Reportedly Michael Frayn never expected his physics-inspired dialogue, "Copenhagen", to be staged. While careful reading may allow a fuller appreciation of this play's rhetorical structure, the full impact of the work, as with any great drama, occurs onstage. The current touring version of director Michael Blakemore's 2000 Tony-winning version revives an ancient species of the art, the New Tragedy, first practiced 2500 years ago by Sophocles in "Philoctetes", the best known example. Then the argument concerned the fate of the Greek's war effort at Troy. In "Copenhagen", the dispute between the principals, Danish physicist Nils Bohr and his wife with his younger German protege, Werner Heisenberg about a meeting in 1941 when Germany was trying to develop the Bomb, may concern the fate of the world.
Moral dialogue is usually more carefully hidden in today's theatre, so much so that some theatre critics have found this work unbearable. Paying attention for two hours, watching three actors, the traditional number, sorting out the past while moving in formal patterns on an abstract set under the gaze of an onstage audience can be daunting. When those three are seasoned professionals playing in tight ensemble, the results can be exhilarating. Which is why comparing the present three stars on tour with previous individual actors on Broadway or in London is fruitless. One suspects Blakemore's vision of the piece must either work all together or fail miserably. Future productions -- and there will be -- may take another tack; but in this instance everything comes together providing the observer, the key to the process in subatomic physics as well as theatre, is willing to take it in.
Watching Len Cariou as Bohr, Mariette Hartley as his wife, Margrethe, and Hank Stratton as Heisenberg is to realize that the "Quality" still exists on the American stage. Given good material, Broadway and regional theatre veterans can certainly hold the stage. Cariou's Bohr is believably magisterial, while Stratton's Heisenberg, almost a foster-son, is still the student. The poetry of quantum physics still engulfs them, even though each has participated in the development of the Bomb. Hartley's Margrethe is both internal observer and the eternal feminine. The actress's distinctive voice, which has been deflating the male ego on screen and television for years, here becomes the pivot which around which the unknowable world of the atom and the unknowable world of frail human motives revolves. The action returns again and again to family tensions which pale at the horrors to which WWII aspired, but which are most important to the individuals involved. The chorus in this tragedy, voiced by each character in succession, is "Is there a meaning to all this? Can we know anything for certain?" The Sophoclean answer is contained in Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle. Position or velocity can be known, never both at once. You either know where you are or that you're moving.
"Copenhagen" is not a docu-drama. The characters clearly announce in the beginning that they are dead. Events repeat, the nightmare of Bohr's son drowning returns to haunt the scene. If the play has a setting, it is not occupied Denmark in 1941, but in Limbo, where souls are purged. Ideally, the entire audience would be onstage, or rather, the play would be best staged in a suitably intimate theatre in the round. But Peter Davidson's abstract set, a paved circle on a rake backed by a steep amphitheater for the onstage audience, reminiscent of the ancient theatron, a physics lecture hall, or the viewing gallery in a cyclotron, is perhaps the best solution for a traditional 19th century style proscenium theatre.
This particular production would not work without Blakemore's almost cinematic direction and sense of style. Frayn's script allows him to jump-cut through time and space, doubling back to repeat actions, to play things over. The result of such deja vu with live actors, who are of course playing ghosts of actual historical characters, is the distancing, the estrangement effect, that Brecht sought in his historical efforts. By having his actors circle like electrons around the nucleus, like theoreticians around an idea, the director provides a unpredictable flow to the action. Scenes start over as before, particularly Heisenberg's arrival, but as the audience observes, and reacts, things are not what they were.
Several peripheral historical questions are raised briefly. The one passed over quickest is whether the efforts by émigré physicists, mostly Jewish, to develop the Bomb for the Allies, was a race to drop it on Hitler. So too is the related irony that Bohr's contributions at Los Alamos may have lead to the bomb dropped on Hiroshima, while Heisenberg's efforts in Germany killed no one. What's missing in this modern world is the deus ex machina that will decide our fate and punish the guilty. This script, like most tragedies, doesn't have any final answers, particularly for its central figures. The best choice is Sophocles' basic moral; "Count no man happy until he's dead."
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