"Copenhagen"

A Full Length Play by Michael Frayn

Copenhagen
Who should wield atomic power?. Enzo Brandi / EyeEm

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.

Historical Context

In 1941, German physicist Heisenberg paid a visit to Bohr. The two spoke very briefly before Bohr angrily ended the conversation and Heisenberg left. Mystery and controversy have surrounded this historic exchange. About a decade after the war, Heisenberg maintained that he visited Bohr, his friend and father-figure, to discuss his own ethical concerns about nuclear weaponry. Bohr, however, remembers differently; he claims that Heisenberg seemed to have no moral qualms about creating atomic weapons for the Axis powers.

Incorporating a healthy combination of research and imagination, playwright Michael Frayn contemplates the various motivations behind Heisenberg’s meeting with his former mentor, Niels Bohr.

The Setting: A Vague Spirit World

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 actors and the director.)

The audience learns early on that all three characters (Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe) have been 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 Mechanics on Stage

You don’t have to be a physics buff to love this play, but it certainly helps. Much of the charm of Copenhagen comes from Bohr's and Heisenberg’s expressions of their 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 in that production - as they argue, tease, and intellectualize - reflected 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.

These conversations might 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.

Ethical Questions

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?
  • Were 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?

    Each of these and more are worthy questions to consider. The play doesn’t provide a definitive answer, but it does hint that Heisenberg was a compassionate scientist who loved his fatherland, yet did not approve of atomic weapons. Many historians would disagree with Frayn’s interpretation, of course. Yet that makes Copenhagen all the more enjoyable. It might not be the most exciting play, but it certainly stimulates debate.

    Video of the Play

    PBS Hollywood offers an online video of the complete play that includes an interview with the playwright.