Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen depicts the wartime meeting in occupied Denmark between physicist Niels Bohr, atomic structure and quantum mechanics theorist, and Werner Heisenberg, namesake of the Indeterminacy Principle, and their conversation about scientific ethics in light of the German atomic bomb program. The 1998 play will be performed this Friday through Sunday only, at the Masquers Playhouse in Point Richmond, staged by Envision, a Masquers Playhouse program.
The production features John Hutchinson, Robert Taylor and Michael Haven, and is directed by Theo Collins—Masquers all.
Theo Collins commented on the show and on the origins and purpose of Envision: “Some actors and directors wanted to do plays not part of the regular season—no reason to run for six weeks. So Envision began in 1995 with Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden, and progressed from there. A committee was formed to select the plays; that year there were three. But it was all on the basis of somebody wanting to do it, not for the purpose of filling up space. It’s not limited to the Masquers, either. It’s very open, just as the Masquers are very open. Shows can run two weekends, but usually just one. The week after they strike the previous main season show at the Playhouse, we set up, do the show, then they put up the set for the next production. There’s no competition that way. There is a limit as far as production values are concerned; we do it as much black box as we can.”
Copenhagen is black box, almost to the limit: there’s no real set. “A buffet is on one side of the stage; a sofa on the other. It’s hard for the actors to be on their marks! And all three are on stage all of the time.”
The three are Bohr, Heisenberg and Bohr’s wife, Margrethe. “She’s like the center. Bohr would bounce ideas off her. She typed all Bohr’s reports and knew what they were saying, but not the depth of the science behind.”
Of Bohr and Heisenberg, Collins said, “Bohr was more intuitive, Heisenberg more mathematical—but very quick, and young, in his 20s, when he first met and worked with Bohr, who would take him out hiking and talking, studying with him for three years before going back to Germany. The play—which all takes place, as they say in it, ‘after we’re dead and gone,’ so late in the century, as Bohr died in the ’60s, Heisenberg in the ’70s, and Margrethe in 1984, well into her 90s. It moves back to the two of them hiking in the ’20s from their meeting in the ’40s, back and forth to the play’s present, after it’s all over.”
Heisenberg came to visit Bohr; the exact nature of their meeting isn’t known. “And Bohr didn’t know why he was coming. They had apparently become estranged, but nobody seems to know why. One version is that Heisenberg asked Bohr whether it was ethical for a scientist to work in an atomic energy program that could be used for weapons, and Bohr took that to mean Heisenberg was, that he’s to be handed over to Hitler—and stopped the conversation. Heisenberg claimed he was only working on an atomic reactor, and maybe he was.”
Collins, who decided to direct the play after a Masquer who’d seen it in New York suggested it, said she and the other committe members “were overwhelmed by the science, but the relationships, the purpose, the meaning of the play came through loud and clear.”
In fact, the moral questions of the play parallel the scientific theories by analogy. Bohr and Heisenberg had jointly presented what was dubbed the Copenhagen Interpretation of quantum mechanics, Bohr having theorized how electrons should be seen as both particle and wave, as matter and energy (Complementarity), while Heisenberg stated his Uncertainty Principle, that the exact location of an electron could never be known, as the process of measurement changes the nature of location. “It’s really about communication,” Collins said. “Can one understand the other, know whether the other understands—can one understand oneself?”
Collins said the production had expert help from “a physicist, an astrophysicist and someone who taught particle physics at Northwestern”—all Masquers.
“It’s been fascinating to work with everybody because they’re fascinated with it, devoted to the play. The support of the theater has been very strong, too, for the Envision program. It’s not like a stepchild of the Masquers.”
Bohr, who was half-Jewish, escaped Denmark to Sweden, later working in the American atomic energy program.
8 p.m. Friday, July 10 and Saturday, July 11; 2:30 p.m. Sunday, July 12 at Masquers Playhouse, 105 Park Place, Point Richmond. $10. 232-4031. www.masquers.org.