ExPats Theatre staged Serbian playwright Snežana Gnjidić‘s Einstein’s Wife in 2020, but the run was cut short, like many things, by COVID-19. In the years since, director Karin Rosnizeck was invited to Belgrade to direct Gospodja Ajnstajn (literally, Mrs. Einstein) at Serbia’s National Theatre. Now Rosnizeck returns to D.C. with her original American cast, starring Sasha Olinick as Albert Einstein and Cecelia Auerswald as Mileva Marić, Einstein’s first wife and intellectual companion for nearly two decades, in a story that invites us to ask what role she played in developing the theories that led to a Nobel Prize and renown as one of history’s great scientists.
Historians first began to debate Marić’s role in Einstein’s early, groundbreaking theoretical work during the 1980s. This period includes his special theory of relativity and his theory on the photoelectric effect for which he was awarded the 1921 Nobel Prize in Physics. The two met in 1896 as students at the Zürich Polytechnic. Between 1902 and 1914, they had a daughter (who historians believe died of scarlet fever or was adopted in infancy), married, and had two additional children—Hans Albert, who became a noted engineer, and Eduard, who spent much of his adult life institutionalized for schizophrenia. The couple divorced in 1919. But both were convinced that Einstein would win the Nobel—their divorce settlement stipulated that Marić receive the monetary award even as Einstein received the honors.
Today, Einstein’s name is used as a synonym for genius, but Marić’s brilliance is known more through indirect evidence: Her academic achievement excelled at a time when few women were permitted to study science. Her official transcript remains, but no publications exist under her name, only written accounts by friends and family hint that she may have been a collaborator or even an uncredited co-author.
As the audience settles into their seats for Einstein’s Wife they see a photo negative of the front page of The Daily Princetonian. The headline reads “EINSTEIN DIES!” blown up and projected onto the back of the blackbox. Piano arpeggios play and an animated lattice diagram of a torus rotates against a cosmic background. Olinick’s Einstein compares two stones but it is not the one he seeks. He looks up and realizes he is being watched by Marić. In the afterlife, following decades of divorce and estrangement, they share some odd connection on a dark Plutonian shore. The couple’s rage and resentment toward one another is skillfully rendered in Gnjidić’s script—as translated by Milena Trobozić-Garfield, whom Gnjidić credits for getting her interested in Marić’s story. Those sentiments are clearly expressed—rooted in the private jokes, comedic routines, and intellectual joy they’ve shared over the years. Volleys of vitriol become shared laughter.
In an effort to escape their shared afterlife, the two nonetheless elect to replay episodes from their academic struggles, their romance, and the ups and downs of their marriage and careers, leading to their eventual divorce. Olinick and Auerswald have great chemistry, aided by fight and intimacy choreographer Ian Claar, who has crafted movements that further clarify the pair and their, at times, messy relationship.
In keeping with ExPats’ signature visual style of simple sets and projections, Dylan Uremovich has created several fantastic animations for this and the Belgrade productions: Fob watches move across the night sky in an arcing helix, and a full moon’s light is distorted by the warping of space-time. Composer Vladimir Petrićević has created some simple piano themes, whose sustain distorts to other pitches as it fades to silence. David Higgins has recreated the set design of Jasna Saramandić from the Belgrade production: A versatile unit on wheels that transforms as it rotates from a ruin, to a breakfast nook, to the couple’s bedroom.
At least as early as Dante Alighieri settled scores with his political enemies in Divine Comedy, authors have used stories of the afterlife to present their side of the story or enjoy imaginary revenge. In English drama, the best known example of this device applied to the history of science is Michael Frayn’s perennially popular Copenhagen. Frayn uses his dazzling descriptions of the uncertainty principle to craft a narrative of German victimhood and suggest that some Nazis were fine people, all while falsifying the biographies of its three principal characters, Niels and Margrethe Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, who headed the effort to arm the Third Reich with nuclear weapons.
Gnjidić, wisely, does not go down that path. Einstein, however brilliant, was an undisciplined student, prone to skipping classes, and he may not have completed his degrees without Marić as his study partner. Historians may not be able to say with certainty whether she was an unacknowledged co-author of some of his theories, but there’s no question she was there. Today, intellectual historians shy away from the notion of singular geniuses of popular biography: Such geniuses are, more often than not, part of a network of talented and original thinkers. And like a massive celestial body, their gravity bends the light of the surrounding constellation. Gnjidić’s corrective is simply to assert that, despite all we may never know, Mileva Marić was there and she was important.
ExPats Theatre’s production of Snežana Gnjidić’s Einstein’s Wife, translated by Milena Trobozić-Garfield and directed by Karin Rosnizeck, runs through Oct. 16 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center. expatstheatre.com. $25–$40.