Einstein in the press

Talk for Einstein on the beach symposium, University of Amsterdam, 6th january 2013

It's about 36 years ago that word got around about some unique and ground-breaking piece of music theatre, called Einstein on the Beach, and gradually it dawned on me that I had missed out on something important.

 Unlike most of you, I still haven't seen the actual performance. I'll go tonight though, and finally get rid of this gap in my musical education. Of course, during those past decades I've witnessed several other productions directed by Bob Wilson and heard many, many hours of music by Philip Glass, including his Einstein-recordings, so I'm not as completely uninformed as I was back then.

Nevertheless, when I started making a survey of what reviewers had written about Einstein it was a strange experience, because in a way, all those people were ahead of me; they had seen Einstein, and I hadn't. I can only hope that this makes me a little more impartial as - so to speak - reviewer of their reviews.

Over the last 36 years a lot of articles and essays have been written about Einstein, especially in 1976, when the piece had its first performance, and again over the last year, during the great international tour of the work. The account I'm going to give you is by no means complete. For one thing, the accessibility of articles from all those years ago is not too good. Especially here in the Netherlands getting hold of older newspaper articles proved to be a bit of a problem, so my account of Einsteins Dutch reception unfortunately isn't as complete as it should be. I'm very grateful to Thom Donovan, Bob Wilson's archivist, who sent me a considerable amount of mainly English-language articles.

 Because I was first and foremost interested in Einsteins critical reception I laid aside a lot of material. There were several interviews with Wilson or Glass or both. Interesting, of course, but they usually contain the same kind of information. Many reviews, or previews,  were merely descriptive, which is rather boring if you read a lot of them. The shorter newspaper reviews, especially, contain very few critical insights - not surprising, because in a newspaper there's hardly any room for developing intelligent thoughts, as I know all too well from my own experience.

[ Also I had to leave out the Italian and the Spanish reviews, because my knowledge of those languages is too scant. There were some French reviews as well, but they were written in a style that couldn't be translated into sense-making English - at least not by me.]

 So - what can I say about all those articles? It will not surprise you that most of them - from the seventies, but also the more recent ones - were positive, sometimes even ecstatic. That being said, there are also very pronounced differences. Observations by different critics can be completely in opposition. That may be a matter of taste, but undoubtedly has also to do with the fact that the critics stem from different disciplines. As we know, musical, theatrical en choreographical elements all play more or less  equal parts in Einstein.

 A very characteristic aspect that is noted in many articles is the remarkable way in which Wilson's theatrical approach affects the experience of time and duration. I quote the Dutch theatre critic Nic Brink, who wrote in 1976 in De Groene Amsterdammer: (and I must apologize for my poor translation): ‘Despite the fact that there is no explicable action, one's attention is constantly captivated. Despite the fact that things develop at a provokingly slow pace, one doesn't get bored in the least. It is as if Wilson magically converts the hall into an iron lung, where all vital functions assume a much slower pace. Awareness of time and velocity disappears.'

 Brink is also one of the few theatre critics who shows a keen sense and understanding of music, although he pretends to know little about it. He starts by tellling how he was completely fascinated when he heard Six Pianos by Steve Reich, and then writes: ‘Suddenly I realised that certain, melodyless music by older composers gives me the same sense of euphoria' and then he mentions by way of example the first prelude from Bachs Well-tempered Clavier, in essence not more than a series ofarpeggiated chords, and then he says: ‘The difference is that minimal composers easily uphold  their 'monophony' for an hour or longer, whereas Bach after 5 minutes goes back to business as usual.'

 I think that is a very good explication, especially for readers who in 1976 may not have been familiar with minimalism. By contrast, I quote Clive Barnes, who wrote, also in '76, in the New York Times: ‘Mr. Glass's music is sensational - literally. It is almost more monotonous than Bach's - yes, there are fugal elements - and, more important, at times almost as interesting.'

 I think Nic Brink did a better job in matching meaning and words.

 Most critics agree that it is the happy combination of the qualities of Wilson, Glass and Childs that make Einstein on the Beach into the 'landmark' it is often called. The Dutch critic W. Hofman wrote: ‘If ever something can be called 'total theatre', then it is Einstein on the Beach. Nothing in this work has a life of its own, everything supports everything else. The result is really a 'total theatre', which is completely different from putting several elements together in one production.'

I take the concept of Hofmans 'total theatre' as roughly equivalent to the word Gesamtkunstwerk, that also appears in many reviews.

Not all critics were sensitive to this aspect. For instance, Edwin Wilson, the reviewer of the Wall Street Journal, disliked the music and apparently didn't understand the role of the composer, because he wrote: ‘In each section, having wound up his outsize, animated music box, Mr. Wilson lets it run on interminably, repeating the same sounds and movements over and over again, making a slight change every ten minutes or so.' But his view was quite an exception.

Most reviewers understandably paid attention to the Einsteins formal structure, maybe because it's one of the more easily decribable aspects of the performance, but there were few who did better than giving a mere outline. Andrew Porter, the esteemed music critic of the New Yorker, made an interesting observation about the Knee Plays:

‘At first, [he writes] they seem to function like the intermezzi that were played between the acts of an opera seria, but they carry so much musical - and at the last, emotional - weight that they can be regarded as the main matter of the opera, and the acts themselves as extendeed intermezzi or developments. Although Einstein has been generally treated as if it were a work by Wilson with incidental music by Glass, is is very different - in tone, structure, pace, and appearance - from Wilson's earlier pieces. To describe it as a characteristic Glass score with scenic accompaniment by Wilson - and choreographic accompaniment by Andrew DeGroat - would be nearer the mark but still not quite accurate. It is a Gesamtkunstwerk in which Wilson's romantic profusion, allusiveness, and collage techniques are tempered by Glass's sharp-focus insistence on pure structure.'

 Porters only objection concerns the occasional loudness of Glass's music, as is to be expected from somone with really sensitive ears.


Several critics were puzzled by questions like: what is the meaning of Einstein on the Beach? Or: how to interpret it?

 When I read the Dutch reviews of that time it struck me that several of them asked - or searched - for political meanings - which, as I see it, must be a reflection of the mood in Holland during the mid-seventies, especially among left-oriented people. Political, sociological or educational messages were almost obligatory when putting up a theatrical performance. The Dutch theatre critic Max Arian perceived Einstein as a purely political piece, although he admitted that his impressions might be of a very personal nature. The trial scene, for instance, reminded him of the trial against Sacco and Vanzetti, or the McCarthy sessions. In the choreography he saw parallels with the revolutionary operas of Mao's China. 'And is Einstein himself not, like a  modern Nero, playing his fiddle while his world, the United States, is on fire?' he asked.

 The music critic of the Dutch daily De Volkskrant, Hans Heg, didn't perceive it like that, but nevertheless touched upon this angle: ‘One can hardly accuse Wilson and Glass of dealing in pronounced political theatre; one will see nor hear raised fists in this piece. But the way in which they manage to translate the fortunes and misfortunes of their own times into images and music is apparent to everyone who is willing to understand it.'

And he adds: 'Of course it is an easy way out to get yourself lulled away by the fantastic scenery, the cleverly designed light effects...' - and so on and so on.

In America the reviewers usually didn't ask for a political stance, though lots of them, prompted by Wilson, offered explanations in an Einsteinian vein, and procured associations about relativity, the atomic age and so on. The spaceship scene as well as the famous light-bar-scene prompted several observers to see parallels or allusions to Kubricks 2001: a space odyssey, but had it been a year later they undoubtedly would have mentioned Close encounters of the third kind.

 Martin Gottfried summed it up quite nicely in his New York Post review by writing: ‘There is no explanation that can, need or should be made or the why of this major work of Wilson's; no comparison that can be made with anything else, not really, on the stage. It is the theater of a visionary, one who knows what he is doing and can do it; one who sees things as no others see them and can materialise that so it can be sen by others. I take that to be the function of the artist.'

There are two elements the critics universally agree upon: the admirable concentration and endurance of the performers, and the sheer beauty of Wilson's images. But several of them voice distrust about this latter quality.

The poet and critic David Shapiro, who wrote a very interesting essay with a philosophical slant for the collection The Art of performance, put it this like this - let me warn you beforehand that he gets a little carried away by his own words:

‘Wilson converts the opera in something as flat and usable as a map. Here opera draws attention to itself as a self-regulating whole, not by the ususal thickening of language but by the deliquescence of so many seemingly central resources. While there is a little bit of the merely magical to Wilson, there is much of the necessary shamanism required to heal us in a restless universe agitated in its smallest parts. Still, one might be skeptical, because it is most wonderful in its very lack of explanatory power. Often its architecture seems merely good interior design. It is shattered as the fruit dish of Paul Cézanne. But the point of pointlessness is to be at once shattered and whole, like the fruit dish of Cézanne. We suffer through it as in its melancholy scene of the eclipse of our clock. Time, our former absolute sun, now dreamily obscured by theory. One is reminded of the trauma Einstein occasioned in his enduring witness to relativism. Yet does not a sly dice-playing God reign over this essentially collective dream theatre?'

 Shapiro is almost too clever for his own good, but he offers a lot of perspicacious observations in just a few pages. It's still worth reading.


 A much more severe criticism came from Bonnie Maranca, who in '77 contributed an essay to a book called Theatre Writings. She first voices her concern about the avant garde - and especially Bob Wilson - which according to her is capitulating to fashion and commercialism. She then gives a fairly long description and analysis of Einstein on the beach and finally concludes:

 ‘Wilson's recent pieces have  used  contemporary myths to illustrate his dissatisfaction with the alienation of modern life. His vision is apocalyptic; he seeks a return to order and peace after the holocaust. Is this not a reflection of Romantic longing for a return to a world that we will never see again? Wilson's handling of contemporary problems is too naive to take seriously.

 Wilson's escapism is the problematical element in his theatre. The danger is that audiences, overwhelmed by the monumental settings and the beauty of the images, will be passively drawn into the spiritualistic world of his theatre, which in peculiar ways mirrors the growing mass consciousness of the seventies. It is one that reflects surrender. Critics and audiences have admitted that they see Einstein on the Beach as a work one must give  oneself up to. All (elements) contribute to make Einstein on the Beach experience of thanscendental meditation in the theatre.

 It is this sense of loss of time and place, the religiosity of the experience, the absorption in images that by their nature are ambiguous, simple resolutions of harsh political realities, and the acceptance of a theatre that hypnotizes its devout followers that is disturbing. It is indeed questionable whether Wilson will lead us to higher consciousness. Theatre must be more than something to gape at or lose oneself in.'

Her demand for a message of some sort is somehow reminiscent of the Dutch critics, who searched for political meaning in Einstein. Nevertheless, in her dismissal of the work, Maranca is quite an an exception.


I didn't find that many reviews from 1984, when Einstein was revived. But among the few that I read, the differences in opinion were more extreme. For instance, a review in Voice, headed Einstein in the Fog, by Gregory Sandow, echoes Maranca's views by saying that 'More than anything else it's the beauty of Einstein on the beach that keeps people from seeing how shallow it is.' Sandow compares it with other theatre pieces by Wilson and says: 'I can easily imagine the opera with a different score', in which he disagrees with a vast majority of reviewers. As A final verdict he writes: 'Einstein on the Beach turned out to be not a classic of the genre, but instead a creaky antique.'

On the other end of the 86-spectrum there was a review by Robert Brustein in The New Republic, who waxed lyrical, writing:

 'It represents one of those rare moments in cultural history where the most gifted people at work in the performing arts combine their resources to wallop us into an oceanic perception of our relation to the cosmos. Few contemporary works have penetrated so deeply into the uncreated dream life of the race. Pulling ecstasy from boredom, finding insight through repetition, alternating mechanical rhythms with pulsing climaxes, Einstein on the Beach manages to burrow into your mind and work on you like a wound.'

I don't know what to make of that last metaphor, but these two examples show that even in 1984 Einstein had reached a legendary status and could therefore easily lead to extreme disappointment or extreme elation.

 Now we skip a few years and come to the present day.

In 2012,  Einstein apparently has become such a classic, that in lots of reviews the approach is one of reverence. Once more, there is a lot of praise, with much use of the epithet 'magical'. Somehow, the beauty-argument of earlier years, be it positive or negative, has almost vanished. The admiration for the stamina and the skills of the performers is, if possible, even greater than in the seventies.  And more than ever, many reviews don't go beyond mere descriptions.

 Nevertheless, there are dissenters. The British critic Rupert Christiansen apparently hated the work and concluded his review in the Telegraph with these words: 'I remain adamantly of the view that such stuff is flatulently pretentious in its wilful opacity and without aesthetic, intellectual or spiritual substance. It is also asphyxiatingly tedious and left me wanting to scream. Unless you are a paid-up devotee of the Glass-Wilson cult, avoid this like the plague.'

 I can omly say that even for a critic, it's not very wise of Mr. Chritiansen to insult people who have a different taste, especially if they cary no responsibility for the performance.

There are several reviewers who think the theatrical staging shows its age. Anthony Howell writes in The fortnightly review: 'The need to deny message - to add in red-herrings and whimsical reference in a cool, krazy New York way - ultimately begins to irritate as much as any message ever would, and when something is actually said - well, much of the text sounds dated now, especially the proto-feminist guying of feminism, the references to Mr Bojangles and the love and kissing bit at the conclusion.'

His colleague Robert Everett-Green, writing for The Globe and Mail, says the same, in a more friendly way:

'Sometimes it seemed very fresh and strange, because it said ‘opera' on the program and we still expect narrative and characters and arias from that. Other times it felt very 1976. It was cool and knowing in the particular way some things were then. You could come in and see two people sitting like robots in uniform shirts and suspenders, and think of Kraftwerk. Even precision can age, like everything else.'

 Cordelia Lynn of Ceasefire Magazine had a similar experience, but put it elegantly into perspective:

'This Einstein is a faithful reproduction of the original 1976 version. Despite how imaginative and daring much of the direction is, it already seems strangely outdated. You walk away with an odd, somewhat patronising feeling of ‘Ah yes, all that seventies experimental formalism'. Einstein on the Beach is no longer the brave new world it once was: ‘those were the days.' Though perhaps the fact that it feels so unoriginal at times is a testament, if nothing else, to the huge influence that both Wilson and Glass have had on theatre and music over the past three decades.'

The pivotal question of course is whether Einstein is still up-to-date, relevant for this era, and how we must assess its historical place.

'Today Einstein on the Beach is more revolutionary than when it was created.  It demonstrates once again how in theater it is not necessary to understand but get lost in the wonderful 'other' life of the stage,' wrote Marinella Guatterini in the Italian newspaper Il Sole ventiquatro ore; this is an idea that was also expressed here yesterday.

By contrast, Anthony Tomassini wrote in the New York Times: 'In advance of this tour many critics and devotees of the Glass operas wondered whether ‘Einstein' would by now come across as dated or pretentious. But the piece seems particularly suited to current musical politics and social culture. In 1976 ‘Einstein' was seen as a combative declaration from the booming downtown scene directed against the established uptown culture, especially the complex, intellectual styles of contemporary music sanctioned within academia. Actually, at the time, Mr. Glass and Mr. Wilson were more interested in fulfilling their personal vision than engaging in polemics.

Even when ‘Einstein' was here in 1992, the scars from that contemporary music battle were still sore. Now those bad times seem long gone. Composers do whatever they want to. Audiences are open to everything. Performers champion all styles.'

Michael Glitz argues in the Huffington Post that the imagery of Einstein transcends its origins:

'It was only on a second viewing this go-round I appreciated how very much of its time Einstein was: the speech by a woman at a gathering of activists demanding equal rights (and using the very 70s expression "male chauvinist pig"), the appearance of Patty Hearst, the fear of Cold War nuclear annihilation and other seemingly random details must have made this opera seem very timely indeed, especially when compared to say Bluebeard's Castle or The Ring Cycle. But they completely transmuted those details of the 1970s so they could breathe and live on. In 1976, Patty Hearst undoubtedly seemed ripped from the headlines, in 1984 it might have seemed dated, in 1992 perhaps ironic and today she has a symbolic power far outweighing her historical roots. Just as you need footnotes to place some of Shakespeare's historical figures, but their actions on stage embody something eternal.'

For Zachary Woolfe, the critic of the New York Times, it was just the other way around. He is a lifelong admirer of Philip Glass' Einstein-music, but when he visited the performance it left strangely unaffected. After describing this, he points to sees parallels with reconstructions of other 'original' staging, of baroque opera for instance, and then writes:

Great works transcend time, but even the best stagings are products of their moment. It is worth thinking about the centrality we have given these exhumations of classic productions in our cultural life, why we so value the seductive illusion of authenticity they offer.

With ‘Einstein,' the fantasy is the return to that bohemian, avant-garde New York, so full of excitement and possibility. Both those who were there and those of us who were not want badly, for our different reasons, to conjure an event, a moment, even an entire city that now exists only as a memory. It is Mr. Glass's music that is more than that, and it remains as close as your computer.' - The last is a reference to the beginning of the piece, where he tells that he listened to kneeplay 1 on YouTube over and over again.

I could go on like this, quoting from those reviews for lenghts of time, but for now this must be enough. As was to be expected, it's next to impossible to find a common denominator for all these opinions and perspectives. Maybe I've underplayed the many plaudits and positive reviews -  because in a way they were so uniform, and for that very reason I may have focused too much on writers who expressed doubts. And I realize I haven't said very much about the choreographical aspect. That may be due to the fact that I'm not a dance person, but on the other hand it wasn't too manifest in the reviews either. In any case, I hope I provided some historical perspective and some food for further thought.

Let me conclude with the last sentences of the review by Clive Barnes in the New York Times - published November 23, 1976, half a lifetime ago, but still very appropriate:

‘Einstein on the Beach is being repeated next Sunday. You will never forget it, even if you hate it. Which is a most rare attribute to a work of art. Nowadays.'

© Frits van der Waa 2013