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.