Attendees for the world premiere of My Lord, What a Night, by Deborah Brevoort, at the Contemporary American Theater Festival (CATF) this month will be able to boast that they are as close as they can come to seeing the dwellings and dressings of a true genius—Albert Einstein. In preparation for this production, set designer David Barber and costume designer Therese Bruck joined director Ed Herendeen on a journey to discover the authentic characteristics of the world-famous scholar in his Princeton, New Jersey, home.
112 Mercer Street is where Einstein resided from 1936 until his death in 1955, according to the National Register of Historic Places. The “simple two-story” house purchased by his wife, Elsa Einstein, on July 24, 1936, was noted in the National Archives Catalog report for the property: “112 Mercer Street was an integral part of Einstein’s work in the United States.”
The application for historic designation in the National Archives stated that the natural habitat of Einstein was either in his room at the Institute for Advanced Studies (IAS) or at his study at the Mercer Street address. The description of the home’s historical significance included a quote from the book, Albert Einstein, by Ronald Clark: “It was here that he could best carry on his main work and continue his stubborn rearguard battle against the new movements in physics, which he had started nearly a third of a century before.”
Although Einstein’s Mercer Street home was credited as his inspiration, his career at the institute began three years prior, in 1933—at the invitation of IAS Founding Director Abraham Flexner, who is also featured as a character in the CATF production.
According to IAS, Einstein pursued the goal of a unified field theory, and did so at a time when the goal of unifying the four fundamental forces of nature—gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force—had been set aside by the majority of working physicists.
For Herendeen, Barber, and Bruck, the information gathered at the IAS tour helped the team to create a vision for My Lord, What a Night. The trio were granted access to the private property, which is normally closed to the public. This behind-the-scenes look into the life of the famous physicist allowed each of the CATF ambassadors to gain more of an idea as to what inspired Einstein and how to formulate those inspirations into the design of the play.
“We had full access to his house, which was amazing,” Bruck explained. “The Institute will have dinners or events, but they do not allow the general public in the house. Einstein did not want any markers up at the house. He did not want it to be a museum.”
Also noted in the NAC filings, Einstein reportedly said the following while he was in the hospital just before his death: “Do not let the house become a museum.”
Although the home is not a museum in the traditional sense, its integrity has been maintained carefully over the years. Barber explained, “I think the entire experience was fantastic for us for getting some sort of insight of what his life was like.”
As for the set of My Lord, Barber affirmed, “We are in his house, in his study, on Mercer Street. I have made every effort to make it authentic. His study was eight-by-eight with very low ceilings. The playwright had taken an imaginative leap, so his study was on the first floor of the house. Walking into the tour, we knew we weren’t going to recreate the exact home. But I got to really look at the details— such as the crown molding, the windows, the furnishings, and his belongings.”
A home that was held in such high regard deserves its moment on stage. To that end, My Lord, What a Night tells an inspirational story that uses the interior of 112 Mercer Street as its setting. The play centers on an evening in which Einstein has the opportunity to meet one of his personal idols, singer Marian Anderson, after she performed a sold-out concert. “The play is mostly contained to his study,” Barber added.
Bruck also pointed out, “She was denied a room at the Nassau Inn because she was a person of color. Einstein insisted she stay with him for the evening. We walked between the Nassau Inn and the house, which was wonderful—really very intimate and very special. Flexner was worried, because Einstein was very popular, and as a result, the paparazzi would take their picture.”
During her time at IAS, Bruck noted the small size of Einstein’s bedroom and also how small the eight-by-eight study felt. That said, Bruck did note that one distinguishing feature within the room was a large bay window, installed so that he would be able to look into his backyard.
“In the Institute archive, we got to see a number of gifts given to Einstein,” said Bruck. “We got to see his glasses, which he was often photographed without. We saw his clay pipe, which we have included as part of the props for the play. He also had an album signed by Marion Anderson, which was very sentimental to him. He loved music. He loved Marion Anderson. She was a rock star and he was a fan boy. When she played in Princeton, they walked everywhere before she was turned away at the Nassau Inn.”
Bruck admitted the details of this story are very intimate for her. “I am first-generation America. My father essentially came to this country to escape a dictator’s rule. My understanding is that Einstein also was escaping Nazi Germany. The telegrams Einstein sent to Flexner were inspirational. It’s great that he was able to come to this country and be a free thinker. He was Jewish, and I think that played into his sympathy for the plight of African Americans.”
When it came to Einstein’s wardrobe, Bruck described his style as “sort of a rumpled mess,” to which she indicated theatergoers will see in the play.
“Everybody wore the same things at the time,” she confirmed. “Einstein looked a bit unkempt in comparison—he didn’t wear socks—but he was just too busy to be bothered to keep up appearances. He wore women’s sandals, but we don’t see that in the play. The play starts in early spring, so they’re going to be wearing coats, but often in the spring, Einstein would wear shorts, which wasn’t common.”
Barber established that audiences will really be able to get a sense of Einstein’s personal look. “In the play, the actor who plays Einstein makes reference to his unkempt personal space.” He added that, although the genius worked in chaos, he began by decorating his space with “very handsome furnishings,” many of which he had shipped over at the time of his immigration.
— To experience the recreation of Einstein’s personal look and home, reserve your tickets for My Lord, What a Night at www.catf.org or contact the box office at either 304-876-3473 or 800-999-2283. And don’t forget, there are five additional plays in the CATF lineup that each offer up an unforgettable experience. Find tickets and additional information at the website.