Truth or Dare

Copenhagen darkly ponders science and reality.

I first saw Michael Frayn's Copenhagen in London a few years ago. I remember leaving the theater feeling light-headed and exhilarated by the play of ideas Frayn had started up: ideas about science and human nature, guilt and mutability, and about how, at the most essential level, we know what we know. These ideas were all mixed up in my mind but had apparently created dazzlingly clear patterns in the playwright's. It seemed as if some illuminating truth would surely make itself known -- if I could just think a little harder or read a little more deeply.

Copenhagenexplores a visit that German nuclear physicist Werner Heisenberg paid to his Jewish colleague and mentor, Niels Bohr, in occupied Denmark in 1941, a visit that ended in acrimony. It takes the form of a prolonged discussion among Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr's wife, Margrethe. They are long dead when the play opens -- it's their spirits we hear arguing -- and therefore have no reason to be anything but truthful. The lives and work of both Heisenberg and Bohr have been exhaustively explored by scientists and historians, but neither the most zealous attempts at re-creation nor the writings of the participants themselves have clarified what happened at the Copenhagen meeting or managed to plumb either Heisenberg's intentions or Bohr's response.

Here are some of the theories:Heisenberg came to see Bohr, whom he saw as a father figure, because he wanted spiritual absolution for his role as head of the German nuclear program.

Douglas Harmsen (left), as Werner Heisenberg, and 
John Hutton, as Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen.
Douglas Harmsen (left), as Werner Heisenberg, and John Hutton, as Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen.

Or: Heisenberg wanted to get the older man, who was in touch with the Allies, to agree that they should both stall the death-dealing work of their respective patrons indefinitely by telling them that building a bomb was, in practical terms, impossible.

Heisenberg was trying to find out where the Allies were in their research.

He intended to tip off Bohr off about German attempts to build a bomb.

He wanted to co-opt Bohr into accepting some measure of German protection.

The real-life Heisenberg was a German patriot, not a Nazi. He apparently felt he needed to work with Hitler's regime to safeguard German science and culture, and because German domination of Europe was preferable to communist domination. Hitler would eventually be gone, he reasoned, but science would remain. Heisenberg has been much vilified by history for his position, but for Frayn, it raises several fascinating ethical conundrums. No one knows exactly why Heisenberg's team never created the bomb -- the possibilities raised in Cophenhagen are that the always-hasty Heisenberg rushed forward without laying all the necessary mathematical groundwork, that he deliberately undercut his own program for ethical reasons, or that some unconscious (or half-conscious) set of scruples made him drag his feet. Whatever the reason, as the character Heisenberg points out in Copenhagen -- after a great deal of self-righteous goading from Margrethe -- the result is that he himself has never killed anyone. The virtuous Bohr, however, because of his work with the Allies, bears some of the guilt for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

But Copenhagen does more than attempt to tease out the facts and significance of one meeting between two scientists at a time when the world was teetering toward darkness. Using Heisenberg's uncertainty principle as a metaphor, the play also has a lot to say about the unfathomability of the human mind and heart, as well as all the uncertainties that come into play when we try to assess the truth about anything -- personal or historical.

One of Frayn's best-known plays is Noises Off, first produced in 1980. It's pure farce: intricate, brilliant, iconoclastic, and as funny as Copenhagen is serious. But you can see the same mind at work in both pieces -- the playful love of ideas, the clarity dredged from confusion, the sense of boxes opening within boxes, the love of paradox, the skimming trains of thought.

I found the Denver Center Theater Company production of Copenhagen less exciting than the version I saw in London. It lacked the quicksilver quality that had so intrigued me. I've been trying to fathom why. It seems to me the Denver Center set was both too dark and too abstract. I wanted a more specific sense of place -- the Bohrs' home, the Danish sky -- as well as more emptiness and light. Director Anthony Powell's ping-pong-ball movement and placement of the actors was interesting and evoked the particles of quantum physics, but it also detracted from the relationships among the three protagonists. At the same time, these relationships seemed too overtly emotional. John Hutton was a convincing Bohr, sometimes avuncular, sometimes red-faced and accusatory. Douglas Harmsen had the right Germanic strut for Heisenberg, tempered with an appealing warmth when he spoke of the dizzy, joyous hours of scientific exploration with Bohr in the 1920s, before either knew of the ends to which their discoveries would be put. For me, Robin Moseley's interpretation of Margrethe was too intrusive and too strident. Although Margrethe is hostile to Heisenberg, her role is also that of cool-headed, incisive observer, a kind of fulcrum, or balance point, between the two men.

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