Einstein in the press
Talk for Einstein on the beach
symposium, University of Amsterdam, 6th january 2013
about 36 years ago that word got around about some unique and ground-breaking
piece of music theatre, called Einstein on the Beach, and gradually it
dawned on me that I had missed out on something important.
Unlike most of you, I still haven't seen
the actual performance. I'll go tonight though, and finally get rid of this gap
in my musical education. Of course, during those past decades I've witnessed
several other productions directed by Bob Wilson and heard many, many hours of
music by Philip Glass, including his Einstein-recordings, so I'm not as
completely uninformed as I was back then.
when I started making a survey of what reviewers had written about Einstein it
was a strange experience, because in a way, all those people were ahead of me;
they had seen Einstein, and I hadn't. I can only hope that this makes me a little
more impartial as - so to speak - reviewer of their reviews.
the last 36 years a lot of articles and essays have been written about Einstein, especially in 1976,
when the piece had its first performance, and again over the last year, during
the great international tour of the work. The account I'm going to give you is
by no means complete. For one thing, the accessibility of articles from all
those years ago is not too good. Especially here in the Netherlands getting
hold of older newspaper articles proved to be a bit of a problem, so my account
of Einsteins Dutch reception unfortunately isn't as complete as it should be.
I'm very grateful to Thom Donovan, Bob Wilson's archivist, who sent me a
considerable amount of mainly English-language articles.
Because I was first and foremost
interested in Einsteins critical reception I laid aside a lot of material.
There were several interviews with Wilson or Glass or both. Interesting, of
course, but they usually contain the same kind of information. Many reviews, or
previews, were merely descriptive,
which is rather boring if you read a lot of them. The shorter newspaper reviews,
especially, contain very few critical insights - not surprising, because in a
newspaper there's hardly any room for developing intelligent thoughts, as I
know all too well from my own experience.
Also I had to leave out the Italian and the Spanish reviews, because my
knowledge of those languages is too scant. There were some French reviews as
well, but they were written in a style that couldn't be translated into
sense-making English - at least not by me.]
So - what can I say about all those
articles? It will not surprise you that most of them - from the seventies, but
also the more recent ones - were positive, sometimes even ecstatic. That being
said, there are also very pronounced differences. Observations by different
critics can be completely in opposition. That may be a matter of taste, but
undoubtedly has also to do with the fact that the critics stem from different
disciplines. As we know, musical, theatrical en choreographical elements all
play more or less equal parts in
A very characteristic aspect that is
noted in many articles is the remarkable way in which Wilson's theatrical
approach affects the experience of time and duration. I quote the Dutch theatre
critic Nic Brink, who wrote in 1976 in De Groene Amsterdammer: (and I must
apologize for my poor translation): Despite the fact that there is no
explicable action, one's attention is constantly captivated. Despite the fact
that things develop at a provokingly slow pace, one doesn't get bored in the
least. It is as if Wilson magically converts the hall into an iron lung, where
all vital functions assume a much slower pace. Awareness of time and velocity
Brink is also one of the few theatre
critics who shows a keen sense and understanding of music, although he pretends
to know little about it. He starts by tellling how he was completely fascinated
when he heard Six Pianos by Steve Reich, and then writes: Suddenly I realised that
certain, melodyless music by older composers gives me the same sense of
euphoria' and then he mentions by way of example the first prelude from Bachs Well-tempered
in essence not more than a series ofarpeggiated chords, and then he says: The
difference is that minimal composers easily uphold their 'monophony' for an hour or longer, whereas Bach after
5 minutes goes back to business as usual.'
I think that is a very good explication,
especially for readers who in 1976 may not have been familiar with minimalism.
By contrast, I quote Clive Barnes, who wrote, also in '76, in the New York
Mr. Glass's music is sensational - literally. It is almost more monotonous
than Bach's - yes, there are fugal elements - and, more important, at times
almost as interesting.'
I think Nic Brink did a better job in
matching meaning and words.
Most critics agree that it is the happy
combination of the qualities of Wilson, Glass and Childs that make Einstein
on the Beach
into the 'landmark' it is often called. The Dutch critic W. Hofman wrote: If
ever something can be called 'total theatre', then it is Einstein on the
Nothing in this work has a life of its own, everything supports everything
else. The result is really a 'total theatre', which is completely different
from putting several elements together in one production.'
take the concept of Hofmans 'total theatre' as roughly equivalent to the word
Gesamtkunstwerk, that also appears in many reviews.
all critics were sensitive to this aspect. For instance, Edwin Wilson, the
reviewer of the Wall Street Journal, disliked the music and apparently didn't
understand the role of the composer, because he wrote: In each section, having
wound up his outsize, animated music box, Mr. Wilson lets it run on
interminably, repeating the same sounds and movements over and over again,
making a slight change every ten minutes or so.' But his view was quite an
reviewers understandably paid attention to the Einsteins formal structure,
maybe because it's one of the more easily decribable aspects of the
performance, but there were few who did better than giving a mere outline.
Andrew Porter, the esteemed music critic of the New Yorker, made an interesting
observation about the Knee Plays:
first, [he writes] they seem to function like the intermezzi that were played
between the acts of an opera seria, but they carry so much musical - and at the
last, emotional - weight that they can be regarded as the main matter of the
opera, and the acts themselves as extendeed intermezzi or developments.
has been generally treated as if it were a work by Wilson with incidental music
by Glass, is is very different - in tone, structure, pace, and appearance -
from Wilson's earlier pieces. To describe it as a characteristic Glass score
with scenic accompaniment by Wilson - and choreographic accompaniment by Andrew
DeGroat - would be nearer the mark but still not quite accurate. It is a
Gesamtkunstwerk in which Wilson's romantic profusion, allusiveness, and collage
techniques are tempered by Glass's sharp-focus insistence on pure structure.'
Porters only objection concerns the
occasional loudness of Glass's music, as is to be expected from somone with
really sensitive ears.
critics were puzzled by questions like: what is the meaning of Einstein on
Or: how to interpret it?
When I read the Dutch reviews of that
time it struck me that several of them asked - or searched - for political
meanings - which, as I see it, must be a reflection of the mood in Holland
during the mid-seventies, especially among left-oriented people. Political,
sociological or educational messages were almost obligatory when putting up a
theatrical performance. The Dutch theatre critic Max Arian perceived Einstein as a purely political
piece, although he admitted that his impressions might be of a very personal
nature. The trial scene, for instance, reminded him of the trial against Sacco
and Vanzetti, or the McCarthy sessions. In the choreography he saw parallels
with the revolutionary operas of Mao's China. 'And is Einstein himself not,
like a modern Nero, playing his
fiddle while his world, the United States, is on fire?' he asked.
The music critic of the Dutch daily De
Volkskrant, Hans Heg, didn't perceive it like that, but nevertheless touched
upon this angle: One can hardly accuse Wilson and Glass of dealing in
pronounced political theatre; one will see nor hear raised fists in this piece.
But the way in which they manage to translate the fortunes and misfortunes of
their own times into images and music is apparent to everyone who is willing to
he adds: 'Of course it is an easy way out to get yourself lulled away by the
fantastic scenery, the cleverly designed light effects...' - and so on and so
America the reviewers usually didn't ask for a political stance, though lots of
them, prompted by Wilson, offered explanations in an Einsteinian vein, and
procured associations about relativity, the atomic age and so on. The spaceship
scene as well as the famous light-bar-scene prompted several observers to see
parallels or allusions to Kubricks 2001: a space odyssey, but had it been a year
later they undoubtedly would have mentioned Close encounters of the third
Martin Gottfried summed it up quite
nicely in his New York Post review by writing: There is no explanation
that can, need or should be made or the why of this major work of Wilson's; no
comparison that can be made with anything else, not really, on the stage. It is
the theater of a visionary, one who knows what he is doing and can do it; one who
sees things as no others see them and can materialise that so it can be sen by
others. I take that to be the function of the artist.'
are two elements the critics universally agree upon: the admirable
concentration and endurance of the performers, and the sheer beauty of Wilson's
images. But several of them voice distrust about this latter quality.
poet and critic David Shapiro, who wrote a very interesting essay with a
philosophical slant for the collection The Art of performance, put it this like this
- let me warn you beforehand that he gets a little carried away by his own
converts the opera in something as flat and usable as a map. Here opera draws
attention to itself as a self-regulating whole, not by the ususal thickening of
language but by the deliquescence of so many seemingly central resources. While
there is a little bit of the merely magical to Wilson, there is much of the
necessary shamanism required to heal us in a restless universe agitated in its
smallest parts. Still, one might be skeptical, because it is most wonderful in
its very lack of explanatory power. Often its architecture seems merely good
interior design. It is shattered as the fruit dish of Paul Cézanne. But the
point of pointlessness is to be at once shattered and whole, like the fruit
dish of Cézanne. We suffer through it as in its melancholy scene of the eclipse
of our clock. Time, our former absolute sun, now dreamily obscured by theory.
One is reminded of the trauma Einstein occasioned in his enduring witness to
relativism. Yet does not a sly dice-playing God reign over this essentially
collective dream theatre?'
Shapiro is almost too clever for his own
good, but he offers a lot of perspicacious observations in just a few pages.
It's still worth reading.
A much more severe criticism came from
Bonnie Maranca, who in '77 contributed an essay to a book called Theatre
She first voices her concern about the avant garde - and especially Bob Wilson
- which according to her is capitulating to fashion and commercialism. She then
gives a fairly long description and analysis of Einstein on the beach and
Wilson's recent pieces have used contemporary myths to illustrate his dissatisfaction with
the alienation of modern life. His vision is apocalyptic; he seeks a return to
order and peace after the holocaust. Is this not a reflection of Romantic
longing for a return to a world that we will never see again? Wilson's handling
of contemporary problems is too naive to take seriously.
Wilson's escapism is the problematical
element in his theatre. The danger is that audiences, overwhelmed by the
monumental settings and the beauty of the images, will be passively drawn into
the spiritualistic world of his theatre, which in peculiar ways mirrors the
growing mass consciousness of the seventies. It is one that reflects surrender.
Critics and audiences have admitted that they see Einstein on the Beach as a
work one must give oneself up to.
All (elements) contribute to make Einstein on the Beach experience of
thanscendental meditation in the theatre.
It is this sense of loss of time and
place, the religiosity of the experience, the absorption in images that by
their nature are ambiguous, simple resolutions of harsh political realities,
and the acceptance of a theatre that hypnotizes its devout followers that is
disturbing. It is indeed questionable whether Wilson will lead us to higher
consciousness. Theatre must be more than something to gape at or lose oneself
demand for a message of some sort is somehow reminiscent of the Dutch critics,
who searched for political meaning in Einstein. Nevertheless, in her dismissal
of the work, Maranca is quite an an exception.
didn't find that many reviews from 1984, when Einstein was revived. But among
the few that I read, the differences in opinion were more extreme. For
instance, a review in Voice, headed Einstein in the Fog, by Gregory Sandow,
echoes Maranca's views by saying that 'More than anything else it's the beauty
of Einstein on the beach that keeps people from seeing how shallow it is.'
Sandow compares it with other theatre pieces by Wilson and says: 'I can easily
imagine the opera with a different score', in which he disagrees with a vast
majority of reviewers. As A final verdict he writes: 'Einstein on the Beach turned out to be not a
classic of the genre, but instead a creaky antique.'
the other end of the 86-spectrum there was a review by Robert Brustein in The
who waxed lyrical, writing:
'It represents one of those rare moments
in cultural history where the most gifted people at work in the performing arts
combine their resources to wallop us into an oceanic perception of our relation
to the cosmos. Few contemporary works have penetrated so deeply into the
uncreated dream life of the race. Pulling ecstasy from boredom, finding insight
through repetition, alternating mechanical rhythms with pulsing climaxes,
Einstein on the Beach manages to burrow into your mind and work on you like a
don't know what to make of that last metaphor, but these two examples show that
even in 1984 Einstein had reached a legendary status and could therefore easily
lead to extreme disappointment or extreme elation.
Now we skip a few years and come to the
2012, Einstein apparently has
become such a classic, that in lots of reviews the approach is one of
reverence. Once more, there is a lot of praise, with much use of the epithet
'magical'. Somehow, the beauty-argument of earlier years, be it positive or
negative, has almost vanished. The admiration for the stamina and the skills of
the performers is, if possible, even greater than in the seventies. And more than ever, many reviews don't
go beyond mere descriptions.
Nevertheless, there are dissenters. The
British critic Rupert Christiansen apparently hated the work and concluded his
review in the Telegraph with these words: 'I remain adamantly of the view that such
stuff is flatulently pretentious in its wilful opacity and without aesthetic,
intellectual or spiritual substance. It is also asphyxiatingly tedious and left
me wanting to scream. Unless you are a paid-up devotee of the Glass-Wilson
cult, avoid this like the plague.'
I can omly say that even for a critic,
it's not very wise of Mr. Chritiansen to insult people who have a different
taste, especially if they cary no responsibility for the performance.
are several reviewers who think the theatrical staging shows its age. Anthony
Howell writes in The fortnightly review: 'The need to deny message - to add in
red-herrings and whimsical reference in a cool, krazy New York way - ultimately
begins to irritate as much as any message ever would, and when something is
actually said - well, much of the text sounds dated now, especially the
proto-feminist guying of feminism, the references to Mr Bojangles and the love
and kissing bit at the conclusion.'
colleague Robert Everett-Green, writing for The Globe and Mail, says the same, in a
more friendly way:
it seemed very fresh and strange, because it said opera' on the program and we
still expect narrative and characters and arias from that. Other times it felt
very 1976. It was cool and knowing in the particular way some things were then.
You could come in and see two people sitting like robots in uniform shirts and
suspenders, and think of Kraftwerk. Even precision can age, like everything
Cordelia Lynn of Ceasefire Magazine had
a similar experience, but put it elegantly into perspective:
Einstein is a faithful reproduction of the original 1976 version. Despite how
imaginative and daring much of the direction is, it already seems strangely
outdated. You walk away with an odd, somewhat patronising feeling of Ah yes,
all that seventies experimental formalism'. Einstein on the Beach is no longer
the brave new world it once was: those were the days.' Though perhaps the fact
that it feels so unoriginal at times is a testament, if nothing else, to the
huge influence that both Wilson and Glass have had on theatre and music over
the past three decades.'
pivotal question of course is whether Einstein is still up-to-date, relevant
for this era, and how we must assess its historical place.
Einstein on the Beach is more revolutionary than when it was created. It demonstrates once again how in
theater it is not necessary to understand but get lost in the wonderful 'other'
life of the stage,' wrote Marinella Guatterini in the Italian newspaper Il Sole
ventiquatro ore; this is an idea that was also expressed here yesterday.
contrast, Anthony Tomassini wrote in the New York Times: 'In advance of this
tour many critics and devotees of the Glass operas wondered whether Einstein'
would by now come across as dated or pretentious. But the piece seems
particularly suited to current musical politics and social culture. In 1976
Einstein' was seen as a combative declaration from the booming downtown scene
directed against the established uptown culture, especially the complex,
intellectual styles of contemporary music sanctioned within academia. Actually,
at the time, Mr. Glass and Mr. Wilson were more interested in fulfilling their
personal vision than engaging in polemics.
when Einstein' was here in 1992, the scars from that contemporary music battle
were still sore. Now those bad times seem long gone. Composers do whatever they
want to. Audiences are open to everything. Performers champion all styles.'
Glitz argues in the Huffington Post that the imagery of Einstein transcends its
was only on a second viewing this go-round I appreciated how very much of its
time Einstein was: the speech by a woman at a gathering of activists demanding
equal rights (and using the very 70s expression "male chauvinist
pig"), the appearance of Patty Hearst, the fear of Cold War nuclear
annihilation and other seemingly random details must have made this opera seem
very timely indeed, especially when compared to say Bluebeard's Castle or The
Ring Cycle. But they completely transmuted those details of the 1970s so they
could breathe and live on. In 1976, Patty Hearst undoubtedly seemed ripped from
the headlines, in 1984 it might have seemed dated, in 1992 perhaps ironic and
today she has a symbolic power far outweighing her historical roots. Just as
you need footnotes to place some of Shakespeare's historical figures, but their
actions on stage embody something eternal.'
Zachary Woolfe, the critic of the New York Times, it was just the other way
around. He is a lifelong admirer of Philip Glass' Einstein-music, but when he
visited the performance it left strangely unaffected. After describing this, he
points to sees parallels with reconstructions of other 'original' staging, of
baroque opera for instance, and then writes:
works transcend time, but even the best stagings are products of their moment.
It is worth thinking about the centrality we have given these exhumations of
classic productions in our cultural life, why we so value the seductive
illusion of authenticity they offer.
Einstein,' the fantasy is the return to that bohemian, avant-garde New York,
so full of excitement and possibility. Both those who were there and those of
us who were not want badly, for our different reasons, to conjure an event, a
moment, even an entire city that now exists only as a memory. It is Mr. Glass's
music that is more than that, and it remains as close as your computer.' - The
last is a reference to the beginning of the piece, where he tells that he
listened to kneeplay 1 on YouTube over and over again.
could go on like this, quoting from those reviews for lenghts of time, but for
now this must be enough. As was to be expected, it's next to impossible to find
a common denominator for all these opinions and perspectives. Maybe I've
underplayed the many plaudits and positive reviews - because in a way they were so uniform, and for that very
reason I may have focused too much on writers who expressed doubts. And I
realize I haven't said very much about the choreographical aspect. That may be
due to the fact that I'm not a dance person, but on the other hand it wasn't
too manifest in the reviews either. In any case, I hope I provided some
historical perspective and some food for further thought.
me conclude with the last sentences of the review by Clive Barnes in the New
York Times - published November 23, 1976, half a lifetime ago, but still very
on the Beach is being repeated next Sunday. You will never forget it, even if
you hate it. Which is a most rare attribute to a work of art. Nowadays.'