the complete review Quarterly
Volume II, Issue 1   --   February, 2001

Humanistic Failings:
Karl Mickel's Einstein



       Paul Dessau's opera, Einstein, with a libretto by Karl Mickel, has withstood at least the first test of time. Manifestly political and a reflection of the era (the early 1970's) and locality (the German Democratic Republic) of its composition, many aspects of Einstein still resonate in our changed climate. More than twenty years after its 1974 premiere it has at least provisionally staked out a minor place in the opera repertoire. A definitive recording, of the 1978 Ruth Berghaus production, with Theo Adam as Einstein, is available, making the opera accessible to a wider, international audience.
       Dessau's score and the current revival of interest in his work are significant reasons for the continued success of the opera, but it is Mickel's libretto that stands out. A provocative examination of the role of the scientist in modern society, Mickel's conclusions again echo favorably in the minds of his new and differently attuned audience. His precise and polished language, lyrical intuition, and effective sense of drama convey a complex set of issues in a misleadingly simple manner. In many respects Einstein typifies Mickel's work; as such -- and because it is one the most accessible efforts he is associated with -- it also serves as an excellent introduction to this author.
       Karl Mickel (1935-2000), long recognized as one of the foremost poets of the GDR, first rose to prominence in the 1960's. Accorded some recognition in what was the Federal Republic long before reunification, his place, for now, is still within the literary establishment of the former East Germany, an unfortunate and not entirely fair anchor of recognition, though a convenient one. Mickel is inevitably identified as a member of the Sächsische Dichterschule, in good company with the likes of Sarah Kirsch, Volker Braun, and Heinz Czechowski. The categorization as a regional poet is not incorrect, but it is a further oversimplification. Specifically in the case of Mickel this classification ignores the bulk of his work: he has also written several significant plays, a large number of essays, and a novel. A difficult author, he has yet to reach a wider audience. He remains best known not for any specific piece of writing but for his role in editing (together with Adolf Endler) the controversial 1966 anthology of East German poetry, In diesem besseren Land.
       Karl Mickel's varied writings are invariably almost entirely free of excess. Trimmed and lean, written in a distinctive clear and pointed style, his writings are a reduction of his subject matter to its essence. His arresting and precise use of language often belies the fact that he is a writer of ideas; fundamentally, he is a political writer. While he is not reserved in his opinions, he takes great care in how he formulates and presents his views, whether in his poetry, his essays, his dramatical works, or his fiction. His pronouncements tend to be succinct; indeed, almost all of his work is marked by its concision. A major poet, by any measure, he has carefully circumscribed his output and his one major prose work, Lachmunds Freunde, remains incomplete, with Mickel holding out the promise of a sequel. His dense style does not make him an approachable author and is likely one of the reasons he has not been extensively translated.
       Critics have shied away from his oeuvre, uncertain perhaps how to address it. All of his writing is political and his politics (and his presentation of them) are decidedly unfashionable. Even so, the literary quality of his work is unquestionably of the highest order. There are other explanations for the critical neglect: the poems are few and concentrated, almost too demanding. Many of his dramatical works are adaptations, too readily dismissed as imitation. And in recent years Mickel has concentrated his efforts on writing libretti, a genre that is generally ignored outright by literary arbiters.
       Mickel's focus on writing libretti, first with Dessau and then in collaboration with Dessau's student, Friedrich Schenker, has moved him outside the purview of the critical mainstream. Most interest in these texts arises only in conjunction with a consideration of each opera as a whole; perforce such analysis is often tied to specific performances of the works. The libretto is rarely allowed to stand on its own. Valid or not, the oversight is regrettable. In the case of Mickel it seems likely that a comprehensive critical examination of his libretti will, at some point, follow. A collaborator on a number of operas, he has established himself as one of the few 20th century poets of note to have written several libretti that stand as accomplished literary works in their own right.
       The libretto appears to attract Mickel because of the very constrictions and challenges of the form. As in his poetry, where he frequently ties himself to classic conventions, or in his dramas, in which he often takes existing material and refashions it, the libretto permits only a certain amount of leeway and places great formal demands on the author. Mickel is exceptionally skillful in using these limitations to greatest effect. Einstein, in particular, for all its careful construction, is a rich and variegated work; the tiered depth of the text proper is easily missed beneath the music.
       Using the historical figure of Einstein Mickel's text chronicles the time from when Hitler first came to power in 1933 until near the time of Einstein's death in 1955. The central characters are scientists -- Einstein and the nameless Young and Old Physicists --, and their work towards the development and deployment of the atomic bomb is the focal point of the opera. History and science are radically (though not always obviously) simplified in the text. The issues, inevitably colored by the strong subjective and emotive predisposition with which any audience approaches this subject matter, are effectively abstracted, with Mickel artfully representing them in the text. Mickel's libretto is manipulative, as successful art often is; multifaceted, its superficial brilliance easily obscures the carefully crafted foundation of its arguments, a structure of evidence and fact that is in many respects incomplete. Mickel's approach is certainly valid, justified by the affective and aesthetically accomplished work he has wrought; nevertheless, an awareness of the underpinnings and Mickel's methodology seems essential in a critical evaluation of the piece. It is because they are so accomplished that his use of history and his approach towards science, in particular, must be more closely scrutinized.
       Albert Einstein has become an icon and it is a version of this icon that Mickel puts on the stage. He is not the only artist to appropriate Einstein for his purposes. (1) The figure has been presented in many guises over the past half century. Beyond such creative appropriation, Einstein himself -- or what the popular imagination has made of him -- has become a part of popular culture. His famous visage is instantly recognizable; likely he is the only scientist whose face can be identified by large segments of the population. It is this comfortable sense of familiarity that Mickel eagerly exploits.
       Forty years after his death, Albert Einstein remains the personification of the modern scientist, his formula E=mc² an equation that rings familiar far beyond the reaches of the scientific world. Einstein's fame is due, in part, to his brilliant scientific achievement, though it alone does not suffice to explain his stature outside the academic community. Beyond the simplest aspects of the equation E=mc² and fundamental notions regarding his theory of relativity Einstein's science remains largely inaccessible to the layman. Einstein's groundbreaking discoveries were influential beyond their strict scientific applications, most notably in the area of philosophy, and they did have a broad, far-reaching cultural impact. (2) However, it is Einstein himself, as much as his work, that made for the cult of personality still surrounding him.
       Einstein's remarkable and seemingly unlikely path to scientific success (by way of the Zurich patent office) and such enduring myths as that of his bad grades at school preserve the illusion that Einstein was an everyman who fortuitously was able to allow his greatness to flower, a hopeful and popular interpretation. His genius, which was both sublime and transcendent, defies explanation; therefore, any explanation of it is plausible. Sympathetic and harmless in appearance with his tousled hair and fiddle Einstein is the prototype of the scientist as we would like to see him: brilliant, absent-minded, benign. Einstein's science was also largely theoretical (later to be impressively confirmed by experiment and observation). As such, the threat it posed was largely in the revised world view that his theories of relativity demanded.
       Einstein's most influential discoveries were published in 1905. (3) The association of his name with the atomic bomb is a much later invention: other theoretical and practical advances where necessary before such a weapon even became conceivable. However, the dark spectre of the atomic bomb, with E=mc² as its supposed key, continues to loom over Einstein, a curious and fast link whose origins have never been satisfactorily explained. After the war he said: "I do not consider myself the father of the release of atomic energy. My part in it was quite indirect." (Einstein 121) Einstein's distance from the actual development of the device that unleashed this energy should have lessened the taint, but is, in fact, ignored. The popular imagination has inextricably twinned the two and placed an abstract responsibility on Einstein's shoulders -- a burden of guilt that Mickel also condemns his Einstein to.
       The image of Einstein is dichotomous in regard to his role in pushing us into the nuclear age, and Mickel uses this to good effect. Einstein was readily accepted as a moral authority, a role that is rarely permitted a scientist. His early stance in opposition to Hitler, his letter of warning to President Roosevelt and his strong commitment to peace all bolstered his standing. Mickel uses this perceived moral authority to heighten the dramatic tension in his piece. By giving Einstein a central role in the creation of the atomic bomb he creates a conflict -- one that did not, in fact, exist. Only by shifting the responsibility squarely back to Einstein (much as Brecht is able to focus responsibility on his Galileo) is Mickel able to force his argument. Mickel warns of a society, rooted in a humanist tradition, that cannot responsibly utilize scientific knowledge for the greater good and therefore should not be entrusted with it. For Mickel responsibility (and therefore also blame) lies almost entirely with the scientist, the figure holding the key to the knowledge. Scientific knowledge is not only the abstraction of an equation such as E=mc², Mickel insists. Included in it are all the consequences implied in the abstraction, including the atomic bomb.
       In an afterword Mickel sums up the action: "Zu Beginn der Oper wird Einstein verbrannt, am Ende verbrennt er sich selber." (At the beginning of the opera Einstein is burned, in the end he burns himself.) (Mickel, Einstein 92) It is an unusual and dark arc of suppression and destruction. The first scene of the opera is of the auto-da-fé of May 10, 1933, the notorious Bücherverbrennung demonstrating Nazi intolerance of thought and art antithetical to its ideals. May 10, 1933 is an historic date, etched into German memory, and the familiar connotations and the scene on the stage may suffice to suggest the horror of the act. (4) Significantly, however, there is no round condemnation of the deed in the text itself. Knowledge is destroyed, but this unspeakable act is passed over in silence. While he mentions it in the prologue Mickel does not address the burning of the books directly in the actual scene. It is a vivid tableaux showing the Nazis' arrogation of power, but the bonfires are little more than a visually striking centerpiece. None of the dialogue touches on the books, and only when Einstein is burnt in effigy is there any reference to the fires. As he makes clear from this beginning Mickel's concerns lie elsewhere. While the authors are legion that went up in flames, Mickel shows us only Einstein. Books are burnt on stage, but it is Einstein, burnt in effigy, that is the only identifiable victim. Einstein's scientific knowledge is an abstraction beyond art, very different from the novels and plays being burned, but it is the specific threat that it poses that Mickel focuses on.
       Acknowledging the danger inherent in this knowledge, Mickel shows himself finally willing to sacrifice it. Throughout the opera his Einstein is torn between doing so and not. Mickel's Einstein does not want to be involved in the creation of a nuclear device, but because of the historic moment and the threat of a Nazi atomic bomb he does choose to apply his knowledge and collaborate with the Americans. Work on the device continues even after the ostensible reason for its development -- the Fascist threat -- has been stamped out by other means. It is then that Mickel's Einstein is finally willing to proactively assume responsibility. Einstein's concluding act, prefigured in the opening scene, is to destroy his new formula, twenty years worth of work (5) , keeping it from a world that is not ready for it and thus, saving mankind from itself.
       Einstein is not an historical piece. The opera is only loosely fitted around historical events, taking the recognizable and distorting it for its purposes. The chronology of Einstein is one of convenience, and while some scenes are based on actual occurrences they have been radically tailored to this narrative. In this the opera differs greatly from plays such as Heinar Kipphardt's documentary drama In der Sache J.Robert Oppenheimer or even the historically based dramas of Rolf Hochhuth and Peter Weiss. In this respect it also stands in contrast to its most obvious precursor, Bertold Brecht's Leben des Galilei.
       Mickel's ahistorical approach is a dangerous pretense, in particular because the liberties that are taken may not be recognized as such by an audience which has a limited sense of the historical background surrounding the events depicted. Scenes such as the allegorical Hans Wurst intermezzi between the acts or the caricatured Hitler figure (his title a corrupted Führorr) suggest the figurative nature of the text, but there are also contrary indications in the many scenes that recall historical events which seem accurately represented on the stage. Understandably the operatic form demands a condensed presentation of both dialogue and action, limiting what can be shown; compared even to a play there is not room for many words. Mickel ably loads his scenes in this limited space, but in doing so he does twist many of the facts.
       It is specifically the central actions that Mickel ascribes to his Einstein that are pure invention, beginning with the description of Einstein's flight from Nazi Germany. Einstein spent a considerable time abroad before Hitler came to power, teaching and conducting research. In 1932 he had already agreed to accept a position the following year at the then still unnamed Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, although he expected to also be able to continue his work in Berlin and Oxford (Clark 448). Einstein was spending the winter in Pasadena, California, when Hitler was named Chancellor on January 30th, 1933. Recognizing the dangers posed by the Nazi regime he apparently never considered returning to this Germany, and he made this decision public in a newspaper interview on March 10, two weeks after the burning of the Reichstag. In this statement he said that: "As long as I have any choice, I will only stay in a country where civil liberty, tolerance, and equality of all citizens before the law prevail," conditions which he felt "do not exist in Germany at the present time" (Clark 458). Einstein did return to Europe that spring, but he went to Belgium, not Germany, and he formally surrendered his German citizenship there (Clark 464). He finally returned to the United States in October, 1933, though fully expecting at that time to be able to continue his work in Europe the next summer (Clark 505).
       Mickel places his Einstein in Berlin in May, 1933 (I.1-4). Only after he has been burnt in effigy, along with his books, does this Einstein decide to flee to America, when in fact the real Einstein had forsaken his homeland months earlier. Mickel's portrayal is not of a politically more naive figure -- his Einstein is astute in recognizing the dangers of the Nazi regime, in contrast to the two other Physicists in the opera -- but he is neither as prescient nor as aware as the historic Einstein was. Mickel needs his Einstein to be a scientist, first and foremost, tied to his laboratory, concerned only with his work and reacting to politics only when they are inescapable.
       In the text the interim between Hitler's rise to power and the beginning of the war is a brief one. After Einstein flees (I.4) there is a succession of scenes set in Germany, culminating in that where Hitler orders the eighty and the eight year olds to the front -- and demands of the Physicists:
Daß ihr mir abbrecht die Erdteile
Welche sich mir widersetzen ... (I.7)

(That you break off for me those pieces of the world
That resist me ...)
       Einstein himself is first seen again after the war has already started (II.1), a leap of at least six years. There is no mention of what he has been occupied with; it can be inferred that during this period his scientific work has been abstract and apolitical. Mickel has his Einstein take manifest action only after one of his former colleagues, the Young Physicist, has managed to escape Germany, bringing the news of a German program to build an atomic bomb (II.2). Einstein then receives the news that the United States has declared war on Germany (as occurred in December, 1941) when two Senators inform him that he is thereafter forbidden to be in any way politically active in the U.S. It is then that Einstein reiterates what he already made clear by his actions in Germany: "Ich laß mich nicht verbieten." (I won't let myself be proscribed.) In the next scene he goes to the American President, obtaining the financial and logistical support to build the atomic bomb (II.3-4). The technical aspects are only vaguely drawn in the opera, but Einstein is clearly presented as a driving force behind the realization of the atomic bomb.
       Einstein's actual involvement in the creation of the atomic bomb was much more limited, though his claim that "My participation in the production of the atomic bomb consists of one single act: I signed a letter to President Roosevelt," (Clark 562) is somewhat disingenuous. The warning about the possibility of a German atomic program and the need for a concerted American effort to determine the theoretical and practical possibility of harnessing the energy of the atom in a weapon did come in that now famous letter. It was written in August, 1939, before the declaration of war in Europe, at the behest of and in collaboration with Leo Szilard (Clark 555-7). The letter was not delivered until October, 1939 (Clark 558), but it did then have the desired effect of spurring governmental action. Einstein himself was peripherally involved in certain aspects of the work towards the bomb (Clark 544-85), but deep suspicion of his pacifist and foreign past made it "utterly impossible" for him to actively participate in the Manhattan Project (Clark 565). Not only did Einstein never travel to Los Alamos, but for all intents and purposes the first confirmation he received that the United States was in fact building an atomic device came on August 6th, 1945, with the detonation of such a bomb over Hiroshima (Clark 565-6).
       Throughout the opera there is a deep suspicion of science, an attitude likely to resonate with Mickel's audiences. The obdurate divide between the scientific and the nonscientific world diagnosed by C.P.Snow seems evermore apparent. (6) While physics is being replaced by both biology (specifically genetics) and computer science as the bugbear of our times, the atomic bomb (and its cousin, the hydrogen bomb) remain the starkest symbols of the negative potential of science. The massive and immediate destructive capability of nuclear devices, well-known from the examples of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, coupled with the emblematic image of the mushroom cloud contrasts with the more insidious and less readily understood (and less easily visualized) dangers posed by biological advances and those in information technology. In Einstein the atomic horrors are presented on stage in minimalist fashion: a countdown leads to the explosion of the first experimental device, followed by the blackening of the sun (II.8). In the next scene, performed in darkness, two choruses intone nothing but the words Hiroshima and Nagasaki (II.9). There is no need to do more; the audience can fill in the blanks (or the darkness).
       Science also remains the great unknown in Einstein. Where Brecht went to great pains to explain the (admittedly more basic) science and method behind Galileo's revolutionary discovery, Mickel basically reduces the complexity of the scientific issues raised in Einstein to the simple and affecting displays of the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (II.9). There is little effort in Einstein to describe or consider scientific method. The results of Einstein's genius are presented almost entirely as inspiration, hardly more than Archimedean eurekas. Indeed, in the one scene when the audience is almost privy to the Young Physicist and Einstein making a discovery the reaction of the Young Physicist is exactly such a eureka. After disappearing into their work shed the Young Physicist reemerges with an exultant scream, followed by Einstein. They have determined that, at least theoretically, "Die Welt bleibt ganz." (II.5) (The world remains whole.) Mickel does grant that there is some effort involved in scientific work -- or at least a great deal of time -- but his Einstein seems to acknowledge practically stumbling across his discoveries, saying that he found them rather than arriving at them through some process of deduction, reasoning, or experimentation (see III.4). This subtle subversion of the scientific process (and almost outright negation of scientific method) can be found throughout the opera, and by presenting it in this manner Mickel undermines the validity of this science. The atomic age is depicted as an alchemic rather than scientific one, a curious and not entirely satisfactory simplification.
       Mickel nevertheless appears to respect science. He concedes the inevitability of technological innovation and his argument is never presented as a Luddite defense. Mickel does, however, fault the scientists in Einstein for assuming none of the concomitant responsibility for the possible consequences arising from the technological advancements they achieve. His argument condemns the scientists for clinging solely to the abstraction of knowledge and ignoring the practical application of their discoveries. Society and the state are presented as being inadequately equipped for using the knowledge and the potential it holds. Mickel places the burden of responsibility on his scientists. Einstein's decision to ultimately assume complete responsibility is presented as the only acceptable solution, even where, as here, it results in knowledge being withheld and destroyed.
       Science is depicted as an amoral pursuit in Einstein. The scientists themselves rarely show any concern for questions of morality and they are willing to subordinate themselves even when they to have misgivings about the consequences of their work. Only Einstein, icon and moral authority, stands apart. Assessing the human toll Einstein's decision to destroy his life's work is the only possible responsible action he, as a scientist, can take. The Ruth Berghaus production, in the 1978 recorded version, takes Mickel's condemnation of the scientist one step further. Adding words that are not included in any version of the libretto Einstein there says: "Lieber ein Klempner oder Hausierer werden als ein Physiker." (III.4) (Better to become a handyman or a peddler than a physicist.) Echoing his earlier wish to negate his self and his work he here condemns the scientific calling per se.
       The understanding that science is an instrument of politics is not clear to any of the scientists at the beginning of the opera. When the conclusion that it is is inescapable they find justification not in the cause they are serving but still only in science itself. The Old Physicist, in particular, believes in an ideal of pure science. Having outlived two regimes he believes he can ignore the political situation and outlive the third as well. "Mein Trost sind Naturgesetze," (I.5) (The laws of nature are my consolation) he maintains. He acquiesces to the demands of the state -- first the Nazi regime, and then the Americans --, willing to do what is necessary in order to save his own skin, even if that means working towards the destruction of the world (I.7). Significantly, the Old Physicist does not admit any responsibility for the consequences of his work. The East German versions of the text, both in the Henschelverlag libretto and the Berghaus recording, even have as his first words to the Young Physicist after the war the emphatic declaration: "Ich bin unschuldig !" (II.6) (I am innocent !) (7) The Old Physicist's protestation of innocence is not necessary: he is portrayed throughout as someone who cannot attach guilt to his actions. Set off as they are the words are a damning self-indictment -- of the Old Physicist in particular, and scientists in general.
       The Young Physicist also knows what it means to be a scientist: "Ich habe die Seuche," (I.6) (I have the plague) he acknowledges. He is well aware of the potential in his knowledge: "Ich könnte die Welt zerhaun, mich läßt nur keiner. Gebt mir eine Million, und ich furz euch vom Planeten." (I.6) (I could break the world apart, only no one lets me. Give me a million and I'll fart you off the planet.) Tortured by the SA he could obtain his freedom by joining the Old Physicist and applying his knowledge on behalf of the Nazi cause. He considers it and the consequences, and he refuses. He knows what is being asked of him. Three times he asks: "Die Welt zerhaun ?" (I.7) (Break apart the world ?) and decides finally that he cannot do it.
       The Young Physicist's refusal is not absolute. Fleeing to America he participates in the atomic program there, to counter the Fascist threat -- although he continues with his work even after the Fascists have been defeated. After the war with Germany comes to an end in May, 1945 the Young Physicist is also instrumental in bringing the Old Physicist to America to help complete the building of the bomb. It is irrelevant to all concerned that the Old Physicist worked under the Nazi regime. Mirroring the later example of the rocket scientist Wernher von Braun the Old Physicist is needed for his expertise. Political allegiance is inconsequential. Again and again, the scientists are shown not to have a political conscience.
       Where the Old Physicist seeks solace in science itself, the Young Physicist finally finds it in the promises of the socialist world. Mickel is not a partisan in this ideological argument: here, where the subject is the responsible utilization of scientific advancements, this particular solution is presented as simplistic and inadequate. With no tendentiousness Mickel warily offers this alternative, even couching the Young Physicist's decision in emotional rather than rational terms. Disillusioned after the war, the Young Physicist remembers a song he overheard in the cellars of the SA: the Internationale. "Das ist die Hoffnung / es gibt keine andere," (III.4) (That is the one hope; there is no other) Mickel has him conclude. This melancholy remembrance suffices to convince the Young Physicist that socialism is the alternative he must choose; it is, emphatically, not that possibility which Mickel pursues. Instead it is Einstein, alone on the stage, that offers a final alternative, of the scientist taking responsibility for his own work.
       In the East German editions the Young Physicist leaves the stage after concluding that socialism is the one hope; in the West German edition Mickel adds the words: "Die müssen Alles erfahren, und wenn / ich auf den elektrischen / Stuhl komme." (III.4) (They must come to know everything, and even if I wind up in the electric chair.) The appeal is a more rationally based one, suggesting that the spread of scientific knowledge, and this knowledge in particular, is desirable, the tenuous balance of mutually assured destruction being preferable to the unchallengeable supremacy it would grant to any power that controlled the knowledge by itself. It is a plausible argument, but Mickel chooses to undermine it immediately by reminding the audience of the cost and possible consequences of the Young Physicist's idealism: he is breaking the law and could be sentenced to death if caught. Implicit in his words is the Young Physicist's awareness that he is committing yet another betrayal; in this case, it is a betrayal of the Americans. Mickel portrays this as a justifiable act, but his approbation is reluctant.
       Mickel's Einstein stands apart from the other characters. He is so certain of the superiority of his abilities that he believes he controls the knowledge necessary to create an atomic bomb and that no one could find it independently. He cannot imagine, initially, that the Old Physicist could build the bomb without his help. Only when he is told that the Old Physicist is relying on his notes does Mickel's Einstein then allow himself to be convinced of the necessity of building a nuclear device to counter a possible Fascist bomb. His first hope -- to subvert his knowledge by ignoring it -- proves impossible. "Ich will nichts geschrieben haben," (II.2) (I do not want to have written anything) he then says, wanting to deny his discoveries after the fact, but it is too late for that as well.
       Actively working in the American atomic program, Mickel's Einstein expects the bomb project to be terminated when the Nazi regime is defeated. Without this enemy he sees no need for the device. His exultant cries of "Frieden ! Frieden !" (II.7) (Peace ! Peace !) refer solely to the victory over Fascism: for Mickel's Einstein the war is over once Germany has been defeated. Mickel does not acknowledge that this exclamation is premature. America's military commitment in the Pacific and the continued Japanese threat after Germany's capitulation in May of 1945 are completely ignored. Even valid arguments against the use of the atomic bomb in the Pacific theatre, such as the absence of any Japanese nuclear program, find no mention. The deployment of the atomic devices over Japan is then shown as an almost gratuitous afterthought, without justification. Mickel's presentation of these events is a gross simplification, though with its narrow focus it does serve as an effective final indictment of the naive scientists as instruments of government and ideology.
       Like Dessau's accompanying music, the text frequently relies on direct quotation, with Mickel adapting the words for his particular use. One notable revision occurs in the revealing scene after the war has ended in which Einstein and the Physicists are confronted by representatives of the state -- the three Bailiffs -- regarding a document they have signed (III.2). Questioning the Old Physicist one of the Bailiffs reads the damning words: they are, in fact, taken from the controversial so-called Frauenglass letter that Einstein wrote in 1953. A protest against the methods of the House Un-American Activities Committee, the letter calls on those called upon to testify to refuse to do so. Mickel quotes Einstein almost verbatim, the sections used reading as follows in the original: "Every intellectual who is called before one of the committees ought to refuse to testify, i.e. he must be prepared for jail and economic ruin, in short, for the sacrifice of his personal welfare in the interest of the cultural welfare of his country .... If enough people are ready to take this grave step they will be successful. If not, then the intellectuals of this country deserve nothing better than the slavery which is intended for them." (Einstein 34)
       In the opera Mickel has the Bailiffs describe the proceedings as being against the "rebellischen Physiker" (rebellious physicists) who are under investigation for their unwillingness to do the state's bidding, even though they are so well paid. Mickel makes no reference to the Congressional committees (as Einstein does in his letter) and begins the quote more generally: "Jeder muß bereit sein, sich einsperren und wirtschaftlich ruinieren zu lassen." (Everyone must be prepared for jail and economic ruin) He also makes the appeal more personal in using the inclusive first person plural, rather than the third person: "Wenn sich genug Personen finden, die diesen harten Weg gehen, werden wir Erfolg haben. Wenn nicht, verdienen wir die Sklaverei, die uns zugedacht ist." (If enough people are ready to take this grave step we will be successful. If not, then we deserve the slavery which is intended for us.)
       In Einstein the two other Physicists also put their names to the declaration, although in fact it was a letter that only Einstein signed. By adding their names Mickel is then able to underscore the difference in their positions. When the Old Physicist is asked about the document he denies having written it, but acknowledges that he signed his name to it. Pressed to reveal who penned it he refuses to name the author, saying that his conscience paralyzes his tongue. Laughingly the Bailiff suggests that his conscience had no such effect on his hands and convinces him to write out the name, which the Old Physicist then does. The Young Physicist also capitulates in the face of the overwhelming might of the state. Einstein is then brought in and confronted not only by the Bailiffs but also by his associates who have betrayed him; he alone admits responsibility. Weakly the two Physicists try to justify their renunciation of Einstein's words by reinterpreting the appeal as one that calls for violence: "Du hast dich wirklich geirrt," (You were truly mistaken) the Young Physicist says.
       The scene ends with the tribunal's sentencing of the three scientists. T he two Physicists are acknowledged as being trustworthy and complicit servants of the state. The Bailiffs conclude: "Das Gericht / erkennt, daß Sie die Waffen / die Sie hergestellt haben, verbessern / wollen." (The court recognizes that you want to improve the weapons that you have produced) Einstein is pronounced guilty and his sentence is a different one: "Sie werden, solange Sie leben / sowie nach Ihrem Tode / für die Waffen, die / Sie erdacht haben und abschaffen wollen / in einem fort geehrt werden." (You will, for as long as you live as well as after your death, be continually honored for the weapons which you conceived and want to abolish) Einstein is condemned to this peculiar fame as father of the atom bomb, Mickel's clearest statement that the attribution is not entirely justified.
       The whole scene suggests the House Un-American Activities Committee witch-hunts, and Mickel effectively captures the conflict and consequences of such proceedings in these short exchanges. Only Einstein cannot be forced into betrayal and compromise; the other scientists have neither the will nor the standing to do the same. Nevertheless the hearings differ from those of HUAC. The questions of ideological affiliation around which the historical proceedings centered are ignored; in the opera the state's only interest is in having the scientists continue their work. In fundamentally changing the nature of the proceedings Mickel essentially depoliticizes them. Einstein's punishment is also only a symbolic one -- to suffer a shameful glory -- while the more consequential actual impact of the HUAC hearings in fact led to many of those called to testify being blacklisted or labeled enemies of the state. Regardless of their words (which are recognized and dismissed by the Bailiffs as harmless) the scientists -- including Einstein -- are still honored. They are valued for their service to the state in helping to produce these devastating armaments, and their weak political convictions are essentially deemed irrelevant. Even principled Einstein is only a scientist, instrumental in building the atomic bomb but hardly a threat to influence policy or attitudes regarding the weapon with his pronouncements.
       The West German edition of Mickel's libretto, published in 1974, couples it with his play Nausikaa. The collection is subtitled: "Die Schrecken des Humanismus in zwei Stücken." (The Horrors of Humanism in Two Pieces) The concern that humanism poses dangers to the very civilization basing itself on its ideals is evident throughout Einstein. While he is attracted to it in the abstract Mickel distrusts what he determinedly sees as the misplaced humanist confidence in humanity itself. Much of Mickel's work is strongly founded in a classical tradition, both in form and subject matter, but he remains extremely wary of it -- a tension that he has been able to exploit to good effect in his writings. He does not believe in the supposed civilizing effects of humanism, and Einstein is the most explicit representation of his position.
       Mickel repeatedly reminds his audience that culture is not a panacea, and the cultured can be corrupt. The point is most obviously made when he introduces the military figures in the opera: while the SA lackeys who come to search for Einstein are boorish brutes (I.4), the first soldiers that are encountered are cultured, reciting classical verse (from Achim von Arnim's Des Knaben Wunderhorn) while they are being drilled:
Amor, erheb dich, edler Held !
Begeb dich mit mir ins Feld (I.5)

(Amor, arise, noble hero !
Come with me into the field)
       For Mickel Einstein's weakness is that he is the product of this same humanist tradition. Echoing Brecht, who branded Einstein a humanist who looked the other way while factories were churning out atomic bombs (8) , Mickel also presents the scientist as ill-equipped to deal with the questions advances such as the splitting of the atom bring, precisely because of the culture in which he was educated and in which he works.
       It is no surprise that a triumvirate of humanist sages -- Galileo Galilei, Giordano Bruno, and Leonardo da Vinci -- are the moral and historical compass for Mickel's Einstein. There is no mortal measure for him; he can only turn to these immortals, representative of a tradition that he belongs to (and has, according to Mickel, literally outlived). They appear to him in person after the U.S. senators have tried to silence him (II.2) and later they wait for him to take his place among them in the afterlife (III.3), but first, before he flees Germany, Einstein takes their works from his bookshelves, looking there for direction and example. He examines the volumes, one by one. The first book he takes is Galileo's Discorsi. Written while Galileo was a prisoner of the Inquisition Mickel has his Einstein describe it as: "Abgefaßt unter Himmlers Aufsicht in der Gestapo-Villa." (I.2) (Composed under Himmler's supervision in the Gestapo villa) Einstein replaces it on the shelf. The second volume he examines is a book by Giordano Bruno; Einstein also puts it back. The last is by Leonardo da Vinci, and this is the one that he takes with him.
       Galileo recanted; Einstein is not willing to repudiate his words. He would not do so under the Nazis, and he would not under the Americans. "Was ich geschrieben habe / habe ich geschrieben," (What I wrote I wrote) he says at the end of the opera (III.2). Giordano, who stood behind his words, was burnt at the stake for his uncompromising stance, a fate Mickel's Einstein is also not willing to suffer. It is Leonardo, described as a fellow emigrant, who is the true survivor and thus the figure Einstein chooses to emulate. Leonardo did not compromise himself and he did not get himself killed: Mickel's Einstein wants to endure in a similar manner.
       Tellingly, the passage that Einstein reads before pocketing the book is one in which Leonardo explains why he has chosen to keep certain knowledge secret, not writing it down and not publishing or proclaiming it: he does not believe mankind can be trusted with it. Mickel's Leonardo believes man to be malevolent by nature, and he is certain that the knowledge would be abused, leading to murder and destruction (I.2). The dilemma is identical to the one Einstein is later faced with. For both Leonardo and Einstein the decision, finally, is to keep the information out of the hands of a society that they belive to be irresponsible. It is not a question of their personal survival but an act meant to protect mankind from itself.
       Bertold Brecht wrote about the title character of his Life of Galileo: "The atom bomb is, both as a technical and as a social phenomenon, the classical end-product of his contribution to science and his failure to contribute to society." (Brecht, Collected Plays 225) Mickel presents the same conclusions in Einstein, making the links even more obvious. The brilliance of the technical accomplishment of the scientist is overshadowed by the failure of the man in releasing it into a society that is not equipped to handle it responsibly, the failure more marked now, given the actual deployment of the atom bomb. Conferring the same guilt on his character -- a culpability hanging over all science, from Galileo to the present -- Mickel does, however, allow his Einstein to redeem himself through a final act of abnegation. Einstein prevents any further harm by destroying his last discovery, a formula representing twenty years worth of work. Recognizing knowledge itself as the danger Einstein disavows it completely.
       In the final scene of the opera (III.4) Einstein speaks with a young boy, one who claims: "Ich will alles wissen." (I want to know everything.) The child, as unformed as society as a whole is, is ambitious and eager; listening to Einstein he also admits: "Ich verstehe kein Wort." (I don't understand a word.) Approvingly Einstein answers: "Das ist sehr gut." (That is very good.) These words are the final ones Einstein utters. It may seem a pretty scene, but it is a damning conclusion. The final and only hope Mickel can offer his audience is predicated on ignorance and wide-eyed innocence, cynically presented in the sympathetic guise of a child. Science -- and knowledge -- represent the fall of man, and the fall of mankind. The fault is that of society and of the state, unable to utilize science without abusing the power that it brings with it, but Mickel is unwilling to entertain the thought that society and/or the state themselves could be improved. It is the scientist that must act responsibly and save humanity from itself.
       The Hanswurst figure that rises from the dead and precariously balances on a razor's edge in the epilogue is a clownish personification of society, reduced to the role of witness and victim. Hanswurst is unable to influence events and he is at the mercy of the powers that be. Eaten alive by the Crocodile, a representation first of Nazi Germany and then of imperialist America, the hapless everyman endures. His resurrection in the epilogue affirms that Einstein's choice was the correct one, saving a world on the brink of destruction. Couched as a dark allegory, with the Bailiffs riding the Crocodile that swims threateningly in the pond while Hanswurst stands on the cliffs (and then dances on the razor when it opens), the epilogue is as close to an optimistic scene as Mickel is willing to leave his audience with.
       John Flores' judgment, made with regard to Mickel's poetry collection Vita nova mea, also applies to Einstein: "The ego in Mickel's sarcastic 'antimyths' is asocial because he is without an intuitive assurance of the feasibility of reaching a higher value by collective human effort." (Flores 301) Convincing or not, Einstein is Mickel's most expansive such antimyth, without a single indication that anything positive can come from collective human effort. Any and all positive steps are taken by individuals, and they are taken in the face of the oppressive collective. It is a dark, almost despairing condemnation of society that colors all Mickel's work
       Einstein is a programmatic piece, its themes still strikingly contemporary. Modern audiences, suspicious of science, are likely to be receptive to much of Mickel's argument. Certainly he presents it effectively, form transcending content. However, the very aesthetic appeal of the text frustrates a rigorous analytic approach. Mickel is both a supreme craftsman and a poet. His talent lulls, readily allowing affect to substitute for reason. The dramaturgic and literary strengths of the libretto obscure the manipulative nature of the text. Regardless of the validity of his views, Mickel also preempts much of the debate by framing the argument in this careful and close manner. Basing much of the text on historical fact and quoting familiar material in an unfamiliar context, Mickel imposes his condensed and simplified interpretation on an audience ill-equipped to question the bases of his argument. Unversed in history but responsive to the use of iconic (and nearly peremptory) imagery such as the atomic bomb and the figure of Einstein the audience relies on Mickel's rendering. His free interpretation is justifiable as art, but suspect as commentary and finding. Mickel's text challenges his audience; regrettably his audience is unlikely to have the requisite critical understanding to meet that challenge. Ironically, it is the lack of broad exposure to humanistic tradition that precludes a modern audience from being able to distinguish fact, fiction, and argument in Einstein. Without the tools and the knowledge based in that tradition (which Mickel relies upon so heavily, even in subverting it), the text impresses as a provocative and impassioned but ultimately hollow exposition of a complex subject.
       Mickel's sophisticated presentation is demanding. While Einstein is successful in its own right, as a musical piece or even merely an accomplished didactic text, the densely packed and carefully structured libretto warrants more exacting analysis. Mickel's text is both a challenge and an homage to humanism. The interplay between his subject and his method is revealing, and ultimately the source of the strength and the weakness of the libretto. Unable or unwilling to free himself from the strictures of humanistic tradition Mickel follows the example of his character, choosing an absolute though not entirely convincing denial of his own work. Like his Einstein's final act of reducing two decades of knowledge to ashes, completing the arc of destruction of all intellectual (read humanistic) creation that opened the opera, Mickel's self-denial is expertly and emphatically conveyed; nevertheless, like Einstein's act, it is also not entirely persuasive.

- Return to top of the page -

works cited  |  links


(1) The most notable examples are from the stage, where Einstein characters appear in works as diverse as Friedrich Dürrenmatt's Die Physiker (Zürich: Arche, 1962), Steve Martin's Picasso at the Lapin Agile (New York: Samuel French, 1996), and Philip Glass' 1976 opera Einstein on the Beach. Fictionalized Einsteins are also portrayed in such films as Nicholas Roeg's Insignificance (1985) and Fred Schepisi's I.Q. (1994) and novels such as Alan Lightman's Einstein's Dreams (New York: Pantheon, 1993) and Anna McGrail's Mrs. Einstein (New York: W.W.Norton, 1998). (Return to text)

(2) See, for example, Gerald Holton's "Einstein's Influence on the Culture of our Time" in his Einstein, History, and other Passions 125-45 (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1996). (Return to text)

(3) See Stachel, John, ed. Einstein's Miraculous Year: Five Papers that Changed the Face of Physics. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1998. (Return to text)

(4) The reminder in the prologue of Einstein was particularly poignant to the audience at the Berlin premiere, Mickel noting that during intermission they could go out and stand on that very Opernplatz where the books were burned. (Return to text)

(5) In the East German versions (libretto and recording) it is twenty years worth of work, in the West German edition it is thirty. (Return to text)

(6) See C.P.Snow The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution (New York: Cambridge UP, 1959). Compare also Gerald Holton's "The Public Image of Science" (Holton 40-57), and Robin Dunbar The Trouble with Science (London: Faber and Faber, 1995). (Return to text)

(7) The Rotbuch edition of the libretto, published in the Federal Republic in 1974, has a much weaker exclamation in its place: "Was für ein Lärm!" (What a noise !) This is the most striking of the approximately forty textual discrepancies in the separate editions of the libretto. (Return to text)

(8) "Einstein spielt Quartett und ist Humanist, und irgendwo gibt es Atombombenfabriken, die Tag und Nacht arbeiten." (Einstein plays cards and is a humanist, and somewhere there are atomic bomb factories that are working day and night.) Journal entry, dated April 13, 1948. Bertolt Brecht. Werke. Vol.27, (Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1995) 268. (Return to text)

Works cited

Berghaus, Ruth. Einstein. Perf. Theo Adam, Peter Schreier, and Reiner Süß. Cond. Otmar Suitner. 1978. Berlin Classics, 1996.

Brecht, Bertolt. Collected Plays. Ed. Ralph Mannheim and John Willett. Vol. 5. New York: Vintage, 1972.

---. Leben des Galilei. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1964.

Clark, Ronald W. Einstein: The Life and Times. New York: World Publishing, 1971.

Dessau, Paul. Einstein. Berlin: Henschelverlag, 1973.

Einstein, Albert. Ideas and Opinions. New York: Crown, 1982.

Endler, Adolf and Karl Mickel, eds. In diesem besseren Land. Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1966.

Flores, John. Poetry in East Germany. New Haven: Yale UP, 1971.

Holton, Gerald. Einstein, History, and other Passions. Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1996.

Kipphardt, Heinar. In der Sache J.Robert Oppenheimer. Frankfurt/Main: Suhrkamp, 1964.

Mickel, Karl. Einstein/Nausikaa. Berlin: Rotbuch, 1974.

---. Lachmunds Freunde. Halle: Mitteldeutscher Verlag, 1991.

---. Vita nuova mea. Berlin: Aufbau, 1966.

- Return to top of the page -


Karl Mickel's Einstein: Karl Mickel: Paul Dessau: Albert Einstein:

- Return to top of the page -

Current Issue | Archive | about the crQuarterly | the complete review

to e-mail us:

© 2001 the complete review Quarterly
© 2001 the complete review