The White Queen Theatre in Paris

The Théâtre La Reine Blanche (The White Queen Theatre, or the Queen Blanche Theatre) has an unusual subtitle: scène des arts et des sciences (stage of the arts and the sciences).

The theatre’s website explains: “At La Reine Blanche, we consider science to be an integral part of the wider culture. In a logic of hybridization of expressive forms and decompartmentalization of disciplines, we form the wish to seize the scientific word to make it sensitive and intelligible to all audiences, from experts to neophytes.”

The theatre’s director, Élisabeth Bouchaud, is a trained physicist who is interested in the fracture properties of materials. She is also an actress, playwright, and since April 2014 has been directing the Reine Blanche theatre.

The Reine Blanche Theatre on passage Ruelle

When I first heard of the Reine Blanche Theatre, I assumed it would be down in the 13th arrondissement near the Rue de la Reine Blanche and the Château de la Reine Blanche. But no, it turned out to be way up in the northern part of the city, in the 18th arrondissement near the tracks leading in and out of the Gare du Nord (North Station).

To get there, I took the number 38 bus northbound to a stop called Département-Marx Dormoy, named after two streets with those names. (Since 2019, when the Paris bus lines were rearranged, route 38 cuts all the way through Paris, from Porte d’Orléans in the south to Porte de la Chapelle in the north.)

Card from the theatre announcing the play

The play I saw at the Reine Blanche Theatre was a French translation of “Copenhagen” by the British playwright Michael Frayn — subtitled Arcanes d’une Découverte  (Mysteries of a Discovery). Here’s a brief description of the play, from the back of the theatre’s announcement card:

“September 1941, Copenhagen. Werner Heisenberg, in charge of atomic research for the Third Reich, visits his friend and spiritual father Niels Bohr and his wife Margrethe. At the end of this meeting, nothing will be as before between the two friends. Why? What did they tell each other? With this mystery Michael Frayn takes us to the heart of the uncertainty that governs our actions and the world.”

This is a play that was a huge critical and popular success when it was introduced in London in 1998, running for over a thousand performances in two different London theatres. The first French production came a year later, at the Théâtre Montparnasse in Paris, and a long Broadway run in New York began in 2000.

My French listening comprehension is not perfect, by any means, but I was helped in this case by my prior knowledge of the subject. I have long taken a layman’s interest in physics, and have read widely about it over the years, so I already knew some basic things like who Niels Bohr was, who Werner Heisenberg was, and what they were both famous for.

Heisenberg was Bohr’s student, later his assistant. Heisenberg was German, Bohr was Danish. At first they spoke German together, as Bohr did with many of his other students, but later Heisenberg learned Danish for the sole purpose of speaking with Bohr in his native language.

Both were awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics: Bohr in 1922 for his work on the structure of atoms, and Heisenberg in 1932 for his contributions to the foundations of quantum mechanics.

Seating in the Théâtre La Reine Blanche

At the beginning of the play, the actor playing Werner Heisenberg appears with a flashlight on the dark stage and holds a monologue saying that now that he is dead and buried, people seem to remember him mainly for two things, his uncertainty principle (which some even seem to understand) and his visit to Niels Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 (which no one understands).

Because Denmark in 1941 was under German occupation, Heisenberg could only travel there with the consent of the German government. He had to assume that German military intelligence was listening in on at least some of his conversations with Bohr.

To this day, no one really knows what Heisenberg was trying to accomplish on this visit. Some think he might have been seeking ‘absolution’ from Bohr for his role in trying to construct an atomic bomb for Germany. Others think he might have been trying to slip the information to Bohr that a German bomb was actually in the works. Still others think he might have been trying to recruit Bohr to work on the German bomb project, but this seems unlikely because he knew perfectly well that Bohr was half-Jewish and would never voluntarily go to Germany as long as the Nazis remained in power.

In 1943, two years after Heisenberg’s visit, Bohr and his family had to flee via Sweden to America because he had received a tip that the German army was about to start rounding up Danish Jews for deportation to the death camps. In America, he told the scientists in Los Alamos that Germany was trying to construct an atomic bomb. And he even returned to Los Alamos several times and contributed to the American nuclear bomb project.

The author and the theatre director after the play “Copenhagen”

By pure luck, I happened to be in the audience on the one evening (out of fifteen) when the author Michael Frayn was present. He was helped up to the stage after the curtain calls, and said immediately that he was nearly ninety years old and no longer felt up to speaking French in public, so he would speak English and the theatre director, Élisabeth Bouchaud, would translate.

The author, the theatre director and the three actors

After they had changed clothes, the three actors also returned to the stage and took part in the conversation.

Later the author took questions from the audience.

One spectator asked him why he had included Niels Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, as one of the three characters in the play, even though she was not a physicist and was thus not directly involved in the discussion. The author explained that in real life, Margrethe was very important for her husband’s career. She edited his articles for publication, and helped him express his difficult ideas in ways that non-scientists might be able to understand. For the play, she was essential because without her hardly anyone would have understood what Bohr and Heisenberg were saying to each other. They were so attuned to each other, and had been discussing the same problems together for so many years, that even other physicists would have had trouble following their conversations.

Another audience member asked Michael Frayn if he believed that the German Third Reich ever had a realistic chance of constructing an atomic bomb. He said yes, but only if they had put someone else in charge of the project. Heisenberg, he said, was a brilliant scientist but a mediocre administrator. It would have taken an energetic and ruthless administrator such as Werner von Braun (of V-2 fame) to complete such a huge project.

Someone else pointed out that the play “Copenhagen” had first been performed twenty-five years earlier, and asked the author if he would write anything differently if he were rewriting it now. Michael Frayn said yes, he would have to, since considerable new information has come light in the meantime. Because of the discussion caused by the play, the heirs of Niels Bohr had decided to publish several drafts of letters that Bohr had written — but never mailed — to Heisenberg in later years, giving his interpretation of what they had told each other at their 1941 meeting.

After the discussion

My photos and text in this post are from 2023.

See more posts on theatres in Paris.

3 thoughts on “The White Queen Theatre in Paris”

  1. The paragraph on Margrethe is fascinating to me–both the reality, and the artistic perceptiveness that led to her inclusion in the play. I may need to read further on this!

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