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"Physics on Stage"–an NPR profile of the new play "Copenhagen"

April 19, 2000 | Michael Frayn is a British playwright and novelist best known for his witty approach to writing, but his newest play, which was a hit in London and which opened at the Royale Theatre on Broadway last month, is definitely a departure from his usual style. With only three actors and a minimal set, Frayn’s play is also a departure from the usual Broadway spectacle. In fact, "Copenhagen," a fictionalized account of the real-life secret meeting between quantum physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, is such an unusual play that National Public Radio sent its science correspondent– not its arts or theatre correspondent–to profile the work as a part of its evening news program All Things Considered.

In 1941, Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and Bohr’s wife Margretta held a secretive meeting at the Bohr home in Copenhagen, Denmark. By this time, Heisenberg is well known for his revolutionary Uncertainty Principle of subatomic particles. (The Principle: it is impossible at any moment to know both the location and the velocity of a subatomic particle, for the measurement of one quantity will skew the measurement of the other.) Bohr is known for his doctrine of Complimentarity (which says that the most accurate knowledge is obtained by switching back and forth between the two measurements). Their relationship was once almost that of father and son, but by 1941, the two scientists are on opposing sides: Heisenberg is working for the Nazis, while Bohr, a Jewish refugee, is working on Allies’ Manhattan Project. In real life, it is only known that Heisenberg and Bohr ended their meeting in anger and confusion–but what exactly they discussed remains a mystery. Frayn’s play conjectures at the content of their meeting, and guesses at its influence over the Germans’ ultimate inability (even with the formidable help of Heisenberg) to build and atomic bomb. Did Heisenberg meet with Bohr to ferret out the secret of the bomb? Was Heisenberg secretly on Bohr’s side, and was he trying to sabotage the Nazi cause? In a meeting where the scientists exhaustively analyze their respective situations, Frayn provides a series of reenactments of what happened (and why)–no singular version is completely reliable.

The relationship between Heisenberg and Bohr is the driving force of the play, and Frayn’s innovation is that he attempts to apply the UncertaintyPrinciple and the doctrine of Complimentarity to this relationship. Heisenberg and Bohr are both intensely involved in their science, and this science colors every aspect of their lives. As Heisenberg watches Bohr prowl the room, he compares Bohr to a subatomic particle, while at the same time deprecating Bohr’s theories.

When David Kestenbaum, NPR’s reporter, interviewed the 3 actors of the play (Philip Bosco as Bohr, Michael Cumpsty as Heisenberg, and Blair Brown as Margretta), they all said that they at first, they were very bewildered by the play’s science. Brown said that at every performance she felt that she and her fellow actors were like "those formation skydivers, holding their hands in the air, falling." Bosco said that the science was hard to grasp and hard to say, but once the play got going, it didn’t matter. Crumpsty said that even though the science eventually becomes part of the play’s background, "The actors better get it!"

Michael Frayn, who studied philosophy (where he was exposed to some quantum physics) and who is also a novelist, said that he chose to set "Copenhagen" as a play because of the physics. He said that subatomic particles exist in bizarre "in-between" states until they are observed, and he wanted to bring this act of observation to the work. This is why the moodily lit, circular stage is set up in the round, and audience members are set around and sometimes even above the stage. Frayn’s conept of "particle" is a recursive one–the stage is a particle, the actors are particles, the characters are particles!

Hearing about this play excited me because it sounds like a non-traditional approach to science fiction. It deals with science, it is fiction, but instead of applying the science to a plot situation, "Copenhagen" recursively applies the science to both presentation techniques (the writing and the staging) as well as the dynamics of the relationship between scientists. I don’t know if this approach will be a success, but I’m still excited that someone is trying something new. When I heard the NPR profile, I was a little annoyed, for I had spent my spring break in New York only a few weeks before the play opened–and I missed it!

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