Copenhagen Background

Copenhagen Background

Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen took home the Tony Award for Best Play in 2000: pretty heady company for a really heady play about quantum physics pitting Niels Bohr against Werner Heisenberg. (That’s Werner Heisenberg…not Walter White’s Heisenberg.) The narrative is steeped in both historical fact and speculative fiction. A secret meeting actually did place in 1941 between Niels Bohr (father of quantum physics) and the man charged by the Nazis with the task of creating an atomic bomb before the United States entered the war and ramped up the Allies' chances of getting there first. The speculation involves what actually took place during meeting since neither ever revealed the full details.

Heisenberg had once been a pupil of Bohr’s. Bohr was Jewish and living in Copenhagen. Nevertheless, the house was being bugged so when Heisenberg arrived, Bohr invited him to go for a walk and thus a recording of every single word spoken was lost to history. Fortunately, part of that history was the Nazis, so in the end not knowing exactly what the two men discussed was a good thing. The mystery was probably also good for the world of theater as well since an existing transcript would serve to hinder the pursuit of drama.

The speculative component of the review of that historical meeting is further intensified by the fact that the characters are specifically responding to the question of why Heisenberg came to Copenhagen from their place in the afterlife. In other words, Heisenberg and Bohr are long since dead when the play takes place. For those who cannot abide ambiguous endings, it should be noted that the question which commences the play is never definitively answered.

Copenhagen initially premiered at the Cottesloe Theatre in London in 1998 and two years later made its New York debut at the Royale Theater before going on to win that Tony and then enjoy success on stages around the globe. In 2002, the BBC produced a film adaptation which later aired in the U.S. on PBS.

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