I’m the type of person who will readily admit to enjoying surrealist or absurdist theater. I should point out, though, that the key word to that previous sentence is “admit”. While I like the challenge of deciphering puzzling performance art, I know there are connotations that come with declaring one’s interest in “theatery theater”: that I turn my nose up at linear storytelling, or regard “funny ha-ha” as leagues below “funny, ah yes”, or that I use words like “connotations” and “aligning” when writing for local comedy blogs. In reference to me, such assumptions would only be 33.3% correct. But I know that they much more accurately describe a certain collection of theatergoers, which keeps me from talking about my interest in the abstract with just anyone.
So when I heard that Robert Wilson was remounting his legendary avant-garde opera Einstein on the Beach, I immediately knew that 1) I absolutely had to see it and 2) I was absolutely going to be seeing it by myself. The things I knew about Einstein were limited to passing mentions in Theater classes and a few YouTube clips. But the show’s reputation--coupled with the fact that it won’t be remounted for decades, if ever again--was enough to push me to buy a ticket, hop a plane to New York City and bear witness to an event that truly left me at a loss for words.
Oh no wait, here’s one: Garbage. Pompous, unforgivable garbage.
Let me be clear: I tried to like this
play opera. Honest to God, I really did. I didn’t leave my seat for the entire 4 hours and 15 minutes (without intermission, thank you very much), and I gave this show so much benefit of the doubt that I won’t be able to see another improv show for a solid three months. But at the 225-minute mark I finally conceded that this was the exact kind of show that merits the assumptions I mentioned earlier.
I was aware going into Einstein that there was no story or plot to speak of, but I wasn’t aware that this
colossal shitstorm opera would have just as much to offer in terms of themes, lessons, or any other type of connection with the audience that’s, you know, THE ENTIRE POINT OF ART. Such connections with the audience seem to be of no importance to the fatheaded self-congratulators who live to make art that “common simpletons“ simply don‘t “get“. It is after making such art that these self-appointed Heroes of Bohemia swear up and down to anyone who will listen that they would never consider themselves Americans, and then masturbate fervently to mirror images of themselves--which in turn are actually paintings of black monoliths with David Lynch haircuts.
But I digress.
The show is choc-full of abstract action/choreography that is made to look simultaneously meticulous and--for lack of a better word--balderdashy. Consider this tableau, the very first the audience is given after the opera’s overture of repeatedly singing the numbers one through eight while sometimes intentionally omitting a number:
Curtain rises on a performer striding back and forth from Upstage Left to Downstage Right. Her left arm is outstretched up and to the left, her right arm bent into her body at the elbow at shoulder height. A conch shell is Downstage Center. A child in a gray suit is standing on an elevated platform that juts in from offstage right. His right foot is a step forward and his left foot is a step back. The child holds a glowing cube and occasionally throws paper airplanes. Eventually a man in a red jacket enters from Stage Right, walking very deliberately to Downstage Left. He turns his back to the audience, pulls out what looks to be a conductor’s baton and swiftly swishes it around, as if the character is pretending to write on an imaginary chalkboard. He stops and starts this intermittently.
THIS IS THE FIRST 20 MINUTES OF THE ENTIRE FUCKING OPERA. These sort of visuals are given to us with certain other oddities sparingly added and subtracted until suddenly the lights go out, the audience applauds and a new chapter of Thanks For Your Money, Suckers begins anew.
Adding to the frustration is the fact that so much of Einstein on the Beach is mindless repetition, not just in visible action but in Philip Glass’ score as well. Back when I wanted to see the show, my access to Philip Glass’ score was limited to the aforementioned repeated singing of numbers. What had won me over was the beautiful melody and harmonies of the music itself. As you can imagine from listening to the link below, a theater kid with an interest in aesthetically pleasing yet ambiguously logical art would be intrigued by music such as this:
But unfortunately music as sweet as this only makes up for twenty to thirty percent of the score. Here’s a taste of that other seventy to eighty percent:
YUP! That’s it! Did you like that last seven to ten seconds of weird abrasive keyboard scaling? NO, you say? Well too bad, because here comes TWENTY MORE MINUTES OF IT!!! And wouldn’t you know it, the visuals onstage are just as frustrating and repetitive! How much did you pay for that ticket again, champ?
I imagine by now (well before now, really) that any avant-garde apologists reading this will offer that this
catastrophic waste of artistic resources and efforts opera did have themes to pull from, and that I shouldn’t be so stubborn as to expect everything to be handed to me. This is an argument I’m very familiar with, as it’s the exact argument I had with myself for the first three and half hours of Einstein on the Beach. But it was after this threshold that I realized that other surreal art pieces may hide their themes, messages or what have you, but they’re never buried in endlessly repeated, unintelligible nonsense. Plays like Waiting for Godot and Zoo Story may have confusing actions and dialogue, but we as an audience can still infer what the playwright might be trying to say through the struggles/events the characters are going through.
Meanwhile, if you put a self-illuminated rectangle on an otherwise dark and empty stage, take ten minutes to raise it up on one end through the use of cables and lift it through the top of the proscenium, you do not get to tell me afterwards that this whole performance was about love in your final monologue. I don’t care how many impressive people find you impressive, even if they only say so to impress other impressive people. If you have the nerve to pull a stunt like that and call it anything but an insult to your audience then I hold every right as a paying customer to throw that middle finger right back at you. I’m all for being challenged as an audience member, but you can’t get away with throwing a bunch of bullshit onstage and saying “it’s supposed to be about Eintein’s legacy in the context of history, YOU figure out how!”
But to those who say they do like this show, I hope you’ll forgive me for wondering how much you actually like it, and how much of you is just saying that because The New Yorker and your friends that have more money than you say that they like it. If it honestly is your cup of tea, though, then I beg you to wait 15 years for me to gain a reputation as a genius by bumming around with the right black-turtle necked crowds and watching tv with the sound off. Because I’ve got this idea for a 5-story lemonade stand made of zebra penises that’s gonna knock you flat on your ass.