playing the same scrubby little washboard with the same scrubby little spoon for over thirty years and he’s still in the vanguard? At what point does arthritis advance him to the rear? Bring me a megalomaniac weirdo of stature!

But why should it bother me so much to learn that this latter-day Egghead, whom I’ve always taken with a grain of salt, has once again descended on Gotham, this time to present his new(ish) work, in which he has selected twenty-five Shakespearean Sonnets and run them through the harrows of his glacial sensibility? He’s only doing his job, as he sees it. Who cares? I won’t be forced to see it, so what difference does it make? And yet, after I read the item quoted above, I couldn’t stop brooding about it. A few days later, Charles Isherwood’s respectfully negative review appeared; the boredom and bewilderment he expressed confirmed my guess about how the show would look and sound. The combination of Egghead and Rufus Wainwright strikes me as so toxic, it would hardly matter what they chose as the basis of their collaboration. But the thought of their diddling about with Shakespeare’s Sonnets — my God, it’s atrocious, monstrous! Individually, I’d consider them uniquely dreadful intepreters of Shakespeare. But together, they’d turn each Sonnet into its own separate version of Edgar Allan Poe’s unhappy M Valdemar, who at the point of death was put into a trance that, for twenty years, suspended him in a limbo, neither dead nor living. When he was released from the trance, the wretched M Valdemar rotted away in an instant, leaving behind only “a nearly liquid mass of loathsome — of detestable putrescence.” This thought rankled me with incredible force, took me completely by surprise and grew more intense until I felt almost “frantic mad with evermore unrest.” Finally, I turned to ridicule and parody as a way of dissipating its energy. It took the form of a mock sonnet, built mostly from phrases from the Sonnets; the structure has been left rough on purpose, on the principle that it approximates the thing it mocks. There is one word in it that may possibly offend some people: I beg their pardons in advance, and assure them of my particular right to use it.

Amicus Poetæ

Heavy ignorance aloft to fly -- Sonnet 78

Heavy ignorance aloft to fly — Sonnet 78

Shall I compare thee to a plumber gay?
Thou hast the plumber’s gibbous silhouette;
Thy attitude doth faggotry display
As sure as mosques do show a minaret.

Who his spoil of beauty can forbid? -- Sonnet 65

Or who his spoil of beauty can forbid? — Sonnet 65

When Robert Wilson shall besiege my verse
And dig deep trenches in my fecund dells,
My truths he’ll devastate — my sense inhearse —
In Teuton tongue with bawling sampled bells.

Were it not sinful then, striving to mend, To mar the subject that before was well?

Were it not sinful then, striving to mend,
To mar the subject that before was well? — Sonnet 103

For never-resting Wilson drags me on
To Wainwright’s workshop and confounds me there:
Sense crush’d with chords, and right perfection gone,
And Rufus Wainwright’s wrongness everywhere!

And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud.

And loathsome canker lives in sweetest bud. — Sonnet 35

With sluttish pitch have they besmear’d my light:
For both are black as Hell, as dark as night!

Academic and theatrical cranks have been imposing their crackpot theories on Shakespeare for more than three hundred years; Shakespeare always outlasts them. The actor/manager and poetaster Colley Cibber was one of Shakespeare’s early posthumous collaborators. In 1699, Cibber first presented his new, “improved” version of “Richard III,” upon which he had performed radical reconstructive surgery. He cut out much of Shakespeare’s text, filled some of the holes with speeches he borrowed from other Shakespearean works, drastically reorganized the order of the scenes and smartened up the mutilation with speeches of his own composition. Cibber, best known for playing fops, assayed the bunchback monarch himself, though not to universal acclaim. About his wooing of Lady Anne, one critic observed: “He looks like a pickpocket, with his shrugs and grimaces, that has more a design on her purse than her heart.” Though now discredited and largely forgotten, Cibber’s mincemeat version became, for the next hundred and fifty years, the standard text for the stage, and many of his lines continue to be used today. (Olivier used at least two of them in his movie version: “Off with his head! So much for Buckingham.” “Richard’s himself again.” Both of those famous lines are Cibber’s brainchildren.) And Cibber was only one of hundreds upon hundreds of self-proclaimed Bardolators who have taken it upon themselves to correct the barbarous errors that their idol wasn’t clever enough to avoid or repair. From the time Charles II reopened the theatres and for the next two hundred years, Romeo and Juliet lived happily ever after and Cordelia outlived her royal parent. The proper endings have been restored; Shakespeare endured the idiotic revisions and will continue to do so.

Neither Wilson nor the hipster Rufus can do any lasting harm to Shakespeare; after three hundred years of having had the rottenest things done to him, Shakespeare has proved that he can survive anything. He’s such an old and practiced whore, after these two have finished tag-teaming him, he’ll just pull his breeches back up, re-button his doublet and make sure his codpiece and seams are straight. He’s like the elephant in an old actors’ joke I used to hear many years ago. There’s this kid who runs away from home to join the circus. For his first assignment, the manager tells him, “Here, take this broomstick. Make sure an’ give them three elephants a enema before every performance. So’s they don’t take a big dump the minute the lights hit ’em.” The first two elephants are new to the show business and fairly quiver with stage fright. Their bowels respond at once; all in a moment the wretched lad is horribly besmeared with the elephants’ sour waste. But the third elephant is this old, seasoned pro; his ears are full of nicks and all torn up along the edges. The broomstick has no effect on him. So the kid keeps going at it faster and rougher, until at last old Jumbo wearily cocks his head in the kid’s direction and says, “How’s the house?”

And their gross painting might be better us'd Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abus'd. -- Sonnet 82

And their gross painting might be better us’d
Where cheeks need blood; in thee it is abus’d. — Sonnet 82

Still, this Wilson/Wainwright project really got sand in my Vaseline. I suppose it’s because fifteen years ago, on a whim, I decided to commit all one hundred and fifty-four Sonnets to memory. The project took somewhat longer than a year to complete, and they don’t stay put without constant practice. At the moment, I’ve got more than a hundred of them firmly in place, and most of those I’ve forgotten are the ones I like the least. The point is, I’ve spent hundreds, even thousands of hours memorizing, analyzing, considering, reciting, wrestling with, thinking about, dreaming of and loving the Sonnets. I don’t have anything like a proprietary feeling about them — of course I don’t own them: lots of people have memorized them; lots of people have more penetrating insights into them than I do. And yet, the feeling I have for the Sonnets is deep and personal, it involves great respect and admiration, but it goes much deeper and is more intense — I came to them late, but I doubt there’s anything I love as passionately. I’m afraid it’s entirely possible that what I feel about the Sonnets and how much they mean to me, taken all in all, adds up to pure sentimentality; in fact, it’s not merely possible, but probable — and very much out of character. A great many of them bring back very specific memories: I first learnt Sonnet 38 when I was in Paris, for instance, and memorized Sonnet 88 while running on the treadmill. I’ve lived with them for so long, and have developed a very tender feeling for them. Frankly, it all seems a bit wet — but there it is. And because of this, I just hate the idea of these daytrippers barging in and getting their greasy fingerprints all over the furniture and spilling their sticky green liqueurs on the white carpet.

Yet do your worst, ye swine, despite your wrong,
Shakespeare shall, in his verse, ever live young.

2 thoughts on “O Most Pernicious Wilson!

  1. Pingback: Shakespeare Gets the Sackcloth and Ashland Treatment | The Claude Rains Fan Club

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