Last night, I saw Copenhagen at the Globe Theatre. Written by Michael Frayn, the play was first produced in London in 2000, and later enjoyed a successful run on Broadway. At 2 hours and 35 minutes, it’s a bit of a bum-number. But at its core is an intriguing premise — assuming you have a passing familiarity with theoretical physics and the lead role played by the Copenhagen School in the 1920s and ‘30s, that is.
I’ve done some reading in the area, and even remember experiments we did in physics class in high school with a water table where we determined that sub-atomic matter like electrons and photons have both particle and wave functions. That was one of the major discoveries of the Copenhagen School, which was headed by Danish physicist Niels Bohr. From 1924-27, Bohr had as his assistant a young German physicist named Werner Heisenberg.
I don’t want this review to descend into a lecture on quantum mechanics. To begin with, I’m not qualified to deliver it. But if you have even a moderate understanding of this seminal period in scientific history your enjoyment of Copenhagen will be greatly enhanced. During the years Bohr and Heisenberg worked together before Heisenberg returned to Germany to head the Physics Department at Leipzig University at the remarkable age of 26, both men made major discoveries — Bohr with his theory of Complementarity; Heisenberg, with his Uncertainty Principle.
When Copenhagen opens, the three principles — Bohr and Heisenberg, and Bohr’s wife Margrethe — are all dead. On a set featuring an ornate diningroom table, silver tea set, three easy chairs and an old-fashioned street lamp, they recall a famous visit that Heisenberg made to his former mentor in Copenhagen in September 1941.
WWII was raging then. Nazi Germany had occupied Denmark. Half-Jewish, Bohr knew it was only his status as an eminent scientist that had protected him from persecution thus far. Heisenberg, meanwhile, was head of a special research unit in Germany investigating practical applications for nuclear energy.
Prior to Hitler’s rise to power, Germany had been in the forefront of theoretical physics. But many of its greatest scientists were Jewish. When the Nazis took over in 1933, they fled the country and resumed their research in the United States and Britain. In the previous two decades, physicists had made tremendous strides in understanding the workings of the atom. By 1941, experiments in nuclear fission were being conducted in which neutrons were being shot at masses of uranium, setting off a chain reaction where uranium atoms split into lighter elements and released a huge amount of energy.
Up to that point, Germany had had the upper hand in the war. When Heisenberg visited Bohr, Pearl Harbour was still a few months away, so the U.S. had not yet entered the war on the Allied side. At secret laboratories in the U.S. and Britain exiled German Jewish physicists were working with their American and British colleagues to harness the power of fission and produce nuclear weapons. Germany had its own program. But it was handicapped by its lack of top-flight scientists.
History records that the Allies were the first to develop the atomic bomb, which they deployed twice to devastating effect in the latter stages of the war with Japan after Germany had been defeated. Had Germany developed the bomb first, and subsequently dropped it on cities like London, Paris, Moscow and New York, the outcome of WWII presumably would’ve been much different.
With all that intrigue swirling around, Heisenberg met Bohr at his home. The men had tea with Margrethe, then went for a walk that Bohr angrily ended after a few minutes of private conversation with Heisenberg. Throughout the play, the deceased trio relive the events of that day, trying to determine what Heisenberg’s motivation had been in visiting Copenhagen, and what precipitated the rupture between the two men who’d previously enjoyed a father-and-son-like relationship.
As they ruminate, they have the advantage of knowing that in 1942 Bohr escaped Denmark mere hours before he was to be arrested and dispatched to a concentration camp, and that he subsequently worked at Los Alamos where the atomic bombs that were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 were developed.
While Copenhagen does lag in spots, and is extremely wordy (so much so that the actors playing Bohr and Heisenberg [David Bloom and Ted Cole] stumbled frequently in delivering their lines) I thoroughly enjoyed the insight it gave me into the minds of two brilliant scientists. That includes both the passion with which they conducted their research, and the moral dilemma they wrestled with knowing that the work they’d done with the purest of scientific motives was being used to create a powerful new weapon. Through their interaction with Margrethe (well-played by Linda Quibell), we also learn about their lives outside the lab — as husbands and fathers, with hobbies and interests that extended beyond science.
If any of this sounds even remotely interesting to you Copenhagen is definitely worth seeing. If it doesn’t, then like the person I overheard near me in the audience snoring at several points in the play, you probably want to take a pass. But Copenhagen is good theatre.
Copenhagen runs at the Globe until April 10. For ticket info call 525-6400.