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Theatre / Einstein on the Beach

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I have laughed with her during Figaro, and I've cried with her during Tosca. I even had a dream about her during Einstein on the Beach.
Frasier, Frasiernote 

Four-act experimental opera about the life and achievements of Albert Einstein written by Philip Glass and Robert Wilson in 1975, with text and libretto by Lucinda Childs, Samuel M. Johnson, and Christopher Knowles. First performed in 1976 at the Avignon Festival, it is one of the defining and most influential works of the minimalist genre.


I was on this prematurely air-conditioned web site, and there were all these tropes…

  • Act Break: Between each act is a "Knee-Play", partially to tie the show together and partially so that audience members can go to the bathroom without missing the main performance.
  • Arc Number: All integers between one and eight, inclusive. Roughly half the sung lyrics are numbers.
  • Arc Symbol: There's a rectangular light bar that serves as a bed, a spaceship, a vertical divider between the two halves of the backdrop in the first scene, and some sort of window in the courtroom.
  • Arc Words: The other half are solfège.
  • Ascetic Aesthetic:
    • There is some decorative element to the courtroom, but on the whole it's very simple, geometric, and sterile-looking.
    • The Knee-Plays are generally set against a featureless white background. Stage right is lit up with a bright square light, and two performers sit at bland-looking, minimalist desks.
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  • Child Prodigy: The court of common pleas has two judges. One is, inexplicably, a child.
  • Color Motif: Blue and white are very prominent in the staging.
  • Conspicuously Light Patch: In an opera, no less. The conch shell that one of the chorus interacts with shows up in the first act is spot-lit against an otherwise bland and featureless stage.
  • Call a Rabbit a "Smeerp": They're not entr'actes, they're "Knee-Plays".
  • Epic Rocking:
    • Some of the individual songs in this work clock in at around twenty minutes. Keep in mind that this is an opera.
    • The work itself is so long, at about four and a half hours, that there are no intermissions, with the viewers instead invited to come and go as they please (provided they're quiet about it).
  • High Concept: An opera about the life and work of Albert Einsteinwith no plot.
  • Historical Domain Character: Albert Einstein. Possibly. It's arguable whether the opera has characters at all in the usual sense.
  • Advertisement:
  • Intermission: Averted, despite the length of the work. Instead, the audience is permitted to come and go as desired during the performance so long as they don't make a ruckus.
  • Judicial Wig: Both of the above-mentioned judges sport one.
  • Minimalism: One of the crowning achievements thereof, and one of the iconic compositions of Philip Glass, the master of the genre.
  • Nice Shoes: The standard footwear for performers is apparently some flavor of Converse.
  • No Antagonist: No plot, either. (The judges aren't really antagonists; they're just putting Einstein's theories to the test. Or something.)
  • No Indoor Voice: This is the elder judge's normal mode of diction:
  • Numerological Motif:
    • As mentioned above, about half the lyrics are just numbers.
    • The opening scene has one of the performers recite numbers, seemingly randomly.
  • Our Acts Are Different: Namely, there are four of them, separated by "Knee-Plays".
  • Random Events Plot: Subverted, believe it or not. The opera jumps around a bit between a couple scenes (the train, the prison, and the field with a spaceship), and we get things like a child throwing paper airplanes off of a gantry and a very drawn-out sequence involving the courtroom eating lunch…but there's no actual plot. It's more of a series of snapshots involving Einstein and his work.
  • Shout-Out: Given the poet, it's not sure if these were references or just bits of pop culture that got caught up in his creative process, but:
    • Some of the poetry in one of the Knee-Plays is a repeated advertisement for contact lenses.
    • Much is made of "Mr. Bojangles" in the third act.
    • One piece is subtitled "I Feel the Earth Move" and uses lyrics from the song. This same movement quotes a radio station advertisement repeatedly and also references David Cassidy.
  • Seadog Beard: The train conductor sports one.
  • Truth in Television: Einstein really did play the violin. He once even played it with the Queen of England, and stopped mid-song to complain because she was playing too loudly.
  • Uncommon Time: A staple of Glass' minimalist era, in many cases developing somewhat organically as individual notes were added to the repetitive sequences. For a more-obvious example of that, see the "Mr. Bojangles" movement from Act I.
  • Unsound Effect: One of Christopher Knowles' rambling poems involves a gun. A performer takes a prop gun, and in the course of the poem "shoots" it:
  • Updated Re-release: The 1993 re-recording is about half an hour longer than the original 1978 release, which was compressed to fit on four sides of an LP. It also features more modern synthesizers, and the elder judge's recitation text is completely different. On the other hand, they were able to not cut off the final piece halfway throughnote . (The 2017 Blu-Ray release maintains these altered lyrics.)
  • Word Salad Lyrics: Given that Christopher Knowles wrote much of the poetry used, there's more than a slight element of this.
    I was in this prematurely air-conditioned supermarket, and there were all these aisles…

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