“For everything that I achieved in my life, I must thank Mileva. She is my genius inspirer, my protector against the hardships of life and Science. Without her, my work would never have been started nor finished.” —Albert Einstein, 1905
Einstein’s Wife was originally seen here in 2020, but the production was interrupted by COVID. The play is the story of “a gifted woman in the shadow of a brilliant man.” It is a witty, bold, and searing examination of the ruins of a great love. There will be some updating, as director and ExPats Theatre Artistic Director Karin Rosnizeck has said, but the production that plays from September 23 to October 16, 2022, at Atlas Performing Arts Center will be essentially the same.
Male commentators have referred to Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Marić (1875–1948), as a “sounding board” for her husband. In letters, however, Albert Einstein (1879–1955) did refer to “our theory” and “our article.” There has been a decades-long controversy about the extent of Mileva’s contribution. Many believe that she was crucial to the development of his scientific theory. They argue that she has been overlooked due to the “Matilda effect”: the phenomenon that occurs when women scientists’ work is overlooked or misattributed to their male colleagues.
There is no way at this point to know for certain what really happened. It should be noted that for the historian, differing sources have different levels of credibility. There is no doubt that in the early years Mileva supported Albert intellectually and emotionally. And it is clear that although their relationship was turbulent and their marriage ended in bitterness, they were once two young people in love.
They met when both were studying physics at the Zurich Polytechnic Institute in 1896. She was the only female. In letters, he calls her “his Dollie” for whom he is “crazy with desire.” Their shared passion for science must have added to their exhilaration at this early stage.
Even then it was clear that Einstein’s affection came with some conventional expectations. He once sent her a drawing of his foot so she could knit socks for him.
Einstein’s Wife is not an attempt to resolve the nature of Mileva’s contribution but an “as-if” imagining of what might have happened if they could have attempted to resolve their conflicts. The setting could be heaven, hell, or anywhere in the universe.
Whatever Mileva did or did not contribute, it is clear that she was very much his equal. From the beginning of the play, she does hilarious imitations of Elsa, Einstein’s cousin and second wife, one of Shaw’s “womanly women” who would never dream of interrupting the Great Man with an idea that might not possibly be His.
I interviewed Karin Rosnizeck, founder and artistic director of ExPats Theatre, to learn more about their relationship and the play.
Sophia: What’s the most important thing you’d like us to know about Mileva Einstein?
Karin: The play gives Mileva a voice, offers the opportunity to tell her story, to provide empathy for her struggles and her sufferings. Being a woman, she had no access to higher education and to certain schools, so her father had to fight with the authorities to get special permission. She also had a limp and was told she would never get married. So she grew up with the self-image that she disqualified as a woman. Her choice was to develop her brain, and even that was a difficult path. And Mileva should have a chance to show us what her struggle was. As Albert’s wife, she had to fight a lot of prejudice, and Einstein’s family disapproved of his wife, partly for being Slavic, which many Germans considered inferior (we are not far from the rise of fascism), and partly because she was a scientist trying to pursuing her own career instead of getting her fulfillment as a housewife.
Einstein, of course, did not have to fight any of these struggles and later became world-famous while she lived in obscurity and died in poverty.
But I also wanted to show an Albert Einstein beyond his image as a popular icon of the 20th century. In the scenes of the two as young people in love, we see a young, vulnerable Albert. We see pivotal moments in their relationship. For example, how they complemented each other. He was terribly disorganized as a student, skipped classes, and she was able to help him. Especially during the “miracle year” 1905. That year he published four papers that altered the course of modern physics forever. It is known from the letters that they worked together in the evenings and she often provided mathematical calculations needed as evidence for his theories. When they are re-enacting their early relationship, he refers to a little song she used to sing about how they were “ein Stein” (one stone). I love that image.
It is beautiful. And it seems at the beginning of the play he wants to get that back. But she is no longer interested. What were the problems, and how did they develop?
Mileva became pregnant when they were not yet married. Einstein did not want to marry her until he had a job. No one knows what happened to this daughter, Lieserl. The scarlet fever was raging at the time, and it is possible she died from it as a toddler. There is no birth or death certificate. It must have been terrible for Mileva, also to have to disappoint her father. She goes off with high hopes, a brilliant student, and comes home pregnant, unmarried, and without a degree.
In one scene, Einstein tells her, “I go around obstacles.” She replies, “You go around people.”
In another scene, he has a fit and throws books to the floor and then leaves her alone, pregnant, having to clean the mess up. As women often have to do. She is also alone when she gives birth to her daughter, and when her daughter dies, she has to bury Lieserl alone. Einstein never saw her. And years later, Mileva died alone.
In the play, we also see them at the end of their relationship. What was that like?
We don’t really see so much of them at the end of their relationship. But in the first scene, when they meet again after death in a limbo, she is bored with him, no longer impressed; she sees him as a big baby.
Which he is.
They are stuck in hell, they are bickering, playing games to kill time, but she is no longer impressed with him; has a very ironic, even sarcastic attitude. He has no idea that she is mocking him.
His fame has blown him up like a balloon. He is so narcissistic he could simply float away. She has dealt with cruel realities he cannot even imagine and doesn’t want to know.
His fame has limited him and turned him into a kind of self-absorbed character; he has become a caricature.
A clown, with no sexuality.
The script doesn’t dwell on Einstein as pop icon or caricature of himself, and I like that. The play looks at the human beings and at their struggle. The final scene for me is like a Greek tragedy, lifting them into the realm of Greek Gods, two great brains in conflict. She wants him to admit his responsibility for what happened to their daughter. She doesn’t let him off the hook.
Why do you think Mileva was not more vocal about her contribution?
I don’t think she was a person to strive for that kind of recognition. And she had no advocate. I think all the struggles in her life for her two sons and for mere survival made her exhausted over time. But she made one attempt to write her memoirs and told Einstein about it.
And Einstein called her a “nobody.”
Yes, he warned her not to do it and told her that nobody would take her seriously. But this was years after their divorce. And to his credit, he gave her the money from his Nobel Prize.
Wow. Good for her, she certainly deserved it. Would you tell how this production came to be?
The play was written in Serbian by Snežana Gnjidic, who lives in Belgrade. A woman called Milena Trobozić Garfield, who lives partly in DC and partly in Belgrade, translated it and sent me the English version. I liked it a lot so I produced and directed it at Atlas in March 2020. Einstein’s Wife was well-reviewed but was stopped by COVID. In the meantime, I directed a successful production of the Serbian play in Belgrade for Serbia’s National Theatre.
Now we are back with a 2022 version.
We are glad to see it. And you triumphed over COVID! Congratulations!
Running Time: About 85 minutes, with no intermission.
Einstein’s Wife plays September 23 through October 16, 2022, presented by ExPats Theatre performing at Atlas Performing Arts Center, Lab Theatre II, 1333 H Street, NE, Washington, DC. Showtimes are 7:30 pm Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, and 2:30 pm Sundays. . Tickets ($25–$40) are available online.
Special events include post-show talk-back with cast, director, and design team, Sunday, September 25, and Industry Night Monday, October 3 at 7:30 pm.
COVID Safety: Masks are required for patrons, staff, and performers when in the building. Performers will perform without a mask. Atlas Performing Arts Center’s COVID Health and Safety Policy is here.
by Snežana Gnjidic. Idea and translation by Milena Trobozić Garfield
Creative and Production
Director: Karin Rosnizeck
Set Design: David Higgins
Costume Design: Alisa Mandel
Projection Design: Dylan Uremovich
Sound Design: Vladimir Petričevic
Lighting Design: Hailey La Roe
Stage Manager: Laura Schlachtmeyer
Mileva Marić: Cecelia Auerswald
Albert Einstein: Sasha Olinick
Plenty to chew on in ExPats’ thoughtful production of ‘Einstein’s Wife’ (review by David Siegel, March 7, 2020)
Another lost female genius found, in ‘Einstein’s Wife’ at ExPats Theatre (Magic Time! column by John Stoltenberg, March 8, 2020)