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Wednesday, December 21, 2011

This Week in BAM History: The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud

The week before Christmas in 1969, BAM was feeling adventurous. Earlier in the year its president, Harvey Lichtenstein, caught Robert Wilson’s The King of Spain at the Anderson Theater on the Lower East Side, and he felt conflicted by it. But he also felt compelled—enough to give the 28-year-old Wilson and his Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds the entire opera house for what was billed as a “three act dance-theater play,” The Life and Times of Sigmund Freud. It was the first of (thus far) 21 productions Wilson has staged at BAM.

Wilson has said that Freud is “not a historical but a poetic presentation of his life.” The setting of each of Freud’s three acts meant to suggest the progression of his life: a sunny beach (Freud’s childhood) gave way to a grey Victorian sitting room (Freud’s middle years), which in turn gave way to a dark cave (Freud’s final years).  Avant-garde director Richard Foreman, in a nod of approval, wrote in the Village Voice that “Wilson has created one of the major stage works of the decade, based on an aesthetic quite different from … most of the current work of the theatrical avant-garde.”

Act 1: Robert Wilson and Jack Smith. Photo: Martin Bough.

The other avant-garde work Foreman refers to can be typified by ensembles such as the Living Theater or Bread and Puppet Theater—groups that in the late 60s and early 70s were dominating the vanguard scene with deep engagements with history and radical politics. One can imagine how the Living Theater might have approached the subject of Freud’s life and work in 1969: lots of hallucinatory imagery and language (a classically Surrealist exorcising of the Unconscious), possibly intertwined with messages about class disparity and the need for revolution. Inevitably, the fourth wall would come down and at least a few performers would have left the stage wearing less clothing than they did at the start.

Whereas both the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds and the Living Theater were ensembles that grew out of communal living situations, and both used various relational exercises to promote group cohesion and focus, Wilson’s aesthetic was at this time markedly different than the Living Theater’s. His was a deeply intuitive aesthetic, yet it was also influenced by John Cage’s ideas on chance. For Wilson, chance was an integral part of the social process of creating new works for theater.

The way Wilson absorbed into his work non-performers, people he would often meet by chance, was remarkable. For instance, M. Sondak, the man who played Freud, was a jeweler from Coney Island who bumped into Wilson in Grand Central Terminal. So striking was his resemblance to the father of psychoanalysis that Wilson insisted he star in his new play. (Liba Bayrack, who played Freud’s wife, was Wilson’s grandmother.)

Act 3: Liba Bayrack and M. Sondak. Photo: Martin Bough.

Wilson would also make use of the various artists who passed through the Byrd Loft in Soho. Both Jack Smith and Gordon Matta-Clark took part in this production, while Paul Thek came on board for Wilson’s next piece, Deafman Glance.

This is all part of the charm of Wilson’s early work with the Byrds: it was artists and non-artists and jewelers and grandmothers and regular and strange New Yorkers, all working together in a theatrical spectacle that transports us into uncommon dreams, or into shared hallucinations.

Act 2: Members of the Byrd Hoffman School of Byrds. Photo: Martin Bough.

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