Bob Bernard's Corner

Brainstorm--The Inspiration behind Einstein on the Beach

Bob Bernard’s Corner
July 2013 


“Language is the barrier of the imagination.” 

- Stage Director Robert Wilson, himself afflicted with a childhood learning disability {stuttering), was moved to work early on with institutions serving the disadvantaged. In an institution for brain-damaged children, Wilson came upon fourteen-year-old Christopher Knowles, an autistic boy possessed of a preoccupation with the mathematics, geometry, and arrangement of words and sounds - as opposed to their literal meaning. Mr. Wilson, building upon the artistic characteristics of this by-product of autism, used Christopher’s texts in six of the tableaux and for two of the entr’acte plays of Einstein on the Beach.

Another carry-over from Wilson’s childhood is his emotional isolation from his mother and his intellectual clash with his father, circumstances leading eventually to the autobiographical trait of his often staging a young boy placed far apart from others:

Final scene of Wilson’s Madama Butterfly  Scene 1, Act 1 of Einstein; Boy on tower

“What came to me as a revelation was the use of rhythm in developing an overall structure in music.”

 - Composer Philip Glass, recalling the epiphanic moment that was to forever inspire his  use of relentless, reiterative arpeggiation in his compositions. Mr. Glass, working from the original drawings of Wilson, employed this compositional practice, subordinating melody to a gradually changing rhythmic structure for Einstein

We have had the opportunity to attend two of Glass’s operas which reflect his compositional style: Recently, Long Beach Opera [LBO] produced The Fall of the House of Usher, effectively  conveying the requisite existential dread of the story; In 2011, LBO’s Akhnaten, using state-of- the-art infrared technology, visually mimicked the quasi-repetitiousness of the score, projecting rows of time-variant hieroglyphic poses onto the Long Beach Terrace Theatre’s cyclorama: 

Composite dance/ceremonial scene from Akhnaten

Wilson and Glass, part of the avant-garde arts movement in the late 60’s in Manhattan’s Soho district, created Einstein, beginning in 1974. They settled upon the overall length [4 and ½ hours] and identified nine tableaux, each approximately twenty minutes in length and separated by connecting “knee plays”, so named because Wilson is fond of skeletal metaphors. With no formal intermissions, the audience is free to come and go at will.

As an aside - and taken in the context of those times - a production enduring for four or five hours was not at all the most extreme of Robert Wilson’s efforts: His 1973 The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin ran twelve hours, and his 1972 KA MOUNTain and GUARDenia Terrace [‘A story about a family and some people changing’] was staged on a mountaintop near the Iranian city of Shiraz. It lasted seven days, being a single, sustained, non-stop, twenty-four hour-perday performance, beginning at 0:00 midnight, September 2. At the end of the performance the mountaintop was blown up with dynamite!

Near Shiraz, September 2: The “Overture”  and, one week later: 12:00 midnight on September-8

Wilson and Glass agreed that their subject would be the scientist Albert Einstein. Discarding an early title of “Einstein on the Beach at Wall Street” [a wise decision: the titillating incongruity would have been diminished with the extra wordage]. The creative process was deeply collaborative. They met weekly for six to eight weeks, setting the scheme of the piece. Then, working from Wilson’s drawings, Glass composed music based upon these sketches. This is an opera composed around the stage set.
Presuming audiences would have substantial prior knowledge regarding Einstein, no attempt was made to tell a story. Rather, a collection of widely-disparate cultural references concurrent with either Einstein’s lifetime or the time frame of the opera’s creation [the equal rights movement; atomic energy, the trial of Patty Hearst;  some daffy ‘supermarket dialogue’, a popular song and TV personalities of that day], were staged . As an example from Einstein’s lifetime, the impetuous tongue-out-of-cheek photo was memorialized:

Albert Einstein, playfully reacting to a call for ‘one more smile’ on his 72nd birthday Einstein’s male dancers, replicating the scientist’s famous gesture

As an example from the period of time in which the opera was created, there is a brief flashback to the April 15, 1974, episode of heiress Patty Hearst, operating under the control of the Symbionese Liberation Army [SLA], holding an M1 carbine rifle while assisting in the robbery of the Sunset District Branch of the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco.

“I’m Tania, up against the wall.” Later, from the archives of the SLA. In Einstein: Act 3, Trial Two
Here armed with a modified full auto
M1 Carbine with sawed-off barrel

Wilson is known for the attention-focusing device of having individual actors and dancers in a given scene sometimes move as though they each occupied their own particular time-based world: That is, some actors would be “frozen” in place while others would be moving about at frenetic speeds. Another of his signature traits is the use of very strong, silhouetted lighting. In the photo below we see the dancers just so silhouetted. The figure at lower stage right is a violinist, made up to represent an older Einstein [Einstein was an amateur violinist]. In Los Angeles, the violinist will be Jennifer Koh.

Silhouetted dancers; Figure of Einstein with violin Jennifer Koh, soon to don a white wig

As eclectic as are the choice of subject matter for the scenes in Einstein, Wilson is consistent with respect to classical perspective in the manner they are presented to the audience: 

  • The dance scenes are configured so as to utilize the entire stage [see above, for example]: They are “landscapes” 
  • The trial scenes are placed to be a bit more constricted on stage: “still lifes”
  • The entr’acte knee plays are definitely confined to a specific spot on stage: “portraits” 
Trial Scene Knee Play

Commissioned for France’s Avignon Festival, it opened there on July 25, 1976, toured six other European cities and concluded the premiere run at the Met, playing to two sold-out houses. Another major tour took place in 1992.

The bottom line for the financial spreadsheet of these final two performances in 1976 was, unfortunately, printed in red ink: The Met had required Wilson to personally produce these two Sunday performances [think: triple overtime for the staff, etc.], so the $1 million costs proved to be offset only to the extent of $850,000.  When apprised of this financial shortfall, Wilson’s father, ready with a classic ‘left-handed compliment’, offered: “Son, I didn’t think that you were smart enough to be able to lose $150,000!”
This opera ends with the return of the opening music, although set now with the character of a bus driver speaking of two lovers on a park bench, solemnly reciting text which, although of a nature [when in print] to be found on a Hallmark card at Target, has served as a very satisfactory closing benediction-of-sorts for many audiences: 

[Text by the late actor Samuel M. Johnson]

The version to be staged at UCLA is not a reenactment, but rather a re-imaging. It differs from the 1976 original primarily in matters of technology: the lighting is stronger (although “colder”), the incandescent lights being replaced with halogen; the musical instrumentation remains the same, but with modern electronic keyboards replacing the “reedy” sounds of the old Farfisa electric organs. In 1976, the dancers were required to double as singers; now separate ensembles are employed for the separate disciplines.

This tour’s cast includes three featured performers, twelve singers, the twelve dancers of the Lucinda Childs Dance Company, and the six-member Philip Glass Ensemble, Michael Riesman, Music Director.

Los Angeles will soon be the twelfth (and final) stop on the 2012-13 tour of this unique combination of expressionistic stagecraft and impressionistic music.

Author: David Cannon

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