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Seeing OneselfFromAll Sides Marc Robinson The Malady of Death Schaubuhne, Berlin (1992) IN BETWEEN THE spectacles that Robert Wilson mounts in the United States, he relaxes with smaller European projects that rarely acquire enough glamor to prompt American producers to import them. That's a pity, for these precise, perfect chamber plays-theatre poems, really-are among the most beautiful of Wilson's works, and they reveal a side of his artistic temperament easily obscured by the grandeur for which he is best known. Plays like Swan Song, the Chekhov one-act he staged in Munich in 1989, and the current Malady of Death, Marguerite Duras's novel that he has adapted for Berlin's Schaubuhne, give us a Wilson in repose, introspective and seemingly vulnerable, attentive to matters of the heart and spirit, with an intensity that makes for emotionally rich performance. Duras's short book (spoken here in Peter Handke's German translation) offers the ideal ground for such theatre. Like Wilson, Duras is drawn to shadings of ambiguity and is smart about the uses of ambivalence. Her novel is ostensibly about a man who hires a woman to stay with him for several days; facing her, he hopes to face himself, and to attend to a body and soul that have atrophied into mere unfeeling matter. The man daily suffers the malady of death, but never dies. In spartan, hypnotic prose, Duras charts a series of chaste and clumsily unchaste encounters-moments when the man rushes at the woman wanting to learn what he is capable of, and so feel restored to himself. Despite its considerable evocativeness , there's nothing erotic about the novel. Duras shows how im28 possible is any lasting contact between the two figures, how far apart their true selves remain during even the most intimate mingling. Making desolation sleek, Wilson places Duras's couple in a long rectangular dark room, its walls shot through with slowly changing glimmers of pink, green, and purple, with a wedge of the white ocean visible in one corner. As the play progresses, the outside gradually intrudes; the room seems to get smaller; the view of the sea expands until by the end the characters suddenly find themselves stranded outside, more exposed than they ever anticipated. The woman, played by Libgart Schwarz, is lithe, bemused, wrapped in a long white gown that gives her the bearing of an aristocratic, conspiratorial mermaid. She circles around the man, played by Peter Fitz, with alert self-possession, and seems to know in advance how doomed his efforts will be. The man, for his part, tries to put forth hauteur: He's rigid in a bulky, black overcoat, collar up, hair slicked down, walking with the spasmodic rhythms of someone expecting to be ambushed at any moment, or someone planning to bulldoze his way through even intangible obstacles. When Schwarz is at her stillest-striking a pose reminiscent of Bernini's maidens or lying in state on a low bed-Fitz is at his most manic. Encased in silence, Duras's woman is impervious to persuasion or coercion, ignoring those times when Fitz lunges out with his clawlike hands or whips his head around with a wolfman's growl. His predicament is often funny, but as in so much Wilson the humor reveals a psyche so besieged by loneliness and self-loathing that absurdity has become a character's last refuge. In this picture of marmoreal high anxiety, the self-interrogatory quality of so many of Wilson's chamber pieces is particularly acute. Duras uses the second-person singular to tighten the focus of her description. The repeated yous in her prose pin her readers down, then shine a light in their eyes: "You think you alone are the image of the world's woe. . . . You think you're the master of the event now taking place." But Duras's aim is always outward; the artist rarely seems to look at herself. Wilson changes the direction of his version by obsessively ringing variations on a circumscribed range of themes-the isolation, the fierce drive and impatience , the inability to settle anywhere but in the depth of one's frustration -until he seems...


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pp. 28-30
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