In my binge on plays after viewing the sampler from the PBS special, I included Michael Frayn’s 1998 play Copenhagen, which promised to be set during World War II. As it turns out, the play is far more complicated than that.
Based on historical figures and an actual historical event, Copenhagen covers the relationship between scientists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, with feedback from Bohr’s wife Margrethe. The play opens in an indeterminate time, because all three characters have died and are now talking in the afterlife. They end up reflecting on Heisenberg’s visit to the Bohrs’ home in Copenhagen in 1941, a visit that ended in the loss of friendship and a rupture, one that would haunt Heisenberg for the rest of his life. Both men had worked together in the 1920s, and both would end up working on an atomic bomb, in which the Nazi team to which Heisenberg had been involved (whether through choice or coercion) had failed and Bohr’s group in the United States succeeded. Bohr would escape Nazi Germany, while Heisenberg would be treated as a war criminal. Is that really correct? How do our loyalties affect our work, and vice versa? Ultimately, Frayn asks big questions and revisits the event through three revisions of the past in order to flesh out the complexity of the men’s connection.
This play is freaking awesome. It tackles big ideas, like physics, but in the end it’s not really about physics. It’s about perception, history, relationship, and the ways in which our prejudices color our perceptions. The play is stripped of stage directions and contains only the three characters–there is so much room for interpretation and staging, that I really want to see it performed or read it with my own students.