The Black Rider: A Theatrical Production by Tom Waits, William S. Burroughs & Robert Wilson (1990)

Yes, you read correctly: there exists a piece of theater whose production brought together three of the most ardently-followed, iconoclastic creators of recent decades. First staged in 1990 at Hamburg’s Thalia Theater, The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets appeared as the fruit of multidisciplinary labor from renowned avant-garde director Robert Wilson, best known for extra-long-form productions like Einstein on the Beach, created with Philip Glass; raggedly American singer-songwriter Tom Waits, a musician with no small theatrical bent himself; and William S. Burroughs, writer of Naked LunchJunkie, and other texts that have blown away generations of counterculturally inclined reading minds. They based their tale of a hapless young file clerk in love and his fateful pact with the devil on the German folktale-cum-opera Der Freischütz. Hence the work’s premiere in Germany, and the German dialogue in the television version of the full production above.

But worry not, non-Germanophones; the Waits-composed songs remain in English, and as with anything directed by Wilson, you buy the ticket as much to a striking pure visual experience as to anything else. You can hear and see more from Waits and Wilson about what went into The Black Rider in the half-hour TV documentary just above. (The narrator may speak German, but everyone else involved speaks English.) For a pure musical experience of The Black Rider, pull up Waits’ eponymous album, released in 1993(See also the bootleg The Black Rider Outtakes.) And now, with twenty years’ distance from The Black Rider’s American debut, maybe we can put the question to ourselves of whether it counts as a streak of poor taste or a stroke of artistic genius to have Burroughs, of all people, pen his own version of a story that — spoiler alert — ends with the protagonist fated to shoot his own bride.

Related Content:

Johnny Depp: A Voom Portrait by Robert Wilson

Watch Big Time, the Concert Film Capturing Tom Waits on His Best Tour Ever (1988)

William S. Burroughs Explains What Artists & Creative Thinkers Do for Humanity: From Galileo to Cézanne and James Joyce

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.


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  1. db says . . . | November 15, 2013 / 9:50 am

    among the very best theatrical productions I’ve seen – far more engaging than The Civil Wars – right up there with The Seven Streams of the River Ota (http://muse.jhu.edu/journals/theatre_journal/summary/v049/49.3pr_lepage.html), The Cherry Orchard directed by Peter Brook (http://articles.philly.com/1988-01-29/news/26281273_1_chekhov-peter-brook-dorm-room), and any number of Pina Bausch creations.

  2. Jason Lynn says . . . | November 18, 2013 / 7:16 pm

    I would love to know where to get the rights!

  3. Christof Belka says . . . | March 28, 2014 / 12:14 pm

    For Germany, Austria, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Spain, Italy, Poland, Czech Republic, Armenia, Norway, Denmark & Sweden, the Grand Rights can be acquired through Felix Bloch Erben:
    BLACK RIDER http://www.felix-bloch-erben.de/index.php5/pid/2408/Action/showPlay/fbe/53cd17852e5b68bef7b3551729459612/

    For all other regions:
    The Grand Rights can be obtained through Miles Feinberg at Music Sales:
    http://www.musicsales.com/grandrightslicensing.aspx

  4. Niall says . . . | April 16, 2014 / 4:50 pm

    I was wondering if you knew if there is an english language version of the script available?
    I’m University student and would like it for research. I’ve tried everywhere i can think!

  5. Christof Belka says . . . | May 29, 2014 / 8:25 am

    Niall: Sure. You can get it either through one of the publishers (mentioned above) or try the Robert Wilson Archives in NY (robertwilson.com).

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