Arts and Culture 2011

Amy Holtcamp

SOUTH CAROLINA INSIDER

 

“History that Just Won’t Stay in the Book” at the Greenville Chautauqua

Posted 6/25/2011 5:09:00 PM

Volunteers wheeled in more and more extra chairs and crammed them into every last corner of the Handlebar recently for a special lecture on physics. The turnout was clearly much larger than the organizers expected, but the crowds shouldn’t have been a shock. After all, the lecture was being given by the world-renowned physicist, Albert Einstein, who has been dead for more than 50 years.

The Greenville Chautauqua specializes in bringing our country’s departed geniuses back to life for one week every summer. Actor-scholars portray celebrities from every walk of life. This year, Einstein was on hand, as was naturalist John Muir, Mark Twain, W.E.B DuBois and Secretary of Labor under FDR, Frances Perkins.

Einstein began with a lecture on some of the biggest of his big ideas. Standing in front of a chalkboard with his formula E = mc2 scrawled on it, Einstein explained ideas like time dilation and the finite nature of maximum speed with a clarity that made me wonder why those concepts had me beating my head against a wall in high school physics.

But things started to get really interesting when he took questions from the crowd. The audience was asked to imagine that the lecture was taking place in the 1950s. Since Einstein died in 1955 he would, of course, have no knowledge of scientific discoveries made after his death.

High school students, retirees, and everyone in between lined up to ask the great scientist about his views on everything from the atomic bomb (A pacifist, Einstein opposed the use of weapons of mass destruction) to politics (He was for a world government of sister states) to his favorite leisure time activities (reading Schopenhauer, playing piano and sailing.)

It’s this question and answer portion of the Chautauqua that is just mesmerizing. The performer playing Einstein was so quick with his answers to every question that it seemed impossible that he was not answering from his own thoughts, feelings and experiences. His knowledge of his subject was so complete that for a just a moment, you believe that it is 1953 and that he is Einstein.

Then it was time to introduce the man behind the famous shock of white hair, Larry Bounds. Like a convincing department store Santa who lets the kids tug on his beard, Bounds gave a firm yank on his own wild locks -- to prove his dedication to his role, he’d grown out his own hair to play the scientist. In “real life” Bounds is an English teacher who belongs to Mensa and the International Brotherhood of Magicians. In preparing for his role as Albert Einstein, Bounds had a fortuitous leg up: his brother, John Bounds, has been a nuclear physicist for 30 years.

Once out of character, Bounds took the time to share a bit of local Einstein lore: his son, Hans Albert, lived in Greenville for five years in the 1930s. Einstein would take the train down from Princeton, visit with his grandchildren, guest lecture at Furman and walk the streets of the city, sometimes losing his way. Greenville children, now senior citizens, recall guiding him home to his son’s house in the Earle Street neighborhood.

Keep your eyes peeled for next year’s Chautauqua – this event is worth planning a trip around.