(L-R) Brett Ricksby, Linda Purl & Peter Van Norden Photo Credit: Christoher Brown
Into the Jaws of History
Michael Frayn’s play, Copenhagen, is a rare treat for anyone who is remotely interested in finding intellectual stimulation in Ventura. There is great art and then there is important great art. Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen is the latter.
Rubicon’Theatre gives us the richly nuanced production this timely play deserves.
First off, Rubicon wisely brought in international Beckett-uber-star director from Gare St Lazare Ireland, Judy Hegarty Lovett. Every aspect of this production hums and works together to provide a superbly unified and evocative reading of Frayn’s masterpiece. From acting to set design, staging, sound design, to costume design, it is an immensely satisfying whole, rendering a complex, multi-leveled, intellectual tour-de-force into a lively, stimulating evening of theatre.
Second, Rubicon brought in a veteran trio of actors, Linda Purl, Peter Van Norden, and Brett Rickaby well matched to this play’s demands. Purl and Van Norden are a particularly convincing Niels and Margethe Bohr.
The play itself has quite a pedigree. A sensation when it launched in 1998, it garnered the Evening Standard Best Play award, This led to a Broadway production in 2000 where it earned three Tony Awards including Best Play.
One of the remarkable things about this play is that its public appearance itself spurred further public revelations regarding the historical events at its core, including letters long held privately in the estates of its protagonists. Fortunately Frayn, fully cognizant that more of the story remained to be told, cleverly conceived of the play in such a way that new information does not detract from the dramatic force of the ideas presented.
The central event of the play is a real event, a historically pivotal meeting at a critical moment early-on in World War II between the Dane, Niels Bohr and a German, Werner Heisenberg, two of the greatest minds of all time.
It is 1941 in Bohr’s hometown of Copenhagen, Denmark, a country recently overrun by the Nazi war machine. In the 1920s and 30s Bohr mentored an entire generation of top-notch theoretical physicists, including the young Heisenberg, while forging the foundations of quantum mechanics.
What is at stake could very well be the future of the human race.
After the war, this meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg achieved legendary, near mythic, status by the 1950s, in part because no one actually knows for sure what happened.
Anomalies in the historical record are not unexpected as the meeting was secret, its content could have cost either man his life if known at the time, the sources of many accounts being derived mostly from post-war and Cold-War interrogations by potentially unsympathetic intelligence officers and therefore themselves considered state secrets, or from secondary and personal accounts obviously tainted by vested interests published much later when memories fade and new political and psychological pressures seep in.
It is this psychological and motivational terrain full of ambiguity and moral land mines that Frayn catches as an opening into a deeper examination of the underlying and very real human problems posed by the situation.
As for the meeting itself, even though Bohr and Heisenberg were known to have met privately during a conference held the week of 15-21 September, 1941, information about the meeting has suffered a bewildering tangle in its unveiling, often deepening the mystery rather than clarifying.
Not that there are no accounts of the meeting. Part of the problem is that no two of the accounts, even if made by the same person, fully agrees with each other; not one of them appears to be complete. All accounts are rife with exasperating details or lack of details that leave far more questions than answers. All accounts do agree that Heisenberg used elliptical and evasive language that was potentially easily misunderstood, a problem in itself, while Bohr spoke directly and simply.
Further, it was only revealed much later that Bohr’s wife was definitely present during much of their interaction, which has significant implications, as Frayn’s play makes clear, for she was a highly intelligent, powerful woman, a keenly perceptive partner to everything Bohr was about, with extensive insights into all the men involved.
It is not even known for sure whether there was one or several private meetings between the two great men. Bohr’s wife says she knew of only one such meeting, a startlingly short walk from their home one night, but that others surely could have been possible. Bohr says two, then at another point, one. Heisenberg in a letter to his wife sent in 1941 that was not made public in his lifetime, states that he met privately with Bohr three times. The details he gives makes all three plausible. However, in his public statement in a letter to Robert Jungk who published an account of the lives of the physicists behind the atom bomb titled Brighter Than a Thousand Suns, Heisenberg describes only one such meeting. In the wrong month. In a park that would have been logistically impossible. And this does not even get to the contents of their discussion, which is the real crux of things.
As for that content, speculation as to what happened, what was said and why, has always run rampant. One thing is known for certain: it ended a productive and personally rewarding relationship. Heisenberg infuriated Bohr.
Amongst the many speculations is the very real possibility that the meeting helped determine who would get the atom bomb first: Hitler or the Americans or Stalin or no one, at least while the war raged.
Heisenberg, unbeknownst to Bohr, had just been put at the helm of a group charged with looking into the production of a fission bomb. Bohr is skeptical of even the possibility of a fission bomb, but is known to favor international cooperation, even to the extent of sharing all information, even with the Soviets. Bohr’s stature is such that his word one way or another on any aspect of the problem will have great influence on the efforts of younger physicists everywhere, and even possibly the governments of England, the United States, Germany, or the Soviet Union. He is subsequently recruited by all sides.
One of the remarkable things about World War II is that the Germans did not figure out how to make fission weapons first given the huge lead that Heisenberg and Schrodinger gave them in terms of sheer technical ability and understanding. The Germans also had a phalanx of top-notch talent behind them across all relevant fields of physics, chemistry, engineering, and mathematics, including the discoverer of fission itself and the greatest nuclear chemist alive, Otto Hahn.
Since both Heisenberg and Bohr played crucial parts in their respective countries after the war, the content of the meeting has been considered essential to understanding their standing, loyalties, and ethics during the Cold War as well as World War II.
During the war and soon after while working with the Americans, Bohr was under close scrutiny and not trusted by his American military handlers. Since the war, and internationally, Bohr has always been considered ethically above reproach. Heisenberg less so. Yet it might be Heisenberg who prevented Hitler from acquiring the Bomb by simply and consciously refusing to take the Nazis in the right direction. There are also those who have suggested that Bohr explicitly pointed out this tactic to Heisenberg during their meeting in Copenhagen.
It is also quite possible that others on the German teams might have consciously helped stall Nazi success: Otto Hahn and fellow Nobel laureeate, Max von Laue were curiously ineffective, while Jordan, the great mathematician who contributed significant work to quantum mechanics in the 1920s, and Erwin Schrodinger, the only real rival to Heisenberg’s prowess, seemed to have withdrawn into peripheral problems.
Weizsacker, frequently mentioned in Frayn’s play, a key figure in the German Bomb project, but also a Bohr disciple, may have also consciously allowed the Nazi Bomb effort to stray for moral reasons. He was recorded in British captivity as clearly considering the bombing of civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki as madness of the most morally contemptible sort. At another point one of their British guards tried to explain to Weizsacker and Heisenberg how the Americans and British considered the lives of their soldiers more important than 70,000 Japanese civilians, to which Weizsacker is said to have replied, "But there you are really very close to the moral terms of Herr Hitler", a quote sometimes incorrectly attributed to Otto Hahn. At this point the guard departed, very much distressed.
In spite of all this, there is no need to know a thing about physics or history to fully enjoy Copenhagen. The greatness of Frayn’s play is that he has created a clever device whereby Bohr, his wife, and Heisenberg discuss all the possibilities while they are all dead. They fill you in on any details you need to know and the ramifications thereof from multiple angles. What emerges is a marvelous conceit, a construction whereby Frayn takes his audience for a ride through the underpinnings of survival, loyalty, trust, obligation, creativity, ambition, reconciliation, psychological and historical motivation and their implications.
One thing the play does extremely well is handle the physics for the uninitiated. Yes, you can read many books or view a lot of lectures attempting to explain why these things are important, but none will be anywhere near as engaging or as griping and fun to take in as Frayn’s play.
Another aspect of this play is its rather abstract staging and conception, and its theatre of the mind pedigree. This is a strain of theatre that is a major force in contemporary theatre world-wide, but with striking under-exposure regionally. I suspect this is mostly because this strain of theatre--though featuring some of the most vital and electrifying theatre of our age--has had little or no relationship with either television or Hollywood movies, and thus is of less interest to the people who make them. Regionally, this has led to unnecessarily narrowly conceived productions, featuring a cloying conservatism in staging, in particular, limiting the conception of stage sets to the dreary predictability and aesthetic of a set for television . Sometimes seeing theatre in Southern California is a bit like having to only watch black and white movies when everyone else is watching color. So it is a commendable move by Rubicon to once again buck the trend and offer us something regionally more representative of international theatre and give us a more exciting contemporary staging.
Copenhagen, a drama written by Michael Frayn
Directed byJudy Hegarty Lovett
starring Linda Purl, Peter Van Norden, Brett Ricaby
produced by the Rubicon Theatre Company, Ventura
running through Sunday 27 September 2015at the Rubicon Theatre, VenturaDowntown Ventura on Main Street.ticket information at www.rubicontheatre.org or call 805.667.2900