Einstein's Gift

by Vern Thiessen
ISBN: 0887546781

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A Review of: EinsteinĘs Gift
by Keith Garebian

Like Michael Frayn's Copenhagen, Vern Thiessen's Einstein's Gift (recent winner of the Governor General's Award for Drama) is a memory-play about scientists and some of their crucial creeds, doubts, and crises of faith. Both plays take liberties with historical fact-Thiessen's more with chronology and some very minor alterations of character. However, Einstein's Gift, far more than Copenhagen, captures the Geist of its era and characters better than Copenhagen does, and it holds greater significance and dramatic interest than Michael Frayn's much-lauded play. For one thing, it doesn't pin its texture mainly to a speculative interrogation of history. For another, it is far less contrived and pretentious, and its ideas are always linked to emotions. Its leading characters strike as flesh and blood people with beating hearts and minds, rather than as talking heads, only occasionally attached to souls. Best of all, it is genuinely illuminating and resonant, its ironies multiplying within sweeping events that affected the course of the Western world in the 20th century.
Based on Albert Einstein's often strained but long, heartfelt friendship with Fritz Haber, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry, Einstein's Gift dramatizes a radical clash between scientific ideologies. Where Einstein tends to see the cosmos in terms of a smooth-working watch and science as something that, like poetry, music, and painting, gives insight, challenges perception, and feeds the soul, Haber, saturated with Prussian pride, places an inordinate confidence in science as a revealer of truth that cannot be understood any other way. Einstein places a premium on the abstract value of science-its capacity to make one think and imagine while leaving ethics to God-while Haber idealizes science as a practical force, something that must serve the greater good. The two men are congenitally bound to clash: Einstein thinks Haber's work is the brilliant product of a narrow-minded and infuriatingly arrogant nationalist, just as Haber finds Einstein's mind brilliant but his work useless.
But the larger issue isn't simply a clash of minds and values; it is Haber's tragedy or, as Einstein once put it in real life (and quoted by the playwright in his Post Script), "the tragedy of the German Jew, the tragedy of unrequited love." Haber's arrogant optimism about the practical benefits to agriculture of his discoveries is just as misguided as is his optimism about the outcome of the First World War. He converts to Christianity for purely pragmatic reasons-professional self-advancement-and sacrifices everything on the altar of "country," "nation," "Germany." His science becomes murderous (his discovery of chlorine gas leads to the deaths of thousands of soldiers in WWI and his discovery of Zyklon leads-after his death-to the murder of millions of Jews, including some of his own relatives), but he does not realize the mortal sickness of his country until it is too late. In the interim he loses his first wife, a brilliant scientist in her own right, who commits suicide over her despair at his culpability, and he gradually learns that he has risked everything for a country that never accepts him. Despite all his awards, honours, and contributions to Germany, he will always be a non-Aryan.
The episodic play unfolds in flashback, roughly covering a quarter century of real time, and although it deals with scientific issues, it is never leaden with technicalities. Its main story is narrated in a straight-forward manner (with Einstein's serving rather improbably as chorus or rather incongruously as news announcer!), and the central debates and conflicts are impressively passionate. There are two or three artifices that I dislike (one is the afore-mentioned role for Einstein; another is the unlikely duel with foils fought between Einstein and Haber), and sometimes the irony is laid on heavily, but every character (the Deacon who tests Haber's sincerity as a convert, Otto who changes from Haber's loyal assistant to Nazi agent, the Cabaret Singer who bemoans the vanished innocence of the nation, Rust who is one of the poisons of Hitler's Germany, et cetera) serves a specific dramatic purpose.
Einstein's Gift grows in the mind as it outlines certain realities of political will, nationalism, war, and the misuse of science. Its very title multiplies connotatively: one meaning is the gift of a Kipa and Tallis that Einstein makes to an aging, ailing Haber; a second connotation is the dubious gift of nuclear power that Einstein helped the Allies unleash; a third is the poison-the atom bomb-that ironically resulted from such scientific genius. There is a fourth connotation that is expressed as an open, throbbing question, albeit implicitly rather than explicitly: In what should we believe in an age that compels us to doubt our hopes and dreams? This last is formulated in a tender, rueful manner by a pensive Einstein after the first A-bomb explosion in August 1945, as Haber fades from view and his old rival and friend takes up chalk from his pocket to resume his research and to continue living inside himself at "a safe distance from life."

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