Arlington — Neitzsche begins his essay Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense: “Once upon a time, in some out of the way corner of that universe which is dispersed into numberless twinkling solar systems, there was a star upon which clever beasts invented knowing. That was the most arrogant and mendacious minute of ‘world history,’ but nevertheless, it was only a minute.”
How much harder must it be to know a specific individual? To truly understand what lies in any human heart?
Dennis Maher, an actor and University of Texas at Arlington theater professor with decades of experience, attempts to shine some light into one man’s soul in the starring role of Willard Simms’ one-man play Einstein: A Stage Portrait, playing through Aug. 20 at Theatre Arlington.
About three quarters through the play, we hear the title character’s recollection of a friend’s description of Einstein: “A man that everyone likes, and no one understands.” The former was seconded by the standing ovation of the audience the second the lights dimmed at the end of the play. But the unraveling of Einstein the man is tricky, even with the help of the lens that is theater.
Maher’s Einstein states “Physicists and musicians describe the unknown.” What’s fascinating about the similarity, is that with music we “feel” we have a closer understanding of the inexpressible, but the specifics are lacking. We like to think that physics gives us more of a concrete understanding of the universe with its mathematical and experimental evidence. Yet 96 percent of the universe remains completely unknown to physics.
Some of the theater audience is left in a bit of the same situation. Who was Einstein truly? We get the wave top version, but we’re left with contradictions. How was Einstein a proponent of research into the atomic bomb and a pacifist? How was he a Zionist and supporter of the NAACP? How did he revolutionize a study of physics based on Newton through his description of relativity and stodgily resist the probabilistic nature of quantum mechanics? How was he a proponent of socialism and an enemy to Germany’s national socialist movement?
Was Einstein just too “messy” to capture in a two-hour play? A famous quote attributed to Einstein, “If a cluttered desk is the sign of a cluttered mind, what is the significance of a clean desk” is reinforced with the set design. Bravo to scenic designer Anthony Curtis and properties designer Cathy Pritchett for providing a wonderful backdrop to the complexity of Einstein’s mind in the wonderfully designed stage.
One piece of the set that seems crucial lays sadly underutilized in the play: Einstein’s (nay, Chekov’s) violin. While the analogy might not fit perfectly, if you introduce a violin in Act I, we should hear it by Act V. However, only the radio provides any music during the play—even when Einstein talks of giving recitals. Yet while Maher picks it up numerous times, he doesn’t play.
And this description of what the play lacks and of Einstein’s contradictions is perhaps the point. How do you explain a man who revolutionized physics, who published 300 scientific papers and 150 non-scientific articles in two hours? How does an actor approach the task of illuminating a human soul, and how much can we ever know of any man, much less one as complicated as Einstein.
Albert Camus said of theater “To me the theatre is the highest of literary forms, and certainly the most universal…but speaking to everyone is not easy.” For the casual theatergoer and Einstein novice, the play may give a brief moment of “knowing” Einstein, as evidenced by the raucous applause of the audience on opening night. For the viewer looking for a depth of understanding of Einstein as conflicted man, how those conflicts came about, and how Einstein possibly resolved them, we are still left with many questions.