In “Copenhagen” Michael Frayn achieves the
impossible; he makes physics fascinating to the non-scientist.
does this by creating dramatic tension between Danish atomic physicist
Niels Bohr and his former star pupil, German scientist Werner
Heisenberg as they meet again, after a number of years, in
Nazi-occupied Copenhagen during World War II. Heisenberg,
after a father-son relationship with Bohr, had written as the
war began in 1939, thanking Bohr and ending the friendship. History
knows that Heisenberg visited Bohr in 1941, when both the Germans
and the allies were working on the atom bomb, but no one knows
what was discussed. The play dramatizes what might have happened
at the meeting, giving the audience different versions from which
Frayn’s mind-gripping drama asks, but never
answers, many questions: How responsible were the scientists for
their equations used to created the atomic bomb and its mass destruction
of Hiroshima as well as its threat of annihilation of the world?
Did they consider at the time the moral implications or only the
political ones of winning the war? How much did the Nazis
know about the atomic bomb and how close were they to producing
one of their own? Was Heisenberg sent by the Nazis
to visit Bohr and pry out of him the last equation needed by them
to make their own bomb?
Time is flexible as the play moves back and
forth in time. It opens in the present, with the characters dead
and looking back to the meeting, which then ensues. Dead, Heisenberg
after the bomb has been dropped, is able to arrive at equations
that he says evaded him during the war. Might some moral compunction
have contributed to his earlier delay in progressing towards the
Under Michael Blakemore's direction, the action
is never static because the conflict between the two men is sustained
throughout, conflict which is not physical but intellectual.
Expertly enacted by William Brand as the German, David Baron as
the Dane, and Corinna Marlowe as his wife Margarethe, they achieve
the necessary excitement to keep the audience intrigued -- even
though we know the outcome: the Nazis did not get the bomb
(their persecution of the Jews led to Einstein's flight to America)
and it was created and dropped by the U.S., winning the war and
assuming the guilt. When the scientists agree to use “plain talk”
for Margarethe’s benefit, her comments and questions clarify scientific
principles for the audience. Thus we leave the theater feeling
not only cleverer than when we entered, but also exhilarated by
the give-and-take of the arguments as they in turn enlisted our
rejection and our sympathy.
On an almost bare stage in the shape of a circle
with three chairs, the action moves freely from indoors to outdoors
and the famous walk that we know the two engaged in while discussing
and disagreeing. For this the circle is perfect, just as it is
a metaphor for the arguments for and against the bomb, which over
the past half-century have, like a circle, been endless.
Some historians believe that Heisenberg paid
his visit to find out how far along the allies were with developing
the bomb; others believe that he was attempting to find out information
from Bohr that would allow the Germans to progress with their
own creation of the atom bomb on which they were working.
(Bohr later would be one the physicists working in Los Alamos,
New Mexico, where the bomb was successfully developed).
Throughout, Mr. Frayn never loses sight of
the human element – the emotions involved over the loss of the
Bohrs’ son, or the destruction of the men’s long friendship, or
Margarethe’s protectiveness of her husband. Personal feelings
common to all are finely balanced with scientific arguments that
have moral and philosophical implications. The
“uncertainty principle,” discovered by Heisenberg when young,
gives rise to different versions of what happened that night.
The playwright notes that the play’s psychological uncertainty
is parallel to the uncertainty theory that we can never know everything
about an object or an event: “Can we have absolute knowledge of
(Duchess Theatre, Catherine Street. London
Note: “Copenhagen” opened in New York the following
season, with Philip Bosco as Bohr, Michael Crumpsty as Heisenberg,
and Blair Brown as Margarethe. There is a BBC television
version, shown on PBS, with Stephen Rea as Bohr, Daniel Craig
as Heisenberg, and Francesca Annis as Margarethe, adapted and
directed by Howard Davies.