Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 586:

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 586.

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 created them.

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 overpowering.

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 work.

(Theme music)

Robert Wilson adapted Henrick Ibsen's When We Dead Awaken from an English version by Robert Brustein. The song and dance between acts includes stuff like this:

Love is . . .

It's the strangest, the strongest, the shortest the longest
The doggonedest feelin' ever.
It's the greatest, the queerest, the stay-way-come-nearest,
The doggonedest feelin' ever.
Song by Charles "Honi" Coles
Ibsen has to taste better after Wilson has salted and peppered him so.

I've also made a passing reference to a Wallace Stevens poem, The Man with the Blue Guitar, about the nature of art. Part of the poem goes like this:

They said, 'You have a blue guitar,
You do not play things as they are.'
The man replied, 'Things as they are
Are changed upon the blue guitar.'

The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

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