“My brain doesn’t need to be kept in strong water, I’ve already done that myself. In abundance and to my complete satisfaction.” So said Dutch mental arithmetic prodigy Wim Klein (1912-1986), who at CERN in the 1960s calculated faster than the computers of the time.
Theater producer Jan van den Berg of theater group Adhoc and improvisation ensemble Vlek created a performance (in Dutch) about what they call “the last human computer.” In the process, it is much about numbers and arithmetic, but also about the troubled life of the arithmetic master, full of booze, cigarettes and scandal-mongers.
Van den Berg, who has previously made theater and films about physics and other exact subjects, saw a portrait of the old master hanging in the computer section of the lab during a visit to CERN years ago. The story behind it fascinated him immediately.
The new performance is musical theater about the eventful life of Klein, son of a tyrannical Amsterdam family doctor and a mother who commits suicide. His brother is rounded up and killed in the war, he survives, becomes the variety artist Willy Wortel with his prodigious arithmetic skills, who plays everywhere, from street corners and squares to the television with Willem Duijs.
The Mathematical Institute, predecessor to the CWI, hires him, whereupon the staff is annoyed by the alcoholic who can do enormous calculations, swearing and ranting, from memory. He needs to hear the numbers, he says when asked how he can do math like that.
Van den Berg narrates and sings, regularly crawling into Klein’s skin in the performance, with his strange body language and Mokum accent.
In 1958 Klein transferred to the still young CERN particle lab in Geneva, allegedly mainly because alcohol was served there in the canteen. But gradually faster and faster computers took over the computational work. Around 1975 Klein returned to his hometown of Amsterdam, where he was found dead in his home on the Brouwersgracht in August 1986, murdered with numerous stabbings. The murder was never solved.
Wim Klein: the Last Human Computer by Theater Adhoc and Vlek will be seen and heard in theaters across the country in 2022 and 2023. Here is the playlist.