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Review of Copenhagen: Carol Rocamora

The Nation

Carol Rocamora
Volume: 270
Issue: 22
Pagination: 49-51
ISSN: 00278378


Rocamora reviews a New York City performance of Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen,"
directed by Michael Blakemore.
Copyright Nation Company L.P. Jun 5, 2000

By now, you may have heard that the new play Copenhagen, arrived on Broadway
this spring wreathed in garlands of awards from a two-year run in London,
is a play about science-quantum mechanics, in fact, and the relationship
between Nobel-laureate physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.
And you may be uncertain that theoretical physics can be thrilling theatrical
fare. But don't be. An evening with Michael Frayn's dazzling new drama
will be among the most exhilarating, challenging and involving two and
a half hours you ever spend in a theater. And you don't need an advanced
degree to understand the profound questions it raises about motive, morality
and the betrayal of memory. They're at the very epicenter of the turbulent
twentieth century from which we're just emerging, questions that take us
straight to the heart of human existence.

Acclaimed British playwright and novelist Frayn makes it easy going for
us-- relatively speaking, that is, given that relativity, complementarity
and other principles of nuclear physics are involved. He's chosen to focus
on an event with enormous historical, scientific and moral implications,
an event shrouded in secrecy, so he writes it as a mystery. It concerns
the visit that Heisenberg, a German, made to the home of his Danish mentor,
Bohr, in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen in 1941a meeting that has left scientists
and historians speculating what might have occurred as the two world-famous
physicists dined with Bohr's wife and then went out into the night for
their customary walk and talk. The walk lasted minutes, something terrible
transpired, and their long friendship and collaboration was ruptured forever.

End of story? Not at all; answering the question of what happened on that
night is where this theatrical tour de force begins. Frayn dramatizes a
dozen hypothetical variations on an empty stage, sphere-- shaped like the
world whose future hangs in the story's balance. Like particles interacting
in a probability field, the three characters of this pristine chamber piece--
Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife, Margrethe-re-enact the event over and over.

In fact, they tell us, they've come back from the dead expressly for this
purpose. "Another draft!" they cry, as they careen from version to version.
But it is clear that memory does not serve, not even on the most basic
details of the meeting. Was it September or October? ("No fallen leaves!"
says Bohr.) Did they ever even leave the house? ("No further than my study!")
Where had they walked (if indeed they had)? ("There never was any mystery,"
exclaims Heisenberg. "I remember it absolutely clearly, because my life
was at stake.") Memory is, in short, as uncertain as the principle bearing
Heisenberg's name.

Like a law of physics, one question sets off a chain reaction of penetrating
questions, driving the play into the heart of the matter-moral responsibility
and conflicting loyalties to friend, country and humanity. Why had Heisenberg
risked his life (and Bohr's) and come to Copenhagen in the first place?
To warn his cherished colleague and Danish Jewish friend that the Germans
were close to building a bomb? To obtain information from Bohr as to how
advanced the Allies were in their efforts? To show off to his mentor how
far his own research had progressed? To seek moral absolution from his
father figure for working on the practical exploitation of atomic energy?
Or for an even darker purpose: to seek Bohr's assistance with mathematical
calculations, so he could in turn complete his work on the bomb for the
Nazis? Over and over, the characters unfold the event according to each
hypothesis, like recalculations of a scientific experiment.

But no matter. The rest is history, as the characters tell us; they who
are now dead, they who look back on the event together with us, the living.
Or is it? (And what is history, anyway, if nothing is certain? the play
implies.) Heisenberg never succeeded in making the bomb, after all-he miscalculated,
causing the Nazis to fall behind irrevocably in the nuclear race. His life
was ruined, his friendships fractured, his career dishonored. Were his
miscalculations intentional? Was our world ultimately preserved by "that
final core of uncertainty at the heart of things"?

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How then, asks Frayn, should history judge people: by their motives or
by the consequences of their actions? And given the uncertainty principle,
how can history judge at all? For, as the play reveals with exquisite irony,
Heisenberg never built a bomb, never killed a soul. Whereas Bohr became
a father figure to the German Jewish nuclear physicists at Los Alamos.
Heisenberg, the German whose mathematical error ("such a tiny failure")
saved European cities, even Copenhagen, from destruction.... Bohr, the
Dane who helped design the trigger for the bomb on Nagasaki ("my small
but helpful part in the deaths of a hundred thousand people").
"What will be left of our beloved world? Our ruined and dishonored and
beloved world?" Margrethe asks, the final question in the chain reaction.

It's the question Frayn asks, ultimately, of us, too, we who sit in the
audience, facing one another, arena-- like, surrounding the play, listening
to the greatest moral questions of our time articulated by three fine actors
(Philip Bosco as Bohr, Blair Brown as Margrethe, Michael Cumpsty as Heisenberg).
Some of us are seated in the section that the inspired director, Michael
Blakemore, and designer, Peter Davidson, have placed right on the stage,
high above the actors, like jurists at the trial of the twentieth century.
We look out over their heads into the cavernous orchestra and balcony of
the Royale. A sea of faces. .. all that humanity, saved. A thrilling and
terrifying metaphor for the twentieth century and its cataclysmic events.
A towering achievement for the theater.

Frayn is not the only playwright currently turning to science as a source
of inspiration. In fact, science is becoming the hottest topic in theater
today, so much so that it's identifiable as a millennial phenomenon on
the Englishspeaking stage. Just look at the current theater season, with
Copenhagen at the vortex: In London, the remarkable Theatre de Complicite
has just staged a thrilling new play called Mnemonic-also about memory,
connection and human evolution. A naked actor representing the remains
of a 5,000-year-old iceman, lying on an examination table surrounded by
scientists, is one of the most stunning theatrical visions of the millennial
season. In New York, at the Manhattan Theatre Club, we've lately seen Shelagh
Stevenson's An Experiment With an Air Pump (about the ethics of medical
experimentation), Arthur Kopit's Y2K (about computer technology) and David
Auburn's Proof (about mathematics). A monthlong festival of works inspired
by science played at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in April as well.

Playwrights have been using scientific subject matter as a unifying dramatic
metaphor particularly since the mid-nineties-- Tony Kushner's Angels in
America, Peter Brook's The Man Who..., Brian Friel's Molly Sweeney, Spalding
Gray's Gray's Anatomy and Margaret Edson's Wit come to mind. Perhaps the
most encompassing is Tom Stoppard's visionary Arcadia, in whose footsteps
Copenhagen followed, from the Royal National Theatre to London's West End
to Broadway. And just as Frayn and his director use the stage as a scientific
metaphor and practice dramaturgy as scientific method, Stoppard actually
shows us how time works in theatrical terms, with the relish of a researcher
conducting an experiment. "It's wanting to know that makes us matter,"
says a character in Arcadia. "Otherwise we're going out the way we came
in." Like wanting to know what happened in Copenhagen...

Last fall, the Royal National Theatre held a conference of leading British
scientists and playwrights, who gathered to address scientific issues of
urgent and mutual interest, such as technological advancement and genetic
engineering. The outcome: a series of commissioned new plays about science
for the twenty-first century. Theater as a clone of science, or artificially
inseminated? Not to worry. Clearly, playwrights have been thinking originally
about science, and will continue to do so, incentive or no, in deeply humanistic
terms. "Let us dream of what life will be like for those who will come
after us in 200-300 years," says a character in Chekhov's Three Sisters,
a play written at the beginning of a previous century. Like that of the
scientist, the playwright's imagination will always be full of wonder.

Carol Rocamora teaches theater in the dramatic writing program ofNew York
University's Tisch School of the Arts. Her three volumes of translations
of Anton Chekhov's plays were recently published by Smith & Kraus.

Reproduced with permission of the copyright owner.

Further reproduction or distribution is prohibited without permission.

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