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The Improbable Past

Michael Frayn's acclaimed Copenhagen is everything historical fiction shouldn't be.




Timeline Theatre Company

In his 2000 Broadway smash Copenhagen, playwright Michael Frayn makes the case that a brief 1941 meeting between Werner Heisenberg and his mentor Niels Bohr, the fathers of quantum physics, might have altered the course of World War II and thus the fate of humanity. But for all the play's supposed brilliance, Frayn is peddling a lie, and not doing a very good job of it. A creaky dramatic frame renders the action implausible and even slightly ludicrous. In the opening, Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe, announce that they're all dead and planning to meet in the afterlife to hash out what happened in 1941. After delivering an extended expository introduction, they relive the meeting in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen--three times--as though it were 1941 again (luckily a heavenly seamstress provided them with period costumes). They also step outside the action to describe one another or their innermost thoughts--a prerogative of the dead, I suppose. Much of the narration reiterates what's already obvious; Margrethe even announces "silence" when the men stop talking.

Historically, only a few facts about the meeting are known. Heisenberg, who'd been Bohr's student in the 1920s, was head of Hitler's nuclear program when he visited Denmark to deliver a lecture at a conference. He also got clearance to meet with Bohr, a half-Jewish Dane who discovered nuclear fission--a man Hitler could only have viewed as a serious threat. Though not a Nazi, Heisenberg was a staunch patriot, and Bohr was so alarmed by his discussion of the German nuclear program--just acknowledging its existence to an enemy scientist was treason--that he cut the meeting short. Heisenberg returned to Germany, and Bohr stayed in Copenhagen until he escaped to America in 1943 and joined the Manhattan Project. The 1941 meeting, which the director of the Niels Bohr Institute characterized in a 2002 essay as "comparatively trivial," resulted in little beyond hurt feelings that mended quickly: the two scientists visited each other many times after the war and even vacationed together in Greece. Yet Frayn repeatedly asserts that the meeting destroyed their friendship.

Over the past 65 years many theories have been advanced about Heisenberg's motives in contacting Bohr, and Frayn alludes to all of them: the ethical complexities here are compelling, if you can stomach the play's improbabilities. Perhaps Heisenberg wanted reassurance from his colleague that the technical challenges to creating atomic weapons were nearly insurmountable, which might have been a relief to him. Perhaps he was seeking moral guidance: Heisenberg asserted years later that his first question to Bohr was "whether or not it was right for physicists to devote themselves in wartime to the uranium problem." Or maybe he was spying for the Nazis, hoping to learn something about the status of weapons research in the United States and Britain. Perhaps he was trying to persuade Bohr to join the German effort, because in Bohr's recollection, Heisenberg asserted that German victory was certain and that the war would probably be decided with atomic weapons. One speculation, which seems highly unlikely given that Heisenberg knew how many Allied physicists were working on fission, is that he hoped to forge a pact with Bohr to prevent development of the bomb.

There's an inherent dramatic interest to the mysterious Copenhagen meeting: why did it happen at all? A playwright might easily ask, to use Bohr's words, "how and with what authority such a dangerous matter could be taken up with someone in an occupied and hostile country?" But rather than successfully dramatizing the tension between the two friends, each of whom might be concocting a weapon intended to vaporize the other's country, Frayn resorts to various fanciful scenarios to give the scene interest. A significant element of the plot is imagining what might have happened if Bohr had returned to his teaching role and suggested to Heisenberg a crucial calculation that would have enabled Germany to build the bomb first. But Germany lacked the resources to construct a bomb. And unlike the Manhattan Project scientists, working in the perfect safety of Los Alamos, Germans were working in cities that were routinely under fire. Though Heisenberg managed to produce a small, malfunctioning reactor, he had to keep shuttling it around the country because of the air raids.

The play's conceptual muddle prevents real stakes from developing, a problem compounded by Frayn's amateurish dialogue. Certainly audiences need to understand something about quantum physics to appreciate the issues at stake. But that knowledge rarely flows organically from the action in the way the concepts of chaos theory do in Tom Stoppard's Arcadia. Worse, the scientific discussions in Copenhagen barely move beyond freshman physics. Imagining these two geniuses engaged in such facile debate is like imagining Mozart and Beethoven arguing over the number of sharps in the key of D. The characters even dispute scientific issues that were settled long before they died.

Louis Contey's TimeLine Theatre Company production is handsome and grounded, but it only comes to life when the play does--when Frayn moves beyond the inconsequential meeting to consider Bohr's and Heisenberg's political and ethical situations. A harrowing scene in the second half of the first act shows how much real drama is missing from the rest of the script, as Heisenberg recounts the moral nightmare of running a nuclear program for a madman. Charged with using the insights he gained from Bohr to exterminate Bohr's world, he's struggling to produce enough results to remain in control of the Nazi program without actually wanting it to succeed.

In this static play, Contey's small, smart ensemble is beautifully arranged on Brian Sidney Bembridge's set, which suggests both a decaying manor house and a surgical gallery. Terry Hamilton as Bohr and P.J. Powers as Heisenberg are initially overanimated, which makes their copious dialogue nearly impenetrable. But later they settle into more natural rhythms, and these give the proceedings a welcome warmth. The two also seem to have a keen understanding of the scientific and political realities involved, and many of their exchanges are utterly engrossing. In the pointless role of Margrethe--who spends the play skulking about, doing little but defending her husband--Isabel Liss is convincing and aptly unobtrusive.

Playing fast and loose with history is a dramatist's prerogative. Where would Shakespeare be without it? But when a playwright abuses artistic license, diffusing tension and rendering characters implausible, it should be revoked.

WHEN: Through 10/9: Thu-Fri 8 PM, Sat 4 PM and 8 PM, Sun 2 PM

WHERE: Baird Hall Theatre, Wellington Avenue United Church of Christ, 615 W. Wellington

PRICE: $10-$25

INFO: 773-281-8463

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lara Goetsch.

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