In our America-centric look at the world, some of us think about Canada only when we are angry with our government and are thinking about where to run away. However, there is a busy theater world "up there" – and I don’t mean just the renowned Shaw and Shakespeare Festivals in Ontario.
One of Canada’s preeminent playwrights, Vern Thiessen, has written "Einstein’s Gift," which makes its American debut at the Off Broadway Acorn Theater on 42nd Street in Manhattan, produced by the Epic Theater Center. Opening Thursday, October 6, to coincide with the centennial celebration of Einstein’s "miracle Year" and the 50th anniversary of his death, it will run through November 6.
The play won the prestigious Governor General’s Award for Drama in 2003, an award on par with the Pulitzer Prize in the United States. Says Thiessen: "In Canada, it’s the highest award you can get as a playwright." His parents, now in their 80s – immigrants from Russia who came to Canada after World War II, settling in the small prairie city of Winnipeg – were duly impressed with the grand awards ceremonyheld in the capital city of Ottawa and decided it was OK that their only son was a playwright. "My parents were both laborers, blue collar workers who were busy adjusting to this new culture and new language," says Thiessen, who has two older sisters. "They had connections to Germany as well, and I actually grew up speaking German when I was younger."
In a phone interview from his recently-purchased home in Edmonton, Alberta, that he shares with his partner (an American-born dancer) and her teenage daughter, he says he is excited at the prospect of coming to New York for the opening of "Einstein’s Gift." The play centers on the relationship between Albert Einstein and Fritz Haber. The men had two things in common, both were scientists and both were Jewish. With little else connecting them, there was one more bond: they both witnessed their great discoveries used for massive destruction, launching the age of chemical and nuclear warfare.
A chance comment from a bio-chemist friend attracted Thiessen to Fritz Haber. He says his research uncovered "an odd friendship with Einstein." One of the key pieces of information he found was a hand-written letter from Einstein to Haber’s family at the time of Haber’s death. In it, Einstein said that Haber had been one of his best friends and that Haber’s story was the tragedy of the German Jew, the tragedy of unrequited love for the homeland Germany. "I thought, that was a very prescient thing to say in 1934."
As Thiessen began examining the two men and their relationship, the play began to evolve. "Einstein was more or less a theoretical physicist; Haber was concerned very much with the practical applications of science, at a time when that was fairly new and revolutionary." In the play, Einstein serves as a narrator, talking about how Haber’s life reflects on his own.
Haber was a Nobel Laureate whose ideal of "science to enhance humanity" was sorely tested by those in power in his country. With his creation of fertilizer, his intent was to feed the hungry people of Germany but instead his material was used for very destructive purposes. His idealism is revealed in sharp contrast against the reality of political will, nationalism, and war.
Ever practical in his personal life, Haber had converted to Christianity for professional reasons to acquire a particular professorship. But when the Nazis came to power and discovered his Jewish ancestry he was exiled, and his institute in Berlin was confiscated. With that, the Nazis took over his experiments, including the development during the 1920s and ’30s of pesticides, which included his work with syklon, a version of which was used later as the gas at Auschwitz and other concentration camps. Says Thiessen: "Haber, inadvertently, was the grandfather of modern chemical warfare."
"The play is about belief systems. My interest in writing the play was to explore what people believe and what happens when other people take your beliefs and do something horrible with them," says Thiessen. The timeliness of the interference of government with scientific research doesn’t go unnoticed by Thiessen. "In today’s world there is much debate at every government level about science and the responsibility of using discoveries – such as stem cell research."
Thiessen studied acting at the University of Alberta and worked forabout 10 years as a professional actor. Like many other actors, his play writing career began as he wrote material for himself. Then others asked him to write something for them. He returned to the University of Alberta, where he earned an MFA in playwriting in 1992. Now 41, he has been a full-time writer for five years (an impressive feat in any country). On occasion, he also teaches playwriting courses at his alma mater. He likes to work with young people to help them develop their craft and also their business acumen. "Playwriting ends up being a business as well as an art," he says.
His theatrical home base is the Citadel Theater in Edmonton, close to the Rocky Mountains of northern Canada, where he is on staff in charge of new play development. It is one of the largest regional theaters in Canada, mounting a 13-play season, in four separate venues, with an annual budget of $8 million Canadian. "Einstein’s Gift" premiered there in 2003. "We have a great, very active theater community in Edmonton. It’s a city of just a little under a million people. There’s lots of work for writers and actors here," he says. "It is so cold in the winter, see, there’s nothing else to do." Claiming the Citadel as one of the premiere theaters in Canada, he adds, "We’re lucky to have it up here in the boonies."
His other plays include "Shakespeare’s Will," "Apple," "Blowfish," and "The Resurrection of John Frum." Each has been performed widely across Canada and beyond. He also wrote the screenplay for the award-winning short, "Samurai Swing," which has appeared at numerous film festivals and on CBC Television. During the summer of 2001, he was playwright-in-residence at the Blue Heron Theater in Manhattan.
All of his formal training has been in Canada, though he has traveled extensively in Europe and England. He loves New York and tries to visit at least twice a year. "My life is great – not that I wouldn’t like to have a second home in Manhattan, the friendliest city in the world," he says. As a young writer, he was influenced by David Mamet, but says "Einstein’s Gift" is "far from any Mamet play," having more in common with another American writer he admires, Arthur Miller.
Another Einstein play, "Einstein’s Secret Letters," by J. B. Edwards, closes its two-week run at the SoHo Repertory Theater on Saturday, October 8. This play is based on the love letters recently discovered at Princeton University Library, which Einstein wrote to his close friend Johanna Fantova. It explores his dilemma of isolation and disappointment near the end of his life. It has been reported that there were outbursts of disbelief and anger when this play had an earlier reading at the Princeton Club, as audience members felt that the play maligned Einstein’s reputation. Unfortunately, or fortunately, this production will be gone too quickly for this paper to investigate.
"Einstein’s Gift," October 6 through November 9, Acorn Theater, 410 42nd Street. 212-279-4200 or www.Ticketcentral.com.
"Einstein’s Secret Letters," through Saturday, October 8, SoHo Repertory Theater. $15. 212-868-4444 or www.smarttix.com.