Constellations at the Wilma Theater

Chris Braak
Jan 23, 2017 · 18 min read

Good grief.

Here’s a show at the Wilma Theater, it got pretty strong reviews, a rave from a colleague of mine over at the Broad Street Review, the fellow who wrote it — Nick Payne — won some kind of British award for it. And this is very mysterious to me, because I think this play is quite terrible, and really transparently terrible, and, maybe worse, prosaically terrible, in the sense that its not bad in some unexpected or extraordinary way, but is instead bad in exactly the most boring sorts of ways that the worst and dullest plays are.

The premise here is that there is a woman, Marianne, who is a physicist, and she meets Roland, an Urban Beekeeper (!), and they have a relationship and fall in love and then she dies from an inoperable brain tumor, and in the meanwhile because of Quantum Mechanics and String Theory, at the same time Marianne doesn’t fall in love with Roland, and actually they do fall in love but she cheats on him, but also she doesn’t cheat on him, but also he cheats on her, but also he doesn’t, and also she doesn’t die of a brain tumor. This is all made possible because of the Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, wherein every bog-standard sentimentalist play is also five or so other bog-standard sentimentalist plays.

The secret to all of this, I expect, is that if you’d like positive notices and attention from literary managers, talk about String Theory in your play; because most of the sorts of people who make decisions about plays will be too embarrassed to admit they don’t know anything about String Theory, they’ll credit your play with being profound when in fact it is merely obtuse.

I don’t mean to do a regular sort of review for this play — the production itself seemed, I suppose, fine enough; Roland (Jered McLenigan) and Marianne (Sarah Gliko) have accents that if an expert assured me were indeed working-class Midlands accents, I’d be inclined to believe him. Gliko’s character is fine, and she handles the degeneration and nominal aphasia caused by her tumor with grace and skill. McLenigan’s Roland is actually several different Rolands; they’re sharply-drawn, which is to his credit but the story’s detriment (which I’ll get to in a bit), though the Roland that he sort of settles on is a sort of brittle, reedy kind of a nerd whose ultimate happiness is difficult to be interested in.

The director is Tea Alagić, and I expect that she worked very hard to coax interesting characters out of this script, but she’s ultimately hampered by the fact that there’s simply not that much to work with. These are flat characters — in Roland’s case, he’s actually five or six even flatter characters (in all the parallel timelines, Roland often changes — sometimes he’s this regular nerd, sometimes he’s even more anxious, sometimes he’s a swaggering lothario, sometimes he’s abusive; Marianne is largely the same) — and space in the plot for the characters to do things is sacrificed for many version of the same scene in which the characters also don’t do something, or do the same thing again in a slightly different way.

There’s not much of a plot, either, is what I’m saying.

Is it moving? Well, of course it’s moving, I’m not made of fucking stone here, but in my opinion there’s only one cheaper trick in the playwright’s kit than “a gimmick that lets me pad out the run time by including my discarded drafts” and that’s “letting this bit about my lover dying from a brain tumor do the emotional heavy lifting.”

So for all of this, what is the reason to write about it? Well, look, I think it’s about time that we — and by “we” I mean theater audiences in general — had a brief conversation about a couple things called “physics”, “String Theory”, and “playwriting gimmicks that you can use in your first-year Intro to Playwriting class but should not rely on afterwards”.

What the Fuck is String Theory?

That this play is about Quantum Mechanics and that it’s about String Theory cannot be missed. Even though Marianne explains this precisely once during the play’s sparse 70 minutes (and, if you’ll permit an aside, doesn’t this seem awfully short? If a person could write a decent full-length play about falling in love and inoperable brain tumors in seventy minutes, surely you’d expect combining that with a similar play in which those things don’t happen would actually take up more time as opposed to less. Perhaps this is what Einstein was getting at with Relativity), it’s all over the program notes, it’s in the advertising copy, and everyone who’s reviewed it seems convinced that String Theory somehow plays an important roll in the play.

To Payne’s credit, Marianne’s explanation of String Theory is correct, if vague: there’s two kinds of physics in the world right now: the physics of Very Large Things (stars, galaxies, black holes, et cetera), and the physics of Very Small Things (“quantum physics”: atoms, protons, neutrons, quarks, bosons, fermions, et cetera). The physics of Very Large Things is governed by gravity, but gravity has almost no measurable effect on the physics of Very Small Things, and since physics is basically “guesses about an idea based on measurements”, we have no idea what the fuck gravity is at that level.

String Theory is one of many different ideas about how to connect the physics of the very large with the physics of the very small — the idea is, instead of a particle that’s like a tiny billiard ball, imagine a particle that’s really a tiny string, and this tiny string loops through all four dimensions of space-time, but also a couple (maybe as many as 26) other dimensions as well. And this string vibrates in a particular way in each of these dimensions, and these vibrations give a particle its qualities: charge and spin and so forth, and also determines its mass, and the way in which that mass affects other particles with mass (i.e., its gravity).

It’s real fascinating stuff I think, and it’s got a bunch of fun corollaries. For example, one feature of some String Theories is super symmetry — that for every boson there’s a corresponding fermion, and actually these two particles are the same string: it loops into our universe here to make a boson, then out into one of those 26 other dimensions, then comes back somewhere else as a fermion.

Imagine, if you’d like, that our universe is an embroidery hoop. You and I are stitched into it as discrete patterns from this side, but if you turn the thing over and you can see where the threads go outside of the universe, you can see that not only are our stitches not discrete, but that we’re not discrete — you and I are the same thread, penetrating in and out of the universe, over and over again. Neat, huh?

So, What About Many Worlds?

The Many-Worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is something like this: certain sub-atomic particles have something called “superposition”. This means that the math that explains them only makes sense if you presuppose that until you “observe” them (in quantum mechanics “observe” means, “hit them with something and then measure the thing that you hit them with”) they exist in two states simultaneously. With Up spin and Down spin, for example. The Many-Worlds Interpretation says that whenever a “waveform collapses” — i.e., one of these quantum Up-and-Down-At-Once particles bumps into something and resolves into an Up OR Down particle — our timeline splits. One universe goes on with an Up particle, and another universe goes on with a Down particle.

The reality of this is probably something mathematically interesting but, at the human scale, relatively boring. Imagine, for instance, that you lived in a universe where, instead of the 1,175th atom of a particular sample of Uranium-235 decayed at this precise moment in time, the 1,185th atom of a particular sample of Uranium-235 decayed. It’s not exactly Sliders, I know. But it sparks a notion in a playwright’s mind like, “what if every choice that we make led to two different timelines? What if every time I said ‘yes’, somewhere else I said ‘no’?”

This is a scientific philosophical position called “anthropocentrism”, and I’m going to talk about that in a bit. In the meantime, I want to just briefly register a criticism of Constellations in this respect: while it presents as a story about parallel timelines where different choices are made, it’s not always clear exactly how that’s supposed to work: sometimes, for example, we’re in a universe where Marianne cheats on Roland, other times Roland cheats on Marianne. Sometimes, the entire character of Roland is different — in one world, he’s abusive, for instance. In one scene, Roland and Marianne communicate entirely through sign language — I mean, I’m sure some choices must have been involved in some respect in all of these worlds, but so do a lot of other things. Are we talking about possibilities governed by choice, or by happenstance? Or both? Or neither?

(Now, a well-known criticism of the Many Worlds interpretation is that it’s not particularly clear what it is that causes a set of possibilities to decohere, or branch off; I wish I could believe that Constellations’ lack of clarity about why some things are different in some timelines and not others was a deep dig at the shortcomings of the Many Worlds interpretations, but I don’t know I think if that were the case they might at least have mentioned it.)

Hold On Though, This Doesn’t Sound Like It Has Anything To Do With String Theory

It doesn’t. I mean, they’re not mutually exclusive, but they’re not mutually inclusive either — you can have Many Worlds without String Theory, you can have String Theory without Many Worlds. They’re different theories formulated to answer different questions about physics. There IS a multiverse in String Theory, and it’s pretty interesting, but it’s not parallel timelines. In String Theory, in order to make some of the math work, theorists posit a Multiverse — a collection of many different universes sort of stacked on top of each other. But these universes (and there’s a lot, by some estimates as many as 10⁵⁰⁰!) aren’t differentiated by different choices, but by natural laws. In other words, every universe is every possible arrangement of different laws of physics.

I think that’s a pretty interesting idea, and it’s going to lead into the next part, so imagine you could tell your lover that not only were there ten thousand different ways we might not have met, there are also a billion trillion universe in which not only don’t we meet, but it’s not even possible for us to exist. You and I sit at the center of uncountable universes, a single still point in a near-infinity of disorder.

Well, that’s String Theory, if you like, I don’t know.

Hey Man, I Didn’t Come to the Theater for a Lecture on Physics

That’s a good point and I agree, I didn’t necessarily come to the theater for a lecture on physics either, after all the point of Science Fiction isn’t that it’s science — i.e., that it tries to make experimentally true predictions about the operation of natural law — but that it’s fiction — i.e., that it tries to describe something experientially true about the human condition. Fair enough! Now, I might say that it’s a poor theater that simply treats the nature and structure of the universe unworthy of consideration as anything but an excuse to write a play about being sad, but let’s set that aside for now and just talk about how different kinds of scientific theories can present us with some interesting questions about Life and Meaning and All That.

An Uncertain World

In the play Copenhagen, Michael Frayn uses a basic idea from the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle — that at the quantum level, things are too small to measure without disrupting, and so it’s impossible to get direct knowledge of what’s happening there — as a metaphor for human memory. The same scene is played out three times, in three different ways, and differently each time — like a subatomic particle, the past is not directly accessible; we have to interpret and reinterpret it based on the ripples caused by an event. Even our own memories are not the thing itself, but distorted reflections of the thing, through whose lens we interpret the past, but never truly know it.

It’s a nice parallel — the unknowability of quantum mechanics tied up with the unknowability of the past.

A Predictably Certain World

Another good play is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. In this one, Stoppard is talking about two things, two kinds of existential horror that have loomed heavy over all of us since around Newton’s time — the first is called Determinism, and this is the idea that the universe is “mechanistic” or “deterministic”. The universe is a clock, and everything that happens is unavoidably the consequence of everything that happened before us; there is no choice, there is no happenstance, free will is just a bit of confusion on our part.

(Imagine, if you like, the universe not existing in three dimensions, but in four — it’s not a changing shape but a single, vast, four-dimensional object, an impossibly intricate jewel through which our conscious minds process, only able to perceive a single facet at a time.)

The second horror is entropy — the clock is running down, in other words, and with every tick it loses more and more energy, until eventually the whole affair will drift to a halt.

The intricate relationship between past and future is an illustration of this notion of determinism: that the future is unavoidably created by the smallest and most seemingly irrelevant details. But Stoppard also offers a kind of a balm to this depressing description of the universe, and that’s all the Chaos Theory that Valentine is going on about.

An Unpredictably Certain World

Chaos Theory is an interesting beast. It’s largely deterministic, in the sense that all outcomes are necessary consequences of previous states — the universe is still a single static jewel in a incomprehensibly vast multidimensional space — but it’s that “incomprehensibly” that’s the key. Chaos Theory doesn’t say that the future isn’t predetermined, only that the things that determine it are so vastly complicated that it’s impossible to predict it.

We haven’t got free will, in other words, but we haven’t got it in a way that’s so complex that we might as well have it. The past and present are irrevocably fixed, but the universe can nevertheless remain mysterious and surprising and strange. Even small comfort is large comfort in the face of a fixed, uncaring reality.

So now, we’ve got a couple of these ways of looking at the universe: a universe that is basically unknowable because we can’t understand it, a universe that’s both deterministic and predictable, a universe that’s deterministic but unpredictable.

So, What the Hell Was This?

All right, let’s hop back on over to Constellations. Payne is using this effect of these parallel timelines, but what is he trying to actually say with them? Do we see a world in which all possible futures are set out for us? At one point, Marianne describes this notion of reality and Roland laments the idea that if every choice he makes, he also makes the opposite somewhere else, then why does anything matter at all?

(Well, first of all hotshot, we haven’t actually established that the choices you make even when there aren’t an infinity of parallel timelines actually matter, take a daggone philosophy class please.)

Marianne answers this in two ways: in one universe she says that nothing anyone does matter, the universe is a fixed reality, like a rollercoaster that we just ride; in another universe she says that actually our choices do matter, because due to those choices, we can experience a unique reality. Now, we’ve always got to avoid assuming that what a character says is always what the play is trying to say, but you can see the basic problem with Constellations right here:

Saying that your choices matter and saying that they don’t isn’t a question of choice it’s a question of character. I mean, in these two timelines, we’re not looking at a single Marianne who one time decides to say one thing when she might just as easily have said another; rather, the sort of person who might tell a potential lover that he has meaning in a seemingly-meaningless existence is basically a different person from the sort of person who’d say the opposite. So, what are we describing here? Nests of timelines governed by choices, or by something else?

It’s tempting to pretend that this IS something else, and what we’re seeing is a series of universes governed by unknowable, inexplicable circumstances: I mentioned before that a playwright’s idea of “everything you choose creates a new timeline” is an example of anthropocentrism, and that’s worth taking a second look at:

Man’s Universe

One of two principles is behind anthropocentrism: either the Strong Anthropic Principle, which says basically “It’s impossible for human beings to exist in a universe unless it was explicitly designed for us,” or the Weak Anthropic Principle, which says basically, “I mean, it’s not impossible, but come on, man.” Both of these lead to the conclusion that the universe and its (maybe) many branching timelines is somehow arranged around human beings.

But of course, the Many Worlds Interpretation of Quantum Mechanics doesn’t have anything to do with human choices, it has to do with subatomic particles, and human beings don’t make choices on the subatomic level.

Or do they? Maybe Nick Payne is positing the idea that the difference between a Marianne who believes in free will and a Marianne who doesn’t, or a Roland who’s devastated by being cheated on and a Roland who actually does the cheating and yet a third Roland who’d hit his lover, maybe all these characters are not separated by choices, but by quantum effects happening at some invisible level?

Well, it’d be an interesting idea, but aside from this brief mention of the Many Worlds, the question never comes up again.

It’s one of what seems like a dozen missed opportunities for any one of these theories to have some bearing on the material— Roland is an Urban Beekeeper, and if you want to talk about some fun ideas about complex systems, about the difference between the quantum level where time goes both ways and the macro level where entropy is a one-way street, of chaos theory and determinism, hey, look. A fucking beekeeper who spends his life trying to intuitively predict the behavior of a system made of ten thousand moving parts.

But no, bees are the subject of a painfully trite speech that Roland repeats I think four fucking times (about how the humble honeybee’s life is limited to a specifically-delineated role, in contrast to the ultimately completely variable way that Roland himself is presented! there’s another thought that might have come up in one or two other forms), Roland might as easily have been an Urban Bespoke Moustache Wax Producer, or an Urban Bicycle Repairman, or an Urban Hamburger Chef for all the difference it makes.

(Marianne, by contrast, is a physicist, which is why people can say this play is about Quantum Mechanics and String Theory, despite physics having essentially nothing to do with anything that anyone says, and indeed Marianne doesn’t seem to know any more about it than a quick browse of a few Wikipedia entries would furnish.)

So, What Are We Talking About Here?

A deterministic universe where our choices are foreordained? An unknowable universe whose predetermination is in question? A determined but unpredictable universe? Well, who the hell knows, it doesn’t seem like Constellations knows or even cares what kind of a universe it is — it doesn’t care about how or why universes might be different, about what choice consists of. It takes brief stab at the consolation of philosophy — when Marianne is dying (in one universe; I mean, presumably she’ll eventually die in all of them, unless there’s a universe in which she’s immortal, but if there’s one of those it doesn’t come up), she lets us know that she’s unafraid because, at the quantum level, time doesn’t exist.

Which is true, insofar as when you look at quantum particles out of context, there are as many reactions that happen one way forward in time as there are that happen the other way, but is otherwise a perfectly meaningless thing to say. Time may not exist at the quantum level, but it does exist at the level of human beings, which is where dying happens anyway. I have a hard time imagining that if I were staring death in the face, I’d take a particular comfort in knowing that my atoms couldn’t tell the difference — even Mr. Spock, when faced with his imminent death in Star Trek 2: The Wrath of Khan, focuses not on a scientific explanation to deny the reality of his experience, but instead on the transcendental value of his friendship.

(In the program notes for Constellations, the Wilma’s literary manager, Walter Bilderbeck, quotes Einstein talking about the loss of his friend as such

Now he has departed from this strange world a little ahead of me. That means nothing. People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.

So maybe it is consoling to some people, but a thing about Albert Einstein is that he often talked about what we might describe as a mystic experience of the universe in relation to some of his wild ideas about physical reality, and if there was a universe in which Marianne was that sort of person, that might have been nice to see; similarly, if Marianne’s notion that her atoms don’t know what time is was meant to be small consolation, maybe a little more time spent in that universe would have helped to flesh that out.)

So, I don’t know; it’s hard to figure out why this play, with its profusion of timelines and universes, bothered to bring in Quantum Mechanics or String Theory or Beekeeping at all if it wasn’t going to really engage with the sort of existential questions that those ideas occasion.

Well, Maybe It Was Just a Mechanic to Illustrate Something Else?

A good point, and a real possibility! That’s why I also want to take a moment to say why I think this “parallel timelines” idea is a juvenile bit of gimmickry, best left behind in your MFA class when you think you’re the first person to discover it.

David Ives wrote a one-act play, you’ve probably heard of it, it’s called “A Sure Thing”, and it’s been around for, I don’t know, like twenty years or something like that. It looks a lot like Constellations, down to the bell that resets the scene and has the actors replay some variation on it every minute or two. The idea behind “A Sure Thing” was to explode all the different ways a blind date could go — Ives has said that he imagined it like a train line, and each scene is a different stop along the way.

I am all for this, it’s a great way of doing a non-traditional narrative to illustrate a point, and this is one of Ives’ best, and one of the few that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It’s got one ur-joke — “there’s a million ways for a blind date to end badly without romance” — and then a bunch of little jokes along the way. It’s fine, and one of the things that makes it fine is:

It’s only ten fucking minutes long.

A thing about a ten minute play is that I don’t particularly need empathy with the characters, I don’t need a story or complex themes or ideas, I jump on board and by the time I get where we’re going and we’ve hit the moral of the story, it’s done, the play is gone and I don’t miss Fred and Mary or whatever the hell their characters are called.

By contrast, if I’m going to be sitting in the theater for seventy minutes (and not falling asleep like the woman who was seated next to me), I expect to have a compelling story and I expect to have characters I’m at least slightly interested in, and this particular gimmick makes that impossible. It’s hard enough to care about nerdy old Roland if I only see him for a few minutes; if I also see him being the opposite of himself, and also orthagonal to himself, I don’t know what to think about him at all; he becomes an increasingly-fuzzy string of caricatures, whose depth is impossible to plumb.

Likewise, how do you understand a story that proceeds and also unproceeds? How do you anticipate the next step if the proximate step is both itself and not-itself? How can you be surprised seeing one scene, and knowing that you’re about to see it again only opposite? How does anything have any meaning if you’re going to say “yes this is true, but also it isn’t true?”

Sure, maybe there’s a good joke in Roland’s “how does anything I do have any meaning?” corresponding with “how does anything in this play have any meaning,” but not thinking Roland’s life has any meaning is how I started out my evening; if you’re giving me seventy minutes of theater that essentially proves that I was right to not care or have any opinion about these people to begin with, all you’ve done is waste seventy minutes — minutes which I, unlike my atoms, actually resent having lost.

Why would anybody DO this?

The thing about plays is that they’re already fictional. There isn’t a reality here that the parallel timelines live in contrast too, and there isn’t a central, “real” timeline that the others emphasize. It’s just a great mess of different possibilities, but “a great mess of different possibilities” is what you’ve got when you sit down to start writing a play to begin with. The act of writing is the process of narrowing these possibilities down so that they can, however briefly, through an act of imagination, stand in place of reality. If your basic idea of “a beekeeper and a physicist fall in love, then she dies from a brain tumor” isn’t enough of an idea to stand on its own, flooding the story with all of your discarded drafts doesn’t make it more real, it makes it less real.

Mark Cofta over at the Broad Street Review points out, in his write up of this same play, that there’s even a part where one of these scenes is conducted in sign language, and the audience understands it anyway.

Well, yeah, of course we do. It’s the same scene we just saw. The question is not, “does the audience understand what we’re seeing,” the question is, “what does this scene in sign language add to our understanding?”

And of course there are a number of great questions that this scene brings up, like what does it mean to be committed to a partner? How far can a person be expected to go to accommodate a relationship? What other ways of communicating do we ignore in our speech-focused world? Also hang on, if she’s got a brain tumor in her inferior frontal gyrus that was preventing the production of speech, why wouldn’t it affect her ability to —


Now that reality is done, and let us never speak of it again.

The Duchy of Arch Street

Theatre and the Arts in Philadelphia

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