There is something brutal about Philip Glass’s opera. The way it stops and starts, the taunting tease of a story, then the way it’s anything but narrative. Composed of nine twenty-minute scenes, the whole of Einstein on the Beach—first produced in 1976 and shown in L.A. for the first time this month—is interspersed by five so-called “knee plays,” in which two women sit or stand or writhe around on plastic platforms, or search dreamily inside gently moving glass boxes. It’s not easy to watch.
“This was a very American month.”
It’s thirty days since we moved to California after five years in the Middle East and in the darkened pavilion I start memorizing lines. I’m sitting beside one of my oldest friends. I am fearful my glasses will fall from my head. I picture my phone tumbling from my hand—possibly injuring Jack Nicholson, who is seated below—and I think about the car I am borrowing from my mom, parked deep underground, at least until the show is over, a car that is mine until we buy one of our own, or decide to go back.
We started eight levels down, in an auxiliary parking lot under a mall. Space for thousands. Walking to the opera, I’m dazzled by simple things, like the cool hush of an elevator, the absence of tanks, and the clothes people in L.A. wear when they aren’t going to a Dodgers game. The lights go down and two women in black suspenders and white shirts begin to murmur about Toyotas and the price and a certain number of coins. I think about our house in Venice, with its brittle wooden walls and a heater the size of a VW, glowing hot under the floorboards. I think about Beirut, and how far we’lve come since a brutal spring. Dancers curl through the smoke, scissoring around on a dimly lit stage. A boy throws paper airplanes from a metal aerie, and a violinist with grey hair scratches across the strings, both as long as it should be, and about as beautiful as it could be. So far.
“Any one asks you please it was trees it it it it it it it it it it is like that.”
You start trying to make something of all this. One of the men goose-steps onto the stage, joined soon by many others, whose steps look the same. A woman with a severe ponytail begins to walk across the stage, back and forth, over and over, in a diagonal, with such precise swings of her arm and alluring swishes of her long hair that the red lipstick is a blur and you almost want to connect her movements to a larger story arc, but Glass might not want you to, and then you begin to wonder: Was it an exact number of times she was asked to stomp across the stage. Is this all just a question of numbers?
Fear, but not exactly that: Part of the experience of sitting in a dark room for four hours is a feeling of being trapped. The opera is staged without intermission and—especially if you’ve come with one of your oldest friends, who has seen the company’s rendition five times, and who professes a great admiration—there is a certain pressure not to fidget or to fall asleep or become distracted, to let your mind wander, to consider the people you’ve left behind in Beirut, or the money paid to a babysitter, or the offer you might make on a house, or all the papers left to sign. Don’t stand up. Because the tickets are expensive and there’s a sea of people who have paid more. Including Jack Nicholson, who sits somewhere down below.
“It could be those ways. Will it get some wind for the sailboat? It could get, for it is it.”
In the second hour, an elderly couple gets up to leave, perhaps showing some good sense, or maybe they have bad backs? Behind them, a young pair considers slipping out; the woman is wearing a very short skirt and the man is tall and handsome and then they are gone. I lovingly imagine a tall glass of gin. A smiling woman in a velvet dress excuses herself; she needs to pee, and is that the round bulge of a new baby under her dress? There’s this rage I feel when I see a guy looking at his phone. Then I look at my phone. I can’t believe I haven’t brought a pen. On a stage, a woman writhes on a bed, saying,
I was in this prematurely air-conditioned super market and there were all these aisles and there were all these bathing caps that you could buy, which had these kind of Fourth of July plumes on them. They were red and yellow and blue. I wasn’t tempted to buy one but I was reminded of the fact that I had been avoiding the beach.
She says this at least forty times. Behind her, the music repeats, again and again, this endless cycle of numbers and voices and honks through a flute. That’s what makes the saxophone solo in the third hour feel so epic. The guy stands in the pit, a little balding but strong and full of presence. He grabs a metal nib and blows and blows, all this wailing and lament, and you want to stand up and shout, and then there’s anger and surprise and you think about what might happen if you leapt off the balcony, the mathematics of space and time and blood and bone but then he lets loose these blasts of resignation and regret, and you move on, all aflutter.
“All these are the days my friends and these are the days my friends.”
A production this long asks something of you. A suspension of belief, a stifling of doubt, a confidence in yourself, and a threshold for discomfort. The audience comes together, this giant agreement we’ll remain seated for the duration. Years ago, in New York, I watched a man roll himself into a carpet, only to have his fellow thespians beat him with a stick, saying “Snug as a bug in a rug.” In the Middle East, I watched the theater of men and women trying to live together, failing badly. I’ve watched a man hold a gun in the air to frighten me. I’ve been frightened.
“This about the gun gun gun gun gun.”
When we left, we came here. We knew more people, it seemed, than anywhere else we might have gone. Waves pounded a beach not far from our house and the sky was always blue. The palms reached up to the sky and we sat in the backyard and listened to old Chick Corea albums and the soft rush of cars crossing Venice Boulevard. My wife put away the battle helmet and the bulletproof vest and the satellite phone. The stack of hundred dollar bills wasn’t sewn into an all-weather jacket any more. If it existed at all, it was in the bank. (Was there ever any sewing of bills into a vest? I’m not sure. I’m starting to forget things.) One night, in L.A. a hummingbird darted over, stuck his head into the yawning embrace of a bright red flower and then disappeared.
“This could be about the things on the table.”
Assembly and disassembly. The faint light of a horizon. The way things begin and ask you to think of an ending. The things on the table. What an individual can do and how it looks when we come together. The worst things we can do and yet the beauty that can appear. The heat of an atomic bomb fuses sand together, turning it into Glass.
The Los Angeles Times critic says the Friday performance of the opera earned one of the most thrilling, thunderous ovations in the history of the L.A. Opera. He also said this: “Descriptions cannot do Einstein justice, and explanations are inappropriate.”
“The fall of men is very near, proclaim it from your cars.”
I am killing myself for forgetting to bring a pen. I’m regretting leaving Beirut, because I’m not sure if it matters anymore, whether I have a pen, if I can remember what I’m seeing. I’m trying to think of something appropriate to say. The whole auditorium stands up. Somewhere down there, Jack Nicholson stands, and the crowd of us creates a thunderous clapping.
Nathan Deuel has contributed to Harper’s, GQ, The New York Times, and many others. His debut collection of essays, Friday Was the Bomb, will be published by Dzanc in May 2014. He lives in Los Angeles.