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COPENHAGEN By Michael Frayn; Methuen Drama: 96 pp., $10.95 paper

May 21, 2000|JOHN LUKACS | John Lukacs is the author of "A Thread of Years" and, most recently, "Five Days in London" (Yale University Press)

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Michael Frayn's play "Copenhagen" has now reached Broadway after its production in London two years ago. It has received an unusual measure of attention and respectable reviews that--allow me to state this at the very beginning of this essay--it deserved. "Copenhagen" deals with a significant episode--or, rather, with the human drama inherent within it--that happened in September 1941, in the middle of World War II. This episode has been treated by various writers and historians since that time, while it was also described (or, more precisely: attempted to be explained) by at least one of its protagonists, Werner Heisenberg, and also in his biography, written by his wife, Elisabeth. What happened was not simple. "Copenhagen" is not the first example of sensitive writers being attracted to the deeper moral implications of the acts and ideas of physicists in the 20th century, as in the play, "The Physicists" by the Swiss Friedrich Duerrenmatt. Michael Frayn attributes to this particular episode of September 1941, a philosophical, rather than a historical, explanation; but his concern with history, too, is such that he appended a long postscript to his two-act play in which, among other things, he stated with commendable modesty: "I am acutely aware how over-simplified my version is." I do not really think that his version is "over-simplified," except perhaps for his last philosophical conclusion; but my interest in this episode is even more historical than it is philosophical, which is why I am compelled to sum up the antecedents and the events of September 1941 as briefly as I can.

Heisenberg and Niels Bohr were, perhaps, the two greatest physicists of the 20th century. Surely they were the two leaders during the brief Golden Age of Physics, 1924 to 1927, when Heisenberg's Indeterminacy Theory and Bohr's Copenhagen Complementarity Interpretation superseded Einstein's still largely deterministic concept of physical reality. (Frayn does not attribute special significance to this conflict with Einstein; indeed, on one or two occasions he has his two protagonists refer to Einstein as "God" and to Bohr as "Pope.") In any event, Heisenberg and Bohr were close allies at the time, even though the first was much younger than the second and the latter's protege. Soon Heisenberg (who was to receive the Nobel Prize for physics) became much more than a protege. That they regarded each other with a mutual high degree of esteem is unquestionable. Heisenberg was German, Bohr Danish; Heisenberg was a German patriot, Bohr was half-Jewish. This did not matter--surely not for some time. In 1933 Hitler came to power in Germany; but their relations remained uncompromised--again, at least for some time. Heisenberg was neither a committed nor a convinced Nazi. Then in April 1940, Hitler's army and navy occupied Denmark. For various reasons, Hitler and his government treated Denmark as a model protectorate, allowing its king and its democratically elected government to function, albeit of course with grave restrictions; Jewish people in Denmark, too, were unharmed and largely unrestricted, including Bohr. In September 1941, Heisenberg went to Denmark, with the ostensible purpose of giving a lecture. There and then he visited his old friend Bohr. There occurred a long and unhappy conversation between them, during which evidently Bohr and Heisenberg were talking past each other. Their subject was the world situation in September 1941, including--very cautiously, and by no means directly--the potentiality of the construction of an atomic reactor and, perhaps consequently, of an atomic bomb. Their conversation not only did not dispel but strengthened their reciprocal suspicions, especially Bohr's (and his wife's) as to what Heisenberg's real purposes were. Heisenberg returned to Germany; Bohr stayed in Denmark until 1943, when he was spirited out to Sweden and thereafter to England and then to the United States. In 1947 Heisenberg went to Denmark to see Bohr again; but their earlier friendship was not restored.

Their reciprocal misunderstandings--in Frayn's formulation the Uncertainty Principle, the uncertainty of each one's assumption of the other's intentions or of the attribution of each other's motives--is the essence of his play, to the construction of which I must now turn.

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