Craig Owens, in his article “Einstein on the Beach: The Primacy of Metaphor,” discusses the idea of language as a structure and its ability to define relationships between objects in a logical manner. Language as a structure defines objects and their infinite possibilities of metaphorical relationships with other objects, which makes it “unnatural,” in a sense. Poetry, since it does not have to strictly follow the rules and structure of language, it puts these relationships closer to their original state of non-verbal definition. There is a sort of mystery in the universe that mere spoken word cannot fully describe and that is why subscribers to this idea of “the primacy of metaphor” want to highlight the inexplicable, the vague, and bizarre, because it cannot be accurately captured by mere words. However, just because something cannot be expressed in words, does not mean it cannot be expressed. In regards to performance, specifically, messages can be communicated through music, movement, sets, props, lighting, and anything else that is associated with theatrical performance. Glass sought to use all of the things just listed, in combination with spoken word and other verbal symbols like solfege and numbers, to create an indefinite number of metaphorical and inexplicable relationships so that the audience could draw their own conclusions. In contrast, Wilson, as stated by Owens, rejected the necessity of interpretation in favor of the unknowable; “the primacy of metaphor.” While the creators may not necessarily agree on the overall purpose of the work, both use their conglomerate “languages” (by which I mean a combination of stage, musical and verbal) in order to challenge the audience and traditional structure of theatrical production.
With this in mind, everything presented in Einstein on the Beach begins to make a bit more sense. This bizarre production leaves many audience members baffled and even angry or perturbed by the spectacle, the question of “why?” begging to be answered. Listener/spectators and reviewers want some grand explanation of why everything is the way it is so that they can begin to grasp what they have just witnessed. However, what is perhaps not realized is the fact that they’ve probably already answered the questions themselves. Since it was Glass and Wilson’s goal to get the audience to engage in interpreting the work, they need not offer any more explanation than has already been given. In regards to Glass’s notes for Einstein, he has been quite liberal with the information given, although it is mostly structural and musical insight as opposed to interpretive insight more often than not. He offers small grains of his personal interpretation, just enough to make audience members slightly less uncomfortable, but not enough to effect their overall interpretation of the piece. People who insist on receiving an explanation from Glass or Wilson miss the primary message of the opera, which could be truncated to, “think for yourself,” or “don’t think too hard.” Like Owen’s suggested, so much of the universe, the relationships between objects, is infinite and inexplicable. To seek out one singular definition directly opposes what he states as the main goal of art.
By Jacque Hale
Owens, Craig. “”Einstein on the Beach”: The Primacy of Metaphor.” October 4 (1977): 21-32. doi:10.2307/778477.
Rath, Arun. “The Minds Behind Einstein on the Beach’ Talk shop.” NPR Music. 12 October 2013. Accessed 8 March 2018.