Authors: Robert Wilson

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American playwright

Author Works


Dance Event, pr. 1965

Solo Performance, pr. 1966

Theater Activity, pr. 1967

Spaceman, pr. 1967 (with Ralph Hilton)

ByrdwoMAN, pr. 1968

The King of Spain, pr. 1969

The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud, pr. 1969

Deafman Glance, pr. 1970

Program Prologue Now, Overture for a Deafman, pr. 1971

Overture, pr. 1972

Ka Mountain, GUARDenia Terrace: a story about a family and some people changing, pr. 1972

king lyre and the lady in the wasteland, pr. 1973

The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, pr. 1973


The Life and Times of Dave Clark, pr. 1974

Prologue to a Letter for Queen Victoria, pr. 1974

A Letter for Queen Victoria, pr. 1974 (with Christopher Knowles)

To Street, pr. 1975

$ Value of Man, pr. 1975

DiaLOG, pr. 1975 (with Knowles)

Einstein on the Beach, pr., pb. 1976 (music by Philip Glass)

I Was Sitting on My Patio This Guy Appeared I Thought I Was Hallucinating, pr. 1977

Prologue to the Fourth Act of Deafman Glance, pr. 1978

DiaLOG/NETWORK, pr. 1978

Death Destruction and Detroit, pr. 1979

DiaLOG/Curious George, pr. 1979

Edison, pr. 1979

Medea, pr. 1981

The Golden Windows, pr. 1982

the CIVIL warS: a tree is best measured when it is down, partial pr. 1983 and 1984 (includes Knee Plays)

Alcestis, pr. 1985 (based on Euripides’ play)

Knee Plays, pr. 1986

Parzifal, pr. 1987 (with Tankred Dorst and Knowles)

Cosmopolitan Greetings, pr. 1988

The Forest, pr. 1988

The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets, pr. 1990 (with Tom Waits and William S. Burroughs)

When We Dead Awaken, pr. 1991 (adaptation of Henrik Ibsen’s play Naar vi døde vaagner)

Lohengrin, pr. 1991, revised pr. 1998 (adaptation of Richard Wagner’s opera)

Alice, pr. 1992 (with Tom Waits, Kathleen Brennan, and Paul Schmidt; adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland)

Dr. Faustus Lights the Lights, pr. 1992 (adaptation of Gertrude Stein’s story)

Hamlet: A Monologue, pr. 1995

The Magic Flute, pr. 1995

Time Rocker, pr. 1996 (with Lou Reed and Darryl Pinckney)

A Dream Play, pr. 1998 (adaptation of August Strindberg’s play Ett drømspel)

Das Rheingold, pr. 2000 (adaptation of Wagner’s opera)

POEtry, pr. 2000 (with Reed)

Woyzeck, pr. 2000 (with Waits and Brennan; adaptation of Georg Büchner’s play)

Siegfried, pr. 2001

Doctor Caligari, pr. 2002

Osud, pr. 2002


Robert Wilson has blazed a diverse and unusual artistic trail, becoming known as one of the most prolific experimental theater artists of the twentieth century. His long and highly visual theater pieces could hardly be classified as conventional plays, but they are vivid theatrical endeavors comparable only with the works of experimental dramatists such as England’s Peter Brook, Poland’s Jerzy Grotowski, and a handful of others. Wilson’s works combine dance, drama, and poetry to create highly stylized productions such as the CIVIL warS (which was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize) and Ka Mountain, GUARDenia Terrace (unusual combinations of upper-and lowercase letters are common in Wilson titles), the latter a 168-hour event in which cast and audience trekked up a mountain after a prologue delivered by Wilson’s eighty-five-year-old grandmother.{$I[AN]9810001568}{$I[A]Wilson, Robert}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;Wilson, Robert}{$I[tim]1941;Wilson, Robert}

Wilson was born Robert M. Wilson to D. M. and Loree Velma Wilson on October 4, 1941 in Waco, Texas. His early childhood was filled with amateur theatrics, mostly plays and skits that he wrote and performed in the garage. Some of these early playlets were nonverbal: Wilson was already an experimenter of sorts, trying to find a form that would accommodate his speech difficulties (he had a marked stammer). Some of his early professional work was in creating ways for autistic and brain-damaged children and chronically ill adults to express themselves.

The stammer went away when he was approximately seventeen, and Wilson enrolled in the University of Texas as a business administration major. He became increasingly interested in his work with brain-damaged children, and in his painting, and subsequently left Texas for the highly regarded Pratt Institute for arts in Brooklyn, New York. He taught movement to students there, and later used some of the students in his productions. (In general, early Wilson productions featured casts largely made up of amateurs; a deaf student named Raymond Andrews and an autistic student named Christopher Knowles were early collaborators.)

Receiving his M.F.A. degree in 1965 from Pratt Institute, Wilson began his work in earnest. He founded the Byrd Hoffman studios in New York City (which later became the Byrd Hoffman Foundation), designed sets and costumes, and created performance pieces at Byrd Hoffman and other avant-garde spaces. In 1964 he created a dance performance for the New York World’s Fair.

Suffering a nervous breakdown in 1966, Wilson spent some time in a mental institution. Overcoming some of the frustration that led to his hospitalization, he returned to his unusual work, creating a slow-motion “dance” for patients in iron lungs in 1967. In 1969 he created his first truly large-scale work, The King of Spain, which featured everything from a stereotypical Black Mammy to a number of animal legs hanging from the ceiling. Some of these same characters and images populated other of his early endeavors, such as The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud.

Having made little or no money for many years, Wilson was taken by surprise when his production Deafman Glance (later incorporated into The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin) was a financial success. He was given a large gift by the French government to stage the major piece Einstein on the Beach, and he became a favorite of European theatrical intellectuals. (The gift did not go far enough, however, and Wilson was in debt after the end of the production’s tour.) The European tour of Einstein on the Beach occurred in 1976, and the production opened at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York that fall. Wilson’s apparently disconnected visual images sparked comparisons with the work of painter René Magritte and to the early twentieth century Dadaists, whose reconstruction of reality was the basis of Surrealism. Wilson might also be compared with French poet and dramatist Guillaume Apollinaire, whose 1917 play Les Mamelles de Tirésias (The Breasts of Tiresius, 1961) contains similarly strange and disconnected images. In Einstein on the Beach Wilson was able to explore his interest in the scientist as destroyer and the role of the innocent in popular culture. He collaborated on the piece with the renowned composer Philip Glass.

Wilson went on to create sensational and whimsical sets and lighting for opera and theater, and he continued to create his strange images for his own hybrid productions such as The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin, which juxtaposes a line of apes holding apples and a woman in eighteenth century dress whose parasol is aflame. He directed highly respected opera and dance productions, won numerous awards (both in the United States and internationally), created furniture, and oversaw the formation of the Byrd Hoffman Foundation. In the 1990’s and 2000’s, Wilson began a series of adaptations of classic works including Alice, Hamlet: A Monologue, Das Rheingold, and Woyzeck.

While many critics see Wilson as a visionary pioneer, others have dismissed him as a painter of three-dimensional pictures with no unifying voice. “The fact is,” said Wilson in an interview, “I don’t really understand my own stuff. Artists very seldom understand what they are doing. My work is a mystery to me, and I feel that words only confuse people about my work.” With that, perhaps, Wilson does answer the questions about the meaning of his work. He was a young boy unable to communicate verbally, and he learned to communicate visually. As he told The New York Times, “I don’t wish to mystify people. It’s best not to say anything at all.”

BibliographyBigsby, C. W. E. Beyond Broadway. Vol. 3 in A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century American Drama. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1985. A full chapter on Wilson covers his life, his early work with speech-impaired individuals, and his association with the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, and describes Ka Mountain, GUARDenia Terrace, $ Value of Man, and other stage pieces. Behind his work, Bigsby says, “there lies a romantic conviction about continuity, a touching faith about the possibility of communication and the essentially holistic nature of experience.”Byrne, David. “The Forest: A Preview of the Next Wilson-Byrne Collaboration.” Interview by Laurence Shyer. Theater 19 (Summer/Fall, 1988): 6-11. This interview with David Byrne discusses the nature of his collaboration with Wilson and contains many indirect Wilson quotations. Much on Wilson’s forming a Berlin company in the fall of 1987 to make this Gilgamesh version (The Forest). Includes a seven-act breakdown of images in photographs and text.Croyden, Margaret. Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets: The Contemporary Experimental Theatre. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974. A description of the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds, its “aesthetic of the Beautiful,” and Wilson’s experiences with brain-damaged children who “responded to dance and movement therapy.” Much of the theatre of silence is wordless, Croyden notes, “and in some of his later workshop pieces, where words are uttered, the effect is that of silence nonetheless.” Deals at length with Deafman Glance.Deak, Frantisek. “Robert Wilson.” In The New Theatre: Performance Documentation, edited by Michael Kirby. New York: New York University Press, 1974. A reprint of an article originally appearing in The Drama Review (June, 1974), unique in its fully illustrated (with photographs by Carl Paler) white-on-black pages. Gives a strong impression of the performance itself, in an act-by-act visual description accompanied by striking production shots.Holmberg, Arthur. The Theatre of Robert Wilson. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Holmberg, who was associated with Robert Wilson at the American Repertory Theatre and beyond, examines Wilson’s vast production corpus and organizes his material thematically. His explication serves as an invaluable tool for anyone interested in Wilson, novice and scholar alike.Quadri, Franco, Franco Bertoni, and Robert Stearns. Robert Wilson. New York: Rizzoli, 1998. A coffee-table book in the traditional sense of size and photographs, this book is enhanced by its critical essays and its detailed chronology of Wilson’s work.Shyer, Laurence. Robert Wilson and His Collaborators. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1989. The most complete and authoritative record of Wilson’s busy artistic life and his relationships with his collaborators (arranged by artistic specialty). This indispensable volume is illustrated with photographs and drawings of most of Wilson’s productions and is complemented by a strong chronology (with comments by contemporaries) and a select bibliography.Zurbrugg, Nicholas. “Post-Modernism and the Multi-Media Sensibility: Heiner Muller’s Hamletmachine and the Art of Robert Wilson.” Modern Drama 31 (September, 1988): 439-453. Zurbrugg finds that “Wilson’s aesthetic seems to hover somewhere between [Samuel] Beckett’s and [John] Cage’s antithetical explorations of form, ambiguity, chance and rule.” Offers a strong discussion of Wilson’s collaboration with the East German playwright and follows this article by Arthur Holmberg’s “conversation” with Wilson and Heiner Müller.
Categories: Authors