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,