The Net Advance of Physics:

Resources for Frayn's Copenhagen

Copenhagen is a play about two men in a complex relationship who come together in the afterlife to understand their friendship and its strains. Science brought them together; they felt like father and son or director and boy Friday. Politics divided them, yet as they talk about their past, other tensions, such as competitiveness, come to the fore. Another person is present and offers her insights into their affinities and variances. Their encounter is human: full of memories and memory lapses, as well as affection and denial.

These men are not, however, ordinary: they are Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, whose work was foundational in quantum mechanics and in atomic physics. The two were also philosophers who considered the connections between scientific knowledge and life. The event they strive to understand is a meeting in occupied Copenhagen during WWII. The setting for the meeting (but not for the play) was comfortable; it was a place where they had worked and talked together. The meeting was uncomfortable, for Bohr was on one side in the war and Heisenberg on the other. Neither spoke or wrote directly about the event and its impact, both of which have remained a matter of historical speculation.

The emphasis on historicity (or lack of it) has dominated discussion about the play. Frayn says he follows the philosophy of history found in the work of Thucydides, and in so doing, he takes on the task of any imaginative writer: to shape disparate facts into an intelligible and interpretable whole.

To contribute to this page, write Karen Rae Keck or Norman Redington.