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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Comments (7)
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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 (–01-29/news/26281273_1_chekhov-peter-brook-dorm-room), 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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