Einstein on the Beach

by Philip Glass, Robert Wilson

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Critical Context

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This collaboration of minimalist composer and minimalist stage designer is the result of Glass’s having seen Wilson’s The Life and Times of Joseph Stalin (pr. 1973), a twelve-hour avant-garde theater piece performed through the night at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Glass was attracted by Wilson’s extraordinary use of light, and the two set about finding a subject for an extended theater piece. Both knew they wanted to comment on the twentieth century, but their principal difficulty lay in finding a mutually agreeable unifying historical figure upon which to focus the work. Wilson rejected Glass’s suggestion of Mohandas Gandhi (ultimately realized in Glass’s own Satyagraha, pr. 1984); Glass rejected Wilson’s proposals of Charlie Chaplin and Adolf Hitler. Eventually, Wilson thought of Einstein, and Glass immediately agreed. The two developed a script from Wilson’s storyboards and stage diagrams; they were occasionally joined by Christopher Knowles, Samuel M. Johnson, and Lucinda Childs, who wrote several of the speeches which appear in the final script. Both Glass and Wilson disclaim inspiration from Nevil Shute’s apocalyptic novel On the Beach (1956). The original title of their collaboration was Einstein on the Beach on Wall Street, though they shortened the title and added the equally misleading subtitle before the Avignon production.

Glass studied composition with the late Nadia Boulanger, famed teacher of composers Virgil Thomson, Aaron Copeland, and many others. Though experimenting with minimalist techniques during these studies, he never demonstrated them to Boulanger for fear she would reject them. Indeed, both he and Wilson come from conservative and traditional backgrounds, though their innovative productions have won wide popular acceptance. They collaborated on another massive theater piece, the CIVIL warS, presented in a Rome Section (pr. 1983) and a Cologne Section (pr. 1984). A major revival of Einstein on the Beach was given, with great popular success, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1984.

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