For a brief time, Albert Einstein was a winter bird, flying to the comfortable climes of Pasadena for three winters, 1931, 1932 and 1933. He stayed the second and third time at Caltech’s Athenaeum at what is now known as the Einstein Suite.
In a one-night-only performance, Einstein will be back at Caltech as an unseen presence in Kres Mersky’s one-woman play, “The Life and Times of A. Einstein,” at 8 p.m. Saturday at Beckman Auditorium.
Although Einstein was a visiting professor at Caltech, he ultimately decided to accept a position at Princeton University in New Jersey. But he had fond memories of Pasadena: “Here in Pasadena it is like Paradise,” he once wrote. “Always sunshine and clear air, gardens with palms and pepper trees and friendly people who smile at one and ask for autographs.”
In Mersky’s play, the audience is a throng of reporters waiting to interview him in 1934 — after his time in California, and when he was already settled in at Princeton. The occasion is Einstein’s birthday, and his secretary Ellen Schoenhammer (Mersky) is attempting to entertain and answer questions as the reporters await his arrival. She will reveal aspects of Einstein’s household when the new housekeeper, Anna, has made a mistake, and she’ll tell reporters what not to ask, what to expect and even attempt to explain in layman terms Einstein’s theory of relativity. You’ll meet her again, 17 years later — after the World War II has ended, and as she announces Einstein’s death in 1955.
Between those three time jumps, Einstein and his generation had seen many changes. Born in 1879 into an Ashkenazi Jewish family, Einstein was a citizen of the German Empire from 1879 to 1896. After renouncing his German citizenship, Einstein became a Swiss citizen in 1901. By 1934, he was already renowned for having been awarded a Nobel Prize in 1921. Yet, 1934 was a turbulent time for Europe, and an increasingly dangerous place for Jews.
In Germany, Adolf Hitler became chancellor in 1933, then Führer the following year. In 1939, Germany invaded Poland. Einstein became a US citizen in 1940, five years before the end of World War II.
Ellen Schoenhammer is completely fictionalized creation by Mersky but based on Helen Dukas (1896-1982), Einstein’s secretary from 1928. Dukas was with Einstein and his second-wife Elsa when they were in Pasadena. She remained with him after Elsa’s death in 1936. Dukas went on to protect Einstein’s legacy, including co-writing books on him; Einstein was effectively Dukas’ life work until her own death.
After researching Dukas for five years, Mersky wrote a play about what being a genius’ secretary might have been like. Her Ellen, like Dukas, is a German Jewish woman and devoted to her employer. In one of its previous iterations, the play received a good review from the LA Weekly during its one-month run at Theatre West in 2010.
Under the direction of her husband, Paul Gertson, Mersky has taken this show to a variety of venues, most recently for a one-night performance in Modesto, but surely there are few venues better suited than Beckman Auditorium for such a show. There will undoubtedly be audience members who better understand Einstein’s theories and his impact on science, as well as modern culture. But the play will also surely leave future scientists with the notion that secretaries matter and good secretaries can burnish one’s reputation and preserve one’s legacy, and even become a reflection of themselves.
”The Life and Times of A. Einstein” begins at 8 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 25, at the Beckman Auditorium, 1200 E California Blvd, Pasadena. Tickets are $10 to $40. For tickets an more information, call the Caltech Ticket Office at (626) 395-4652 or visit events.caltech.edu/series/pa/einstein.