Click here to start
WoK homepage
Online Texts
Discussion Questions
Study Questions
Writing Resources
Course Policies
Self Evaluations

Reading Copenhagen
An Introduction to Michael Frayn's Copenhagen

Copenhagen is not an easy play to read. I have tried to help you a bit by giving you some pre-reading information and providing other information for you to read as you go along.Please remember that when you read a play once, the best you can do is find out what is happening. It is only through a second reading that you begin to understand why and how what is happening, is happening. With Copenhagen, it may take even more than that. But it is well worth it.

The play, Copenhagen, is based on a real historical occurrence. However, as in all fiction, the play is a creation in the mind of the playwright in an attempt to raise questions for the audience to think about. The scientists who are the protagonists of the piece, Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, did, in fact exist and were, in fact, friends and colleagues before World War II.

Bohr was Heisenberg's father-figure, mentor and colleague and they did work together for many years. Heisenberg did come to visit Bohr in Copenhagen in 1941 and again in 1947. The contents of the meetings are speculative as there are no records of the event other than it happened. Much has been written about it and it is clear that the dramatic question that Frayn presents is much the same as the one Heisenberg was consumed with: what was Heisenberg hoping to achieve in the meeting with Bohr in 1941. In the play, Frayn plays out this meeting several times with several different possibilities. None of them are known to be true. All of them are possible.

The greatest question raised in the play goes beyond the factual disputation. The question that is essentially raised here is what do we really know about who we are and what our own motives may be? (That question of reality and self - what reality is the personal reality - comes about again here.) Is Bohr right about Heisenberg's motives, or is Margarethe, or is Heisenberg? Do any of them really know their own motives? (a bit of Pinter here.) Can we know our own motives? How reliable is our memory? What is the truth?

Along with the investigation, the story of the Bohr/Heisenberg 1941 meeting, it is important to look at the way in which Frayn frames these questions in the play. He uses a very different dramatic form than that of other playwrights. For the play is not set in a realistic setting, nor are the actions told in a linear (chronological) past to present unfolding. Rather, the characters Frayn creates are reincarnations of the real people years after they have died (sometimes called a memory play). Their beings, or spirits, come back (in the form of real people) to sort out the events that happened. Each has a different perception or memory and none can be verified.

In addition to the replaying of these events several times over in "flashbacks" (the recreating of events of the past in present time on the stage), Frayn does some other astonishing things. He explains quite clearly some of the basic principles of experimental and theoretical physics as well as the problems of fission (splitting of atoms) and the creation of the atomic bomb. Further, he explains the two major theories for which these scientists were known: the 'Uncertainty theory' of Heisenberg and the 'complementarity principle" of Bohr. These are explained in what Frayn refers to as "plain language" in the piece. Throughout the play he claims, through Bohr, that mathematical theory is only useful if it exists outside its own language and can be explained in 'plain language' and looked at for its philosophical implication. For this dramatic device he uses Margarethe , Bohr's wife, as the recipient. If she cannot understand it, it cannot be used. We, of course, are the happy receivers of this 'plain language' and much of the complication of these theories becomes very understandable (no small accomplishment.)

The other thing that Frayn does here is relate the characters' actions and motives to the principles of physics that they have discovered; so that the uncertainly principle - an inability to accurately locate objects and therefore an inability to predict their futures accurately, and the complementarity principle, which uses two methods of observing the presence of objects, are reflected in the way the characters view their own actions and those of others. An example can be seen as Bohr, using the principles of complementarity, tries to explain that 'particles' and 'waves' are both essential properties of objects and of human behavior. He says to Heisenberg at one point in the play,

" understand how people see you we have to treat you not just as a particle, but as a wave....Particles are things, complete in themselves. Waves are disturbances in something else. They're either one thing or the other. They can't be both. We have to choose one way of seeing them or the other. But as soon as we do we can't know everything about them. "(69).

The idea of what and how we can know others or ourselves is mirrored in the philosophy of the mathematical principles which govern their lives.

Add to this mixture the fact that Frayn creates a stage set which is bare. He will use this bare set to reflect the particles and their movements as actors move around his stage space. It is a slightly raised circle with chairs. The character sit and move around elliptically - much like the electrons around a nucleus in an atomic particle. It is a fascinating symbol of who and what we are.

To make matters more complex, this entire examination is done in an effort to understand the ethical questions surrounding the role of the scientist. Is theory removed from application. Should our scientists make the decision about their experimentation based on the knowledge of how it might be used? That is the issue at the bottom of the play - the creation of the bomb in 1941 as Germany was winning the war. Who would have this lethal instrument and how might it be used? Margarethe has much to say about this as the play ends - with almost as many questions as it began.