There’s no way to have studied performance of the 20th century without coming across Robert Wilson; canonized in Bonnie Marranca’s Theatre of Images alongside Richard Foreman and Mabou Mines, with innumerable critical works on the maestro’s work by Johannes Birringer, Stefan Brecht, not to mention many more in languages other than English, and catalogues upon catalogues upon yet more catalogues, Wilson is one of the leading figures of high modernist or postmodernist performance (depending on who you ask, of course).
Needless to say, as a young scholar, I immediately grasped his importance to the field, with strong, physical gesture, powerful and bizarre dreamscapes, and collaborations with Philip Glass and Heiner Müller. It seems he single-handedly reevaluated the uses of language, image, and the very continuum of time and space for performance.
And then I saw a production. And, to be honest: I didn’t get it.
Then I saw another. Nothing.
These were interesting productions, to be sure, but I didn’t find them all that profound. If anything, they were quite conservative, uneven, and at worst offensive. I was so confused! Was Wilson better as textual evidence than actual director? I gave my mentors the benefit of the doubt and went on the assumption that I had simply missed the boat; Wilson was an incredibly influential figure that blew open concepts of performance in the 70s and 80s, and now, well, something had simply stalled and sputtered. It happens: revolution becomes history, radical leader becomes a wax figure in a museum.
But then I saw Quartett at BAM, Wilson’s restaging of Müller’s 1981 piece based on Les Liasons Dangereuses. Gone is the mania of recent productions, the plodding tempo, and distracting design. Quartett is the Bob Wilson I’ve always read about, and I was happy.
The unbelievable Isabelle Huppert as Merteuil and Ariel Garcia Valdès as Valmont alternatively strut, jerk, and saunter about the stage trading barbs about seduction, sex, and desire, reflected a thousand fold by their expert movement, dynamic repetition and breakdown of language, and precise, evocative lighting. Indeed, they barely recognize each other’s presence, sometimes trading roles, pointing to the disconnectedness of the characters—isolation as cruelty, cruelty as isolation. The dialogue alternates between manic verbal diarrhea and the infamous, painful Wilson stasis and quiet. These shifts are abrupt and jarring, with eardrum-busting sounds of ripping and smacking, accentuating the fear of attack and connection. Sex is simultaneously pleasure and mechanization, and Wilson stages the dichotomy of Libertine mores incredibly well.
Best of all, a fifth character participates in the action of this “quartet,” an older gentleman, prone to prancing about the space in a button-down shirt and underpants, observing and occasionally laughing a maniacal laugh. In the program notes, the story goes that, upon Quartett’s first staging, Müller inquired of Wilson who this unwritten, fifth character was. Wilson simply responded, “That’s you.” Müller was pleased, and I couldn’t help but enjoy the idea that both Heiner and I shared a moment of disbelief and pure elation.