Why do we do the things we do? It’s a simple question. But sometimes there’s more than one answer. And that’s where it gets complicated. In Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen, a fictional account of an actual event during World War II, two physicists exchange heated words and profound ideas. One man, Werner Heisenberg, seeks to harness the power of the atom for Germany’s forces. The other scientist, Niels Bohr is devastated that his native Denmark has been occupied by the Third Reich.
Incorporating a healthy combination of research and imagination, Michael Frayn contemplates the various motivations behind Heisenberg’s meeting with his former mentor, Niels Bohr.
The Setting: A Vague Spirit World
Michael Frayn’s play Copenhagen is set in an undisclosed location, with no mention of sets, props, costume, or scenic design. (In fact, the play does not offer a single stage direction – leaving the action completely up to the director.)
The audience learns early on that all three characters (Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe) have dead for years. With their lives now over, their spirits turn to the past to try to make sense of the 1941 meeting. During their discussion, the talkative spirits touch upon other moments in their lives – skiing trips and boating accidents, laboratory experiments and long walks with friends.
Quantum Mechanic on Stage
You don’t have to be a physics buff to love this play, but it certainly might help. Much of the charm of Copenhagen comes from Bohr and Heisenberg’s devout love of science. There is poetry to be found in the workings of an atom, and Frayn’s dialogue is most eloquent when the characters make profound comparisons between the reactions of electrons and the choices of humans.
Copenhagen was first performed in London as a “theater in the round.” The movements of the actors, as they argue, tease, and intellectualize, symbolized the sometimes combative interactions of atomic particles.
The Role of Margrethe
At first glance, Margrethe might seem the most trivial character of the three. After all, Bohr and Heisenberg are the scientists, each one having a profound impact on the way mankind understands quantum phsyics, the anatomy of the atom, and the capability of nuclear energy. However, Margrethe is essential to the play because she gives the scientist characters an excuse to express themselves in layman’s terms. Without the wife evaluating their conversation, sometimes even attacking Heisenberg and defending her often passive husband, the play’s dialogue might devolve into various equations. This would be compelling for a few mathematical geniuses, but would be otherwise boring for the rest of us! Margrethe keeps the characters grounded. She represents the audience’s perspective.
At times the play feels too cerebral for its own good. Yet, the play works best when ethic dilemmas are explored.
- Was Heisenberg immoral for trying to supply the Nazis with atomic energy?
- Was Bohr and the other allied scientists behaving unethically by creating the atomic bomb?
- Was Heisenberg visiting Bohr to seek moral guidance? Or was he simply flaunting his superior status?