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 Lunch, Junkie, 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.
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 Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.