By Jim Gilles
On stage on Sunday, June 26, at Theatre West in Los Angeles, was Kres Mersky’s The Life and Times of A. Einstein, a clever and hilarious one-woman show about Albert Einstein told through the voice of his long-time secretary Helen Dukas.
The play is a touching portrait of this Einstein “loyalist,” as well as a humanizing look into the “great thinker’s” life, as seen through the people around him. Although the secretary is mostly Mersky’s creation, she stuck to facts in her oblique approach to Einstein. Mersky has performed this show previously for Theatre West and also at Cal Tech’s Beckman Auditorium. The Life and Times of A. Einstein is part of a series of one-person shows currently being offered by Theatre West as part of its summertime Solopalooza 2.0.22.
The Life and Times of A. Einstein is an off-beat, moving, one-character play… a day in the life of Albert Einstein, as seen through the eyes of his secretary and “watch-dog,” Helen, who (in the play) goes by the name of Helen Schönhammer. The play opens in the year 1934. Albert Einstein has fled Nazi Germany with his family and secretary, Helen, and settled in Princeton, New Jersey. It is his birthday, March 14, and a group of reporters has gathered in his living room to interview him on this special occasion. He is late, because he is giving a lecture at another location. However, as Helen explains, Einstein is characteristically late. The very proper but visibly flustered Helen must stall the restless reporters until he arrives.
Helen fields questions, placates and humors them, while attempting to keep her apparently organized but “chaotic” household running smoothly. Along with tidbits about the Einstein household, Ellen provides the apparently confused reporters her own equally confused version of The Theory of Relativity. “The theory of relativity? He will explain if there is time. Me? I don’t understand it. Well… perhaps a brief explanation.” What follows is her simplified and very funny version, and then a stern, “No, do not write that down!”
As the wait time lengthens, Ellen scolds the new maid (via the phone) then explains how the foolish girl was hired. This segues into her memories of Berlin and her own “audition” for the job nine years earlier. The description of her first breathless glimpse of “the Man” reveals long held feelings of admiration and perhaps more.
Time passes, and again The Press gathers to question the famous prize winner about a Symposium he is attending. This time, after explaining again that the great man “will arrive at any moment,” she attempts to explain his theories on Time and Space. Giving that up, she lapses into a series of amusing and touching anecdotes.
Years later, it’s almost as if the Secretary and the Press Corps are now intimate friends. She hardly needs to remind them about questions or excuse the Professor’s absence. She tells about the 4-year old Albert who is given a compass and observes magnetism for the first time, and about his letter to President Roosevelt stating, “America must have the bomb first. Hitler must be stopped.” His reply when she tells him about its disastrous use is understated and very funny.
Einstein’s illness and death and her tribute to the man she loved and assisted for twenty-seven years is a poignant but triumphant ending to the play. “He sat on God’s shoulder. He felt God’s breath.”
The Life and Times of A. Einstein, originally developed and performed as a 5-person play in the Taper II play development program, is the result of more than 5 years of research into the woman who dedicated her life to running Albert Einstein’s domestic affairs and is also thought to have had an ongoing romantic affair with the Nobel Laureate. Staunchly loyal, Helen Dukas not only ran the Einstein household while he was alive but also managed his estate and protected his image following his demise. She accompanied the Einstein Family to Pasadena while Dr. Einstein was resident at the California Institute of Technology during the 1930’s, and to Princeton University thereafter.
Helen Dukas grew up in a Jewish family in Sulzburg, where Einstein’s second wife Elsa came from. She studied in Freiburg and, after her father’s death in 1919, started working as kindergarten teacher. In May 1921 she went to Munich and worked there as a teacher. One and a half years later in January 1923 she went to Berlin where she worked as a secretary in a publishing house. Helen Dukas never married.
In 1928 Elsa Einstein was looking for a secretary for her husband Albert. Through the acquaintance with the Dukas family Helen applied for the job with Elsa in Haberlandstrasse 5. This interview took place at the Einstein country house and actress Kres Mersky provides a most humorous account of her first meeting with the “great thinker” who was impressed that she knew how to shoot a rifle. The interview between Albert Einstein and Helen Dukas was positive and Helen was offered the job on April 13, 1928, as his secretary, chauffeur, and bodyguard – what today, we would call a “personal assistant.” Her duties included being a liaison with the press, protecting Einstein’s public image from scandal, and generally managing all of his business affairs.
From that day on, she was Albert Einstein’s secretary and after Elsa’s death in December 1936, also his housekeeper. That is how it stayed until the death of Einstein on April 18, 1955.
“I don’t claim to understand the theory of relativity,” Kres Merksy said, “but his courage in making this huge leap, in breaking from all notions of what was accepted in physics at the time, that’s very exciting to me. He was a humanitarian, a pacifist and outspoken and very brave; and he was difficult.”
“It’s not a children’s play,” she said, “but it’s definitely good for ages 12 and up, perhaps even a bit younger. There’s a lot of humor and poignancy in it – and science too.”
Feminist playwright and solo performance pioneer Kres Mersky has been performing in Los Angeles since 1969. During the 1970s and 1980s Ms. Mersky appeared in such iconic TV shows as The Smother Brothers Show, The Richard Pryor Show, and Murder She Wrote. Most recently, she has been performing her two biographic solo shows, The Life and Times of A. Einstein and Isadora Duncan: A Unique Recital at venues throughout the West and in Canada.
As was mentioned above, Theatre West is running a series of one-person shows on weekends as its Solopalooza 2.022 summer theatre offerings. Next up is As Always, Jimmy Stewart, featuring Steve Nevh as Jimmy Stewart – on Saturday, July 9, and Sunday, July 10. Then comes Men, Money, and Madness, written and performed by Teresa Bell – on Friday, July 15, Saturday July 16, and Sunday, July 17. On the following weekend will 18 Minutes of Fame, written and performed by Barbara Minkus – on July 22, Saturday, July 23, and Sunday, July 24. Reprising a favorite one-woman play will be Too Old, Too Asian, Too Short, written and performed by Pamela Najera – on Friday, July 29. Closing out the series will be the award-winning one-man show Versatile, written and performed by Kevin Neighbors, on Saturday, August 6, and Sunday, August 7.