Monthly Archives: August 2012

Review of Copenhagen by Michael Frayn

Frayn’s Tony Award-winning play, Copenhagen, explores the relationship between Neils Bohr and Werner Heisenburg, two of the most significant physicists—and indeed intellects in general—of the twentieth century. Together, the two invented quantum mechanics, a theory that revolutionized not just atomic physics or even subdivisions of philosophy but the manner in which people perceive the universe.

But Frayn does not principally concern the play with these; rather, he focuses on one aspect of the relationship between these two men. Once strong during a time of peace and scientific prosperity in the 1920s, their relationship strains and breaks due to the politics and ethics of World War II as Heisenberg works for Nazi weapons development and Bohr, who is half Jewish, lives in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Copenhagen delves deep into a 1941 meeting that purportedly ends their friendship. In it, Frayn relates the issue of ethics and physics research, most specifically the natures of fission and the development of an atomic bomb, using these to characterize the relationship of these two physicists, their shared brilliance and diametrically opposite methods of thinking.

Bohr is a steady, methodical mind whose close scrutiny of the implications of mathematics and ideas allows him to presuppose the scientific and ultimately the ethical and socio-political effects of developments in theoretical physics. Heisenberg is, by far, the better physicist whose inherent talent with mathematics allows him to plow through work at a pace difficult for the most gifted to follow, but in doing so ignores the potential consequences of his results. Frayn’s development of this is brilliant as he uses their metaphoric conversation about skiing to build their respective personalities. This image becomes an extended metaphor through the piece, allowing Bohr and Heisenberg to talk about different methodological approaches to physics and ethics.

Beneath the structure of their relationship and the artistry of quantum mechanics, Frayn gets at something far deeper. Heisenberg’s famed Uncertainty Principle and Bohr’s notion of the wave-particle duality together provide the perfect context for Frayn to discuss his notions of nihilism and fatalism.

He asserts through Heisenberg that we can never truly know a person and the things that the person has done at a given time and perhaps that we cannot know anything about the past, future, and those individuals within those contexts. And through Bohr, Frayn puts forward that we can only act and thereby live or think about acting and thereby die. This philosophy does not end with his concept of death-by-knowledge, either. As Frayn argues that premeditated action leads to inaction, he presents a world without causal relationships amongst people, reflecting in some ways both the bizarre laws of quantum mechanics and the anti-causality philosophy of David Hume.

Late in the play, Frayn grows far darker than before, asserting through all the characters a looming fatality and hopelessness. He suggests that before we can see the effects of our actions in life, we die, that regardless of our efforts, our mortality faces us with harsh reality. But he adds a small dose of optimism suggesting that each moment in the present is “precious” in part because of its uncertainty, of its well-defined place and poorly-defined meaning.

Beyond Bohr and Heisenberg, there is only one other character, Bohr’s wife, Margrethe. Her down-to-earth nature and common intellect make her far more relatable than the lofty personae of the physicists. She is the one who questions the personal motives behind the theories and mathematics, the one who compels Bohr to break down the complexities of quantum mechanics into a comprehensive layman’s tongue. Her insights and demands lend the reader a degree of participation and intrigue in the relationship between Neils and Werner, forcing their discussions into the harsh reality of Nazi-occupied Denmark and contextualizing the familial foundations of both men.

Beyond her link to the real world, Margrethe serves as the glue that holds the men together and the skepticism that forces Bohr and Heisenberg to rethink their relationship. That she plays such a powerful role in their relationship and their questions of ethics and physics indicates Frayn’s high opinions of the role of family in great minds and individuals and of the necessity of strong women in determining the development and future of profound ideas.

Well-written and highly provocative, Copenhagen uses the uncommon medium of quantum mechanics to discuss relationships, knowledge, and mortality in a manner that makes them interdependent. Frayn compares people to the apparently sentient elementary particles that make up the atom, suggesting a degree of uncertainty even in our own lives and relationships. Though it reads quickly, do take the time to digest the plethora of compelling lines Frayn includes. Here are just a few to entice you before you pick up the actual play:

“M: Physics, yes? Physics.

B: This is physics.

M: It’s also politics.

H: The two are sometimes painfully difficult to keep apart.”

“H: Mathematics becomes very odd when you apply it to people. One plus one can add up to so many different sums…”

“H: Otto Hahn wants to kill himself, because it was he who discovered fission, and he can see the blood on his hands. Gerlach…also wants to die, because his hands are so shamefully clean.”

“B: You live and breath paradox and contradiction, but you can no more see the beauty of them than the fish can see the beauty of the water.”

“H: You never had the slightest conception of what happens when bombs are dropped on cities….The whole city on fire. Even the puddles in the streets are burning. They’re puddles of molten phosphorus. It gets on your shoes like some kind of incandescent dog muck….All around me, I suppose, there are people trapped, people in various stages of burning to death. And all I can think is, How will I ever get hold of another pair of shoes in times like these?”

31 Plays in 31 Days: Week Three

Getting into the final stretch and I’m getting more and more behind…

My plays for week three (plus the two week two ones that I hadn’t yet written by last entry):

DAY THIRTEEN: Education Trial. In the days over over-medication for all of kids’ “problems”, schools would rather do that than actually help their students.

DAY FOURTEEN: Reciprocation. A man is angry that he performs random acts of kindness and gets nothing in return.

DAY FIFTEEN: Holding and its Patheticness. A guy realizes that now that the girl he’s still in love with is married- to someone else- with kids, he should probably start to let go.

DAY SIXTEEN: Ultimatum. Two girls are frustrated that their friend has suddenly stopped talking to them. They hatch a plan to get her attention again.

DAY SEVENTEEN: Teatime. Two characters, only one of whom is willing to speak. Jack tries to apologize to his significant other for an unknown crime using tea.

DAY EIGHTEEN: Eighteen. A girl is reluctant to face her eighteenth birthday because it means entering a whole new world.

DAY NINETEEN: Mom. Lily, 20, and Caroline, 50, have both lost their mothers, and can’t decide which is worse: to have more time with a mother you hated, or less but happier time with the mother you loved.

DAY TWENTY: Untitled. A girl confront her friend about the friend’s suicide.

 

And… I’m behind again. I will catch up soon!

31 Plays in 31 Days: Week Two

Readers, it cannot be hidden anymore that I am behind on my plays. I was waiting to update until I had caught up, which was supposed to be Thursday… and then I got called into work and it all went to pot. So here is the shameful amount of plays that I did managed to write during week two of the project:

DAY EIGHT: Pretty Underwear. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like, in monologue form.

DAY NINE: The Future, Ended. A girl wakes up to find that she hasn’t actually woken up, because she died of unknown causes in her sleep.

DAY TEN: How. Two friends go through some of the stages of grief following their friend’s suicide.

DAY ELEVEN: Fine is the Wrong Word. A monologue about the proper reaction to death, and how one death compares to another.

DAY TWELVE: A First Time for Everything. Based on the case of Patricia Douglas, a 1930s dancer is assualted by her movie executive boss.

Days Thirteen and Fourteen were a wash, but I’m working on them now! I don’t know where all these unhappy topics are coming from… except my brain, which is scary.

Review of Shield by Poul Anderson

Poul Anderson, a popular science fiction author who wrote in the mid twentieth century, published his dystopian novel Shield in 1963. Ironically, the piece is set in Anderson’s projection of 2012, in which there are flying cars, cities that span entire coasts of the United States, and 3D televisions. The historical context is a post-nuclear-war America torn by drastic class divisions and ruled by a new military division (the “MS”) designed to regulate and control all weapons and anti-American sentiments across the globe.

We follow Koskinen, a young astronaut recently returned to this futuristic America from a mission to Mars. Koskinen is book smart with little knowledge of the real world, giving Anderson a great forum in which to demonstrate his own views of both Cold War America and the nature of government at large, which he does at every opportunity, using imagery, characterization, etc. At one critical point, Anderson uses a discussion of political philosophy that resembles in some ways Dostoevsky’s commentary on morality in Crime and Punishment, albeit more exciting as Anderson has raised the stakes.

What makes Koskinen particularly special in this socio-political context is that he has brought back from Mars a piece of technology that renders its user invulnerable to any weapons except radiation from nuclear bombs. He is the sole possessor of this equipment and is the only person who knows how to make it. Every major political power in the world is after this device. Especially the major powers inside the United States. Post-fallout warlords, MS, and political extremists all vie for this perceived weapon and will stop at nothing to obtain it. Koskinen is not only caught between them but must decide what must be done with the device himself or face death at the hands of any of these three groups.

Koskinen is particularly naïve because beyond his formal education, he has never lived in the real world; after his PhD, he spends five years communing with the Martians in their ideal society, one focused on the pursuits of peace and knowledge. With this background, Anderson paints what he sees as a perfect civilization: no aggression, no power struggles, no bureaucracy, and no greed. But he expresses it as alien, admitting that his ideals are lofty and unattainable.

Through the warlords, Anderson demonstrates a world ruled by both culture and savagery, a world at times reminiscent of Heart of Darkness and heartily modeled on flagrant despotism. The MS are an equivalent to the Soviet KGB or a milder version of the Gestapo: they are clandestine, power-hungry, and merciless. And they will do anything they can in the name of national security, making Anderson’s highly negative depiction of this group a strong commentary on several of America’s Cold War policies. Political extremists, the Egalitarians, are fleshed out in far more detail through a political philosopher who meets with Koskinen. Anderson indicates through their encounter what he believes is perhaps the best system possible for humanity, considering human nature. Yet again, he demonstrates his ideal as unattainable, this time through the well developed character of a post-Soviet revolutionary who relates the evils that can occur during political transition.

While the potential for romance between Koskinen and a newfound compatriot exists, Vivienne, it does not develop until far into the book, demonstrating Anderson’s considerable focus on the political issues on hand as Vivienne cares more for the fate of Koskinan’s shield than the future of their relationship. Their relationship is complicated and ultimately plays a role in Koskinen’s ability to understand his own political and moral sentiments.

Anderson may not be George Orwell, but his anti-Cold War sentiments and concerns for America’s political future are still clear and well communicated. And while Orwell is perhaps the better author, Anderson has a reasonable command of language:

“[the city] bulked black against a sky where aircraft moved like glittering midges”

“The furnishings were low-legged, Oriental, centered about a pedestal that upheld a lovely piece of uncut Lunar crystal.”

“His face was older than his athletic gait, with skin drawn tight over broad cheekbones and beaky nose but deeply lines around mouth and eyes.”

His discussion of Jefferson’s policies, eighteenth century French political issues, and the famed Federalist Papers within the text suggest that Anderson is, at the very least, well read in major political theory.

Shield may not be the greatest work of science fiction or dystopian political commentary, but Anderson’s intriguing plot and well-characterized groups and individuals makes for a compelling and quick read that will leave you contemplating the nature of current politics and the nature of American government.

31 Plays in 31 days: Week One

This first week as a 31D31P playwright has been eye-opening and super fun. There’s nothing like being forced to write things down to teach you some things about yourself.

The first thing I noticed as I wrote my plays is that I have changed so much as a writer in the past few months. I’m braver, bolder, and more willing to write anything that comes into my head. As I probably stated before, one of the appeals of events like this is not having enough time to cater to your inner editor. There have been many times this past week where I’ve gone, “You can’t write about that!” and answered back with, “No time to think of something else. Forward march!”

I thought writing 31 short plays would be harder than writing an entire novel or play in the same amount of time. With the latter, you at least have an idea of the story every day and you’re living with the same characters. But actually, I’ve been surprised by how much I enjoy spending time with new characters every day. Most days, I start with just a small idea or one line and allow the play go where it may. I used to be afraid of things not working out, but now I just think that if it doesn’t, who needs to know?

I’m also pretty relieved because I’ve written a few funny plays, and after a semester of writing about Victorian girls sent to mental institutions, I wasn’t feeling very amusing. Everything I wrote was sad or at least serious, and I was worried that I might never write anything funny again. But forcing myself to just write and not overthink things allowed me to be silly again, and it’s great.

Without further ado, the basic info of the first seven plays I’ve written:

DAY ONE: God’s Voice. A girl laments her confusion about religion and prayer.

DAY TWO: A Valiant Effort. Two bumblebees discuss the meaning of life.

DAY THREE: Compatibility. Two people try to figure out if they’re right for one another and if they, as a pair, are right for the world.

DAY FOUR: ‘Til Death Do Us Part. The guy killed someone. The girl doesn’t care.

DAY FIVE: Ten Year- Old Thoughts. Anna talks about why she’s different from all of her friends.

DAY SIX: I Just Thought You Should Know. A couple discovers that love isn’t always powerful enough to keep us here.

DAY SEVEN: Reunion. Allyson runs into the school bully, Katrina, at their ten-year high school reunion to discover that the movies lie about these sorts of things.

Anyone else doing this?

Are You Playwright Enough?

As a writer, I like to challenge myself. Partly it’s because I enjoy proving people wrong- including myself. Partly it’s because I like to see what I can do. And partly it’s because I’m a huge scaredy cat and like to find ways to break myself of that. That’s why I’ve decided to take part in 31 Plays in 31 Days.

31 Plays in 31 Days is ” is an opportunity for playwrights to flex their writing muscles by pledging to write an original play every day in August 2012. Participating writers will join an online community of other playwrights and those who successfully create 31 plays will be invited to submit their work for our online reading production […] The pressure of this goal will allow you to set aside preconceived notions of what you should be writing and how you should be doing it. You will not have time to overanalyze your work, you will just have to write, write, write and be surprised by what comes out of you.”  (description taken from the website.) It was created by Rachel Bublitz and Tracy Held Potter, and I think it’s a brilliant idea.

It’s not the first of its kind- National Novel Writing Month has been around since 1999, and its sister event, Script Frenzy, began in 2007. I’ve participated in each of these (NaNoWriMo for four years, Script Frenzy for one), and have never regretted it. As the description above says, writing so rapidly gives you no time to consult your inner editor, and I value that in this experience. I spend so much of my writing time thinking, ‘You can’t write that! It sounds stupid/doesn’t work/will cause people to think you’re insane!’ But in doing NaNo and Script Frenzy, I’ve learned that writing with those censors gives you half the novel/play you set out to write. Slowly but surely, these programs make you fearless- or at least willing to make mistakes. My favorite rule of Bublitz and Held Potter’s is “Submit the work that you’re not happy with. We don’t care if your characters are believable, if your plot is plausible, or if your ending is satisfying. We just want you to write a bunch of stories in a fixed period of time.” It’s not the quality that counts- at least not yet. The wonderful thing about these projects is that they allow you to force your way through your insecurities and while you might not have a polished play in the end, you finally got that idea out on paper, and now you have the rest of your life to bring it to full fruition.

I’m excited. I started writing my first play around 12:30 this morning, and submitted it around ten a.m. It’s a stand-alone monologue, and I feel like there will be a lot of those this month. I’ll keep you posted on my progress once a week!