by Willard Manus
LOS ANGELES--The playbill to Michael Frayn's COPENHAGEN comes with a chart showing the work physicists did in the field of nuclear fission,
circa 1885 to 1945, the year the first atom bomb was exploded over
Hiroshima. The program also includes background information on the three
historical characters who make up the cast of COPENHAGEN--Werner
Heisenberg, Margrethe and Niels Bohr--plus an explanation by Frayn about
his play and whether its central event ever happened or not.
These pre-show notes allow those in the audience who know nothing about
physics--an easy majority--to get a quick fix on the subject. Frayn,
known mostly for his backstage farce, Noises Off, has changed gears with
Copenhagen, a cerebral drama filled with talk about electron orbits,
matrices, quantum particles and the atomic weight of uranium. We also
hear many references to the work of Heisenberg and Bohr's fellow
European physicists, only one or two of whom--Einstein and perhaps
Joliot and Fermi--are recognizable to the average theatregoer.
It is a testament to Frayn's skill as a writer that he can tackle such
difficult material and make it comprehensible. Frayn must also be
praised for his dramaturgical skill in finding the drama in a meeting of
three high-minded, extremely academic people (played by Len Cariou,
Mariette Hartley and Hank Stratton; directed by Michael Blakemore).
The disputed event of the play took place in 1941, when Heisenberg
(Stratton), head of Hitler's nuclear program, visits his ex-mentor Niels
Bohr (Cariou) in Denmark. Was it to warn Bohr (and the Allies) that he
would soon deliver the bomb to the Nazis? Or was he there to tell Bohr
how and why he had sabotaged his own research efforts? Or was he simply
trying to pick Bohr's brain and come away with information he could use
to build a weapon of mass destruction, one which would win the war--and
the world--for Hitler?
And what of Bohr--and his wife Margrethe (Hartley) (who, though not a
physicist herself, had learned much about the subject through osmosis)?
Did he give Heisenberg (who could have left Germany as so many other
physicists did) advice? Absolution? Wrong information?
Frayn doesn't make Heisenberg a villain or Bohr a hero. For all his
toadying up to Hitler, Heiseberg did not deliver him a bomb, while Bohr
for all his humanist, anti-fascist principles soon slipped away to
America, went to Los Alamos--and worked on a bomb that killed 100,000
The complexity and contradictions imbedded in life and friendship--as
they are in every aspect of physics--are what the play is all about.
The theme was only fitfully dramatized, though. I felt distanced from
the characters, perhaps because of the size of the theatre (only
Stratton could be heard well), perhaps because of the direction and
acting, which seemed bloodless and cold. Or was the problem in Frayn's
writing which, despite its intellectual acuity, became tiresome and
repetitive as the night went on.
Copenhagen might be a first-rate history/science lesson, but it lacks
the visceral power of a truly great play. (At the Wilshire Theatre, 8440
Wilshire Blvd, Beverly Hills, through Jan. 6. Call Ticketmaster or