Written by Michael Frayn

Directed by Jillian Keiley

Featuring: Allegra Fulton, Jesse LaVercombe, Rick Roberts

Costumes by Robert Schultz

At the National Arts Centre, November 6 and 7th.

The welcome opportunity to view streamed performances of plays across Canada as they are being presented to their local theatre going audiences is one positive by-product of the recognized necessities of producing theatre in the age of a pandemic. The recent streamed version of the NAC production of Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is a good case in point. Although it does not provide the immediacy of live performance, watching the streamed presentation did give me the opportunity to see, and more importantly, to re-think the central thesis of this play.

Directed by Jillian Keiley, one of the country’s foremost directors, the play centers around Rick Roberts as the Danish physicist, Niels Bohr, and Jesse LaVercombe as Werner Heisenberg, his German counterpart. The two Nobel Prize winning physicists were engaged in the race to develop the atomic bomb during the Second World War. Allegra Fulton plays Margrethe Bohr, the wife of Niels who acts as interlocutor and referee during the high stakes sparring between the two men that makes up the core of Frayn’s fast paced drama. And at 2 hours and 15 minutes with a short intermission, I do mean fast paced. As theatre, the direction, acting and design elements are all first-rate. It is a superb production of a dramatically powerful play.

Copenhagen had its Canadian premiere in 2003 as a co-production between NAC and Neptune Theatre in Halifax with a cast that featured Jim Mezon (as Heisenberg), Michael Ball (as Bohr) and Martha Henry as Margrethe, directed by Henry’s long time collaborator, Diana Leblanc. Again, as theatre, an absolutely first-rate production.

When I saw the play the first time (this is my third viewing), I, presumably like many others, was totally taken in by the playwright’s central conceit that it was entirely possible for Werner Heisenberg, the director of the German nuclear weapons program, to be having moral qualms about the race to develop nuclear weapons. The play supposes that this was why he wanted to meet with Bohr at the scientist’s home in German occupied Denmark in 1941. 

In the play’s opening, Frayn subtly uses the character of Margrethe to undermine any sympathy we might have toward Bohr. She describes him as “angry” as Bohr clearly displays a short temper with his younger colleague when first they meet to discuss the finer points of quantum physics and the calculations that would be necessary to produce nuclear fission. Later in the first act, Frayn lets Heisenberg grab the moral high ground when he puts the question to Bohr: “do we even have the right as scientists to work on the practical exploitation of nuclear energy?” 

Although there is evidence to suggest that Heisenberg appeared at Bohr’s home wearing his nazi uniform, in the play they are both costumed in civilian clothes.

The meaning and understanding of all this dense, scientifically loaded dialog, spoken with such passion and conviction by the discussants, is lost entirely on 99.9% of the audience, almost as if it were being spoken in a foreign language. The emotive gesture often supercedes the need for textual understanding as we buy into the playwright’s clever twists and turns, effectively pulling us down the rabbit hole of credulity while the drama builds toward its ambivalent conclusion.

It’s no wonder that scientists around the world began to take issue with the play’s premise and conclusion in whichever country it was produced. After seeing it the first time, I began to listen to the analysis of Canadian scientists such as John Polanyi (himself a Nobel Prize winner in Chemistry in 1986) and the physicist, peace activist and feminist, Ursula Franklin. In conversation with professor Franklin, who I had the good fortune to work alongside when she was director of the Museum Studies Program at University of Toronto, she noted that: “The question of Heisenberg’s personal feelings are really a moot point by 1941. He was a loyal German and clearly had decided to stay in Germany and accept the position to head up the German program. The fact is the nazis, even then, did not have the laboratory efficiency or access to raw materials needed to fulfill their mission even if they were able to do the math.”

This is worth thinking about when we watch Copenhagen. Like Frayn’s earlier play, the comedy Noises Off, there is much activity that is happening offstage and around the participants that gives historical context to the characters in Copenhagen. This dramaturgic historicizing, if you will, is important because it is lacking in the play itself.

In Copenhagen we are asked to contemplate the unthinkable and that is the possibility that the Germans might develop an atomic bomb that could be deployed against any European capitol – Paris, London or even Copenhagen. Whereas the Allies might do the same by dropping the bomb on Munich or Berlin. An unthinkable catastrophe. We never check ourselves with the reality of the fact that the tragedy implied in the play is dramatically heightened by the implicit (racial) subtext and bias that the massive death and destruction would be visited on high culture European cities of a predominantly white populace. Of course, the atomic bomb was eventually dropped on a non-white, non-European country and it was Bohr who struggled for the moral high ground before the event took place.

By 1941 the Allies were already well into the development of their own scientific program to develop an atomic bomb by way of the tightly coordinated and well funded Manhattan Project. Niels Bohr visited the project site in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and at the time took the position that the allies should allow the Japanese to observe at first hand a test explosion of the bomb and thus be given a choice to surrender before it was dropped on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. At the war’s conclusion he argued, along with his colleague, J. Robert Oppenheimer (the director of the Los Alamos Laboratory in New Mexico) against the development of the hydrogen bomb and thermonuclear weapons while advocating for peace and cooperation with Russia during the Cold War who, of course, had their own nuclear weapons program that rivaled the Allies and German war efforts. has just announced that the director and screenwriter, Christopher Nolan, will make a $100 million-budgeted historical bio-drama entitled “Oppenheimer” that will be released in 2023. Oppenheimer’s background is an interesting one and the release of the film will doubtless renew the debates all over again

The philosopher, Charles Mills (who taught physics before he studied philosophy), postulates in The Racial Contract, his treatise on racism in the history of Western philosophy: “… the atomic bomb was used not once but twice against the civilian population of a yellow people at the time when military necessity could only questionably be cited (causing Justice Radhabinod Pal, in his dissenting opinion in the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, to argue that Allied leaders should have been put on trial with the Japanese.)”

In quantum mechanics, Werner Heisenberg is known for the “uncertainty principle” which he published in 1927, five years before he won the Nobel Prize. In layperson’s terms (as it was explained to me), his theory states that when measuring variables such as speed and distance in atomic particles, there is always an element of uncertainty. In the laboratory you might measure speed precisely but find that you are a bit off with distance and vice-versa.

Over the years, the term has taken on a much broader meaning with regard to human interactions and all kinds of cultural relativisms – far from its scientific origin. But history, too, is a kind of measurement of overlapping variables which includes factors like time and distance. And it encompasses a past with a far greater dimension than is found in the posturing moral philosophy of Michael Frayn’s play. Of that, you can be certain.

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