Montpellier: Einstein on the Beach

There are moments when the impulse to write strikes me as somewhat absurd.  What can I possibly say about this singular piece of theatre that has not already been said?  Yes, this is an opera in which nothing happens.  At the same time, the entire twentieth century happens.  Yes, it is four and one-half hours long: five, if you include the rapturous and largely self-congratulatory curtain calls in which our audience indulged.  (As the incomparable Margo Channing once said, “From now on, it isn’t applause – just something to do till the aisles get clear.”)  It’s true that there are no formal intermissions, and that people are encouraged to come and go as it suits them…or, since this is France, as it suits their neighbours, as apparently one is supposed to telepathically agree upon the timing of bathroom breaks prior to the start of the performance.  (We missed this memo, and so our one departure prompted an entire row’s worth of grumbling and reluctant knee-shifting.  I was tempted to stand in the aisle and shout, “C’est quoi ça?  He repeats it all five times over the next twenty minutes!  Dudes, you are not missing a thing!”)

No, I suspect my thankless task is to find some new way to illustrate what a friend recently said to me about Einstein: that it is the greatest work of art of the twentieth century.  For my part, I need to precede that statement with a qualifying “one of.”  I am also conscious that I will first need to try to define “great art,” something accomplished with more confidence and verve at, say, nineteen, when one is too young to know any better.

Einstein presents its audience with a series of austere but arresting images, made compelling by their constant jarring against each other and the accompanying music, and the awareness of the passage of time.  Each gesture, each musical phrase, the majority of which are pursued to painfully autistic limits, is deceptive in its simplicity. There are baroque folds hidden behind these minimalist screens, anchored in accretions of esoteric, deeply personal detail.  They wait patiently in their cyclical coils for the viewer to explore, who, in doing so, will strive along with them to reach some more transcendent truth.

When thinking about twentieth century art, I find these qualities similarly present in the boxes of Joseph Cornell; in Jay DeFeo’s monumental painting The Rose; and the Mark Morris Group’s performance of the “Haste thee, Nymph” section of L’Allegro.  But I freely admit that these astonishingly lovely works are, simultaneously, assorted garage sale leftovers, an overstretched canvas covered in dirty layers of common house paint, and a collection of random people dressed in bright, candy-floss colours hopping across a bare stage. Experiencing these works, just like watching Einstein on the Beach, leaves me a little delirious.  I am lost in wonder and oddly disturbed, often in the same instant.  Great art catches me soundly on its gleaming silver hook; pinned there I will find no comfort.  But nor will I seek it.


Take “Night Train,” for example, Scene 1B, which falls just shy of Einstein’s half-way mark.  Two people, a man and a woman, stand at the back of a train car in the middle of the night.  Their profiles are lit from above, by a single stark bulb.  In the blue velvet sky hangs a crescent moon, which slowly waxes and wanes over the course of the scene. Down in the orchestra pit, someone is playing typical Glass arpeggios on what sounds like a cheap Casio synthesizer.  And at extreme downstage left is a glowing conch shell.

That’s it.  That’s all you’re given.  And this static image is what you watch: the man, the woman, the moon, the train.

Presently (although even that mild adverb conveys far too much speed for the pace of events), the two people leave the inside of the car to stand in the vestibule.  The train is not moving; it’s not clear why.  Perhaps it is stopped at a lonely station, which explains the steam from its halted engines billowing out from under the wheels.  Or it’s an abandoned car on an isolated siding or switch, out in the middle of a field, and fog is rolling in from nearby wetlands.  (Or perhaps, this being an opera at least nominally about Einstein, the train is moving very fast indeed.)  The woman is dark-skinned, wearing a long, constricting, high-necked white dress and a white skullcap.  The man wears full evening dress; he is as white as his gleaming shirt front.  You become aware, in a way you were not in earlier scenes, that this is not colour-blind casting. Unlike the other onstage oddities your brain registers (that damn conch shell, for instance), the colour of these actors’ skins seems distinctly relevant.  This notion itches at your sensibility, but refuses to resolve itself.  What are they doing up there?  Their lips are moving, they must be talking to each other…but then you realize they are just soundlessly echoing the cascade of solfege from the tireless choir in the pit.  Your mind starts to wander.  If you’re of a linear persuasion (as am I), you begin to construct little histories for the two figures.  She is a slave, and he the master.  Nope, too obvious. Brother and sister?  There’s a twenty year discrepancy in their clothing styles. Mother and son?  Perhaps, like my husband, you tetchily rub the bridge of your nose, look at your watch in a way you think is surreptitious, and root around in the treat bag for another pâte de fruit.  Now it appears they are moving back inside.  You half-close your eyes and focus on the softly rippling backdrop, the swirling patterns of mist beneath the iron rails of the train car.

And suddenly everything is happening at once. There is some barely perceptible shift in the music (an extra number sung in sequence, a pause in the keyboard’s relentless cadence, afterwards you aren’t sure) and the woman pulls an enormous white revolver on the man, and he is turning to face us, screaming, and the moon is on fire, and this last detail is terrifying.  Its gentle white curves have shrunk down to two glowing hellish embers, and that is somehow all wrong, because even in this claustrophobic snow globe of a world, where nothing was right to begin with, there was equilibrium, which this burning moon has savagely disrupted.  You are riveted now, to the woman with her regal, impassive face, her comically oversized revolver that makes Dirty Harry Callahan’s Magnum look subtle.  A gun has been introduced. It must go off.  Those are the rules, yes?  The last twenty minutes have moved at a pace a commentator once charitably described as glacial, and now you are struggling to keep up.  I don’t understand what’s going on, you think, I need more time, and realize in some part of your brain how hilarious that idea is.

The gun does not go off.  Instead the stage abruptly falls dark, and a dancer crosses to the still glowing conch and picks it up.  With the instinct of a child, she holds it to her ear.  Her pigtail-framed face, otherworldly in the soft blue light of the upturned shell, dissolves into a perfect, heartbreaking smile.


But Einstein on the Beach can also be summed up in the conversation Mick and I had in the lobby, during our hard-won G&T break directly after “Night Train” finished:

Me: “It was astoundingly beautiful.”

Him: “Yes, but it’s a train, we know, get on with it.”

With each of the above, I entirely agree.

amrh / Mougins, March 2012

* I encourage you to watch Einstein on the Beach: The Changing Face of Opera, a documentary made during the work’s first revival at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and narrated by the Voice of God of my youth, Will Lyman.

** Mick later explained to me that the burning moon was also two stars seen at the edges of a solar eclipse: one of Einstein’s most famous proofs of relativity, and one of many such visual cues scattered throughout the production.  It was my great good luck to have him along as a quantum mechanical native guide.



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