The Play

The action of Copenhagen concerns a visit made by the German physicist Werner Heisenberg to the Copenhagen home of Niels Bohr in September, 1941. The play is actually several retellings of the same event, with variations in each telling. As the play opens, Bohr and his wife Margrethe are inside their house discussing the reasons for Heisenberg’s visit. Exposition makes it immediately clear that all three characters in the play have long been dead, and that they are reliving the events of the visit. World War II is raging, and the Germans are occupying Denmark. Heisenberg had once been an associate at Bohr’s famous Institute for Theoretical Physics. Heisenberg’s great achievement was the discovery of quantum mechanics, featuring the uncertainty principle. Together Bohr and Heisenberg worked out the famous Copenhagen interpretation, which argues that all things can only be understood within the context of a human measuring process. Bohr won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Heisenberg received the same honor in 1932.

As Bohr and his wife discuss the possible reasons for Heisenberg’s journey to Denmark, Heisenberg chats with the audience as he walks toward the house, noting that there has been constant speculation over the past six decades about why he visited Bohr. Margrethe argues with her husband that Heisenberg is coming to get information about how to construct an atomic bomb because Bohr is one of the world’s great experts in the field of atomic fission. Bohr postulates that no one can develop a weapon based on atomic fission because no one yet understands the mathematics. When Heisenberg enters the Bohr residence, the talk is polite and nostalgic. The three chat about their children and their love of skiing. Heisenberg asks Bohr if he might come to Germany to ski; Bohr reminds him that he is half-Jewish and would not be...

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Dramatic Devices

Copenhagen reflects the images of atomic physics. The home of Niels Bohr is an atomic nucleus, around which Bohr and his wife revolve. They are two particles bombarded by an outside force—the entrance of Werner Heisenberg—which actually bombards the Bohr home several times in several related but different fields, as in an Einsteinian universe. Each time a different reaction is obtained, as in a quantum universe. Thus the play presents a quantum, postmodern universe in which reality is dependent on the context of the energies present and on the way one chooses to measure those energies. The retelling of a single event in which the agreements and antagonisms of the characters change each time is an especially theatrical approach. Literary prose forms may employ multiple retellings, but the impact of the same characters, wearing the same costumes, employing exactly the same scenery, and performing for the same audience would not be as immediate as in theater. Moreover, in both the original London and New York productions, Copenhagen was staged on an arena set in which the audience surrounded the actors, and the only furniture present were three identical chairs moved about to make different configurations. This approach physically reflects the basic pattern of an atomic universe, subject to multiple interpretations depending on the observer’s viewpoint at any given time.

The structure of Copenhagen also suggests the famous...

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Historical Context

Werner Heisenberg

Heisenberg was born in 1901 in Würzburg, Germany, and as an adult he was the head of Nazi...

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Literary Style


Frayn’s play takes place in the afterlife, as three characters reminisce about, and try to sort through,...

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Topics for Further Study

Research the later years of such physicists as J. Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, Niels Bohr, and Werner Heisenberg. How did these men...

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Media Adaptations

In 2002, PBS, in association with the British Broadcasting Company (BBC), produced a DVD of Copenhagen, starring Stephen Rea as Bohr,...

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What Do I Read Next?

A Landing on the Sun: A Novel (2003) is representative of Frayn’s novel writing. This book presents a mystery about Brian Jessel, a...

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Bibliography and Further Reading


Becker, Jules, “Copenhagen: A Magical Blend of Physics and Dramatic Events,” in Telegram and...

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(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Burns, Lisa Hemphill. “Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen: A Multidimensional Play.” Studies in Education 78 (Winter, 1999-2000).

Flynn, Michael, and Linda Rothstein. “The Real Mystery Science Theater.” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 54 (November/December, 1998): 9-10.

Frayn, Michael, and David Burke. The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2001.

King, Robert L. “The Play of Ideas.” North American Review 283 (November/December, 1998): 38-42.

King, Robert...

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