Two men meet for the last time. They have been friends for many year, usually over long distances. They argued often; one believed in science for clear, practical ends. The younger man believes in pure science; practical consequences will follow, but do not concern the researcher. They differed on matters related to theology, as well, though neither seems particularly religious. The older man, now bound to his chair, rejected his Jewish faith years earlier in favour of advancement. Baptised, he could expect tenure at the German universities. The other never overtly denied his faith, though he does not practice it.
He offers the older man a gift: a kippah and a prayer shawl.
It's 1934. The two men are Fritz Haber and Albert Einstein.
Flash forward eleven years: a flash of stagecraft, lighting and a recorded boom, strike the audience. Haber has been dead a decade. The public remembers him: he co-developed the Haber-Bosch process for producing nitric acid used in fertilizer, and is credited with saving millions from famine. He also brought death; he oversaw the use of chlorine gas during the Great War. Later, he developed the pesticide, Zyklon B; the Nazis ultimately used it in the gas chambers.
Einstein will be remembered, too. His name has become a synonym for genius, but people also recall that fatal flash of light, and he will never put it from his mind.
Einstein's Gift, written by Vern Thiessen, leaves us to contemplate the meanings of both gifts.
Einstein gives his name to the play, but Haber is the protagonist. It opens with his politically-motivated baptism. Since he does not really believe in his new faith, his involvement with Christianity becomes the first of several deals with the devil. He shortly thereafter meets Einstein, who feels disturbed that Haber would play capriciously with matters of belief. They also begin their decades-long debate over the role of the scientist. We know that, despite differing views, both will be left feeling ambivalent towards the consequences of their work.
The first act proves the play's strongest. We follow Haber's career, marked by triumphs and Faustian bargains. The play also focusses on his relationship with his first wife, Clara Immerwhar, also a chemist. Initially, a love story involving two charming, brilliant, slightly nerdy individuals, it ends tragically. Clara commits suicide in the wake of the gas attacks which he oversaw and she opposed.
Throughout, Einstein appears on visits, a kind of Greek Chorus in Haber's life. The debates about the purpose of science become excessive; we don’t need to be reminded so often of the play’s themes. Still, when played properly, the characters work. Despite some very somber subject matter, Thiessen gives us moments of charm, humour, and humanity.
Haber, at least in Thiessen’s script, goes adrift after the war, after his wife’s suicide, and the second act loses focus. We learn many facts of Haber's life, but these do not always hold together dramatically. His relationship with his second wife receives short shrift. Einstein continus to appear, and provide some brighter moments. The drama intensifies as the Nazis come to power. Haber still believes his baptism will protect him; the audience knows otherwise. In the grimmest of ironies, we learn of their plans to use Zyklon, shortly before Haber flees to Switzerland.
Einstein's Gift premiered at the Citadel Theatre in Edmonton, Alberta in March 2003; that year it won both the 2003 National Jewish Playwriting Competition and the Governor-General’s Award for Drama. It has since played internationally, including a stint off-Broadway, at the Epic Theatre Center.
Written with theatre budgets in mind, it can be played by as few as seven actors, with five principal roles, and several other parts which can be performed by two people.
Thiessen has done his research, basing much of the play on Haber and Einstein's correspondence. Of course, events have been stylized and fictionalized for the stage. It's a strong play; I only wish he had tightened its second act.
was published by Playwrights Canada Press, both as an individual script and in the anthology, The West of All Possible Worlds
Clara Immerwhar Haber