I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

The Black Rider: Theater of an Arts Supergroup

by Timothy Misir
March 23, 2014

An eccentric arts supergroup if there ever was one — Beat writer WIlliam S. Burroughs, experimental playwright and theater director Robert Wilson and musician Tom Waits joining forces for a restaging of a Faustian opera? This stuff can’t be made up. Ref.: The Black Rider: The Casting of the 12 Magic Bullets.

Robert Wilson had previously worked with Philip Glass for Einstein on the Beach, while Waits’ first foray into the world of experimental theater was with Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theater Company’s production of Frank’s Wild Years in 1986. The Black Rider would be the first of three Wilson-Waits theatrical collaborations, with Alice and Woyzeck being the subsequent two.

Said Tom Waits about their collaboration’s beginnings: “We all went to meet William [Burroughs] in Lawrence [Kansas]. Greg Cohen and Robert Wilson and myself. And we talked about this whole thing. It was very exciting, really. It felt like a literary summit. Burroughs took pictures of everyone standing on the porch. Took me out into the garage and showed me his shotgun paintings. Showed me the garden. Around three o’clock he started fondling his wristwatch as we got closer to cocktail hour. He was very learned and serious. Obviously an authority on a wide variety of topics. Knew a lot about snakes, insects, firearms.” (1)

Burroughs’ libretto adapted and modernized the German folk tale Der Freischütz (The Marksman), and might have had certain inspiration from his own accidental but fatal shooting of his second wife, Joan Vollmer, in Mexico City in 1951. Wilson, realised it on stage in his abstract and indirect style, eschewing many conventions of modern theater while Waits provided the lyrics and music, working with musical director Greg Cohen.

The story of The Black Rider is a classic parable of addiction and a devil’s bargain — Wilheim, a clerk, falls in love with a huntsman’s daughter, Käthchen, but must prove his worth to gain her hand in marriage. For this he makes a deal with the Mephistopheles-like Pegleg, who offers Wilheim 12 infallible bullets, though one remains under Pegleg’s control. As expected, on his wedding day, Wilheim fires the fatal bullet, killing his bride, after which he descends into madness.

Though presented in the form of a typical Greek tragedy, if you knew anything about any of the three geniuses behind the production, you would expect its delivery to be anything but formulaic, and it certainly isn’t. While the story is dark, the performance borders on comedy.

The cast reminds the viewer of a circus troupe, emerging out of a giant black box (or is it a coffin?) on stage in the play’s prologue, singing “come along with the black rider, we’ll have a gay old time. Lay down in the web of the black spider, I’ll drink your blood like wine” with the devil — a harbinger of what is to come. The actors look like characters from a david lynch-directed horror film, or if Japanese Noh theater did sci-fi, performing overly heightened gestures amidst Wilson’s surreal, German expressionist-inspired set.

The performance provides no subtitles — the dialogue is performed in German with a bit of English thrown in for it to rhyme, while the songs are sung in English — but this is no barrier to its enjoyment. Rambo-Hood, in writing about the performance reminds us that “the use of a foreign language and cryptic text helps to position words and verbal content as sound instead of discourse. Because a German-speaking or English-speaking audience is confronted with a foreign language, this ensures at times the text will hold no significance past its audio qualities. Once a listening spectator has identified a foreign language that he/she is entirely unfamiliar with, he/she will no longer attempt to decode or translate this language into coherent meaning.” (2)

Drama? Post-drama? The play opened at the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany and on its premiere reportedly received a 23-minute encore. It has been restaged numerous times since, with the most recent Wilson productions being at London’s Barbican Theater and San Francisco’s Geary Theater, both in 2004. While Waits’ re-recorded soundtrack to the performance is one of the most celebrated in his back catalogue.

1) Barney Hoskyns, “Tom Waits: Mojo Interview,” in Mojo, April 1999. 
2) Marhkee Rambo-Hood. “Postdramatic Musicality in The Black Rider” in Networking Knowledge: Journal of the MeCCSA Postgraduate Network, Vol. 3, No. 2 (2010).  

Timothy Misir is a Russia-based Singaporean writer and researcher in urban planning and architecture. He is currently working at The Moscow Times where he is a copy editor and writes for the arts section. He can be contacted at tim.misir@gmail.com.