PRINT March 1985


What a Legend Becomes

THE LAST FIVE FEW YEARS have seen a growing trend toward major revivals of classic experimental ’60s and ’70s performances for large, enthusiastic ’80s audiences who now seem “ready” for these works. By far the most talked about such event has been the recently remounted Einstein on the Beach, the operatic epic by director-designer Robert Wilson and composer Philip Glass, a “revival” that included re-creation to such a degree that it raises important questions concerning the intrinsic qualities that previously separated the performance genre from theater and opera. The contrasts between the new production of Einstein and its original incarnation are many and illuminating.

When Einstein premiered in America at the Metropolitan Opera House with a mere two performances in 1976, it was not only the spectacular and unprecedented culmination of a year-long working process, but the successful climax of an art form that had been reemerging and developing for over a decade. Staged at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in December, 1984, Einstein was a legendary spectacle brought back from mythic limbo; it was also the occasion for an analysis of minimalism as a historical style. But most important, Einstein appeared not merely as a reverential facsimile of its formidable self, but as a living, breathing, changed work which acknowledged the passage of time within its relatively fixed script.

For those of us who were around the first time Einstein was hatched as an idea, worked out in reality, and rehearsed, and who traveled to Europe to see the productions there, the Met performances were the triumphant if all too brief confirmations of what had seemed like a terribly significant but wildly improbable dream. The 1984 BAM performances were like a reunion with an old friend, having the once-familiar feelings stirred up—but also, unexpectedly, finding that the old excitement was in fact being generated again by new elements though in the same way. Aside from its status as a rare Gesamtkunstwerk of the ’70s, Einstein is an even more valuable artwork for its ability to create such a passionate response. Emotional reactions of this sort are common to the audiences for Wilson’s and Glass’ individual works as well, but they are exponentially compounded in Einstein.

In 1976, Glass and Wilson and company “stole” respectability; they schemed, intrigued, and cajoled Einstein into dramatic existence. The activity around the piece became a metaperformance, with overtones of a religious-esthetic crusade, a missionary cause for the true believers —artists and audiences—which added another ring to the layers of quasi-mystical aura built into the piece itself. In 1984, Glass and Wilson were (and are) recognized as major artists, and the return of Einstein had a tone which diluted the fervent, almost secret cultdom of the original. Everything that had seemed so striking in the original, its outsized ambition in every element, seemed less so—at first. Then something unexpected happened: the “revived” Einstein reinvented itself, ending up better than, not merely as good as, the previous production. As Glass remarked, only half-jokingly, “This production is what we would have done in 1976 if we had known what we were doing.”

Musically, Glass’ ensemble has changed in membership and instrumentation, and was given clearer amplification. Also, the composer added occasional new touches to his score; in “The Building” scene, for example, longtime Glass-ensemble horn player Richard Peck improvised a new, thrilling saxophone solo within the guidelines of the music. And this time around, Glass’ singers were technically more adept than the original chorus who often did triple duty as actors-dancers. Changes of this kind strengthened the clarity and power of the music. In its staging, the principal difference was in Wilson’s remarkable lighting (created with noted designer Beverly Emmons, who also worked on the original Einstein). Since 1976 Wilson has created several major operatic works in European theaters, and has developed the latent subject of his earlier works—light, from its literal effects to its transcendental—into his chief theatrical subject: time. The new Einstein displayed lighting unparalleled in American theater, from the precise, powerful multiple pin spots of the trial scenes to the shifting exquisite colors of the dance sequences.

The dances themselves, as originally staged by Andrew deGroat, had a friendly, unassuming, faux-naïf air about them; as reinterpreted by choreographer Lucinda Childs (a principal performer in both the original and revised productions), the two dance sections were more complex, more inventive, and better performed, making them more of a piece with Glass and Wilson’s intricate musical and theatrical vision.

Of course, these changes came with a price tag, namely the loss of that subtext of sheer belief on the part of the original Einstein performers, who became a virtual society in themselves during the long process of making and performing the original production. That spirit, which had much to do with Einstein’s tangible glow, was gone, but inevitably so. At the beginning of the run of the new production it suffered as the expert performers palpably did not seem to understand why they were doing what they were doing. However, as the run went on, this balletic gap between craft and consciousness closed.

The changes allowed Einstein to sustain its original mystic force in the 1984 version, a power either misunderstood or overlooked in all the “minimalist” mumbo jumbo. Glass has been tagged with that moniker since his earliest compositions in his mature style. The term perhaps usefully describes his technical process and perhaps materially describes his content but not his goal: the achievement of a transcendent state. And while Wilson’s theater does use geometric architecture and stripped-down, interlocking themes to present his dreamy images, these are used as the structure for the theatrical experience Wilson creates. Little distinction has been made between literal minimalists, those insistent materialists for whom systems and analyses are ends in themselves, and mystic minimalists—a category of artists who use orderly process to induce spiritual vertigo. The eventual goal of both Einstein productions was—and is—to take you out, period. To alter your sense of time and scale, to show you visionary scenes, to finally blast away an everyday common-sense state of mind, much as Einstein’s own theories worked on our understanding of the nature of the universe. For all its complex layers, its counterpointed and interlocking structures, and its careful images, Einstein on the Beach is a mantric meditation on the ideas of our time. Its motto might come from a statement once made by Einstein himself, that he stumbled upon his relativity theories because he failed as a child to solve the simplest time-space problems.

The Einstein of Glass and Wilson makes gibbering believers out of sophisticated viewers and repels those who stop blankly only at its surfaces. It demands a leap of faith to be totally “gotten.” That the 1984 performances, like those in 1976, moved many to exhilaration and tears is a tribute to the truly visionary power of this performance masterwork.

John Howell