The Black Rider  

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Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel
Kunstformen der Natur (1904) by Ernst Haeckel

The Black Rider: The Casting of the Magic Bullets is a self-billed "musical fable" in the avant-garde tradition created through the collaboration of theatre director Robert Wilson, musician Tom Waits, and writer William S. Burroughs. Wilson was largely responsible for the design and direction. Burroughs wrote the book, while Waits wrote the music and lyrics. The project began in about 1988 when Wilson approached Waits. The story is based on a German folktale called Der Freisch├╝tz, which had previously been made into an opera by Carl Maria von Weber. It premiered at Hamburg's Thalia Theatre on March 31, 1990. November Theatre produced its world English-language premiere in 1998 at the Edmonton International Fringe Festival in Canada, and the American English-language premiere at the New York International Fringe Festival in 1999. Waits recorded much of the music from the play in different arrangements under the eponymous title, The Black Rider.


Wilhelm, a file clerk, falls in love with a huntsman's daughter. In order to marry, Wilhelm must prove his worth as a hunter and gain her father's approval, but, as "a man of pen and ink", his shot is lousy and his hopes of marriage worsen. That is until he is offered magic bullets by the devil, Pegleg - who assures him that his bullets will always have a sure shot. However, Pegleg stipulates that, while most of the bullets will hit anything Wilhelm pleases, one of the bullets is under Pegleg's control. Foolish, naive, and overrun with desperate hope, Wilhelm accepts the Faustian pact. On the day of Wilhelm's wedding, the final bullet strikes his beloved dead. He then goes mad, and joins the previous victims of Satan's cunning in the Devil's carnival.

Although based on folklore, the story contains strong autobiographical elements from Burroughs' own life: he accidentally shot his own wife in a drunken attempt at recreating the William Tell legend, and the story as a whole may be construed as a warning tale about the destructive powers of addiction.


The music to The Black Rider was composed and performed by Tom Waits, and was released as a record in 1993. The best known track is probably the ballad "November", which is still occasionally performed by Waits during concerts. "'Tain't No Sin" features spoken word dialogue by Burroughs. The album has a cult status amongst many Waits fans.

Recent productions

In 2004, UK producers Cultural Industry, Londons Barbican Arts Centre, American Conservatory Theater, and the Sydney Festival, Australia, teamed together with director Robert Wilson and Musician Tom Waits, to bring the world the English spoken version of The Black Rider. Based heavily on the 1990 Thalia theatre production, and even containing some members of the original cast, it toured the world starting in London. The part of Pegleg was played by iconic singer, Marianne Faithfull, while Wilhelm was played by actor Matt McGrath. The remaining cast included Mary Margaret O'Hara, Sona Cervena, Richard Strange, Nigel Richards, Dean Robinson, Jack Willis, Janet Henfrey, Monica Tahal, Gabriella Santinelli and Jake Thornton.

The band, The Magic Bullets, was headed by Bent Clausen, and featured the talents of David Coulter, Thomas Bloch, Terry Edwards, Caroline Hall, Jack Pinter Rory McFarlane and Kate St. John.

The show opened in May 2004 at Londons Barbican Arts Centre, and then transferred to San Francisco's American Conservatory Theater later that year. In early 2005, the production headlined the Sydney Festival. However, due to ill health, Marianne Faithfull was forced to withdraw from the production and understudy Nigel Richards filled the part.

In 2006, Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre re-staged the production, bringing the cast together for one final time. Several members of the original cast were unavailable, most notably Marianne Faithfull, whose role was filled by Vance Avery. The cast was also joined by John Vickery.

November Theatre's production went onto tour Canada in 2004-2005 with presentations at Theatre Network in Edmonton, Ground Zero Theatre and the Calgary Opera, Persephone Theatre in Saskatoon, Yukon Arts Centre in Whitehorse, Intrepid Theatre in Victoria and the PuSh Festival in Vancouver. The production went onto win 6 Elizabeth Sterling Haynes Awards in Edmonton and 6 Betty Mitchell Awards in Calgary including "Best Production" and "Best Direction" in both major centres. In 2006 the production was presented at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival in St. John's Newfoundland. The production was remounted in Vancouver in January 2008 at the Arts Club Theatre, Granville Island stage, co-presented as part of the annual PuSh Festival. November Theatre produced its final showing at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto in the fall of 2008.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "The Black Rider" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on original research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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