The Fusion of Physics and Theater in Simon Stephens's Heisenberg

By Elspeth Sweatman

At first glance, science and theater may seem like chalk and cheese. These two fields, however, have been intimately connected for centuries. As Renaissance scientists such as Galileo, Copernicus, and da Vinci were discovering new aspects of our world, sixteenth- and seventeenth-century playwrights were referencing these discoveries in their works.

Sarah Grace Wilson as Georgie Burns and James Carpenter
as Alex Priest in A.C.T.'s 2018 production of Heisenberg.
Photo by Kevin Berne.
The protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus embraces the Renaissance spirit of scientific exploration to his own detriment, and Subtle, one of the three conmen in Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist, relies on the cutting-edge (and spurious) science of alchemy—transforming base metals into gold—to trick the wealthy Sir Epicure Mammon. Since these early depictions of science and scientists onstage, playwrights have used the latest scientific innovations as metaphors, a means of investigating life’s big questions, such as “how we know what we know, how identity is constructed, what the ethical choice is in an immoral situation, what our responsibility is in our deployment of knowledge, [and] how we can know ourselves and each other,” says Oxford University professor Kirsten Shepherd-Barr. Similar to Marlowe and Jonson, playwright Simon Stephens employs science, specifically physics, as a metaphor to investigate the intricacies of human nature and the messiness of our modern lives.

In Heisenberg, Stephens uses Werner Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle to explore the levels of uncertainty in a relationship. No matter how much you might watch someone, he or she will inevitably do something that surprises you. “If you watch something closely enough you realize you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there,” says Georgie. “If you pay attention to where it’s going or how fast it’s moving you stop watching it properly. I watched Jason [Georgie’s son] all the time. He took me completely by surprise.”

Today, it seems like every week brings news of another scientific study, another experiment, another branch of research. Each new scientific advancement provides greater insight into the nuances of human nature, our relationships and interactions, and the world that we inhabit. And with each discovery, playwrights gain another metaphor for exploring every facet of what it is to be a human being.

A.C.T.'s production of Heisenberg ends this Sunday, April 8 at The Geary Theater. Click here to purchase tickets. Want to learn more about the science behind Heisenberg? Order a copy of Words on Plays, A.C.T.’s in-depth performance guide series.

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