Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is a risky play. The apparent subject, the fearsome ethical burden on the scientists who created the technology of killing, risks preachiness. And the matter of the play is difficult. You have to want to pay attention. It’s as if “The West Wing” were being filmed in the physics department.
The play itself, as Frayn has acknowledged, is based on Thomas Powers’ book, Heisenberg’s War. Sympathetic readers have called Powers’ book a “shadow history;” historians have called it worse. Some have objected that the matters presented as “facts” in the play are too kind to Heisenberg, and that the truth is rather darker. My own view is that, if you go to a play thinking you will learn history, you might want to stay home and watch Biography on A&E.
The play’s central conceit is that we can see Heisenberg's visit to Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1941. The two men described this reunion very differently after the war. The two, along with Max Born, had revolutionized atomic physics together in the 1920s with the “Copenhagen Interpretation.” Bohr and Heisenberg sometimes worked, or argued, together, but more often finished their work apart and published it separately.
Still, whether you see it as collaboration or antagonism, their work shook physics to its core. Their work on quantum mechanics, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and Bohr’s complementarity theory, were profoundly unsettling. Quantum theory introduced what seemed like randomness into Newton’s deterministic world, uncertainty sharply circumscribed what we can know about world, and complementarity resurrected the ancient controversies about dualism. An electron could be absolutely a wave, and yet equally absolutely a particle. A man might be entirely good, and yet be something else entirely. The perspective of the observer literally affects the world being observed.
Quantum mechanics challenges our imagination. It violates common sense, denying cause and effect as we understand it. The idea that “everything can be understood and explained by reason” has been the headwater of science since the Renaissance. Quantum mechanics is disturbing, both because it violates the idea that everything is Newtonian, and because it is unreasonably useful in making predictive statements about subatomic particles.
Frayn depicts Niels Bohr, accurately, as having seen Heisenberg's 1941 visit as hostile, maybe even a try at picking his brain on fission research, or a spy mission to discover the status of the Allied research on atomic weapons. Heisenberg later claimed that he simply came to ask a question, to ask Bohr as the “Pope” of science an ethical question: Does "a physicist have the moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy." In fact, in the play Frayn even allows Heisenberg to claim that he offered reassurance that Germany was not building an atomic bomb. But Bohr misunderstood his intentions and became alarmed and angry. These two versions of the facts are presented in the play, and conceived by the players, as “drafts” of history, which must be rewritten by the players before our eyes until they reach a satisfactory, publishable conclusion.
It is a mistake to see the repeated flashbacks, or “drafts” as more and more accurate history. The play is about modernity. Humanity wriggles in a cleft stick of its own creation. We are entrapped by awful powers, waging increasingly desperate wars. These wars are not just fought among nations, but against the elements, the environment itself.
We are left to wonder about the place of mankind in this world. Bohr starts the query: "If people are to be measured strictly in terms of observable quantities...," only to be interrupted by Heisenberg: "Then we should need a strange new quantum ethics. There'd be a place in heaven for me. And another one for the SS man I met on my way home."
Playmakers’ Copenhagen rewards study, and reflection. This production, with only the three characters, Niels Bohr, Werner Heisenberg, and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, is challenging and satisfying. All three characters are strongly acted; each viewpoint crucial to the outcome.
Greg Thornton’ Bohr is persuasive, charismatic, and effective. We have to believe that this person is capable of being the world’s leading physicist, of being a good husband, and yet being able to forget the names of his own children. Thornton brings this off without visible effort, and carries the play’s exposition easily, often speaking his thoughts without seeming awkward or stilted.
Ultimately, the success of the play comes down to the Heisenberg character, the flawed prodigal whose welcome is such a problem for Bohr as father. Todd Weeks, as Heisenberg, has to touch our sympathies without grabbing for them. His performance got stronger and stronger as the play went on, as the successive drafts are rewritten. Weeks’ Heisenberg, under Drew Barr’s direction, engages us without losing his enigmatic quality.
We are told over and over again that the most important perspective here is that of Margrethe; the physics must be explained “so that Margrethe can understand.” In the end, it is clearly true that Margrethe’s understanding is the most important. But it is not her understanding of the lectures and fulminations of prickly scientists that matter. She has listened to those all her life. She is the real voice, and the sensibility, of the play. Nicole Orth-Pallavicini does a wonderful job in the role, making us see her admiration for her husband, and yet revealing that she alone fully understands his flaws.
In fact, she delivers the line that defines the central moment of the play. In Drew Barr’s direction, the line is delivered quickly, almost as an aside, and the conversation immediately turns to something else. But her insight strikes like a hammer, cutting through the ethical webs and justifications Heisenberg has built to salve his conscience.
The line is delivered after another discussion of the accidental death of the Bohr’s son, Christiane. Three separate times, at different places in the play, we are told of the tragic death on a sailing outing. The tiller comes over hard, knocking the boy into the frigid ocean water. The desperate attempt to save him, bringing the boat around and flinging the life ring towards him. Just a few feet from the life ring, such a small thing, the boy falters, and drowns, with his father looking on unable to help.
We think we understand the metaphor, the random strike of natural forces, the killing powers unleashed but not controlled by man. The boy is a sacrifice; we get it. But that’s not it, or at least not all of it. In the final draft, we learn that Bohr had to be held back. In his desperation to save the boy, he would have jumped into the water, probably sacrificing his own life. Bohr had to be held back. As Margrethe murmurs, not really to Heisenberg but to the audience: “You held yourself back.” Heisenberg may well not have been able to have stopped the study of bomb. But he held himself back. Don’t we all?