I remember when the 4-LP vinyl box set came out in 1979. Back then it was an object that I would see in the home of every friend I knew well enough to visit. It was the one classical album that people played at parties—between Patti Smith and Kraftwerk—at least until Glassworks came out a few years later. Actually seeing a performance of Einstein was something I always assumed was impossible. But it happened, thankfully.
During the pre-show talk, somebody asked Tim Page if Einstein would outlive its creators. Taken in the right sense, it’s an important question. Could you do a production of Einstein that didn’t use Robert Wilson’s sets and costumes, or Lucinda Childs’s choreography? Why should Einstein be different from every other opera or play that gets revived? I look forward to that moment, when some brave soul tries. Until then, I’m glad I saw something like the original—even after so many years.
The first thing that needs saying is that Philip Glass’s music is magnificent. It never fails to electrify—there are no boring bits—for four hours, through fourteen scenes, from the low electric organ rumble as the audience enters the theater, to the heart-breaking epilogue. An unequaled accomplishment.
I could go on raving, scene by scene. Instead, I just have to note how in Night Train, we see a man and a woman in the back of a train. The moon slowly changes from waning to full. The woman and man have what appears to be a tender love scene—a strange, dramatic, beautiful duet—but it ends with the woman pulling a gun on the man, grinning a big grin.
Building consisted of a woman miming deskwork in a tower, a random sample of people congregating on the street below her, and an exceptionally vivid saxophone jam with the ensemble. It might be the scene were all the elements combined perfectly to create something unique and—I can’t even say why—moving.
I didn’t realize how nicely the scenes fitted together. Not in the sense of telling a story, but how they covered the gamut of moods from motionless introspection, marching-band celebration, intimate tenderness, horrifying apocalypse, nightmares and exuberant fun. Unlike some of their more austere colleagues, Glass (and Wilson and Childs) never let a passion for pattern, repetition and task-oriented operations completely trump theatrical effectiveness. The baffling overload of the Trial scenes, was relieved by the refreshingly straightforward Dances. The Two Character Knee Play interludes between scenes likewise cleansed the palate. And even the Trial at its most trying, contained lighter bits—some slapslick, the bizarre voice of the judge, and his yellow-glitter mascara. The artful and entertaining way moods and tones were contrasted reminded me of an old-fashioned variety show.
And the variety is the point. Despite the opacity and non sequiturs, the piece seems perfectly straightforward to me: it presents a view of the contemporary world—what work is like, what daily interactions are like, what everybody’s dreams and fears are. Its nearest kin aren’t Carmen and Traviata, but Faust and Ulysses—all embracing, encyclopedic presentations of the human comedy.
Human is a bit of a swear word in this context, which—for all its variety—is not warm-hearted. Probably the most challenging aspect of Einstein for audiences is that it deals with types—stereotypes—rather than individual characters. It’s concerned with patterns of behavior, rather than what’s behind them. The antihumanist air gives rise to contradictory responses: is the chorus in Dance 1 crying for help or crying for joy? Are we supposed to enjoy or be horrified by the mayhem at the end? Even the Busdriver’s tonic concluding monologue, has a stateliness at odds to its tenderness.
Einstein makes a special point of mocking our routine gestures and routine language. Language—except for the moving love poem of the epilogue—is manhandled with contempt. Likewise calculation—the constant twitching abacus/adding-machine gestures. It presents these as frankly pathological. But the optimism of the piece is that not even these pathologies completely efface reality, and—dare I say it?—humanity.
The performers were amazing, executing impossible tasks with grace. In the first scene, Train, Katie Dorn’s exquisitely precise rendering of the Perpendicular dance contrasted with the arduous Diagonal dance, executed with determination by Caitlin Scranton.
The chorus was the hero of the evening. In Knee Play 3, they sang “One two three” and “One two three four” over and over ultra-presstisimo without getting lost and balled up or losing their clarity and beauty of tone. Then in the next Knee Play they did the same thing with “Do-re-mi-fa-so”.
The evening concluded with an epilogue repeating the low electric organ notes of the prelude. The Two Characters, for one last time, recite parallel, unsynchronized monologues. Then something different happened: an extended, completely coherent monologue from a passing Busdriver. It begins with an acknowledgement of the audience’s state of mind:
The day with its cares and perplexities is ended and the night is now upon us. The night should be a time of peace and tranquility, a time to relax and be calm. We have need of a soothing story to banish the disturbing thoughts of the day ….
He goes on about two lovers on a park bench. If his anecdote is a bit flatfooted, that’s all to the good. This is the moment when something obvious is welcome. We’re told—significantly—that …
There was silence between them. So profound was their love for each other, they needed no words to express it.
Then, as if it was the most conventional melodrama from Hollywood, Einstein ends with a kiss.