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?”