Einstein’s Dreams

Clock Productions

at National Pastime Theater

By Justin Hayford

To say that Albert Einstein was a dreamer is a monumental understatement. After all, the prep school dropout and lowly patent clerk reinvented the universe just by musing over it. “I built a mathematical laboratory, set myself in it as if I were sitting in a car, and moved along with a beam of light,” he said of the nine-year quest to perfect his special theory of relativity. His imaginary travels enabled him to dream up a cosmos where time and space–previously the two absolutes of scientific inquiry, not to mention human experience–shrink and expand depending on the observer’s state of motion.

Perhaps the most startling aspect of Einstein’s method was his devotion to a decidedly unscientific force: intuition. “Intuition is the father of new knowledge,” he said, “while empiricism is nothing but an accumulation of old knowledge. Intuition is the ‘open sesame’ of yourself.” That powerful inward focus occasionally turned him into an impenetrable eccentric. One afternoon in 1930, for example, a crazed man showed up at Einstein’s door threatening to blow up his flat. The professor had received numerous death threats since publishing his radical theories, and the Nazis, although not yet in power, had already proclaimed him “Enemy Number One of the Nation.” Not far away, young brownshirts could be heard chanting, “When Jewish blood spurts from our knives, then it will be twice as good.” The arrival of the crazy man was too much for Einstein’s wife, who began shrieking, “How I hate this fame! If only we could leave Germany and hide in the darkest corner of the world.” Einstein, by contrast, picked up his violin, as he often did in moments of leisure, and played for a good half hour. As poet William Hermanns, who was visiting, described the scene: “He probably never heard a word [his wife] said, so absorbed was he in Mozart.”

Those hoping to peer into this genius’s strange and bracing imagination have hundreds of books to choose from, of which Einstein’s own 1916 explanation of his theories, Relativity, is probably the best, while Alan Lightman’s 1993 Einstein’s Dreams has the distinction of having been a best-seller: this contemporary physicist whimsically attempts to re-create Einstein’s meditations in the days before completing his first theory of relativity. Of course Einstein’s text gives the reader the most direct insight into the scientist’s thought processes, especially because he lays out each step leading to his discoveries–even steps that turn out to be missteps. It’s about as compelling and suspenseful as scientific treatises get, but only if you invest the brainpower that Einstein acknowledges is necessary to follow his train of thought. The investment pays off as a new universe forms before your very eyes.

But in a world where many people can’t be bothered to learn much from a book unless it’s written “for dummies,” Lightman’s brief collection of relativistic fairy tales may seem a more viable option. The author has an impressive set of scientific credentials, including a professorship in physics at MIT, and he offers diverting glimpses into Einstein’s world without making many intellectual demands on the reader. Technically a novel, Einstein’s Dreams posits 30 different worlds in which time functions in unexpected ways: it runs in a circle, it stops and starts, it stands still, it goes backward. In one world no one can conceive of a future. In another the past changes every day. Aping the elegant, elementary prose of Italo Calvino’s fables, Lightman attempts to return the reader to a state of childlike wonder, before incessantly ticking clocks turned our free lives into ploddingly scheduled days.

But for the most part Lightman’s intuitive “leaps” are mere baby steps, especially when compared to Einstein’s. In a Lightman world where time lasts only one day, for example, everyone tries to get as much done as quickly as possible. In a world where some people are swept suddenly back into the past, they creep about so as not to disturb the tiniest piece of dust lest their futures be destroyed. These are well-worn imaginary paths.

Now and then Lightman has moments of real inspiration. In one of his worlds, advancing time brings greater order–as opposed to our world, where increasing disorder is one of the few indications of time’s direction. In Lightman’s world “people with untidy houses lie in their beds and wait for the forces of nature to jostle the dust from their windowsills and straighten the shoes in their closets.” In another, when capitalists learn that time slows the faster one travels, all office buildings are mounted on wheels and streak through the city at terrific speeds.

But even when Lightman comes up with a genuinely intriguing premise, he usually just lists three or four examples to illustrate his idea, then moves on to the next world. He seems to lack the ability to develop his premises into conclusions: surprising and meaningful consequences rarely arise from his insights, making him a most un-Einsteinian thinker.

Given the source, Clock Productions’ adaptation of Einstein’s Dreams should have been a bore. That it is so only in spots is an achievement. Adapters David Denman and Pat Acerra selected 12 of Lightman’s tales and streamlined his prose, retaining the simplest narrative elements. Then under the guidance of movement director Dawn Arnold, the seven cast members simultaneously narrate and act out these vignettes, performing with a formal reserve reminiscent of Lightman’s prose.

The show works best when there’s some dissonance between the spoken text and the performed gesture. In the world where office buildings race through the city at high speeds, the actors move in extreme slow motion while an enormous video shows buildings passing by the windows of an el train. In a world where people have no memories, the actors lie on the floor opening and closing books that emit light. Such moments enable us to follow Einstein’s dictum that we “look at unrelated facts and think about them,” opening up worlds of mystery.

Too often, however, the stage action simply illustrates the text in disappointingly literal fashion: the performance is overkill. The mind is offered nowhere to wander–an especially problematic fact given the limited scope of Lightman’s imagination. In addition, though the general reserve of the acting gives the proceedings a necessary elegance, the performances tend to degenerate into flatness. The characters don’t seem to have much inner life, giving us even less to think about.

Lightman and Clock Productions both make too many obvious, rational choices, rarely letting their ideas lead them over the precipice of the imagination. And simply “following the trodden path of thought,” as Einstein put it, doesn’t get an artist or a scientist anywhere at all.