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MlCnard Feldman AN INTRODUCTION Elinor Fuchs HISTORY OF THE PROJECT Robert Wilson's production of Alcestis, which opened at the American Repertory Theatre In Cambridge in March, 1986, is his first major work created in the United States in a decade. It represents his first attempt to stage a classic dramatic text with actors, and in more than one respect points to a change of direction in his work. When Wilson came to the A.R.T. to mount Act IV of the CIVIL warS last year, Artistic Director Robert Brustein Invited him to return to direct a production of Euripides's Alcestis. He was committed to direct the Gluck opera Alceste In Europe, and Brustein thought he might be attracted to the idea of pairing the opera and the play. Wilson accepted Brustein's invitation and the Cambridge production thus became the first stage of an Alcestis project that will culminate In Stuttgart. Wilson's production of the opera with Jessye Norman as Alcestis will open in December, 1986, at the Stuttgart Staatsoper , and Alcestis, staged somewhat differently than in Cambridge, will open at the Stuttgart Staatstheater in April, 1987. 80 Wilson came to Cambridge in the summer of 1985 to do a two week Alcestis workshop with the A.R.T. company and a chorus composed largely of Harvard students. He appeared to use the occasion to confront a spoken dramatic text directly, since from the beginning he decided not to commission a musical score. Working with the William Arrowsmith translation, Wilson put the entire play on its feet with rudimentary set and lighting, in a version that took about four hours to perform. He never intended to use the entire text, however, and had always expected the production to be much shorter. He decided at the workshop to cut most of the choral language and make the Chorus more a visual than a speaking presence when he returned in January for the final rehearsal period. EURIPIDES AND HEINER MULLER In Alcestis, Death will relinquish his claim on the life of King Admetus if someone else will take his place. His faithful wife Alcestis volunteers after friends and aged parents have refused. The dying Alcestis makes Admetus promise that he will not take another wife. After her death, Heracles arrives and as Admetus's friend is welcomed as a guest without being told of Alcestis's death. When Heracles learns of Alcestis's fate, however, he vows to wrestle Death and win her back. Though the veiled being he returns to Admetus will not speak for three days, Admetus happily accepts her as Alcestis and the play ends on a note of celebration. The play is sometimes used as an example of Aristotle's "tragedy with a happy ending." Wilson had asked the East German playwright Heiner MUller, with whom he collaborated on Act IV of the CIVIL warS, to write a prologue for the Gluck opera production. Eventually, he decided to use the prologue in the Cambridge production instead. Wilson and MUller had not consulted each other on the text or the production design, yet when DESCRIPTION OF A PICTURE , the MUller text, arrived in January just before the final round of rehearsals, not only did the text respond to the death and renewal theme of the Euripides play as expected, but it uncannily contained major images that Wilson had already installed in his design: a mountain range, the eyes, birds, rock slides, the "peep-hole into time." Wilson decided to use the MUller prologue in fragments. It first appears spoken by a series of overlapping live and taped voices to accompany unrelated images and gestures. Christopher Knowles and Robert Brustein's voices are heard on tape reading portions of it. Working now from the Fitts and Fitzgerald translation that Brustein had prepared for him with initial cuts, Wilson made his own adaptation of Alcestis in early February while the actors rehearsed only movement. Following Euripides's dramatic structure closely, he substantially removed the choral passages, cut the text to the bone, broke up some lines of text among different speakers, repeated others, and wove into the text passages of the MUller prologue as well as certain...


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