The Play

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1489

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.

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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 prismatically from it. As the scene proceeds, the boy sails paper airplanes to the stage below. A single female dancer appears, wearing tennis shoes and holding a tobacco pipe in her left hand. As she dances, lights slowly come up on the Chorus, the members all holding pipes and dressed in tennis shoes, white shirts, and baggy slacks with suspenders. They recall photographs of Einstein, similarly dressed. At stage right, a man scribbles invisible equations on an invisible blackboard. As all this proceeds, a locomotive in full scale inches across the stage toward the left. Three times, a strong beam of light segments this scene, followed by a blackout and realignment of the Chorus.

When the lights come up again, three horizontal beams of light form a triangle which segments the stage. There is a huge bed, a clock without hands, and elements of a courtroom (jury box with jurors, court clerks, wigged attorneys, a woman defendant, a judge’s bench, and a black woman witness). The witness reads from a book about the “baggy pants” of “Mr. Bojangles” (corresponding to the baggy pants of Einstein). A figure dressed as Einstein plays a violin positioned between the orchestra and stage players throughout. The scene moves slowly as the Chorus takes a coffee break and a black disk covers the clock face, recalling a solar eclipse (and possibly a “black hole” of timelessness).

The light triangle now becomes a square and frames the two women of the first Knee Play as they continue to recite. Photographs of Einstein flash on a screen behind them as the Einstein figure continues to play his violin. This second Knee Play provides the transition into act 2, which begins on a bare stage with a spaceship hovering in the far distance. In the Avignon production, dancers spun like dervishes in trance; in subsequent American productions, dancers have moved with mathematical precision to the orchestral accompaniment. The second scene reintroduces the train image—this time, however, constituted as a gaslit passenger train from the turn of the twentieth century. It passes along the still bare stage as though on a desolate plain. The moon shines on a darkened scene as an elegant Victorian couple emerges from the train and mimes a love duet. This time a lunar eclipse occurs, paralleling the eclipse of the clock face in the earlier trial scene. At the conclusion of the scene, the couple reenters the train, though they separate; the woman pulls a gun from her bag and threatens the man. He raises his hands as the train moves away. A blackout follows, and after a few moments the train appears again, now in the far distance.

A third Knee Play begins immediately, the Chorus making steering motions and chanting numbers and syllables; the two women of the previous Knee Play in their square of light stand before a console of flashing lights. The Chorus suddenly produces toothbrushes and mimes brushing their teeth, then sticks tongues out at the audience (recalling a famous photograph of Einstein). All of this introduces act 3, a combined trial and prison scene. The same defendant appears, then moves to the large bed, writhes as if having a nightmare, and describes her surreal vision of an American supermarket crammed with gaudy merchandise. This speech contains the work’s single reference to a beach: “I was reminded [by the supermarket] of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.” Suddenly, she collects several nondescript props and, repeating her speech, emerges as Patricia Hearst pointing a machine gun at the audience. Act 3 closes as the spaceship reappears, this time much closer, as dancers move with it across the stage.

In the fourth Knee Play, the same two women reappear, now prone on glass tables illuminated from beneath. They writhe in a horizontal dance, the only visible colors being white and crystal. Act 4 reintroduces the visual shape of the train; this time the train stands on its end and resembles a building in gray shadow. Einstein appears in one of the windows and scribbles equations as a crowd of people stare at him from the stage. The crowd then slowly moves away and the scene fades to black until the bed image reemerges, also on its end; the defendant reappears, sings a wordless aria, then is apotheosized into the heights and disappears.

Ultimately, flickering lights outline the interior of the spaceship. A glass elevator, a human figure within, slides up and down from a smoking slot in the stage floor. A second glass cubicle, enclosing a reclining figure, slides back and forth along the top of the scene continuously, starting from left to right. The Chorus takes various places within the spaceship as one male dancer makes semaphore signals with two flashlights. Smoke pours out, covering the stage; there is a wild orchestral accompaniment as two women astronauts climb out of two plastic bubbles on the stage floor, then slowly collapse. A curtain falls, ending the scene; it bears Einstein’s famous equation E=mc2.

The fifth Knee Play shows the two women, this time on a park bench but still doing the finger pantomime with which the work began. A bus appears, with the same headlights as the trains of acts 1 and 2 and with the train conductor as driver. The driver delivers a speech filled with gentle images of stars, moon, heaven and hell, grains of sand, and infinite love. Words and music stop as the bus moves toward the two women and the curtain falls in silence.

Dramatic Devices

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 320

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.


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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 112

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.

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Critical Essays