Theater Deepens the Vision of Physics

By Virginia Corless

Corless for web

Virginia Corless

Physics and theater may seem strange companions for an article, particularly one in a scientific publication. Physicists and their colleagues in the other sciences explore realms far smaller than the senses can probe and others vaster than imagination can grasp, while theater takes places on a stubbornly human scale, set on a small stage of metal and wood and equipped only with human bodies and voices. One is a largely solitary pursuit of thought, calculation, and observation, its participants linked in collaboration and debate that seeks to rid their work of subjectivity, while the other is conjured in crowded auditoriums, its meaning built out of the human relationships between actors and those they portray and the audience and those they are witness to.  

Despite these differences, this has never felt an unnatural pairing to me; I have spent most of my life running between stage and lab, a fact to which many a director and research supervisor can grudgingly attest. But more than a dual passion, physics and theater–or rather, physics in theater–is a vital, rich, and necessary partnership, and holds great potential for both the art and the science.  

Both theater and physics–or science more broadly–are something of misfits in modern society. Science is widely recognized as important, but polling consistently shows that much of the public understands and trusts little the real process of science or the key concepts underlying even vitally important scientific findings. Science and its practitioners struggle to find a place in the lives of the many who count on it for their health, safety, and continued prosperity, but who feel no personal connection to its process or content.

Theater may be an even more displaced discipline.  Though one of the oldest in the world–the direct descendant of storytelling traditions that are as ancient as humanity–it confronts a modern world full of the hyper-realism of gaming, films, and television. In this age in which a fictional world can be portrayed in perfect detail, what place do stage representations of life have? How, for example, to capture the finality and tragedy of a life ended on stage, when all involved can see the still-heaving chest of the “dead” body as it lies prone on the floor, when all know the actor will rise again in the next blackout, that the stage blood will wash off in the dressing room sink, that the cries of grief will turn to laughter in the post-show celebrations?  

What makes theater relevant to the world as an art and to science as a voice is the act of collective creation that is at the heart of every performance. Every actor, every audience member, every stage manager and crew member, knows that this performance tonight is different from that on any other night, for it is conjured in the moment, by the actors alive on that stage at the very instant of performance, by the dreams and fears and expectations brought into the theater by the individuals of the audience, by the conjunction of a few thousand words, a few hundred people, and a few hours of time to create a shared vision that transcends the humble stage on which it is made. A play cannot provide the whole story, the whole image, the illusion of reality. It requires an act of imagination, and, unlike reading a book, it must be a collective act of imagining. Tonight, in this theater, we together in this room create a shared vision of the human condition.   

It is this collective vision that links theater to science.  For what else is science but the painstaking construction of a shared view of the Universe? Its practice is very different from that of theater, guided as it is by strict rules and characterized by hypothesis, observation, testing, argument, repetition, and revision. But at the end of that rigorous process it adds one more piece to an ever-evolving collective vision of the world in which we live.

Despite many years researching dark matter, I have never seen it–nor has anyone else. And yet I share with my colleagues scattered across six continents a concept of a Universe filled with massive halos of invisible matter, each dwarfing the shining galaxies housed within them, shielded and held together by the halo’s gravitational strength. And so over many years, and across many fields, we have built a collective vision of the natural world that makes us as we are, that forms the blood and bones of the human condition.

And where better to explore more broadly that collective vision than the theater, that other place of collective imagining? Theater is a visceral exploration of the complex and often bewildering contours of our world. It is a point of contact between the deeply abstract and the utterly tangible– the human body and voice. And it is this that makes theater a vital place to explore the meaning of science. On the scale of a stage nothing can remain theoretical and universal–it must become human-sized and personal. In a setting that by its very nature gives a share of ownership in its ideas to all present, science on stage allows actors and audience together to explore the meaning of the physical facts of our world–be they our isolation in a Universe utterly foreign to us, or the awesome processes underway at every instant in our bodies to keep us alive and thinking, walking and dreaming, acting and watching.  

Plays about scientists, such as Bertolt Brecht’s famous Galileo, are the most prevalent scientific contributions to the stage, but tend to focus primarily on the nature of genius rather than on that of nature itself. Rarer within the canon of theatrical texts are plays that grapple with scientific ideas in a direct and intense way. In recent years, however, complex scientific concepts have indeed found central roles in several major productions, and these serve as excellent examples of the potential the fusion of science and theater holds.

First on the scene was Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, which explores the relationship between Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, old friends on opposite sides of the Second World War each faced with the potentially devastating nuclear consequences of the quantum physics they had developed together. At its very best, the play grapples with the unexpected, fundamental importance of the act of observation in quantum physics and relativity–and explores what that means for humans as actors in, and witnesses to, the Universe. What better place for such a question than a theater, full of actors and witnesses?

Copenhagen enjoyed a long Broadway run and garnered multiple Tony Awards, including Best Play, and has since been performed many times all over the world. However, even with this success, a typical audience response–gathered from both my own experience of performing in a university production of the play and from anecdotes of Blair Brown, the original Margrethe Bohr in the Broadway production–was “I liked it, but I’m sure I didn’t really understand it.” We have a long way to go in convincing people that the science of the world they live in belongs to them.

A very recent addition to the theatrical scientific canon is The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes by Adriano Shaplin, jointly commissioned by the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) and MIT. I was lucky to work on some of the initial research for the project while a student at MIT, and to witness its debut years later at the RSC last fall. Set in 17th century England at the end of the golden age of Elizabethan theater and the dawn of modern science, it is a play of many themes. One of the most original and fascinating is its detailed exploration of the development of the scientific method, framed as a battle between the deductive reasoning of Thomas Hobbes and the inductive experimentation of Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke. In the midst of that battle, Boyle claims for his new science the aim to create “a democracy of seeing.” And indeed, bringing meaningful scientific ideas and concepts into the theater, as The Tragedy of Thomas Hobbes does, broadens that still-developing democracy, allowing audiences to see, to witness, to participate in the collective imagining of the world.

A truly excellent example of physics in theater is the production recently created and performed by the world-renowned British theater troupe Complicite, A Disappearing Number. It is primarily the story of Ramanujan, the Indian savant who, at the start of the 20th century, entirely untrained, developed advanced mathematics that is now at the heart of string theory. Interwoven with his life are two modern love stories–love between a man and a woman, and love between that woman and mathematics. That mathematics becomes the bedrock of the play, singled out in the opening moments of the performance as the one real thing in the entire theater. The underlying reality of physics and mathematics is forefront again at the very end of the play, when one of the lovers has died and left behind a simple piece of chalk for her beloved together with a note explaining its significance as a token of hope. The note describes an imagined future scene in which the bones of the lovers are reunited in death, mingled together haphazardly on the ground. She writes to her beloved that “it is strange that this image of our proximity, concerning as it does mere phosphate of calcium, should bestow a sense of peace. Yet it does. With you I can imagine a place where to be phosphate of calcium is enough.” A requiem of chemistry and physics–ashes to ashes, dust to dust. I cannot recommend this play highly enough for any who wish to see science in theater at its very best.  

While at the University of Cambridge I had my own experience taking difficult scientific ideas all the way from textbook to stage when I adapted and directed a production based on a 10th century miracle play called Dulcitius, written by a nun named Hrotswitha of Gandersheim. From that play’s foundation I built a performance that explored the sublime through myths of old, miracle stories of the medieval age and the science that today seeks to understand the very origins of the Universe. The production began with creation stories from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and modern cosmology, and continued in that blended world to the very end, when an excerpt from Steven Weinberg’s classic account of the Big Bang, The First Three Minutes, became an epilogue to Hrotswitha’s medieval miracle tale. The performance ended as the Nobel Prize winner’s reflections on how fundamentally alien the Universe is to us–how vast and awesome and empty – echoed across the darkening stage.

While the cast found texts from 2000 years ago quite straightforward, they found scientific stories very difficult.  Despite bringing beautiful interpretation to her other roles in the play, the very talented actress assigned Weinberg’s closing text stubbornly read it as though it were a textbook, flat and lifeless. She did not feel comfortable–justified–interpreting the text as she would any other. To her, as to so many, this was science, foreign and forbidden to any but those inducted into its study. Finally, she and I talked at length with the rest of the cast about the meaning of those scientific words. As we discussed galaxies and the vacuum of space, the alternative fates of a forever expanding or bouncing Universe, the big bang and its relics, the actress slowly curled up, knees against her chest, head down, arms wrapped tightly around herself. “Stop,” she said. “I don’t like to talk about these things–they frighten me.” Here was the emotional response that the act of imagining in the theater had allowed her to access. Her moment on stage talking about the fate of the Universe was as human, as beautiful, and as deeply personal, as any monologue about falling in love or losing one who is beloved.

Theater is one of humanity’s oldest tools for comprehending the incomprehensible. Bringing physics to the stage allows us–all of us who share this complex and indifferent and magnificent world–to explore and begin to come to terms with the reality of our home. To access the visceral sublime. Together, we–artists and scientists, actors and audience–should seize the opportunity to deepen the shared vision of science with the collective imagining of the stage.

Virginia Corless is a 2009/2010 APS Congressional Science Fellow. She received a PhD in astronomy from the University of Cambridge in 2009 and a BS in physics from MIT in 2005. She has been deeply involved in theater as an actress and director for more than ten years and across two continents.

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Editor: Alan Chodos

February 2010 (Volume 19, Number 2)

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“April” Meeting Highlights Latest Research and Celebrates the Laser’s 50th Anniversary
Membership Count Hits New Peak
Soviets Used Lasers to Track US Spacecraft
APS Meetings Feature Beller, Marshak Lecturers
Global Survey Will Compare Men and Women Physicists
Looking Back: The Top Ten Physics Newsmakers of the Decade
Africans Launch New Physical Society
Letters to the Editor
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Members in the Media
This Month in Physics History
Inside the Beltway
The Education Corner
Profiles in Versatility