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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

"Copenhagen" by Michael Frayn --Once Again the Atomic bomb
The Royale Theater
242 West 45th Street
Opened April 11, 2000
Reviewed April l3, 2000 by Margaret Croyden
"Copenhagen," the latest British import at the Royale Theater, is the English intellectual's contribution to a controversial topic that refuses to die. Michael Frayn has chosen to revive a painful subject: the atom bomb, and the scientists' responsibility for its development. To dramatize what Frayn considers a moral dilemma, and to open up a discussion of the uncertainty theory, he has imagined conversations between the eminent scientist, Niels Bohr and his one time student, the German physicist, Werner Heinsenberg, who visited Bohr in Copenhagen, during the German occupation of Denmark. The play opens after all the leading characters are dead (and speak from the grave, as it were), and Frayn imagines the possibilities of what might have been said; no actual record or verification of the conversations exists. What Heisneberg wanted, why he returned to see his mentor and old friend, Niels Bohr, and what his real motives were, are open to speculation. And Mr. Frayn speculates. Developing the theory of uncertainly which postulates that one can never know anyone's motives because everything is by nature, uncertain, Frayn has constructed different versions of the meetings. Scenes shift from one imagined conversation to another to explore the main questions: What did Heisenberg want, why had he come to Copenhagen in the middle of the war, and how did Bohr and his wife, Margrethe, react to this extraordinary situation?

In the course of the two acts, the men, including Mrs. Bohr, give their versions of the events--reminiscing, arguing, posturing, competing, and discussing scientific, philosophical, and personal problems. The playwright hints at Heisenberg's motives for his visit, although the scientists (and the author) agree that nothing can ever be absolute--uncertainly rules everything, science, life, Heisenberg, the Bomb, Nazis, and the Germans--an underlying essential point in the play. One assumption is that Heisenberg may have been ambivalent about the Nazis, considering he never fled but was given the opportunity, because as he says, he is German, his children are German, and that as a German he must support his own country. (Einstein was also German as were the leading scientists of the day, all Jews). Heisenberg indicates that he cannot be blamed for the position of the government and in fact, even hints that he misled his leaders on the bomb. On the other hand, Heisenberg hopes to induce Bohr to join with him, Heisenberg, to oppose the bomb, assuming that scientists could make that decision, in the first place. Still, he is not above trying to finesse Bohr into revealing something of the Americans' project in Los Alamos. Thrown in with all the various assumptions and speculations is that Heisenberg was actually a "good German" who, on the one hand, claimed to have discouraged his countrymen from working on the bomb; on the other hand, he was actually short of knowledge to complete the job. Another suggestion is that Heisneberg, feeling guilty for his role in working for the Nazis, comes to Bohr for absolution.

The hodgepodge of suppositions, speculations, possibilities, and answers are clearly "uncertain." Yet, some of playwright's attitudes slip through. A snide and subtle anti- Americanism, though not distinct, is slyly injected into some of the talk. Bohr (admirably played by Philip Bosco, but at times is inaudible) is depicted as having a certain respect and (misplaced) compassion for his German counterpart; the playwright drags in the idea of father-son relationship between the two men. As for Margrethe, Bohr's wife, (beautifully played by Blair Brown)--she voices her suspicious about Heisneberg, and reminds her husband that a war was on, and that morality had nothing to do with the bomb. Had the Germans gotten the bomb first, they would not have been around to argue at all. Further, Bohr tells Heisenberg that he, Heisenberg, is not responsible for the death of a single person; (another incredible remark) and, thereby, implies that the real culprits were Americans and the allies--an odd bit of misplaced history, indeed. "Let us be kind to the Germans" may be common among British intellectuals and liberal- leftists, but it smacks of an unpleasant revisionism, with its misplaced sympathy for the Germans, and the belittling of the Allies' immense sacrifices during the war. The bomb controversy has resulted in millions of words, books, articles, lectures, stories, and protests, and has been thoroughly rehashed. Mr. Frayn adds nothing new to this. Actually, he uses the bomb and its ramifications, as a means to discredit memory, and historical facts, implying that one is incapable of knowing anyone, or their motives. One wonders if Mr. Frayn thinks that if knowing someone is unattainable, and that nothing is certain--including past events--would this mean the end of history? And of empirical knowledge?

To add to the confusion, after Heisenberg complains of the Allies' bombing of German cities and German suffering, he breaks down and cries. In a gesture of sympathy, Bohr embraces him. Nothing is said about who started the war, who bombed London day and night, who invaded all of Europe, who murdered six million Jews, who bombed open cities, who imprisoned whom. To whine about the misery of German children, and condemn yet again the bombing of Dresden, is another example of depicting the German scientist sympathetically, something that doesn't go down easily. One wonders what Hitler would have done to us and the rest of the world had history been different.

Strangely, the theatrical quality of the play is not entirely satisfying either. The scenery, on an almost empty stage with an overpowering high ceiling, dwarfs the characters. As the play is full of exposition and dense, complicated scientific information, the theatrical momentum is slow and the dialogue, talky and hard to decipher.

Underneath the verbiage, and its pretentious philosophy, one feels that the play is a sly attack on the scientists who worked on the bomb, and on the Americans who used it. Then again, when a main theme of the play is the uncertainty of man's motivations, it is hard to figure out what Michael Frayn is trying to communicate. If what he imagines and conjures up is so uncertain that nothing can be truly ascertained, it may follow, therefore, that nothing Frayn writes can actually be believed. And that would be a pity. For Mr. Frayn's play is a fascinating work despite its weaknesses. A work that encourages discussion, arguments, praise, and disagreements, is something rare for the Broadway stage. And should be seen. [Croyden]

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