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Wilson, Robert

(b Waco, TX, 4 Oct 1941). American designer, playwright and director. He was educated at the University of Texas (1959–62), studied painting and graduated in architecture from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn (1965). He began writing plays and directing in New York in the 1960s, winning critical acclaim especially in Europe. His own Deafman Glance (1971), together with his set designs for A Letter for Queen Victoria (1975), won several awards, as did his designs for Philip Glass’s Einstein on the Beach (1974, Avignon; 1976, Metropolitan Opera). His stage designs include Charpentier’s Médée (1984, Lyons); sections of the multilingual epic the CIVIL warS, which Wilson wrote with Glass and Bryars (1984, 1985 and 1987, Rome and New York); Gluck’s Alceste (1986, Stuttgart); Salome (1987, La Scala); and Le martyre de St Sébastien (1988, Paris). His productions as a director have included Die Zauberflöte (1991, Paris, Bastille), Madama Butterfly (1993, Bastille), Virgil Thomson’s Four Saints in Three Acts (1996, Houston) and Pelléas et Mélisande (1997, Paris, Palais Garnier).

Wilson has been called a stage genius and one of ‘the most daring and creative figures in contemporary theatre’ (Harris); critical reaction to his work is mixed. His conceptions, in which design is the dominant element and in which every aspect of the production is controlled by the central artistic vision, are epic in scale, marathons of endurance for the audience and heroic challenges for actors, singers and collaborators. the CIVIL warS, for instance, would run for 12 hours if ever performed in its entirety, and requires a singer to perform while suspended 15 feet above the stage, harnessed and chained in a rig of steel tubing. Columbia University holds a collection of 10,000 of Wilson’s scripts, drawings, photographs and papers.


D. Harris: ‘Creating for the Theatre on a Grand Scale’, Connoisseur, no. 214 (1984), 100–05

J. Johnston: ‘Family Spectacles’, Art in America, lxxiv (1986), 94–107

D. Bradley and D. Williams: Directors’ Theatre (London, 1988)

I. Valente: ‘Mess in scena di Le martyre de Saint Sébastien’, Domus, no.697 (1988), 46–51

L. Shyer: Robert Wilson and his Collaborators (New York, 1990)


Wilson, Sandy [Wilson, Alexander Galbraith]

(b Sale, 19 May 1924). English composer, lyricist and librettist. After Harrow and Oxford he studied stage production and design at the Old Vic School in the late 1940s. He contributed to student revue while at Oxford, leading to his first London success, Slings and Arrows (1948). In an expanded form The Boy Friend, written for the Players' Theatre in 1953, became his most successful show, continuously in the West End at Wyndham's Theatre from 1954 to 1959, on Broadway (1954–5), and a perennial of the repertory ever since. With archetypal material drawn from musical comedies of the 1920s, this affectionate and well-observed tribute displayed Wilson's skill, which went beyond pastiche to a genuine absorption of earlier styles, a constant feature of his later writing. Seldom drawing on influences beyond the popular music of his youth (The Bucaneer, 1953, saw Wilson's only use of a contemporary setting and musical style), his marriage of sophisticated lyrics and elegant music has been combined with unusual source material, such as the risqué stories of Firbank for Valmouth (1955) and Collier's satirical novel His Monkey Wife, whose central character is a mute ape.

His ability to imbue strict rhyme and conventional song forms with originality is notable: typical of his style are the wit of ‘Only a Passing Phase’ (Valmouth), the period charm of ‘No Harm Done’ (Divorce Me, Darling!, 1964), the integration of scene and song in ‘Home and Beauty and You’ (His Monkey Wife, 1971), and the touching sincerity of ‘Behind the Times’ (The Bucaneer, 1953). His musicals have increasingly suffered from their delicacy and intimate scale in a period of indulgent staging and performance, and from unsympathetic revivals. His writings include the Novello photo-biography Ivor (London, 1975), an edition of work by the caricaturist Nerman, Caught in the Act (London, 1976) and the autobiography I Could be Happy (London, 1975).


(selective list)

unless otherwise stated music, lyrics and book by Wilson and dates those of first London performances; where different, writers shown as (lyricist; book author)

Musicals: Caprice (S. Wilson; M. Pertwee, after D. Patmore and M. Steen: French for Love), Glasgow, Alhambra, 24 Oct 1950, music G. Wright; The Boy Friend (2), Players', 14 April 1953, rev. (3) Embassy, 1 Dec 1953 [incl. I could be happy with you, A Room in Bloomsbury, Won't you charleston?; rev. for film, 1971]; The Bucaneer (2), New Watergate, 8 Sept 1953, rev., Lyric Hammersmith, 1955 [incl. Unromantic Us, For Adults Only, Behind the Times]; Valmouth (2, after R. Firbank), Liverpool, New Shakespeare, 16 Sept 1958 [incl. Magic Fingers, Big Best Shoes; Only a Passing Phase]; Call it Love (play with songs, 2, Wilson; R. Tanitch), Wyndhams, 22 June 1960 [incl. Hate Each Other Cha-Cha]; Divorce Me, Darling! (2), Players', 15 Dec 1964, rev. Islington Tower Theatre, 23 March 1979 [incl. Whatever happened to love?, No Harm Done, You're absolutely me]; His Monkey Wife (2, after J. Collier), Hampstead Theatre Club, 20 Dec 1971 [incl. Home and Beauty and You, Marriage]; The Clapham Wonder (2, after B. Comyns: The Vet's Daughter), Canterbury, Marlow, 26 April 1978; Aladdin (2), Lyric Hammersmith, 21 Dec 1979 [incl. Hang Chow, Chopsticks]

Revues: Slings and Arrows, Comedy Theatre, 1948 [collab.]; Oranges and Lemons, Lyric Hammersmith, Nov 1948 [collab.]; See You Later, Watergate, 1951; See You Again, Watergate, 1952; Pieces of Eight, New Oxford, 31 August 1959; As Dorothy Parker Once Said (after D. Parker), Watford, Palace, 21 July 1966, rev. Fortune, 1969

Television: The World of Wooster, songs and incid. music, 1965; Charley's Aunt (musical, after B. Thomas), 1966

Principal publisher: Chappell




S. Wilson: I Could be Happy (London, 1975)

S. Morley: Spread a Little Happiness: the First Hundred Years of the British Musical (London, 1987)


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