There are three characters in Michael Frayn’s award-winning play Copenhagen, and the main focus of the play is on only two of them, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. This leaves the third character, Margrethe Bohr, in a very special position, one that changes depending on the needs of the play. In her various roles, Margrethe sometimes acts as the moderator of the discussions between Bohr and Heisenberg. At other times she plays out her role as wife and protector of Bohr. In different situations, Margrethe is representative of the general audience, someone in need of explanations in order to become more deeply involved in the dialogue. And in yet different settings, she is provides details for the audience’s sake. In studying Margrethe’s role, readers can get a better grasp on how Frayn smoothed out the flow of his play, a work that might otherwise have come across as a dry dialogue between two intelligent men whose esoteric language might not have been translatable to a general audience. Margrethe’s role also offered Frayn a chance to add drama, background information, and interest to the otherwise scientific discussion.
It is Margrethe who opens the play with the question: “But why?” And it is this question that drives the play. Everyone wants to know why Heisenberg decided to come to the Bohr’s house that night in 1941, while the city of Copenhagen was occupied by the Nazis. Why take the risk? What were Heisenberg’s motives? And ultimately, what did that meeting accomplish? The actors are portraying three people who have already died, and yet, Margrethe states, these questions still linger like ghosts. As the opening dialogue between Margrethe and her husband continues, Margrethe fills in the background information that sets the tone of the play. She mentions the war, the occupation, and the fact that in Germany’s eyes, she and her husband are the enemy. And although by the end of the play no one is wiser as to what occurred during Bohr’s and Heisenberg’s meeting, Margrethe provides the first clue in the play concerning the consequences or outcomes of these two scientists coming together on that night: “I’ve never seen you as angry with anyone as you were with Heisenberg that night,” Margrethe offers. She also mentions that after that meeting, the friendship between the two men ended. So within just a few sentences, Margrethe has taken the audience back to that night, with all its tension and apprehension, preparing the audience for the discussion between the two scientists, which is yet to begin.
In the next section, Margrethe acts as a counterpoint to Bohr’s memories of Heisenberg. Every time Bohr mentions something nice that he remembers, Margrethe contradicts him. This provides the audience with a fuller picture, a more colorful portrayal of Heisenberg. Bohr thinks of Heisenberg as a part of the family, for example, while Margrethe says there was something alien about Heisenberg. And when Bohr uses positive adjectives to describe Heisenberg, such as quick, eager, and bright, Margrethe turns these compliments toward the negative, stating that Heisenberg was too quick, too eager, and too bright. However, even Margrethe softens a little later in the play and upgrades the way the men themselves describe their relationship. They refer to it as a business association, whereas Margrethe likens their connection to that of father and son. But no matter if she is condemning Heisenberg or praising him, her comments add complexities to the plot. Was Heisenberg a good man? Did he have moral perceptions? Or was he manipulative and exploitive? These questions are never clearly answered, but through Margrethe’s role, a deeper intrigue is added to the play by her provision of questions and contradictions. These are not easy concepts, Margrethe seems to imply. There are no simple solutions.
As the play progresses, Margrethe returns to the role of information gatherer. She talks about the men’s work and about politics. She also acts as historian, providing a more accurate recall of the 1941 meeting. She seems clearer than the men about the details of that meeting, demonstrating, possibly, a more objective vision, but also giving the play a further deepening of complexities. She offers details concerning why Heisenberg was in Copenhagen at that time. He was attending a meeting, of course, but Margrethe adds the fact that the organization that sponsored this meeting was known for spreading “Nazi propaganda.” This places Heisenberg in a more precarious...
(The entire section is 1854 words.)