My friend bought tickets to see Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn, at the Vancouver Playhouse. It was 2 ½ hours long, and even though the seats were uncomfortably cramped that time flew by.
Copenhagen is about a meeting that took place in September, 1941, between theoretical physicists Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr. Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, was also present. Denmark was occupied by the Nazis. Heisenberg was German, and Bohr was half Jewish, but the two men had been colleagues and friends for many years, and Heisenberg considered Bohr his mentor, referring to him as “the Pope.”
During that meeting at Bohr’s home in Copenhagen he and Heisenberg went for a walk, and returned after about 10 minutes, barely speaking to each other. Heisenberg left immediately afterward and returned to Germany.
The premise of the play is that these three people meet in the afterlife and attempt to reconstruct what happened that day.
This is very much a play about ideas: three characters, no set to speak of, very little action, and 2 ½ hours of talk. The dialogue often revolves around discussion of nuclear physics, particularly fission. But the script is actually dealing with something very different: the whole concept of human motivation, why people do what they do, even (or perhaps especially) when they don’t know themselves.
You see, the question Heisenberg asked Bohr that day was whether, as scientists, they had the “moral right to work on the practical exploitation of atomic energy.” Bohr became incensed and refused to discuss it.
Bohr escaped the Nazi occupation later and went to Los Alamos. Heisenberg returned to his Chair at Leipzig. The whole world knows the result: America developed the atomic bomb, and Germany didn’t. Heisenberg apparently spent the next 30 years of his life trying to defend himself, both from charges that he tried to develop the bomb, and recriminations from his countrymen that he didn’t.
At the heart of this play is the question: why didn’t Heisenberg simply do the equations that would have shown that fission was possible? And eventually that question is answered.
[end lj cut]
I believe I’ll go to see more live theatre now. There are obviously still plays out there that are not to be missed.