Jewish Journal

A Fusion in Denmark

"Copenhagen" examines what might have happened one fateful day in 1941.

by Tom Tugend

Posted on Nov. 29, 2001 at 7:00 pm

"From these two heads the future will emerge.... Who will live and who will die" -- Margrethe Bohr in "Copenhagen."

The two heads cited in this apocalyptic pronouncement belonged to two of the most brilliant theoretical physicists of the first half of the 20th century, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, both Nobel Laureates.

Bohr was a Dane, whose mother came from a prominent Jewish family. Heisenberg was a German, first a student and protégé of Bohr, then his colleague and competitor. Working together and separately, they laid much of the scientific foundation of the atomic age.

If Albert Einstein was a god in the scientific pantheon of the century, then Bohr, by general acclamation, was the pope.

In September 1941, after German troops had occupied Denmark, Heisenberg, then head of the nascent Nazi nuclear weapons program, took a clandestine trip to Copenhagen to visit his old mentor.

That much is historical fact. But niether Bohr, his wife Margrethe, nor Heisenberg has ever clearly revealed what was the purpose and what was discussed at the meeting.

Did Heisenberg try to sound out the well-connected Bohr on American and British progress in nuclear energy research? Did the German seek guidance from his former teacher on the scientific morality of dabbling in doomsday weapons? Did Heisenberg try to signal that he would sabotage the Nazi research if Allied scientists would do the same in their respective countries?

If any play sought to explore the profound historical and moral issues implicit in these questions -- Dayenu, that would be enough. But "Copenhagen" by British playwright Michael Frayn, playing now at the Wilshire Theatre, seeks even more.

The play, which won the Tony for Best Play in 2000, trusts its audience enough to delve into some of the most complex scientific theories of the age, and to link these, by analogy, to the even more complex behavior of its discoverers or, by extension, of all humans.

A central example is Heisenberg's famous Uncertainty Principle, which posits that by the very act of observing something, say an atomic particle, we change the object being observed.

The same, argues Frayn, holds for human relationships, which he illustrates by the constantly changing perceptions by the characters of themselves and each other.

The play opens with the three meeting after their deaths and trying to reconstruct what happened at their fateful 1941 meeting. They're not satisfied with the first "draft" of their recollections and start at the beginning with a second and then third draft.

Which one is the "real" version, or are there some truths and some misperceptions in each? We will never know.

Inevitably, given the time and the topic, the "Jewish question" becomes part of the play, though not its central focus.

At the time, Bohr was still shielded by his international scientific standing (he escaped to Sweden in 1943 and then worked on the atomic bomb project in Los Alamos), but he is fully aware of the peril of being a half-Jew.

When Heisenberg tries to break an awkward silence at the meeting by suggesting a ski trip to Norway, Bohr replies caustically that he will ask his wife to sew a yellow star on his ski jacket.

More ominous and fateful is the consideration that, with few exceptions, the leading atomic physicists of the time were Jews. It was this brilliant assembly of Jewish refugees from Germany, Austria, Hungary and Italy who played an indispensable role in the success of the Manhattan Project.

Heisenberg speculates that had these Jewish scientists been allowed to stay home, Hitler probably would have had the atom bomb first.

Of course, without his anti-Semitic madness, would Hitler have been the Hitler who launched World War II? Back to the Uncertainty Principle.

"Copenhagen" is a brilliant and deeply challenging play, which, besides its other virtues, draws a striking picture of the ecstasies and despair inherent in the scientist's pursuit.

The play also demands as much focused concentration from the viewer as from its trio of intense actors. Len Cariou as Bohr, Mariette Hartley as his wife and Hank Stratton as Heisenberg constitute a new cast for the play's national tour, but they benefit from the direction of Michael Blakemore, who launched "Copenhagen" in London and won one of the show's three Tonys.

The play continues through Jan. 6 at the Wilshire Theatre in Beverly Hills. Phone (213) 365-3500 for tickets, which range from $25 to $60.

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