Einstein on the Beach

by Philip Glass, Robert Wilson

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Characters Discussed

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Sixteen chorus members

Sixteen chorus members,

a violinist

a violinist, and

four lead actors

four lead actors, each of whom wears a costume based on a photograph of Albert Einstein: baggy pants, suspenders, a short-sleeved shirt, and sneakers. The violinist actually resembles and represents Einstein, who played the violin; the other cast members perform actions and use props in ways that are loosely suggestive of Einstein’s habits, appearance, and work. In the first scene of act 1, for example, a female dancer carries a pipe (Einstein smoked a pipe), a man scribbles equations on a blackboard, and a boy standing on a tower carries a glowing plastic tube and launches paper airplanes. The performers’ speeches contain references to numbers, stars and planets, light, gravity, and limitlessness, and two of the lead actors appear as astronauts in the penultimate scene, which seems to represent a nuclear apocalypse. No performer takes a fixed role; instead, the performers, music, sets, and lighting work together to create images and scenes to which the audience can assign meaning. Nevertheless, the four lead actors (two women, an old man, and a boy) do appear and reappear in various recognizable “parts.” In two scenes reminiscent of a trial, the old man and the boy sit on the judge’s bench, one woman is a defendant, and the other woman is a witness. The chorus stands in the jury box. In the second of these scenes, however, the “defendant,” after moving from a stool to a bed, rises and assumes the appearance of Patricia Hearst in a famous photograph of a bank robbery. Later in the scene, she reappears with her arms chained and seats herself again on the stool. In a third trial scene, the judge, defendant, witness, and jury are absent; only the image of the bed that stood before the judge’s bench remains. The man who plays the “old judge” in the first two trials is a conductor in two scenes that include a train, and he is a bus driver at the close of the piece. The two leading women appear in five scenes, called “Knee Plays,” that are placed between the acts; in these joining, or “joint,” scenes, they sit, stand, or lie side by side downstage. They tap on a table, recite speeches or random numbers, work a control board of flashing lights, or twist and turn as if in a vat of liquid. Their actions and words may recapitulate or extend moments in the previous act, and they may also evoke Einsteinian associations for the audience. The chorus members, besides singing numbers and solfège syllables to the score, create some recognizable “characters” as well: the man scribbling equations, a Victorian couple pantomiming a love scene and murder, two prisoners, and a photograph of Einstein sticking out his tongue. Even the musicians come on stage near the end to help create the “atomic explosion.” The spectator in the audience, who supplies meaning to the abstract action, is the piece’s final character.

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