Some may find the Lise Meitner’s story cathartic, others may think it is frustratingly familiar.
Delicate Particle Logic by Jennifer Blackmer. Directed by Betsy S. Goldman. Staged by Flat Earth Theatre at The Mosesian Center for the Arts, Watertown, MA, through October 13.
By David Cruz
Two women commiserate in a psychiatric hospital about a man who wronged each of them. One is the man’s wife; the other is his lifelong colleague and collaborator. The man in question is Nobel Prize winning chemist Otto Hahn, whose contributions to the discovery of fission kick-started the nuclear age and led to the development of the atomic bomb. But Otto is not the main player—instead, playwright Jennifer Blackmer focuses on the women who he had erased from his story.
It’s post-war Berlin and Edith Hahn (Barbara Douglass) has been committed to a hospital for mental instability after her only son dies in a tragic car accident. She is visited by Lise Meitner (Christine Power), her husband’s longtime colleague and friend. Together, they reminisce over the years, telling the story of how they each first met Otto (Thomas Grenon) in the early years of the 20th century, how their paths entwined after World War I, and how they eventually drifted away from him during the reign of the Third Reich.
Meitner’s story is better-known because her career was taking off as the Nazis came to power. She was a Jew who converted to Lutheranism as an adult and thought she might be safe from the rising tide of antisemitism. When it became clear that the reality was otherwise, Otto convinced her to flee to Sweden, where she struggled to find a lab who would accept a woman scientist. Despite this, she continued her research with Hahn via correspondence. Among the many famous physicists who were her collaborators (we hear stories that include interactions with Planck, Bohr, and Einstein), she was the first one to realize the real significance of their research. She alone recognized that their experiments were not adding mass to the atoms, as they had expected, but were splitting them apart instead.
Because of pressure from the Nazi government — or because of his own ego — Otto never credited Lise. She was excluded from acknowledgment in his 1944 Nobel win. Similarly, Hahn excised his own wife from his autobiography, giving Blackmer “a great deal of dramatic license in imagining what kind of a woman Edith might have been.” In the dramatist’s re-imagining, Edith and Lise spar about the differences between art and science and then explore the timeless and painful truths of being a woman in a patriarchal society.
The play’s discussion of the scientific discoveries is surprisingly easy to follow. Summaries of Meitner’s work are accompanied by projections that artfully illustrate the complex concepts. Ironically, the production is at its weakest whenever Edith’s and Lise’s conversation veers toward the intersection of art and science. Lise describes her work as being part of a search for a ‘great truth,’ which serves as the principle means for Edith to connect to her husband’s work. Edith, as an artist, bridges the gap between them by capturing Lise’s passion in her art. In order to make this questionable synthesis work, Delicate Particle Logic characterizes science as discovering unassailable, objective truth, as opposed to the findings of flawed and subjective humanistic endeavors. Blackmer’s script asserts that both science and art seek truth, but audiences are asked to accept science blindly while looking closely at the ‘truths’ found in art, memory, and experience.
The play inspects the ambiguous realm of memory, asking whether events happened the way they are remembered, exploring the possibility of multiple points of view through the repetition of scenes. In one episode, Lise remembers meeting Otto on an equal footing –they were peers who particularly well-suited for collaboration. Edith shares the same moment from Otto’s point of view, but portrays their partnership as a generous offer by Otto to share his success with a woman who could never have succeeded without him. These inconsistencies may remind audiences of the “he said, she said” testimony that has been (at times) a hallmark of the #MeToo movement. Who has credibility? Which version of events is true? These questions charge the production with a welcome sense of political urgency.
As Blackmer states in an interview with Flat Earth, “My fury at Otto’s choices were initially what drew me in.” That same fury is readily shared as Lise details the many injustices — mainly due to her gender — that she faced in her relationship with Otto. Hahn is the perfect stand-in for the prominent defenders of patriarchy today, and Grenon plays him just right. At one moment, he is a victim, coerced into misdeeds by the Nazis; the next, he is a jealous, petty man, fully culpable in the process of denying his lifelong partner recognition and acclaim. Power’s performance is at its most electric when she channels this righteous fury, whether when she shuts down casual misogyny or powerfully indicts Otto’s character.
Whether audiences find Meitner’s story cathartic or frustratingly familiar, Delicate Particle Logic offers the portrait of a brave woman who combated prejudice to the best of her ability. Blackmer uses her creative license to create a version of events that connects with today’s cultural showdowns, the struggle to hold powerful men accountable for their unjust actions. The play might have began as an angry reaction to Otto’s legacy, but the man has been pushed to the margins: the spotlight belongs solely to Edith and Lise. In spite of Hahn’s best efforts, Delicate Particle Logic effectively recasts history — giving overdue meaning to women’s voices in the process.
David Cruz is a radio producer and civic technologist. He has been an associate producer at Human Media and Programming Director at WYBCX Yale Radio. He currently works for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.