Author: Michael FraynFirst performed in London in 1998 and again in New York in 2000 Copenhagen has received mixed responses from its audiences. It is a challenging play. It requires much of the audience and few would be up to the mark unless they had ‘boned’ up on their school day physics notes before taking their seat.
Frayn explores on stage the possible reasons for a falling out of two friends, the great Danish physicist Niels Bohr, and, the equally notable German physicist, Werner Heisenberg. They had been close friends and colleagues for many years. The falling out occurred in when Heisenberg visited his former mentor in Copenhagen in 1941. It must be realised that Denmark had recently fallen under German occupation despite the Danes desire to remain neutral in the war that was consuming Europe.
Heisenberg revisited Copenhagen again in 1947 in an attempt to regain Bohr’s friendship. Bohr would have none of it. Whatever was said in 1941 was obviously unforgivable in the eyes of Niels Bohr. It transpired, many years after the death of both physicists, that Heisenberg had written many letters to Bohr all of which remained unanswered. Bohr also had written a letter to Heisenberg, which he redrafted many times but did not send.
Frayn’s play takes us into a world beyond the grave. Heisenberg’s visit of 1947 is recreated for us the audience to witness and to presumably to pass judgement on. There are only three people and they are on stage throughout the two act play: they are Niels Bohr and his wife Margrethe and, of course, Heisenberg. The conversation between the Bohr’s is occasionally in asides and Heisenberg then joins in to give some explanation of his actions, to correct a misapprehension or to mount some sort of defence against the accusations levelled against him. Against this background the two old men often forget their differences and relive the excitement of their past when they were friends and involved in unravelling the mysteries of quantum physics and in evolving the laws of quantum mechanics. They ramble on, reliving how one revelation led to the next in a world where common sense is defied. The names of great men are bandied back and forth with an easy familiarity: Plank, Einstein, De Broglie, Schrodinger, Hann, Frisch, Fermi and many more slip in and out of the conversation as the two friends reminisce. Then suddenly the friendship is lost again as a recollection brings them in hand. Often it is the painful recollection of the death of two of Bohr’s children: Bohr seems to hold himself responsible for the death of one child lost overboard in a boating mishap. Margrethe is often the one that shatters the happiness the men fall into and brings the conversation back the reason for Heisenberg’s visit. Margrethe is as cool towards Heisenberg as is her husband. This is strange since Heisenberg lived under the Bohr’s roof for several years. Is she supporting her husband or was she equally offended by Heisenberg’s visit all those years before?
Central to the play’s plot is the attempt by Heisenberg to establish the credibility of his post war defence that he was the one person instrumental in denying the Nazis first use of the atomic bomb. His claim that he deliberately miscalculated the required amount of U235 needed as a critical mass necessary to sustain fission to the point of a chain reaction is of course unverifiable. He claims that the German armaments minister, Albert Speer, redirected funds away from the nuclear bomb project, a decision based solely on Heisenberg’s deliberate miscalculation. We must either accept Heisenberg’s word for this or brand him as an opportunist intent on saving his own skin. If we believe him, his virtue is restored. He is free to resume his chair and his noble cause, the research into quantum mechanics. He will be untarnished by his engagement in the Nazi war effort. Bohr is outspokenly sceptical of Heisenberg’s assertion that the mistake was deliberate. Bohr, himself a perfectionist, believes that the miscalculation was accidental, a mark of unforgivable sloppiness. Bohr knows Heisenberg better than we the audience do. We are naturally drawn towards Bohr’s scepticism. Heisenberg’s defence, often put before us in the course of the play, is viewed with contempt.
The purpose of the play is presumably to discover actually what happened in 1941. There are two acts, the second being a replay of the first. There is a knock at the Bohr’s front door. Heisenberg enters and receives the same welcome as he did in Act One. The conversation attempts once more to resolve the ‘difficulty’ that ended the friendship but once again the conversation wanders from its purpose. The two great minds have great difficulty staying focused!
I have discovered at least ten different reasons suggested by Frayn for the falling out of the friends - perhaps there are more. A reason, once raised, is often countered directly or by something that you as the audience find our later. It seems to be a case of ‘take your pick’. However, as the play draws to a close Frayn throws in a fact that we, the audience, have failed to take into account. We have been encouraged to lay blame on Heisenberg for leading the German attempt to develop an atom bomb. For reasons discussed in the play the attempt failed. But history records that Niels Bohr was spirited out of Denmark into neutral Sweden and then onto the free world to join in the development of the bombs that took so many innocent lives in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Where Heisenberg had failed Bohr had succeeded!
There are many facets of this play that make it a worthwhile experience. A student of the sciences will be rewarded with a recapturing of the spirit that drove the physicists of the twenties and thirties to the very extremes of their reasoning powers. One easily shares their excitement. The historians in the audience will be rewarded in much the same way. They will share for a moment the pain and sullen resentment the Danes felt in being forced to submit to occupation by their long feared neighbour. We will find there is a temptation to dislike Heisenberg simply because he is a German. The student of the human condition will find much to ponder in the fact that two once great minds can not agree on simple matters such as where their meeting in 1945 actually took place - Bohr says it was in his house or at the Institute while Heisenberg is certain it took place in the open air. The simplest detail escapes them both. One is not surprised to learn that Michael Frayn was first employed as writer of humour for the Observer and later the Guardian.
Copenhagenreveals some little known facts that come as a surprise and cause our judgement to waver. It transpires in the play that the reason that Danish Jewry was saved from the Nazis was that the Danes had been warned ahead of time that the Jews were about to rounded up and deported. They were able to spirit them out of Denmark and into neutral Sweden from under the very noses of the German SS. They had been warned by Georg Duckwitz, the Nazis’ shipping expert. Fortuitously, on the night of the mass evacuation, the German coastal patrols had been ordered into port as unseaworthy. One supposes it was the work Georg Duckwitz yet again. Such knowledge casts new light on wartime allegiances,and,incidentally on our easy assumption of Heisenberg’s guilt .
Every member of the audience will take home with them something of significance from the play. Everyone, necessarily, will be reminded of the tragedy of the rise of Nazi Germany that divorced friends and caused eminent men to flee their homes and university posts. Some will carry the vivid picture of great men, capable of almost unbelievable intellectual feats, humbled by the simplest of truths. Some will see it as unfolding of the story of the rapid development of that branch of physics that saw man able to marshall the very forces that fuel the sun. Others will dwell on the thought that perhaps man’s knowledge had outstripped his wisdom.
I am sure that Frayn’s wish is that we take at least this from his play- that we will in future not rush to sit in judgement of others. It is a heavy responsibility to take up the condemnation of others. Things may not be as they seem to be, as the explorers of a quantum world had to discover.
A Necessary Postscript.
This play assumes its audience has some knowledge of quantum mechanics. We must not stumble and fall at concepts like that of a sure knowledge of uncertainty, of complementarity and wave functions. As the eminent popular physicist John Gribbin notes, ‘the thing to note about the quantum world is not to trust our common sense’. To this end Michael Frayn has included in the written form of his play two lengthy postscripts. They provide all the required knowledge to enable us to follow the twisting paths the conversation takes as the two physicists recall their past. If, however, you have a particular concern about the welfare of Schrodinger’s cat you will have to go elsewhere.
Frayn, Michael. Copenhagen. Methuen Drama. Great Britain. 1998.
Gribbin, John. In Search of Schrodinger’s Cat. Black Swan. Great Britain. 1991.