the CIVIL warS

An Epic of Civil War In the Human Family

There will be no theater event anywhere this season bigger than the production of Robert Wilson's the CIVIL warS at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, Mass. And yet this epic three-hour spectacle of live actors, film, music and language is only a fraction of Wilson's 12-hour project, created over a six-year period with various parts produced in six countries -- France, West Germany, the Netherlands, Italy, Japan and the United States. The entire work was to have finally come together in 1984 at the Olympic Arts Festivalin Los Angeles, but at the last minute the funding was not forthcoming, and the failure to realize the project became an international cause celebre.

The American Rep and its artistic director Robert Brustein have shown enterprise and responsibility in staging the American premiere of this major, self-contained portion of a stunning work. Wilson's theatrical spectacles have included "Ka Mountain," a 1972 piece that lasted seven days, the 1973 "The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin," which ran for 12 hours, and the 1976 five-hour "Einstein on the Beach" (recently revived with great success). The length of Wilson's works raises the whole question of duration in art. For Wilson time isn't a matter of ticks and tocks, it's a plastic medium, a kind of esthetic ether in which his work floats. When things are going right, you're pulled into it as if by a gravitational force.

At Cambridge Wilson pulls you in at the beginning with a haunting nocturnal scene of Army tents pitched during the American Civil War. As lights go on, turning the tents translucent, voices are heard in soldier's talk of weapons, coffee and survival, a family drives across the stage in a horseless carriage. Wilson is weaving his living tapestry of "civil war" in the human family that ranges from ordinary anonymities to historical superstars like Abraham Lincoln and Frederick the Great, to literary figures like Hamlet and Lear, and even to animals who share the embattled earth with perverse Homo sapiens.

Some people get anxious at a Wilson work: Is it profound? Is it pretentious? When should I go to the john? The thing to do is relax. Wilson is many things, but one of the most important is that he's a showman, in a great American tradition of showmen, as befits a fellow who was born in Texas. Coming along at a moment of historical and spiritual fragmentation, Wilson reassembles the pieces in new and startling patterns to shake us to a new vision of our destiny. He puts in music ranging from Bach to Schubert to "In My Merry Oldsmobile." His texts include Kafka's classic guilt-ridden letter to his father, the withering assault on filthy lucre from Shakespeare's "Timon of Athens," Beckett-like texts by his literary collaborator, the German playwright Heiner Muller, and an ad-lib diatribe by a lady with a cigar about a rat-infested used car.

Grotesque Grimaces: When these elements are assembled properly, the result is a magic unique in world theater. A rocket ignites in a flaming takeoff; from under it emerge two bears which embrace and dance in joyous unconcern with man's technological hubris. At another point the giant screen shows old buildings being demolished in slow motion, music by Philip Glass grinds on like an apocalyptic street organ, the entire cast assembles smiling, the smiles intensifying until they become grotesque grimaces trapped between joy and pain. In the finale a 20-foot top-hatted Abe Lincoln topples like a felled tree, while King Lear agonizes over the dead Cordelia (actually sheets of crumpled newspapers) and a giant snow owl perches on a tree squawking out Hopi Indian prophecies. These hugely scaled scenes have the crazy hypnotic antilogic of dreams. Wilson, the great dreamer of our theater, awakens us to new reality.