Today, an artist mocks death. The University of
Houston's College of Engineering presents this
series about the machines that make our
civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity
The day had begun badly. I'd
begun messing up my commitments even before 8:00.
By 9:30 that morning, I was downtown for the tech
rehearsal of an Ibsen play. I showed up feeling
shamed, hurt, and better off dead.
The play's title was, ironically, When We Dead
Awaken. I was not ready for one of Ibsen's cold
northern dissections of human shortcoming. But this
one had a wrinkle. Texas artist Robert
Wilson adapted and directed it. He made his own
running commentary on both Ibsen and the human lot.
The play's about an old artist and his young wife.
He is frozen emotionally. She craves to live life
fully. The artist's old lover, who once inspired
his greatest work, shows up. She's now as damaged
as he is. An avalanche finally certifies their
living death by killing them both. The young wife
happily runs off with a wild man from the
mountains. It's pure Ibsen. It says that death is
the major part of what we call life.
Wilson is determined to change this song upon his
blue guitar. He pours high tech on all this angst.
If the characters are dead, it's because they've
let themselves become mechanical.
So be it! He makes machines of them. They move like
robots. An eerie sound track mocks their clever
words. They sit in chairs that move about the stage
with their own volition. The chairs are more
expressive than Ibsen's dialogue. The set is cold
and nordic -- glacial and alpine. The images are
Between acts the players come out to do soft-shoe
song and dance. They poke fun at life, love, and
the pursuit of happiness. By the time we're done,
we get the simple message. Art heals. Art sees the
beauty -- and the humor -- behind misery.
The theatre people tell us this is the most complex
hi-tech production they've ever tried. I believe
it. I see miles of cable, computers, and dozens of
technicians handling sound and light boards. It's
an adventure in sight and sound. They tinker and
adjust the machinery of art. After four hours
they're only half done. I flee into the Houston
sunshine. I'm still having trouble with this story
of death and loss.
But a real artist doesn't finish working on you in
one viewing. Wilson's wild hi-tech images linger --
the shimmering wet rocks, a stream made of moving
light, the unending flow of unearthly sound. The
images play with my own dark mood just as they play
with Ibsen's. They remind me that human creativity
finds the comedy -- even the glory -- underneath
human unhappiness. Wilson has gleefully turned
Ibsen into a work of both art and technology. And
he's helped to set us straight along the way.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds