A hundred years ago, on 25th November 1915, Einstein proved his general theory of relativity, transforming our understanding of physical reality. Apt timing then, for Robert Marc Friedman’s Transcendence, a play about Einstein, at the English Theatre Berlin.
The play transcends the barriers of space and time – running from 1911 to the second world war, spanning from Berlin, Prague, Zurich and Sweden to the USA – as it spins together three story strands.
One strand is the relationship between Albert Einstein and his fellow physicist Max Planck. Einstein and Planck came from vastly different backgrounds, with little in common but physics and music. Although their friendship builds despite their differences, it ultimately – in the face of a volatile political landscape (including the first and second world wars) – fails.
Another focus is the relationship between Einstein and Kafka, who almost certainly met, although no record exists of their encounters. This narrative highlights the similarities between science and art – both men use creativity and imagination in their work to search for underlying realities. Is there, they ponder, a moral equivalent to general relativity?
And finally, there are the maneuverings in Sweden concerning the Nobel Prize in Physics, influenced by politics and people who were reluctant to acknowledge Einstein and his theory (they eventually awarded him the prize for his discovery of the law of the photoelectric effect, not for relativity = fail).
The actors (Ben Maddox, Logan Verdoorn and Max Wilkinson) approach these iconic characters in a realistic way, even lending them a comic aspect. Despite this, the play gets bogged down by its weighty subject matter. It presents too much information over too broad a scope; although each story-line is fascinating, each could have been a full-length play in itself.
Overall, it manages to string together an illuminating picture of how some of Europe’s most fascinating figures struggled to transcend harsh realities during the most volatile period of the continent’s history.