the CIVIL warS: a tree is
when it is down
1983 - 2006
Long before the CIVIL warS, I had been fascinated with Robert Wilson's use of source imagery as inspiration
for his pieces. This undated photo of Rudolf Hess and Albert Speer, below, in
Spandau Prison was reinterpreted in his "Death, Destruction and
* * *
Robert Wilson was always very precise in his designs for his pieces, first
sketching his compositions in broad strokes on large pieces of paper, then
building models of the sets and lighting before the set contruction and
performance. Below, two of his sketches,
the model, and finally, a performance photo from "The Golden Windows," 1982.
* * *
I saw a production of "The Golden Windows" in Munich, Germany. It
was playing at
the time of the month-long rehearsal -- called Workshop B -- for Wilson's next production
was being held in Freiburg, Germany.
The piece was called, the CIVIL warS: a tree is best
measured when it is down. The subtitle is from Carl Sandburg's
biography of Abraham Lincoln; a reference to his being "best measured"
after he was killed, and was another collaboration with Philip Glass,
along with several other composers and writers.
Below, in one of
Bob's sketches for the CIVIL warS, that's Lincoln entering on
the right and seeing an owl sitting on a tree branch (!).
I had been invited to work in the set department, where I began work
real nice young designer named Tom Kamm, who was interpreting Bob's sketches and
drawing out the more detailed working drawings, before constructing the
elaborarate set models. Below, Tom's
rendition of Lincoln and the owl.
Every scene was carefully story-boarded. Below, in the green hills
of Japan, the Samurai warriors (!) are playing pool (!) on giant, green felt
pool tables when two tall giraffes dip slowly in and out of the view.
Here the large center curtain holds a map of the continent of Africa,
slowly parts in the middle and then comes slowly crashing down from
The models were quite detailed and large; the proscenium opening
measuring some two meters wide by one meter high. Plus all the flies and
wings and lighting had to move up and down and sideways and all. Here the
continent of Africa splits in two and then comes crashing down. It
was a lot of work.
And yes, here comes Abe Lincoln to see the owl.
I got along with the designer Tom Kamm quite well and we worked together
a lot. After a couple days I noticed that he was really under a lot of
strain, doing all the sketches and story-boards and directing the model
building and hanging the lights, etc. I went to him and said, Look,
Tom, you have too much to do. Why don't you concentrate on the
designs and let me be your model construction crew chief?
Well, he said right away, Great, Bill! Do it! So I became
the "informal" crew cheif of the model building department and would take
Tom's drawings and instruct the
construction crew of about six or eight real nice people on what and how to build them.
It was a lot of work but I greatly enjoyed it.
was pretty proud of the final look of the models, like
the Jules Verne underwater scenes (!), below, as well as the giraffe pool
table scene, of course.
They liked the giraffe scene so much they used this color photo, below, on
the back cover of Bob's big book, "Theater of Images," from 1984.
Below, in a performance in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, here comes Abe.
* * *
On the CIVIL warS, sk dunn writes:
... in 1981 robert fitzpatrick, director of the olympic festival, spoke to byrd
about the possibility of presenting einstein on the beach as the opening
event of the '84 olympic arts festival in L A. byrd proposed instead,
that he create a new work, produced by several countries, including the
US, and then combining them together for a presentation in L A. it
would run for 12 hours and be called the CIVIL warS: a tree is best
measured when it is down.
committee eventually approved his idea and in 1982 wrote the byrd
hoffman foundation a letter agreeing to fund 10% of the $3million
proposed budget, on the condition that the foundation had successfully
raised the remaining amount.
in the winter
of '82 byrd asked me to work on the project and so i returned to the
byrd loft after 9 years in california. my task was primarily to make
arrangements for a month long rehearsal/workshop that would be held in
freiburg germany in june. byrd asked jessie to participate and we asked
bill to work on the sets and together they flew out from california to
meet us in germany. i spent some of my time finding housing for the
group in freiburg and the rest of it going to meetings & rehearsals.
bill worked on sets & models, cindy lubar & i directed the knee plays -
short one acts that connected the major sections - and jessie performed
in the presentation that was given at the end of the session. we had
invited theater producers from all over europe and there was a large,
rather stunned, audience for the all day run-through. it took place in a
bare room with byrd's drawings on the walls and set models being
demonstrated on tables and performers sometimes standing on chairs,
sometimes holding scripts, and the famous german opera singer hildegard behrens.
after the run-through, everyone
was asking: what is this all going to cost? good question.
. .in addition to creating, directing, collaborating and talking
producers from france, germany, holland, italy, japan and the US into
funding productions in their countries, byrd still had to raise more
than $2 million for the los angeles presentation. he spent 2 years flying from
rehearsals in europe to meetings with ny & hollywood producers &
corporate sponsors and so on. by march of '84 he was still a million
dollars short and even though the rotterdam section had
opened to critical acclaim and was having a successful tour in france, robert fitzpatrick announced to
the press that the CIVIL warS was cancelled due to lack of funds.
Below, the CIVIL warS, Rotterdam
Section, September, 1983.
it was heart-breaking.
. .you can imagine. byrd was broke. the foundation was broke and he had
to call all the people, all over the world, who had worked so hard and
tell them that the show was over. once again, he was unable to get
support for his work in his own country. byrd vowed never to produce
again and returned to work in europe.
olympics were over, it was announced in the press that they had a
surplus of 150 MILLION DOLLARS. . . "lack of funds". . .right. . . lack
of guts, he should have said.
the completed sections were later presented in the US with great success.
the 1986-87 knee plays tour included 14 cities in the US, 7 cities in
europe and performances in japan & australia. it won the NY bessie award
for dance in 1987. david byrne's score for the knee plays & philip
glass's score for the CIVIL warS - rome section were both recorded and
released on CD.
in 1986 the
pulitzer prize jury voted to award the prize for drama to robert wilson
for the CIVIL warS - cologne section, which was presented in cambridge
by the american repertory theater. the pulitzer committee rejected the
vote (it's not a play!). after the jury voted for him a second time,
the committee withheld the drama prize that year, and that was highly unusual.
* * *
Wilson has continued to direct lots of great work over the years, such
as the stunningly beautiful "White Raven," with Philip Glass, below, in
Below, from his collaboration with Tom Waits of George Büchner's play, "Woyzeck," at the
Fall Arts Festival in Madrid, Spain, 2000.
* * *
...BACK TO: PART TWO