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Watching ‘Einstein on the Beach’ through a periscope.

A Fortnightly Review of’

Einstein on the Beach
by Philip Glass.
Directed by Robert Wilson.

4 May through 13 May 2012
Barbican Theatre, Silk Street, London.

By Anthony Howell.

‘Prepare to surface.’

The Stanley Kramer film, On the Beach, begins with these words, spoken by the captain of the last US Navy nuclear submarine.

Are we surfacing from a dream, or rising in a submarine to contemplate our worst nightmare? When you come round from dozing off in the middle of a long-duration Robert Wilson opera, you might well ask yourself the same question.

Wilson’s works revel in the dislocation we may associate with dreams. Where a character with a chalk in his hand has scribbled or gesticulated in the opening scene of Einstein on the Beach, a screen appears hours later covered in formulae as the opera draws to its close.

On the Beach stars Gregory Peck, together with Ava Gardner, Fred Astaire, Anthony Perkins and a neurotic Dona Anderson. She has every right to be neurotic since she’s expected to kill her baby if Anthony Perkins doesn’t get back in time to be with her when the world ends.

IT’S THE APOCALYPSE movie to end them all, and the weepiest of weepies. In the aftermath of a nuclear war, the entire world except for Melbourne, Australia, has been annihilated by a nuclear cloud, and now that cloud is drifting inexorably towards the Southern Pole. Gregory Peck’s submarine docks in Melbourne and then takes off for a final tour in search of hope. But there is no hope. And like Lars Van Trier’s equally apocalyptic Melancholia, the film ends with the total destruction of life.

In the final scene of Einstein on the Beach, a train driver treats us to a brief sermon on love, and the joy of kissing, lips pressed to lips. There are plenty of lips pressed to lips in the Kramer film. Ava Gardner and Gregory Peck, Dona Anderson and Anthony Perkins. The kisses are long, compelling, and poignantly final. The tears stream down our faces as we watch, for we are expected to empathise, whereas, in Einstein, the kisses are only talked about. This opera by Wilson, with music by Philip Glass and choreography by Lucinda Childs, is relentlessly modern, and in his essay on the dehumanisation of art, Ortega y Gassett defined modernism as an art about which, ‘one can neither laugh nor cry.’ The twin holocausts of the twentieth century were accompanied by propaganda that insisted on ‘getting its message across’. In their aftermath, many artists developed an antagonism to very notion of having a message.

Just as Wittgenstein, in his Tractatus, passes over in silence that ‘about which we cannot speak’, the Hungarian poet, Janos Pilinsky asserts in a brilliant book on the theatre of Robert Wilson, Conversations with Sheryl Sutton (Carcanet 1992), an existential dumbness in the face of our incomprehension concerning the world we inhabit. In the aftermath of our knowledge that concentration camps have existed and indeed do exist all messages are reduced to a stammer. Imitation theatre occupies a lowland of impersonation and simulated dialogue. Something is always being ‘got across’, whether by illustration or by symbol. Wilson, however, as Pilinsky puts it, immobilises the message. His stillness suspends the spectacle in a globe of its own mere being. It is as a bonfire may be, or a waterfall or a rainbow: an entity we contemplate or dream about. As Robert Frost puts it, “I want the poem to be like ice on a stove – riding on its own melting.”

ON THE OTHER hand, the film, made in 1959, is so weighed down by its message that it actually sinks below the surface, and can only contemplate the corrupted world through its periscope. However it describes an immoveable situation.

Stasis permeates the cinematography. Completely still, the submariners on the deck of their vessel contemplate the coming of Ava Gardner – to visit their captain. Earlier she and Gregory Peck have stood motionless on the street, wrapped in each other, as the crowds, and those on bicycles or on horseback, move past them (there is no oil). These two have been stopped by each other in all senses, and their stillness is in marked contrast to the drifting flow of the traffic. In the Wilson/Glass collaboration, one moving performer may pass a motionless group. Thus the connection between film and opera seems primarily aesthetic. A framed picture on the wall of billiards club moves every time Anthony Perkins enters or leaves – pure Wilson!

Don’t just take my word for it. ‘Who do you think started it, the war?’ asks a submariner. ‘Einstein’, replies the scientist, Fred Astaire. But look, there may be no connection at all between the film and the opera. This is just my way of looking at it. And why not? Unlike the dialogue-laden ‘mimicry theatre’ which still dominates our thespian establishment and the media, Wilson’s genre of ‘play’ – rooted in performance art and mime – presumes no unified point of focus. A member of the audience may be enthralled by one detail while someone else is shaking her head at another. In previous essays on his work, in Artscribe and elsewhere, I have called this effect ‘subjective denouement’. And now I am treating you to an extension of this notion – subjective interpretation. I am looking at Einstein on the Beach through the periscope of On the Beach, simply because I managed to download it late the night before I went to the opera, and watched it, tearfully stoned, into the wee small hours.

Kramer and Wilson share an ability to invest objects with the significance of characters. Both are prepared to speak through things. Astaire wins a race in his Ferrari simply because all the other cars have gone off the track, crashed into each other and exploded. There’s one wonderful scene: able seaman Swain has swum away from the sub, and now, happily doomed in a San Francisco saturated with radio-active dust, he is sitting by the quay fishing. The periscope appears. It engages in a dialogue with the fisherman. The wire of its rigging parallels the rod and the line. The fisherman is talking to technology.

In the opera, a bed is on trial; a huge bed. Finally it begins to glow before the judges. Everything darkens around it. One end starts to rise. It becomes the bar of some gigantic glowing isotope. At last it stands vertical, and goes up, like a periscope, vanishing finally, and leaving us in darkness.

WELL, THAT’S WHAT used to happen, so Jack Henry Moore tells me, the intrepid videographer of all performances by Glass and by Wilson (and by most of the other performance artists of the ’70s). We get the glowing bar, and it rises, becomes vertical and disappears. Only linking that technology to that of the bed in the court-room proved too much for the Barbican.

And that is the trouble with this British premiere of a work first performed in 1976. We are seeing it 36 years too late!

The monologues created by the autistic savant Christopher Knowles are now spoken by actresses neatly enough but without the compulsive urgency, I sense, that distinguished the original delivery. I also get the feeling that even its creators can’t really remember what the essential dynamic was that drove the production from scene to scene.

‘It could get some wind for the sailboat,’ the text begins – and I see the sailboat Ava Gardner capsizes in order to pitch Gregory Peck into the water with her and out of a race, and I wonder if Christopher watched the film, and whether the actress has watched it.

Einstein is On the Beach, seen through the eyes of Picabia. The guy gesticulating with a chalk may be scribbling equations, but he is also signaling with a Nazi emphasis. The formula is a fascist. Einstein fiddles on his violin while the planet burns. The doomed citizens are Stepford wives. Lobotomised by complacency, they tap away at their keyboards that have somehow morphed into supermarket trollies. Love is on trial in the opera, and finally sentenced to life behind bars. Two figures prone on glass tables writhe in contortions which remind me of the death throes of Pompeii, but also of the restlessness of insomnia. Counting sheep, counting down, counting…

PHILIP GLASS MAKES music out of numbers. That’s nothing new in the history of music, but here it becomes the twentieth century’s emphasis on arithmetical innovation: music marvelously caught up in its own technology and brilliantly articulated by the two scenes of pure dancing – Lucinda Childs’ contribution – where the systemic additions and subtractions of the score are perfectly matched by the addition and subtraction of dancers. However, while Childs and Glass share an aesthetic which allows dance and music to dovetail with absolute precision, Wilson and Glass are more at loggerheads. Doesn’t matter. We get scrupulously methodical repetition clashing against surreal inconsistency. But when the three components come together, the bare stage ballet scenes seem merely to interrupt the flow of the Wilson dream. So for me the opera is no more than the sum of its parts.

Of course we can see the dance as that of atoms.

No time to love. Nothing to remember. The cloud is seeping into the atmosphere, and the love affair between Ava Gardner and the captain of the sub has nowhere to go. If time could be turned back it might be different. Perhaps repetition seeks to suspend time, even if it’s not possible to reverse it. Backwards clocks and crazed compasses dangle before our eyes, and I notice that everyone in the cast is wearing a watch. Time is Wilson’s essential subject. Things happen at different speeds yet ruthlessly conform to the order of brittleness. The stage is steeped in cloud, and a text on a drop curtain depicting a hydrogen bomb explosion reminds us of molecules of dust generating further terrible heat. We are judged by an elderly black man and a white child; by age and by race. As they consult with each other, a black circle covers a white disk. The cast open their paper bags. It’s okay, we’re not doomed. We’re only on our lunch break.

As one might expect, there are great visual jokes, and some fabulous vignettes that embed themselves in the memory – perfect living paintings. Above all there is the unassailable power of the music, with jazz soloists and an impeccably groomed chorus. However, the need to deny message – to add in red-herrings and whimsical reference in a cool, krazy New York way – ultimately begins to irritate as much as any message ever would, and when something is actually said – well, much of the text sounds dated now, especially the proto-feminist guying of feminism, the references to Mr Bojangles and the love and kissing bit at the conclusion.

A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, Anthony Howell was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement, and he is a frequent contributor to The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.

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Gwendolyn Leick
Gwendolyn Leick
11 years ago

I saw it also on Saturday. Found it very much product of its time – over-indulgent in a stoned sort of way and I really disliked some of Wilson’s sets and the overlaying of rather clunky symbolism (moon, paper airplanes, bloody backward running clocks, the projected images etc). Childs’ choreography was a welcome relief. The music in the last hour and half was terrific, especially the long solos (sax! organ! even the fiddle) and the voice pieces. Also, much of what would have been fresh and new then is now part of main stream performance (esp. opera), such as slowed… Read more »

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