Heisenberg Embraces Life’s Uncertainties

by Mike Fischer

Don’t let the title fool you.

Yes: Forward Theater Company’s first production of 2019 – a gem by acclaimed British playwright Simon Stephens – is called “Heisenberg.” And yes: Even though he is never named, German physicist Werner Heisenberg and his groundbreaking uncertainty principle do indeed inform Stephens’ play.

More on that later. “Heisenberg” isn’t about physics. It’s about chemistry, between two lonely souls discovering an unexpected elective affinity, despite significant differences. And it’s vintage Stephens, one of whose recurring themes involves the quiet desperation of unfulfilled, middle-aged people defined by the opportunities they’ve missed.

Georgie and Alex

When they meet in a London train station, Georgie Burns is 42 and Alex Priest is 75. She’s from New Jersey and he’s from Ireland. She tells Alex early on that she has a grown child; he’s never been married or had children. By her own admission, the voluble Georgie has “a complete inability to control my own language”; she talks because she’s terrified by the sound of silence. She also makes things up – about where she lives, who she’s loved, and what she does – to avoid the panic and emptiness of her disappointing life.

A deep-seated romantic with a poet’s soul, Georgie despises her native New Jersey. She’s been running since she left: Always dreaming herself elsewhere, she doesn’t emotionally settle anywhere. She loves to travel; she tells us she’s done her share of it. But she’s reluctant to unpack her bags and live in the here and now. Conversely, the taciturn Alex measures every word before it’s spoken; he doesn’t think language or people – who, he tells us, usually disappoint him – can be trusted. Speaking to another person, he confesses to Georgie, feels “random” and “arbitrary.” Alex’s life has been defined by the death of his sister when he was just eight; he didn’t speak a word for three weeks afterward. And while he’s kept a daily diary ever since, he never writes more than 50 words; saying or writing more risks too much. He’s haunted by the sense that life is both “brief” and “unfair.”

If Georgie is sometimes afraid to stop and think, Alex is afraid to let himself go and feel. Disappointed early on in love, he’s long since given up on both sex and romance. Like Stephens himself, who has written in a recently published diary that “identity is slippery” and that there’s “no such thing as character,” Alex insists that personalities “don’t exist” because “they can always change.” Unlike Stephens, Alex therefore concludes that one’s identity “means nothing.”

Georgie and Alex’s initial meeting in London’s St. Pancras Train Station speaks volumes about who they are.

That station is London’s gateway to Europe via Eurostar’s high-speed train. Georgie describes continental Europe as “brilliant” and loves to describe her travels there; while we can rarely be sure with her where fact meets fiction, it’s clear that she at least embraces the idea of journeying beyond one’s self. Alex has never been to Europe or much anywhere else. He’ll sit in St. Pancras and tell Georgie he likes train stations. But he’s ultimately too afraid to move.

Finding Space and Time for Life’s Uncertainties

What’s any of this got to do with Werner Heisenberg – whose scientific theories also play a role in plays ranging from Michael Frayn’s brainy “Copenhagen” to Nick Payne’s poignant “Constellations”?

Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, first enunciated in 1927, demonstrates that one cannot simultaneously measure the position and velocity of a particle. “If you watch something closely enough,” Georgie tells Alex, “you have no possible way of telling where it’s going or how fast it’s getting there.”

Stephens’ two characters embody this principle.

Feeling that her life is claustrophobic, Georgie spends so much time dreaming of where she’s going that she risks losing sight of where she actually is; she is aware of and in love with movement, but has little sense of the spatial reality she’s traveling through. Feeling that his and every life is provisional, Alex spends so much time trying to stay still that he loses sight of where he’s going or how fast life is slipping away; he is firmly aware of place, but can’t see or appreciate how quickly he is moving through time.

The often-flighty Georgie needs someone who can ground her. The often-fearful Alex needs someone who can help him fly. She needs some prose in her life. And he needs Georgie’s poetry. “We hold very different perspectives on experiences we imagine we’re sharing,” Alex tells Georgie. Georgie tries to bridge such differences by oversharing. She’s not always as respectful of personal boundaries as she should be; she’s not above invading Alex’s privacy. Alex tends to respond by concluding that sharing is impossible; he retreats into himself, shutting others out. Focusing on themselves, both members of this pair tend to put their own needs first.

Can’t We All Just Get Along?

Both Heisenberg and “Heisenberg” suggest that we’re only ever going to better understand one another if we acknowledge that our individual perspectives are necessarily incomplete – and that we therefore need others to help us complete the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.

“You cannot see yourself so well as by reflection,” Cassius tells Brutus, in “Julius Caesar.” “I, your glass, will modestly discover to yourself that of yourself which you yet know not of.”

“We can never really know what kind of person we are,” Stephens writes in his diary. “We can only make conclusions based on the accumulation of different interpretations of other people’s behavior towards us in an attempt to infer what kind of person we might possibly be.” “What is essential,” Stephens writes elsewhere in his diary,” is “to remember we are in a conversation.” Or as Alex will tell Georgie, it’s not enough for us to hear one another. We must also actively listen.

Viewed in this context, “Heisenberg” isn’t just a particularly well-told story about two souls seeking common ground.

Much like Ali Smith’s “Autumn” – a brilliant novel that also involves an improbable relationship between a man and a woman of very different ages – “Heisenberg” makes the personal political, insisting that we have a collective responsibility to care for each other and thereby build a better world.

That means embracing uncertainty. Listening harder. And, hopefully, making better and much richer conversation, so that we can make the most of the space we’re in, with the time we still have.

– Milwaukee, December 2018