Ed Metzger has stopped buying Albert Einstein biographies.
He saw a new one in Barnes & Noble recently--a 700-page tome on the famed physicist. He flipped through it. Nothing new. No reason to tinker with his one-man show, "Einstein: The Practical Bohemian."
Over the last 18 years, Metzger has evolved into a living, breathing Einstein biography. His 90-minute one-man show, which he'll perform at the CSUN Performing Arts Center at 8 p.m. Saturday, is a collection of anecdotes and biographical details that sketch out the human being behind the theory of relativity.
But Metzger knows far more about Einstein than fits into the play. The scientist's acquaintances, encounters, habits and hobbies spill out of Metzger's head as if he were recalling his own experiences. Metzger, in fact, probably remembers such things better than Einstein ever did. As a schoolboy in Germany, Einstein eschewed memorization. Why memorize things already recorded in books?
The play covers a wide expanse of time, from Einstein's early childhood (he didn't speak until the age of 3) to his Nobel Prize in 1921, to his ouster from Germany, to the end of World War II. In 1939, Einstein signed a letter to President Roosevelt warning that the Nazis had split the atom and were on their way to developing a uranium bomb. He encouraged the United States to develop a bomb first--but to drop it on an uninhabited island. Instead, in 1945, the United States used the bomb against Japan.
"Einstein never knew Truman was considering using the bomb," said Metzger. "He was devastated. It was his work. It was his E=mc2 . . . that set off this bomb."
Though there is no scratching on chalkboards in the show--a deliberate avoidance--Metzger does attempt to explain the basics of Einstein's theories. It helps that he has a background in science. Before he started acting, Metzger was a pre-med student at the University of Alabama. He finished one year of medical school at the University of Florida before he dropped out, moved to Los Angeles and started training to be an actor at the Pasadena Playhouse.
After a six-year stint in New York, where he studied with Lee Strasberg at the Actors Studio, Metzger came back to Los Angeles in the mid-'70s. But he didn't want to give up theater and opted to try a one-man show.
Other actors have made a name for themselves using someone else's persona--Hal Holbrook with "Mark Twain Tonight" or James Whitmore with "Will Rogers' U.S.A." Metzger needed someone famous. Someone important. Someone who changed the course of history. Metzger was an admirer of John F. Kennedy--but didn't bear the slightest resemblance to him. Einstein, he thought. Perfect.
"What do you know about Einstein?" Metzger asked his wife--and agent and director--Laya Gelff.
"E=mc2 she told him.
"Oh," Metzger replied. "That's not going to make a very good show, huh?"
Today, some 40 biographies fill Metzger's bookshelves. But in the late '70s, information on Einstein was harder to come by. Most writing about Einstein focused exclusively on his scientific principles, save Ronald W. Clark's "Einstein: The Life and Times." Looking for personal foibles, Metzger and Gelff tracked down one of Einstein's sons, Hans, who revealed that his genius father tried to memorize jokes--and usually botched the punch line.
The portrait that emerged was that of an undeniable genius, but also an imperfect human being. Einstein was a distant father, for example, who preferred pondering the planets over pick-up football.
Only a few details that have emerged in recent years made Metzger change his show. One is that, before they were married, Einstein and his first wife, Mileva Maritsch, had a baby girl, whose fate is unknown. Either she was given up for adoption--a letter from Einstein suggests they couldn't afford the child--or she died in an outbreak of scarlet fever shortly after birth. Either way, Einstein insisted that Maritsch never speak of the little girl again. They later had two sons.
Other revelations have centered on Einstein's alleged womanizing. "At 26 he was considered a genius. The women flocked to him. He didn't shy away." Still, said Metzger, "I'm not putting him in the same category as Wilt Chamberlin."
Metzger makes only passing reference to Einstein's romantic ventures: After Maritsch divorced him, Einstein lived with Elsa, his cousin, out of wedlock--quite against the mores of the day. Eventually they married. Metzger also steers clear of all reported encounters after Elsa's death in 1936.
Metzger said his portrait isn't exactly perfect. After hunting high and low for a good sample of Einstein's speaking voice, he finally found an audiocassette of a 20-minute speech the scientist made after becoming a U.S. citizen in 1940. It turned out that Einstein's voice wasn't exactly . . . stage worthy. It was high and gentle, Metzger said, "almost like chirping in a tree." Imitating it, Metzger sounds more like a Swiss grandmother than the man who revolutionized the world of science.