Study Guide

Copenhagen

by Michael Frayn

Copenhagen Summary

Introduction

Copenhagen, winner of the 2000 Tony Award for best play, attempts to answer the question that has been on the minds of many quantum physicists and historians from World War II: What actually took place in a secret meeting between Niels Bohr, who is considered the father of quantum physics, and Werner Heisenberg, who was working on, but failed to create, the atomic bomb for Nazi Germany? The meeting took place in 1941. Heisenberg had been a student of Bohr’s. The two scientists had collaborated and brought forth the basic tenets that would become the foundation of quantum physics. Heisenberg was a German; Bohr was a Jew who was residing in Copenhagen, Denmark. The meeting took place while Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. Bohr’s house was wiretapped, so when Heisenberg appeared at Bohr’s doorstep, the two men took a walk so that no one could record their conversation. All that was publicly known was that after the meeting, Bohr would have nothing to do with Heisenberg.

The play does not provide a clear answer to the question of what took place during that meeting. It does, however, provide a lot of background information about these two powerful thinkers and the struggles they must have encountered in their attempt to honor their friendship during extremely turbulent, even life-threatening, circumstances. Both scientists were capable of figuring out how to create an atomic bomb. Bohr would eventually help the U.S. forces and he was instrumental in the creation of the atomic bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But what happened to Heisenberg? Did he deliberately confound the Nazi efforts to create a similar weapon? Or did he attempt to create it but fail? Frayn leaves these overarching questions for the audience to ponder.

Margrethe Bohr is another character in this play. She was, in real life, an intelligent woman and a supporter of her husband. Although she did not have a science education like her husband, she typed all his research papers and was a strong sounding board for his theories. In the play, it is to Margrethe that the two men direct their discussion. They attempt, for her sake (and the sake of any nonscientific audience members), to translate their technological information into a language that everyone can understand. Margrethe also acts as a mediator and as a truth monitor. She makes the men look deeper into their actions, and insists that they shun personal emotion and get to the root of what is really going on between them.

Copenhagen opened on May 28, 1998, in London, at the Cottesloe Theatre. Two years later, it made its U.S. premiere at New York’s Royale Theatre, on March 23, 2000. Since then, it has traveled around the world, receiving overwhelmingly high praise as a dramatic piece.

 

Copenhagen Summary

Act 1

Copenhagen is set in one small space for the entirety of the play. The first act begins in the same way that the second act ends—with a discussion of what took place during a visit between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg in 1941. During the course of the play, the characters, from the afterlife, thrash out the details of this meeting, looking back and trying to grasp the feelings, the setting, and the circumstances that led up to the meeting, as well as what took place while the two scientists took a short walk outside of Bohr’s home that fateful day.

The first act provides background details. Nazi Germany was occupying Denmark, where the Bohrs lived. Niels Bohr, Denmark’s most revered scientist, was half Jewish, and his life was threatened by the occupation. Heisenberg was a high-ranking physicist in Nazi Germany. Both men had the knowledge of how to create a nuclear bomb. They were once cohorts but now stood on opposite sides of the war.

Frayn offer details about the relationship between Niels and Heisenberg. Niels, Margrethe, and Heisenberg discuss how Heisenberg, as a graduate student, came to study with Niels, who was considered the father of quantum physics. Heisenberg, for his own credit, would go on to create the basics of quantum mechanics. The men discuss the discoveries that each of them had come up with. They also discuss the more personal relationship between them, one that was described, at one point, as like father and son.

As the men reminisce, Margrethe keeps reminding her husband that Heisenberg was working with the Nazis and was therefore their enemy. Heisenberg does not totally deny this, although he does hint that, despite Heisenberg being German, he did all he could do to make sure that the Bohrs remained safe from the Nazis. Heisenberg was not completely safe himself during the war. He was constantly watched, had been considered a suspicious person, and was interrogated by the Nazis more than once. Heisenberg was called a “white Jew” by the Nazis because he taught Einstein’s relativity theory—what the Nazis referred to as “Jewish physics.” Heisenberg recalls having been hesitant to talk to Bohr during their infamous meeting, knowing that Bohr’s house had been wiretapped.

Heisenberg could have gone to the United States to teach, as many German physicists had done, but he wanted to stay in his homeland, wait out the war, and help to rebuild the scientific community in Germany after the war.

The Bohrs, in the meantime, talk about their concern about Heisenberg’s visit. They did not want their fellow citizens to think they were collaborating with the Nazis. Before Heisenberg arrived at their home that night, Margrethe had cautioned Niels to stick to physics and not talk about politics.

Margrethe and Niels try to figure out why Heisenberg would want to visit them. The topic of fission finds its way into their talk. Niels had been working on fission for three years. He did not think that Heisenberg had done any work in that area. But Margrethe counters that everyone else was working on it, why not Heisenberg? He has been working on a weapon for Germany based on nuclear fission, Margrethe suggests. Niels does not believe so. According to calculations at that time, this advancement in weaponry was many years in the future. It was a complicated procedure that would take not only time but an almost incomprehensible wealth of resources. But the husband and wife continue to discuss nuclear fission, giving the audience background information on the history of the development of this inquiry into the splitting of the atom and its potential implications.

Then the three characters switch the time reference, slipping back to 1941 and playing out the scene of that meeting. They greet one another awkwardly. Many...

(The entire section is 1578 words.)