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Copenhagen


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A: Michael Frayn Pf: 1998, London Pb: 1998; rev. 2000 G: Drama in 2 acts S: The Afterlife, late 20th c., and Copenhagen, 1941 C: 2m, 1fAt the end of the 20th century, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and German physicist Werner Heisenberg look back on their lives. They recall how Bohr and Heisenberg, 16 years his junior, became friends in Copenhagen in 1924, and how, despite disagreements, they collaborated in developing quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle, and complementarity. They re-enact Heisenberg's wartime visit to Copenhagen in 1941, a mystery to later biographers and a source of tension since Denmark is occupied by German forces and Bohr is half-Jewish. While they try to stick to physics, they cannot avoid discussing politics (‘sometimes painfully difficult to keep apart’). Taking a walk together, Heisenberg reveals to Bohr that it is possible to use nuclear fission to make weapons of mass destruction. The horrified Bohr has a row with Heisenberg, and they part on unfriendly terms. Heisenberg claims that his visit was an attempt to persuade Oppenheimer in America to put a stop to research into nuclear weapons, just as he hoped to in Germany. When Bohr points out that Heisenberg's project failed because he did not solve a simple equation, it is unclear whether he did so through neglect or as a clever move to deprive Hitler of the atom bomb. In the last analysis, it is seen that Heisenberg perhaps is more deserving of a place in heaven than Bohr, who after his escape in 1943, went to the USA and indirectly contributed to the deaths of thousands in Hiroshima.

A: Michael Frayn Pf: 1998, London Pb: 1998; rev. 2000 G: Drama in 2 acts S: The Afterlife, late 20th c., and Copenhagen, 1941 C: 2m, 1f

It is remarkable that a play that is devoid of action and does not eschew the complexities of nuclear physics should have become a West End hit. By using Margrethe as a kind of chorus, a bridge between the audience and the central debate, and through an intelligent and skilful recreation of the facts, Frayn turns the scientists' meeting into an absorbing puzzle. It lends credence to Brecht's belief that audiences enjoy learning entertainingly.

Subjects: Literary Studies (Plays and Playwrights).


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Authors

Michael Frayn (b. 1933)


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