- Einstein on the Beach by Robert Wilson and Philip Glass
“Is that it?” I whispered to my companion at the end of four-and-a-quarter hours of Wilson and Glass’s sensory sumptuousness. There was no disappointment implied in those words, no “what was the big deal?” Einstein on the Beach is still spoken of in legendary terms by those who first witnessed it in 1976, so it might be easy for any actual instantiation of it to fail to live up to heightened expectations. But no, I loved what I had seen in this first-ever UK staging. It was simply that we had been warned that the performance was five hours long, and having mentally braced myself for that time span, this astonishing event felt oddly truncated when it ended “early.” (I had only thirty minutes previously ducked out for my one and only bathroom break, spectators at Einstein being famously permitted to come and go at times of their own choosing.) More importantly, however, since this is a plotless performance that induces in the spectator a sense of perpetual present-ness rather than of temporal progression, any ending is necessarily anticlimactic. As Alain Badiou remarks, with specific reference to Wilson: “the contemplative consistency of pure duration [never] saves theatre from its extended finitude, from its long shortness” (Rhapsody for the Theatre, xiv).
The choice of Einstein as iconic subject represents, of course, a decision by the collaborating artists to play with the relativity of time. Fragments of potential narrative appear and recur throughout the performance: a young Einstein on a beach; old Einstein endlessly bowing a violin; an inexorable train journey; a strange court case bisected by a prison cell. The images throb with the potential significance of a vivid dream, but circulate and recur through the various scenes and intersecting “knee plays” without ever offering themselves up to “interpretation.” Certain phrases from Christopher Knowles’s texts acquire a kind of comforting familiarity through their insistent repetition (“it could be very fresh and clean”), while Glass’s lush, maximally minimalist score gradually alters one’s consciousness. My own experience of the piece was that time felt curiously elongated and slowed down through the first thirty to forty minutes, as my habituated urge to seek progression and development was inevitably frustrated. During scene 2 (trial 1) I was fighting to stay awake, a factor that further elongated things (have minutes passed or only seconds since I last nodded out?). But after this point I fell into the flow, and the next three hours or so passed—wide awake—without any particular consciousness of time.
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Admittedly, some elements of the performance appealed to me more than others. I cannot say that I am a particular fan of the twirling Lucinda Childs choreography, but I adored the crisp, quirky, automaton-like performances of Kate Moran and Helga Davis in the twin MC roles. And I was simply in awe of the pop-up choir’s ability to sing up and down number sequences, in perfect unison, at breakneck speed! But that fascination with the live reproduction of music that sounds synthesized or treated (yet is not) led to my one significant frustration with the performance. The musicians were positioned underneath the stage, mostly invisible to the audience except when the choir popped up in a shallow forestage pit area. I found that I wanted to be able to see the score being played, as part of the visual landscape of the piece—a desire that also, perhaps, says something about time. In 1976, with synthesized sound still in its infancy, the fact of the score’s live reproduction was perhaps more of a given than it is today. Glass’s music is composed of analog sounds whose hypnotic repetitiveness anticipates the advent of digital sampling. Today, the ubiquity of looped, digitized music means that, for this viewer at least, there is a curious fascination with...