Thomas Alva Edison has long been regarded as a giant among inventors: the holder of more than one thousand US patents for devices including the first commercially practical lightbulb, the phonograph and the movie camera, a stock ticker and a vote recorder. The “Wizard of Menlo Park” was the preeminent icon for the American brand of science, grounded more in the entrepreneurial spirit than in research for knowledge’s own sake.
He was also – according to Nikola Tesla, who worked for him for a while – a slob, a dull, humorless workaholic, an inefficient scientist with “a veritable contempt for book learning and mathematical knowledge” and a liar who defrauded Tesla out of $50,000 that Edison had promised him if he completed a project successfully. Edison reportedly told Tesla, when he finished his task, that the offer had been only a joke that the brilliant young Serbian just didn’t get, because he didn’t understand American humor.
The tension that developed between these two geniuses of the early age of electricity, which escalated into a battle royal known as the War of Currents, provides ample fodder for a new play receiving its New York premiere this month at the Shadowland Theatre in Ellenville, through September 30. Authored by Ben Clawson, The Dangers of Electric Lighting received enthusiastic notices when it was unveiled by Luna Stage in West Orange, New Jersey last November; Michael Sommers in The New York Times called it “absorbing” and “a worthy historical drama.”
The plot revolves around Edison’s jealousy of Tesla, who had invented alternating current (AC) and teamed up with George Westinghouse to promote high-voltage AC as a more efficient system of transporting electricity over long distances than Edison’s preferred direct current (DC). Seeing how much money was involved in wiring a national power grid, Edison raised the rivalry to the level of a public relations war, claiming that AC power lines posed too great a danger of electrocution. To illustrate his claims, he invented the electric chair and publicly demonstrated it on a number of animals, including Topsy, an elephant who went rogue and killed several carnival workers.
Eventually Edison lost his War of Currents – we get our electricity in AC form in most places nowadays – and he died regretting his failure to respect Tesla’s genius. But the rivalry is certainly the stuff of drama, and you can see it for one more weekend at Shadowland, with a cast that includes James Glossman, who originated the role of Edison, and Andrew Sellon as Tesla. The play is directed by Brendan Burke and co-produced by Jim Gebhard.
Performances of The Dangers of Electric Lighting begin at 8 p.m. this Thursday, Friday and Saturday, September 27 through 29, and at 2 p.m. on Sunday, September 30. Tickets cost $30 for evening performances and $25 for Sunday matinees, with a $2 discount offered to seniors and students. To purchase tickets, visit www.shadowlandtheatre.org/box/box.htm or call (845) 647-5511. The Shadowland Theatre is located at 157 Canal Street in Ellenville.