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At long last, Copenhagen (which originally premiered in Canada last year as a co-production by the National Arts Centre (English) Theatre in Ottawa and the Neptune Theatre in Halifax) has been brought to Toronto by way of Mirvish Productions' subscription season. As has been the case in other cities, Michael Frayn's probing drama has prompted wide coverage in the media around the historical questions that it raises as well as contemporary issues around war and peace with interviews and commentary by the playwright and from one of our own Canadian Nobel Laureates, Professor John Polyani, who was interviewed at length on CBC radio last weekend.
Why did the German physicist Werner Heisenberg travel to Nazi-occupied Denmark at the height of World War II in order to have a secret meeting with his former teacher and colleague, the Danish scientist Niels Bohr? Nobody knows definitively but the playwright spends 2 1/2 compelling hours trying to find an answer.
As a play, Copenhagen works extremely well on several levels. First of all, the stakes are high. The race to develop the atomic bomb could determine the outcome of the war. Secondly, the plot turns on knowledge of advanced theoretical physics with dense dialog around difficult concepts such as "the Uncertainty Principle", "wave-particle duality" and the production of Uranium 235 in order to create a nuclear pile for energy. The neat trick of the playwright is to have captured the dialogue (and the debate) and to have charged it with the passion that it must have contained for these two men when they argued the implications of their research on the future of the war and the world. We are all well aware of the outcome of the debate and the importance of the argument.
In Playwrighing 101, teachers will often ask their students - what is at risk here for the characters? Yes indeed.
The final revelation of the play is the unique contribution of the playwright - and it is the most contentious element in the play. Although the science of the period has been debated and written about back and forth voluminously over the years, the speculation that Heisenberg (who was a patriotic German but not a member of the Nazi party) might have lost faith with the German cause by the time of his meeting in Copenhagen (or as a result of the meeting) is intriguing although highly unlikely (see David C. Cassidy's book, Uncertainty - The Life and Science of Werner Heisenberg).
Niels Bohr had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922 (the year after Albert Einstein won the award). Bohr was also half Jewish. In the play he is portrayed as still having obvious affection for his former student and it is clear that Heisenberg (who also won the Prize in 1933) went to considerable trouble to make the trip. Was Heisenberg simply trying to suss out how far the Allies had gone in their research as many have theorized? Or was it possible that he had reached a point of moral crisis and, without being able to signal it directly to Bohr at the time, returned to Germany after having made a decision to not do the calculations that would be essential in order to develop an atom bomb. Although certainly never an anti-Nazi, Heisenberg did come under attack by the SS for being "soft" on the Jewish question. In 1933 he had refused to sign a petition with two other German Nobel Laureates supporting Hitler's presidency and by 1937 was being openly attached in the Nazi press as a "white Jew".
At the conclusion of the war, Heisenberg's interrogators (notably Sammuel A. Goudsmit) concluded under wartime conditions in Germany, that the economic, technical, and material resources needed to accomplish the task were woefully insufficient and simply could not compare to the brilliant minds that directed the smooth efficiency of the Manhattan Project. Frayn's fictional hypothesis leaves us with the startling possibility that it might have been the German scientists who concluded that it was morally repugnant and abhorrent to develop and ultimately deploy weapons of mass destruction on a civilian population while their Allied counterparts harboured no such compunction. After their arrest and detainment by the British in 1945, this was certainly the spin that Heisenberg and his associates used in their "Farm Hall statement" after the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Frayn's surmise has led at least one scholar (Paul Lawrence Rose of Penn State University) to attack the play, labeling the playwright a "Heisenberg apologist". The playwright defended his position in an article in the New York Review of Books. Since then, the estates of both Bohr and Heisenberg have released new letters and correspondence between the two men that have only fueled the debate further.
Jim Mezon (who plays Werner Heisenberg) and Michael Ball (as Niels Bohr) are two actors who are well known to Shaw Festival goers. We know them so well in fact that the casting choice of who plays who is a foregone conclusion without even opening the program. Having said that, they both do the play great justice with Mezon having the added edge of playing a role that allows him to reach more deeply into the soul of a character that is plunging down the slippery slope of no return. The sympathy that Frayn throws toward the character of Heisenberg is a bit of an historical red herring and really slights the actor playing Bohr who isn't given the same kind of climactic build up to his own moral crisis. We leave the play never knowing that it was Bohr who argued that the Japanese should have been given an opportunity to observe at first hand a test explosion of the bomb and thus had a choice to surrender before it was dropped on a civilian population. After the war he continued as a major proponent of science in the service of peace.
Martha Henry (as Margrethe Bohr) is the interlocutor for this intellectual tag team and as such acts as a kind of dramatic fulcrum. Her character is all the more interesting because she asks the probing questions as to what may or may not have been the truth of the matter - a referee between personal memory and official history who holds her own against the two cerebrating titans quite nicely. The actors are probably not in need of the giant back projected image of themselves that director Diana Leblanc uses to emphasize some of the more crucial speeches. They do just fine without the technical boost, which is a bit distracting.
It has been some time since a piece of theatre has stimulated this kind of public response to the issues that it raises and in this regard the playwright has surely provided a great service.
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