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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  • db says:

    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 (, The Cherry Orchard directed by Peter Brook (, and any number of Pina Bausch creations.

  • Jason Lynn says:

    I would love to know where to get the rights!

  • Christof Belka says:

    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:

    For all other regions:
    The Grand Rights can be obtained through Miles Feinberg at Music Sales:

  • Niall says:

    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!

  • Christof Belka says:

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

  • Chris Coffman says:

    You should contact the Byrd Hoffman Foundation which is now housed at The Watermill Center in Watermill, NY (right next to Southampton) – Robert Wilson commissioned this work and holds the rights (likely through his Byrd Hoffman foundation- not certain, but they’d know) – it was a smash hit in Germany, where Wilson, Burroughs, Waits and cast received a 23 minute standing ovation opening night and where his original production “ran forever” – it was widely performed even as high school productions there (so I’m sure it’s not out of reach to do – I taught at LaGuardia HS where they spend as much as $20K on the rights to produce works, but LaGuardia is a rare specialized school, Ironically, the most prolific American artist is not widely seen in his home country, because his productions are so expensive and European funding is much better (his original production cost 1.75 million in 1990 – and it’s not one of his biggest or most expensive).

    Somebody here surely will know or be able to help you directly:

  • Chris Coffman says:

    Yes.However, the deal is that this is a major work by William S. Burroughs that addresses him shooting his wife, which launched his career, basically. For whatever reason, this amazing endcap to his career was basically “buried in German” – I’ve transcribed the entire work. The Byrd Hoffman archives also hold all of this material, they are located in Watermill Center watermill, NY – and I believe NYPL at Lincoln Center has a copy of the German Production on DVD with subtitles – both require applications by researchers and they BH Foundation used to want $20 per research hour, but that was 20 plus years ago when I tried to get it after I saw it at BAM – it was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen and I it didn’t even have a full translation of the dialogue – I couldn’t understand what they were saying, am a huge Burroughs fan, and it was still the best work in any medium I’ve experienced.

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