When We Dead Awaken

By Henrik Ibsen

Directed by Robert Wilson, at the American Repertory Theater, Winter 1991.

(Originally published in The Boston Phoenix, February 1991)

The main character in When We Dead Awaken is a sculptor, and Robert Wilson‘s version of Henrik Ibsen‘s 1900 play is haunted by the image of a stone — the unformed material of the sculptor’s art. It’s the mountain that looms over the stage in the first and last act; it’s the egg-shaped rock at the center of the second act; it’s Irene, dressed in white, motionless and cool as a marble statue; it’s the gray slab of a tomb.

The play begins with a yellow chair, bathed in a yellow light. The curtain is a sheet of white paper, scrawled with crayon with the words WHEN WE DEAD AWAKEN.  Charles “Honi” Coles (1911 – 1992) sings. “She came along. Now everything is wrong.” Then the lights go out and the curtain rises. You see a great black cliff plunging down to the sea, and you hear the sound of the ocean crashing up upon a rocky shore. A man and a woman sit in stony silence in two high-back chairs.

They quarrel. Then the two Irenes enter — one dressed in black, one dressed in white. They move silently behind the grid of a metal cage, turning around and around like ideas trying to become images, like shapes trapped in the stone. The dark Irene is Sheryl Sutton, who has been walking out of Wilson’s nightmares and onto his stage for 20 years as Byrdwoman, Medea, and now Irene. She is exquisitely still — like a statue, like the mountain. Seducer and destroyer, she stalks the other Irene like a shadow, and her dark, brooding presence dominates the stage whenever she appears.

You see images, and you hear sounds, but they feel disconnected, out of joint. The actors wear microphones that project their voices to different parts of the theater, so words from the play seem to lift off from the stage and hover, in the air:

“I’m the one who’s changed.”

“No one got off and no one got on.”

“I’ve seen as much as I want.”

“There’s something mysterious lurking just beneath the surface of the stone.”

In the second act, a neon blue river of light crosses the stage on a diagonal. The black mountain looms beyond, pierced by a stark white waterfall. The sculptor sits brooding on a rocky throne; an egg-shaped stone is pierced with a spear.

Maia poses with the spear, echoing the shape of the stone. Then the two Irenes enter, and lie on the ground, like stones. “You have killed my soul,” cry the Irenes. “I am an artist!” cries the sculptor, Arnold Rubek. One Irene sits on the rock, like a statue. “I was a human being too.”

The third act begins with Coles sitting on the edge of a lead-grey bed-shaped tomb. Sadly, he sings, “Love is the cause of it all. It picks you up and then lets you fall,” while Sutton stands with her back to the audience, wearing a dressing gown and smoking a cigarette. Her shadow dances on the curtain. This was the most dramatic — the most human — moment in the play.

In the final scene, the mountain is shrouded in snow — the great rock is covered with white sheets, like a block of marble or a grave.

Now, Sutton is the substance and the other Irene is the shade. The sculptor speaks to the shadow. “You are the woman I will always dream of.” A curtain of mist floats down; sparks fly. Rubek and the two Irenes raise their arms, then sink to the ground. The curtain falls.

Robert Wilson’s Ibsen, like Robert Wilson’s Vision — the retrospective of his artwork, now at the Museum of Fine Arts — is a cry of anguish. When he expresses his tragic, lonely vision in drawings or sculpture, it’s terrifyingly beautiful. But when he imposes it on other people, it’s horrifying — it’s ugly.

In Wilson’s When We Dead Awaken, the chairs have more life in them than the people.  Sutton is the eternal Byrdwoman, and Coles is superbly himself, but all the other actors seem visibly uncomfortable in their roles. You can feel their anxiety in the dissonant sounds, the awkward gestures, the displaced voices, the shrill cries. You can feel the relentless control that Wilson exerts. His direction has crushed all the life out of Ibsen’s characters. He has squeezed the soul out of them. As Irene says of Rubek, he has turned them into objects — he has turned them into stones.

by Rebecca Nemser for rebeccanemser.com

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