“I feel like it might still be going on, even though we’re not in there any more,” remarked my companion, as we took a break from the proceedings on stage.
“Well… it is.”
“No,” he countered. “I mean that it’s still with us, here, all around us. And that anything could happen.”
Three hours into Philip Glass and Robert Wilson’s Einstein on the Beach, that’s exactly what you do feel. At various points of the evening figures fly through the air; children traverse the stage trapped in transparent grandfather clocks; huge factory-like red brick buildings appear against Magritte-blue skies and giant bars of light move from horizontal to vertical and ascend to heaven. Einstein on the Beach is a giant, glorious four and a half hour gesture – and, notoriously, there is no interval.
First performed in 1976, its first major revival in 20 years is currently on a world tour. Having missed its Brooklyn and London dates, I made a point of catching the first night of a week of sold-out shows at the Amsterdam Music Theatre. This “don’t call it minimalist” epic postmodern opera doesn’t come around often. And Glass is my Streisand and Rolling Stones. I saw him conduct his own score to Koyaanisqatsi at the Hollywood Bowl a couple of years ago, with the stop motion light trails of Godfrey Reggio’s 1982 film projected on a vast screen behind the orchestra. As the sky turned an intense midnight blue I experienced one of those sadly all too infrequent “perfect moments” that you have in life and cried. I’d pay substantial amounts to do it again.
There are moments in Einstein on the Beach when chord changes after prolonged periods of similarity can have the visceral effect of a vertiginous plunge on a rollercoaster
Glass is, to some, impenetrable or plain boring. Having grown up on a diet of repetitive, sparse techno and postmodern culture generally – and having an emotional attachment to both – I take issue with anyone who claims that “nothing happens” in his work. There are moments in Einstein on the Beach when chord changes after prolonged periods of similarity can have the visceral effect of a vertiginous plunge on a rollercoaster. Then there are those who say that a Philip Glass opera is an oxymoron. Again, there are long sequences in Einstein on the Beach where performers have to turn a simple, truncated, melodic phrase into an elegant, trance-inducing loop. Hearing it on recordings, I’ve imagined that it must have been sampled and pasted, but to hear it all live on stage is quite awe-inspiring. It must be gruelling to perform.
Glass still sounds 15 minutes ahead of the game – his music the best way to add the utmost modernity to a film score. And yet there’s something dated about Einstein on the Beach. There are some dubious, and borderline racist, Aunt Jemima japes in the courtroom scene (in a monologue added, startlingly, to the 1984 revival), while the much-faded anarchy in some of Lucinda Childs’ choreography in the finalé brings to mind Carole Armitage’s recent, cringe-inducing revival of some of her early punk-era work. The counterculture of the 1970s looms large too, notably in the fragmented, looped quasi-beat poetry. More than all of this, it occurs to me precisely how much Einstein on the Beach has been diminished by the ten thousand music videos, fashion shows and shoots that have plundered its style in the past thirty years. But then, that is what happens to Really Important Work.
A sense of ennui aside, there are also genuine failings. The use of sketch-like “knee plays” to intercut between the four acts – rather than allowing intervals to give the audience a break and come back refreshed – now feels pretentious. Yes, the evening is conceived as an installation of sorts, so that the audience can fashion its own breaks, but the bulk of Einstein – as non-narrative as it might be – feels more traditional and substantial than that suggests. There are sequences and images you shouldn’t miss. When I returned from my one break just as the audience gave a rapturous round of applause to one of Lucinda Childs’ dance sequences, I felt cheated. But the integrity of the evening has now become the stuff of myth, so to change it would be to tug on Superman’s cape.
More crucially, the use of humour is jarring. Wilson and Glass apparently considered using Charlie Chaplin as the central figure of this piece, rather than Einstein, and the high contrast, monochrome, pre-talkie cartoon mugging of Chaplin and Keaton becomes a tedious motif throughout. The audience in Amsterdam laughed, and laughed again, but it was the laugh of an audience who explode with mirth at Lady Bracknell’s handbag.
Still, the grand outweighs the lacklustre: this is a glorious, wild, messy, truly fabulous evening which fully warrants its reputation. And while this isn’t, on balance, Glass’s most memorable score, there is much to love. The main refrain of “One, two, three, four” is haunting and transporting. Much of Lucinda Childs’ choreography still looks totally fresh, and the repetition and regimentation of movement is a perfect fit for the score.
One can’t help feeling that Glass picks subjects the same way Jim Dine uses his images of hearts and bathrobes – arbitrarily, just to “hang paint on”
But is Einstein more than the sum of its fragmented parts? Yes and no. It’s boldly interpretive: bars of light move, change axis, grow, and spread; clocks appear and disappear and written equations are projected as palimpsests on the action. Songs and incantations speed up and up and up, hinting at a potentially terrifying aspect of modern science. But the themes and subtexts are perhaps the least interesting elements of the whole – I started to feel that Glass and Wilson’s picking of Einstein, as opposed to Chaplin, might be merely convenient, lending a mood and a toybox of visual possibilities more than any actual meaning. One can’t help feeling that Glass picks subjects the same way Jim Dine uses his images of hearts and bathrobes – arbitrarily, just to “hang paint on”. This might also make Glass the great American operatist – perhaps more like Warhol than Dine in the end – his work pegged to celebrities with currency in the popular imagination.
Here, of course, though, the style is the thing, and just as the stage is occupied at all times for close to five hours purely to reinforce a formalist point, purity of concept is everything. And if, like many, you really get Glass, you can bask in this style for a potentially indefinite period. You can quibble with the structure and some of the creative decisions, but this is a magnificent evening that lingers in the memory.