Paris, summer 1971. A spotlight illuminates a crudely made-up king and queen sitting in a theater box. The audience turns to regard them. One of them eventually speaks. "Ladies and gentle ...(long pause) ... men! (Two minute pause). Deafman ... (even longer pause) ... glance!" And the house lights go down.
It was the opening of one of the strangest, and now one of the most historic, theater shows of an era that was full of surprises. The performers were some 20 New Yorkers, mostly students, plus another 15 or so French, similarly young, and an Englishman. The show, Deafman Glance, was the creation of a 30-year-old artist and former architecture student, Robert Wilson, and this was his fledgling company's first trip outside the US.
After a shaky start, the production proved a sensation among France's aesthetes and intelligentsia, with aged Surrealists driving up to Paris from remote villages to see it, and brawls at the box-office for tickets. After five weeks it closed, and Wilson went on to become one of the most celebrated theater artists of the modern era.
The Englishman, as it happens, was me. I had wandered into the production as a roving reporter just at a time when they needed extra bodies. I ended up as a naked corpse partly covered in flowers, and was told that if I had to move it should be, like virtually everything else in the show, in glacial slow-motion.
In Taipei this week, Craig Quintero and his Riverbed Theatre are staging a show titled Life and Times of Robert Wilson at the National Theater's Experimental Theater from Thursday to Sunday based to some extent on Deafman Glance and the play's successors. Later in his career Wilson created several productions "about" famous 20th-century figures, and in his show, Quintero aims to turn the same kind of spotlight onto their creator.
Like Wilson's own creations, this one will in no way seek to tell a story. Instead, it will evoke a style. Many of Wilson's trademark techniques -- pictorial images on a traditional proscenium-arch stage, side lighting, the performers as living sculptures -- will be incorporated, and some actual scenes from Deafman Glance will be re-created.
Talking to Craig Quintero is quite an experience. He has details of Wilson's work at his fingertips, and at the same time a strong sense of perspective about Wilson's oeuvre. While agreeing on the immense, though not uncontroversial, influence Wilson has had on theater, he feels that his classic shows were probably the early ones.
Today Wilson, while continuing to create productions using his now well-established style, is perhaps going through the motions, with the former human element largely missing. Quintero very much hopes this will be well and truly back in place in his own show.
The human was very much at the center of Deafman Glance. The entire production was a species of real-life ritual surrounding a teenage deaf-mute African-American boy named Raymond. Wilson had been told that, when very young, this boy could, in fact, hear and speak, but had lost the capacity as a result of a traumatic experience. By re-enacting events that might parallel this experience, in the presence of the on-stage Raymond, was it just possible that he would recognize something deep in his repressed memory, and there and then, on stage, regain the power of speech?