April 27, 2000: Frayne, Copenhagen

Duchess, Matinee

A disappointing house, half full, for a very fine play. For the first half-hour I wondered how Michael Frayne or anyone else could make a play out of such esoteric material: what did Werner Heisenberg say to Niels Bohr when he went to Denmark in wartime to visit him? We don’t exactly ever find out — or, rather, there are at least two or three versions, all mutually contradictory, of what was said. But Frayne manages to make an intense play out of this, by realizing that the persistent search for truth that drives the great scientists of our (or any) time has inherent dramatic interest. Here, Frayne shapes and orients that interest, and characterizes it clearly, by adopting as a dramaturgical premise the Heis­en­­bergian principle of uncertainty: not the generally understood misunder­standing of it — that the presence of a measuring device alters the measurement of the thing under scrutiny — but the precise idea of uncertainty in the measurement of an atomic particle, namely that the measurement has to be done by taking the view that the more accurately you know its position, the less accurately you know its velocity, and vice versa. The idea of uncertainty inherent in the very nature of things as observed by those who know the truth becomes in Michael Frayne’s hands a potent dramaturgical principal. We can never know with any certainty what Heisenberg said to Bohr or Bohr to Heisenberg as they went on long walks together, avoiding the bugs that may have been planted in Bohr’s house. If there is a closer analogy here, I missed it, unless it is that time is the velocity thing and historical moment — i.e., the moment as it actually happened — is the location thing. From our later perspective, now that both Heisenberg and Bohr are dead, we can’t comfortably arrive at both quantities. We have to settle for what history suggests.

The reason all this is so important is that fundamental moral issues are involved, because what Heisenberg and Bohr were working on gave way to the atomic bomb. What was their part in its gestation and birth? A fascinating play-long inquiry into this question occurs, with uncertain outcome but with the principle emergent that the pursuit of scientific truth is never the abstract, disinterested thing that scientists may sometimes want it to be.

A fine play, and, again, extremely well acted. Three characters: Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife, who adds a human touch but who is herself very intelli­gent and as motivated as the others to get at the solution of the mystery.


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An American Playgoer in London by Joseph Donohue is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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