This is the play’s opening entreaty and an invitation to all of us: historians, actors, writers, audiences. Why. Why do people do the things they do?
Michael Frayn’s response to why finds its allegory in Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, which essentially states that you cannot know with precise certainty where a particle will land until the moment it is observed, and further, that the act of observation also changes the particle you are observing. All you can predict is a range of probabilities – places where the particle is more likely to land than others. Superimposing this principle on to the realm of human behaviour, Frayn posits that people’s intentions are just as unknowable as the positions of tiny particles within an atom.
For actors, finding the intention of the character they will inhabit propels them into a thoughtful collection of evidence both before and during rehearsals – and for historical characters, this deep dive is a nearly endless pursuit. Actors want to know what triggers their characters, what inspires them to act, or what sometimes prevents them from acting when the situation demands it.
Prior to the advent of quantum mechanics, causality, the logic of cause and effect, was the central tenet of all science. But the new revelations of quantum mechanics changed the world as we know it. Suddenly it was possible for something to be in two realms at the same time. Suddenly it was possible to calculate that a particle could land within a range of imprecision. Through this lens, we can begin to understand that people will sometimes do the unpredictable without ever fully knowing why.
The uncertainty of human motivation is the great mystery theatre artists rigorously strive to unravel in bringing their characters to light. Frayn has given these brilliant actors you see before you a quantum playground to test these theories with their iconic characters. I hope this play cracks open the thrilling possibilities of uncertainty for you too.
NIELS BOHR won a Nobel Prize in 1922 for his work on the structure of atoms. He was part of the U.S. wartime Atomic Energy Project. He died in 1962 at the age of 77.
Born in 1901, WERNER HEISENBERG was mentored by Niels Bohr in the late 20’s. He received a Nobel Prize in 1932 for his work on quantum mechanics. He died in Munich in 1976.
MARGRETHE NORLUND married Niels Bohr in 1912 and became his editor, partner, typist and sounding board. They had six sons, two of whom died young. She died in 1984 at the age of 94.