Einstein on the Beach

by Philip Glass, Robert Wilson

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Themes and Meanings

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Einstein on the Beach is a visual and verbal panorama of the twentieth century that recognizes the passing of time as relentless but relative. Though time produces noticeable changes, these are essentially superficial. People may wait for a train, a bus, or a spaceship, but they wait nevertheless, and the machines which carry them away all perform the same function, though they differ radically in appearance. Lovers love, then destroy each other; this is true whether they are dressed as Victorians emerging from a gaslit train, as astronauts emerging from a space capsule, or as a pair waiting on a park bench for a bus destined for no certain place. Einstein, who propounded the theory of relativity and whose work in theoretical physics made the atom bomb possible, becomes a symbol of this relative way of considering time. His persona recurs throughout the work, sometimes evoked by the violin-playing actor who portrays him, sometimes multiplied through the Chorus, which adopts his distinctive dress, sometimes recalled by screen projections behind the actors, sometimes merely hinted at through the black-hole eclipse which blots out the handless clock face, or by the enormous bed (possibly recalling Einstein’s comment that his best ideas came to him through dreams).

Seemingly topical issues are also timeless when considered from this perspective. The black woman defendant of act 1, scene 2 invokes the name of Will “Bojangles” Robinson, a black dancer whose talent was exploited; his identity and plight become hers and everyone’s. His baggy pants even resemble Einstein’s. A speech on the oppression of women reflects the oppression of black people, both of which remain strong contemporary concerns. The defendant has a nightmare about the oppressive sameness one finds in an American supermarket (recalling Allen Ginsberg’s poem “A Supermarket in California,” 1955), then transforms herself into the figure of Patricia Hearst in guerrilla garb, brandishing a machine gun—a symbol of privileged youth in rebellion.

Because time is relative, Einstein on the Beach can even project the ultimate horror of a nuclear holocaust, which follows the achievement of interplanetary flight. The same principles of physics allow both, yet even nuclear catastrophe halts neither time nor the universal desire for love. An unusual pair of lovers, both female, boards a bus headed for the unknown future, and life goes forward.

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