By John Rockwell
For now, at least, the United States has lost the chance to present the complete version of Robert Wilson's grandiose theatrical pageant “The Civil Wars: A Tree Is Best Measured When It Is Down.” The playwright, director and designer has been assembling the separate sections of this work around the world over the last couple of years, but the scheduled performances this June in Los Angeles were canceled late last month by the Olympic Arts Festival for lack of financing.
The only portion of “The Civil Wars” actually to be sponsored and presented by this country had its premiere here Thursday night. The production, which is called “The Knee Plays,” was the first collaboration between the Guthrie Theater and the Walker Art Center, and it was staged in the small Walker Art Center auditorium.
Some of the self-contained, interlocking scenes of “The Civil Wars” could be called “theater,” some “dance” and some “opera.” They employ different composers, choreographers and other collaborators, but all were meant from the first to be part of a larger whole that could last as long as 14 hours. Mr. Wilson uses the term “knee plays” to describe his entre'actes, which function as joints between the larger scenes. All told, there are five acts in “The Civil Wars,” with each of the 16 scenes lasting up to an hour.
The 13 “knee plays” are meant to snake through the larger scenes, playing before the curtain as the scenery is changed, telling their own story, but also commenting on and introducing imagery in coming scenes. With the “knee plays” linked together and joined by their own brief interludes, the Minneapolis performance ran just under two hours.
All of Mr. Wilson's work shies free of a simply tellable “story” or even a precisely quantifiable set of meanings and metaphors. He works in recurrent images and symbols, the import of which may or may not strike an observer as meaningful; for many, they strike very deep indeed.
Nonetheless, the Amsterdam, Cologne, Rome and, now, Minneapolis productions have revealed some of the visions that inspired Mr. Wllson. He began with Matthew Brady's photographs of the American Civil War and photos of Japan in the period immediately following its abrupt Westernization. From there, he worked outward, adapting imagery from the countries planning productions and from the byways of his mind. There are polar bears and spaceships, owls and Abraham Lincoln, Garibaldi and tulips, ladders to heaven and Hercules founding the Olympic Games. His “civil wars” seem to be all conflicts that divide mankind, with the Olympics as the concluding symbol of reconciliation.
"The Knee Plays” may be the sole American-produced portion of the work, but they are imbued with the spirit of Japan - of Bunraku puppets, classical Japanese dance and Noh and Kabuki theater. The designs are by Jun Matsuno, along with Mr. Wilson and the “knee plays” composer, David Byrne, and the superbly spare and original choreography is by Suzushi Hanayagi.
Mr. Wilson is a creator of massive spectacles, and sometimes his more intimate work has looked schematic and simplistic. There was a bit of that during the first few ''knee plays'' on Thursday. But then Mr. Wilson exerted his spell, or one began to comprehend what he was about. The settings are constructed out of square modules that recall Japanese screens and recombine into different shapes. The ''plot'' traces the transformation of a tree into a boat into a book into a tree again, almost as a cycle of nature, with mythic and historical incidents along the way. The most striking scenes are the 8th, 9th, 10th and 12th. The 8th offers mysterious floor patterns from Miss Hanayagi's nine dancers, clad as always in white doctor's smocks. In the 9th, a Japanese basket seller's elaborately constructed piles of baskets break into a sweet, lurching dance of their own. Snow falls in the 10th scene, and Miss Hanayagi has a poignant solo. And in the 12th, a black-clad puppetmaster guides a white-clad dancer with an outsized baby-Buddha plaster head to the discovery of a book. All of which means little in words, but much in stage pictures. Mr. Byrne's score sounds nothing like the music of his rock band, Talking Heads, or his music for Twyla Tharp's ''Catherine Wheel'' on Broadway. It was inspired by the solemn and jaunty sounds of New Orleans brass bands, and played live with great skill by seven Minnesota musicians. Over these instrumentals, Mr. Byrne recites slightly intrusive texts that read rather like his song lyrics. It is difficult to believe that we have seen the end of either ''The Knee Plays'' or ''The Civil Wars.'' Harvey Lichtenstein of the Brooklyn Academy of Music said Thursday that he was trying to assemble the complete work for presentation next fall. One hopes he has the commitment, ingenuity and courage to succeed for New York where Los Angeles so lamentably failed.