Characters are in Bold; song titles are in italics in this synopsis of the plot of LTT

(For samples of the songs, go to Synopsis with Songs page

The writer, Thomas Mann, sends his hero, Hans Castorp, for a three week rest 5000 feet up at a tuberculosis sanatorium in the Swiss resort of Davos.  There is apparently not a lot to this young German from a well-to-do Hamburg business family.  This, at least, is the view of some of those he is to meet on the Magic Mountain.  “ ‘Not very’ much that would distinguish him” is the opinion of the Italian humanist, Ludovico Settembrini. “In matters of love not made a start” states the mysterious Slav, Claudia Chauchat.  His soldier cousin Joachim Ziemssen, who feels trapped on the Mountain, calls him “a pampered child”.  “How will he cope ‘Up here’ where there is no hope?”, he asks.  Leo Naphta, the radical Jewish Jesuit, sees in Hans “a mind that can be moulded”.

On Hans’ arrival at the sanatorium in which Joachim is an impatient patient (Up here), the chief physician, Dr Behrens (‘Doctor’s orders‘), immediately diagnoses his ‘civilian’ approach to life.  “You would make a good patient”, he says.  Hans’ assertion that he is completely healthy interests Dr Krokowski, the psychoanalyst.

But is Hans so simple and straightforward?  What lies beneath his soft, unremarkable surface?  Hans’ discovery that someone recently died in the room in which he is to stay for his 3 weeks triggers memories of two very different deaths he witnessed as a child.  “The Face of Death’s intriguing”, he says to the doomed Joachim.  Settembrini, ever the evangelistic rationalist, is convinced that the Magic Mountain and its indolent (‘Eat, drink and be merry’, ‘Partytime Polka’) and diseased (‘O how I love to cough!’) atmosphere are dangerous to young Hans and urges him to leave immediately (‘The Light of Human Reason’).  But Hans has had strange memories and feelings triggered by the sight of Claudia (‘Chechenya’).

While walking in the mountains Hans comes into contact with his past again: Claudia, to whom he feels a paradoxical attraction, is seen again in the eyes of Pribislav Hippe, a boy he worshipped at school.

All these new experiences – the tuberculosis Rest Cure routines, the diseased and the dying (‘My friend and I’), the vagaries of Time, the feelings brought on by Claudia – excite his interest.  He prepares to leave as the end of his three weeks approaches but does he want to go?  The onset of a head cold allows him the illicit pleasure of taking his temperature.  What will ‘Mercurius’ reveal?

He has a fever!  ” ‘Young Hans’, get yourself the test”, urge the excited patients.  “’TB or not TB’- now there’s no question.”  That is the opinion of the burlesque trio of medical staff: Dr Behrens (‘The Medical Sleuth’), the Matron, Adriatica von Mylendonk and Dr Krokowski (Don’t be afraid of Freud).  “Who would believe I don’t want to leave…..” admits Hans, who now, as it turns out, has TB and belongs ‘Up here’.

In Act II, with the freedom granted him by Thomas Mann (‘Disease, deformity, disability and Death’), Hans embarks on a journey of discovery: Anatomy, botany, psychology, the to-and-fro ‘Great Debates’ between Settembrini, the ardent humanist, and Naphta, the religious zealot (‘Deo gratias’), and The Facts of Life (The Selfish Gene, A Brief History of Time). Simultaneously his Eros is burning, kindled constantly by the presence of Claudia with whom, as with Pribislav, he has hardly shared a word.

Liberated by the atmosphere of the Mardi Gras Carnival (‘Don your mask’, ‘The Carnival Punch’), Hans spurns Settembrini’s ‘wholesome advice’ and approaches Claudia (‘Sweet as a Peach’) in “a dream that shapes reality” (‘I believe this dream’).  His love, his newly-acquired learning and his tuberculous fever combine in an incontinent torrent of praise to The Beauty of the Body when he hears that Claudia will be leaving the Magic Mountain the following day.

Towards the end of the seven years covered in Act III (‘The Whirligig of Time’), Hans feels that he has ‘Been there, Done that’ but things still do not hang together (‘The Great God Dumps’, ‘Here I am up a mountain’).  All his experiential learning on the Mountain leaves only the tension of opposites.  Perhaps music can bring resolution.  But in his favourite music (Der Lindenbaum and Valentine’s Aria) is found only an invitation to suicide (a resolution of sorts) and a painful reminder of the loss of Joachim to Kaiser and Country.  To escape, Hans heads into the mountains once more.  Caught in a blizzard he has a vision that promises resolution of the opposing tensions (‘Betwixt and Between’): “It’s not Either/Or but Both/And”.

But all is not resolved for Hans.  Joachim’s death from tuberculosis has him exploring the world beyond the grave (‘Séance’).  The Great Debates also end in death.  Seven years after Hans’ arrival the First World War brings an end to life at the sanatorium (‘For Kaiser and Country I go’).  We “say farewell” to Hans on the battlefield.  Seven years of effort on The Magic Mountain: “Where did it get you, we enquire?’.