Somnambule - Writing About Music

The Black Rider

Barbican, 15 June 2004

Drama – at least the staged, rather than the personal, sort - is a discipline I’ll straightaway fess up to knowing next to nothing about. In fact, the last time I found myself in a theatre was more than a decade ago. However, the prospect of The Black Rider’s combination of Tom Waits/Robert Wilson/William Burroughs proved irresistible. As a friend remarked, it’s strange to experience something for which one has little frame of reference – particularly if one is fairly knowledgeable about other media. The following thoughts will already have been expressed – and far more articulately so - by others before me, but this is avowedly a personal exercise with no pretension to a readership other than friends.

Even before the main event, the first notable feature of the evening is the attire of the audience - rather different from the average concert of popular music: tonight the women are wearing wraps and the men suits, a fair proportion are at any rate. To refer to The Black Rider as a play seems altogether too reductive, that noun far too monosyllabic for the actual experience of the thing. The Black Rider draws from, and hybridises, many traditions and then experiments with and comments upon the resulting form in Death’s monologue towards the end. Those traditions include:

What’s perhaps most remarkable about The Black Rider is the sheer power of the imagery delivered in successive tableaux. It seems possible, even necessary, at times to suspend one’s intellect to allow the forms to imprint directly upon the cortex, without mediation from the higher brain. This is surely intentional: the core plot of the drama is age-old and only in the telling is it possible to revivify what might otherwise be overfamiliar. The process of resurrection is achieved by making strange what might otherwise be banal. Such alienation is alluded to by the figure who spends much of the play frozen in an angular cask (or picture frame) suspended at the back of the stage. Only occasionally does this figure lugubriously intone ‘do what thou willt’, for the rest he may represent any number of symbols, from a pitiful Christ to an even more grim than usual Grim Reaper. This ‘making strange’ – or alienation - is central to The Black Rider’s endeavour and it’s implemented using various strategies which include:

Reservations about the production relate to the insertion of an interval where the play might better have been experienced in one long sweep. This interruption may also have contributed to the relative lack of success of the crossroads scene which immediately succeeds the interval. This scene also featured four martial arts experts wielding batons around Willhelm, the protagonist and these figures seemed to take the polyglot nature of the production one step too far.

The weird beauty of both the libretto and its delivery shed significant light upon the contribution made by Robert Wilson to his collaboration with Philip Glass on Einstein On The Beach. There’s an unearthly, broken feeling which must in large part be attributed to his assimilation of Gysin/Burroughs’s cut-up techniques. In fact the whole thing is a feast of sonic, dramatic and especially visual riches and a Jonathan Demme or Jim Jarmusch directed film of the play would be a welcome dvd release. It's not going to happen, but what the hey.

There’s much that is deliberately and deliciously grotesque about the production – the idea of evil, the grating difference between cityfolk weakened by their lack of contact with magisterial, cruel nature and the respect for and fear of nature of the country-dwelling hunters, the righteous inevitability of tragedy (as opposed to the sanitisation of Hollywuud [sic]). Somehow, that these themes are explored in front of such a civilised, well-dressed audience made it all the more enjoyable.

It’s difficult not to return again and again to the experiential nature of the show. It’s sly, knowing and winking with its audience, but also very aware of the evil into which it’s possible to fall. Smack is the secondary metaphor here - as well as a brief tertiary reference to dramatic resolution vis-à-vis Hollywood contracts (made by Death towards the end). The secondary theme is of course one of Burroughs’s key experiences and interpreted by him as a metaphor for control. Such temptation to sell out to achieve an all too temporary form of control/take the short way to one’s destination is all too familiar in large and small form to everybody – none of us is innocent of keeping our eyes down and ignoring the consequences of our actions.

(Useful link here.)

Colin Buttimer
Published by Me