Cogito: John Branch



Einstein: Beached at BAM

In the 70s and 80s, Einstein on the Beach left people feeling they were on a hypnotic drug, but by the end of its current reincarnation, it left me wanting to do drugs.

Einstein on the Beach might be called an instance of total theater (if you separate that term from the particular use to which Richard Foreman has applied it) or of Wagnerian gesamtkunstwerk. It employs text, music, and theater arts, giving equal weight to all of them: minimalist music by Philip Glass, direction and design by Robert Wilson, and minimalist choreography by Lucinda Childs. (All of them worked on the present staging, which is apparently a pretty close recreation of the original; it began a world tour in March that will run into next spring.) The playbill is cagey on the origin of its words, crediting Glass with “music/lyrics” on the first page while later attributing the text to Lucinda Childs, Samuel M. Johnson, and Christopher Knowles and assigning copyright for the libretto to Robert Wilson. Wherever they came from, it does have words in the form of speeches and stories; there’s also a fair amount of the vocalise style that Glass often uses. First performed in 1976, Einstein on the Beach returns now and then to bedazzle or bedevil us, most recently at BAM in September.

The opera evokes elements of Albert Einstein’s life and work. A figure resembling him plays violin and sticks his tongue out. Glass-walled elevators relate to Einstein’s thought experiment regarding a beam of light passing through a moving elevator; one elevator appears to us to be horizontal, including its occupant, and the other appears to be vertical, which relates to Einstein’s dethroning of privileged points in space. (Only in a gravity field or in relation to a given point can one say anything is up, down, or horizontal.) Clocks and watches remind us that there is no absolute measure of time either. Much of the stage movement is slowed down—maybe another suggestion that time and motion are relative.As if it might otherwise be forgotten, which I doubt, the production also reminds us of Einstein’s connection with nuclear weapons. Valiantly upholding the “beach” end of the deal, a single conch shell now and then stands, or rather sits forlornly, on the stage.

But something about this piece of total theater strikes me as totalitarian. It cares little if at all what you think while you watch and listen. The volume level in many sections is high and unvarying. The set sometimes moves around more than the stage performers do. The strange symmetry and stark (often black-and-white) contrasts of the visual elements attract the eye in some fundamental way, as the musical rhythms and repetitions do the ear. Yet it’s easy to ignore because it’s not really about anything. Einstein on the Beach defies reflection, as if trying to one-up Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” essay: interpret this!

It’s easy to see in it certain modernist fascinations: with machines and the mechanical (many of the performers’ movements appear mechanical), with mechanical production or reproduction (all of the sounds, including the human voices, are delivered to us through electro-mechanical means). It achieves a kind of flatness in not representing anything other than itself, and its surfaces and volumes remind us of the discovery of geometry by modernist painters. The whole thing, in fact, resembles some kind of machine of mysterious purpose.

There’s much I haven’t mentioned: the very odd courtroom scene, with its speech about men but not women being equal before the law; the cheap-looking little spaceship that moves on a wire; the lovers-on-a-train scene (which might be vaudevillian fun if it lasted two minutes, but it’s more like 20); the dances (which use some numerical cleverness but aren’t as hypnotic as they used to look, according to my companion); the “space machine” whose back wall reminded me of LED calculator displays; and more. Amid the tedium of its four-hours-plus, there are wonders to some of the stage images.

Einstein on the Beach seems to me an experiment to test the possibility of abstraction in opera. Other representational arts had begun an abstract turn years earlier, so in a way it was high time, even past time, for opera to try. I’d have to be much wiser, and/or bolder, to presume to judge what the experiment showed. But Einstein on the Beach, which once seemed so various, so beautiful, so new, today appears dull, indulgent, and annoying.

Einstein’s twin paradox comes to mind: this opera left and came back to us nearly unaged, but we’re older now. And nowadays there’s never a drug dealer around when you want one.

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