The Play

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Despite its title, Einstein on the Beach is not a staged biography of the German physicist Albert Einstein, and none of its scenes is set on a beach. Moreover, despite its subtitle, it is neither an opera nor a play in any conventional sense. More accurately, it is a theater piece with music. Its text, a collaboration of Robert Wilson and Philip Glass with contributions by Christopher Knowles, Lucinda Childs, and Samuel M. Johnson, has little meaning without the music, composed by Glass, and without the spectacle, staged by Wilson, which accompany it.

The play is essentially plotless and leaves the creation of this crucial element to those who witness its performance, though it provides suggestive aural and visual guidelines which channel and focus audience perceptions. These perceptions arise through a series of musical, verbal, and visual effects which last the four-hour and forty-minute length of the work. They change almost imperceptibly, the stage ensemble often repeating a single word, phrase, or even syllable for as long as twenty minutes to the accompaniment of a matching figure in the music, but there is always change—even when there seems not to be. At various unexpected points, eye and ear simultaneously perceive marked changes, and it is at these times that radical shifts occur, both within the music and on the stage. Because Einstein on the Beach portrays a series of these shifts, and because it does so reductively, through increasingly simple yet ever more suggestive musical and verbal devices, one may consider it an example of serial minimalism, a contemporary technique of composition which has received equal amounts of favorable and unfavorable criticism.

Wilson and Glass have steadfastly resisted the writing of any interpretative program or scenario for their work, believing that the audience must derive individual yet complementary experiences from what it witnesses. A summary of the stage action conveys little of the dynamism which infuses the work and nothing of the spectacle essential for the experience its creators intend. One who wishes to comprehend Einstein on the Beach must experience its text, music, and spectacle simultaneously; its effectiveness is diminished if any of these elements is lacking.

Outlined, Einstein on the Beach contains five “Knee Plays” (metaphorically suggesting bends, turns, and transitions), which precede and follow each of its four acts. The four acts separately introduce three dominant visual elements—a locomotive, a courtroom, and a spaceship—then prismatically combine elements of each with the next dominant element. Both chorus and orchestra complement this visual fragmentation by segmenting and recombining matching textual and musical motifs.

The first Knee Play is in progress as the audience enters the auditorium. Two women sit at tables; their fingers play across the tabletops as one recites numbers at random while the other converses with some invisible companion. Imperceptibly, almost inaudibly, keyboards play a three-note descending figure which begins the music. These two elements proceed for approximately fifteen minutes and are only slightly altered by the sixteen-member Chorus, each member of which appears individually in the orchestra pit, taking a full two minutes to reach his or her assigned place. The Knee Play ends in a blackout when the last member of the Chorus is in position; the entire segment lasts thirty minutes.

Without pause, the lights come up on a boy standing on a tower. He holds a translucent tube in his outstretched hand. Spotlights converge on the tube and reflect...

(The entire section is 1489 words.)

Dramatic Devices

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Prismatic multiplication of images, their subsequent fragmentation, and their recombined variations characterize the words, music, and stage action of Einstein on the Beach. The mathematical precision the work demands is evident in the solfège syllables spoken in tonic rhythm by the Chorus. Prismatic multiplication and segmentation, a signature motif which plays on the surname of the composer, Glass, is carried through the horizontal and vertical triangulations, squares, and lines of light which at times segment the stage, at times isolate, frame, or spotlight one of its elements. Wordplay on the composer’s name continues in the use of glasslike materials in the stage settings: the lighted tube the boy holds in act 1, the globes of light on the judge’s bench in the two trial scenes, the headlights of the two trains, the underlit glass tables of the fourth Knee Play, the glass elevator and space capsules of act 4. Reappearance of glasslike or prismatic devices is neither caprice nor vanity, however, for the primary theme of Einstein on the Beach is that time’s movement is actually easy fragmentation followed by recombined variation. All things are relative, relativity is the only constant, and Einstein is the twentieth century archetype of that constancy.

Because this is so, locomotive, gaslit train, bus, and spaceship as symbols of movement appear diachronically, as though passing through time without effect as far as their essential function. The train’s conductor becomes the bus driver; the train’s spotlights become the bus’s headlight. The locomotive can be upended to serve as a skyscraper, one symbol of chronological progress becoming another. However, at the root of such progress, there is only minimal landscape—symbolized by dialogue, music, the desolate plain of acts 2 and 4, and the horizon implied by the second half of the work’s title. Infinite progression, multiplication, fragmentation, and permutation are merely an illusion. Progress is illusory, but freedom, dignity, and love remain.


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Brecht, Stefan. The Theatre of Visions: Robert Wilson. London: Methuen, 1978.

Croyden, Margaret. Lunatics, Lovers, and Poets: The Contemporary Experimental Theater. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1974.

Fairbrother, Trevor J., ed. Robert Wilson’s Vision: An Exhibition of His Works. Boston: Museum of Fine Arts, 1991.

Glass, Philip. Music by Philip Glass. Edited with supplementary material by Robert T. Jones. New York: Harper and Row, 1987.

New York Times Magazine, October 25, 1981, p. 69.

Opera News 46 (October 25, 1981): 17.

Rogoff, Gordon. “Time, Wilson, and What a Play Should Do.” Theater, Summer/Fall, 1991, 52-53.

Shyer, Lawrence. Robert Wilson and His Collaborators. New York: Theater Communications Group, 1989.

Stearns, Robert. Robert Wilson: The Theater of Images. 2d ed. New York: Harper, 1987.