Seeing EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH at BAM put me in mind of the designer Edward Gordon Craig, who just over a century ago publicly desired the transformation of actors into übermarionettes, by which means he would have wrestled the idiosyncratic presence of human beings on stage into the service of an overarching artistic vision. The human forms in his designs stand like silent sculptures in vast halls of light and shade, reifying his call for a kind of equality of artistic elements, such that neither actor nor set, text nor music, costume nor light, could threaten the unity of the artwork. This could be seen either as adding a positive quality to the actor – a predictability akin to that of a set piece – or subtracting a negative one – the unpredictability of an egoistic being.
It is a vision easy to resist, and hard to imagine realizing. Indeed, it took the better part of a century for what he was getting at to enter the theater in a sustained way. I have always suspected that it was through Robert Wilson and Philip Glass’s opera, with choreography by Lucinda Childs, that something like Craig’s sensibility took hold. I take the term opera in its largest sense, as a “work,” with a musical underpinning to be sure, but in which all of the elements, the sounds, the sets and costumes, the instruments and musicians, the actors, singers, and dancers, and the texts and scenarios, are absorbed into a project of composition and design, in which no one element is permitted to get the better of the overall scheme. Even “plot,” if there is one, is subsidiary to theme, which is broadly speaking related to time, space, and the possibility of nuclear destruction that, although it has by no means left us, was palpable in 1976 in ways that, perhaps naively, it is not today.
But it is apparent watching it that EINSTEIN is also about joy, and rebelliousness in the face of authority, and overthrowing conventional structures in the arts, while ironically having all of its own pieces exactly in place and subject to the whole, each an aspect of the aural and visual field. The audience is, to be sure, itself subsumed by the artwork, given the rigor of a four-and-a-half-hour running time, without intermission, except for the several “knee plays,” which are natural interstices for stretching one’s own and other needs, assuming their pleasures can be pulled away from. The work goes on in any case, and is there to be looked in upon, or listened to, from one’s seat or elsewhere, casually or raptly as the case may be. Milling about, whether it is engaged in or just observed, is part of the experience, but is naturally constrained because the images are so hypnotic, the music so gorgeously insistent, and the entirety so weightless and at ease in its dancing, speaking, and singing. It means little for me to say that EINSTEIN ON THE BEACH is a masterwork, as that is well known already, but that it is, and will be.
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