Critical Context

Michael Frayn is well known as a novelist, journalist, and playwright. His writings for the theater have been mainly comic, and his highly successful farce Noises Off (pr., pb. 1982) has been an audience favorite since its inception. Copenhagen represents a major departure from his usual fare, but it has been received with great critical acclaim in England and the United States, where it won the Tony Award for best play in 2000. While the most influential sciences of the twenty-first century are arguably the life sciences, the most influential science of the twentieth century was physics. The repercussions of the advancements in physics that led first to relativity, then to new visions of the atom, and ultimately to the creation of the terrifying atomic bomb remain today. Because of the bomb, civilization remains in constant and absolute danger. Copenhagen explores not only the practical issues of weapons of mass destruction but also the consequences of a science of relativity and uncertainty that results in a moral structure of the same quality. In the postmodern world, influenced by the revelations of physics, humanity has to grapple with the issue that all measurement, all human action and belief, must be understood in some particular and unique context. There are no absolutes. This is an overriding modern issue, and the one that pervades Frayn’s Copenhagen. Since its appearance, the play has precipitated the holding of various conferences around the world on the historic and moral problems it raises.