History hits the stage in Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s ‘Copenhagen’
In 1941, two renowned European physicists and longtime friends met secretly in Nazi-occupied Denmark.
Later, both men – German scientist Werner Heisenberg and his colleague and mentor, Danish scientist Niels Bohr – would give multiple, conflicting explanations and interpretations to what happened and why they met.
Was Heisenberg a Nazi spy hoping Bohr knew and would disclose the Americans’ progress in building an atomic
bombâ¢ Did Heisenberg hope to pass information to the Allies on what he had learned about nuclear fissionâ¢ Maybe he hoped to recruit Bohr or pick his brainâ¢ Or was he just anxious to renew the dialogue with an old friend?
Some scientists, historians and political analysts still argue about the meeting and its implications.
Did the Americans succeed in building the first atomic bomb because they were smarter and had a better team of scientistsâ¢ Or did Heisenberg deliberately delay his team’s efforts in the hope that the war would be over before they completed their work?
For many, these questions are a minor historical footnote.
For playwright Michael Frayn, they were a jumping-off point for “Copenhagen,” a three-character drama that makes this meeting and the world of quantum nuclear physics a metaphor to explore more personal concerns – the plasticity of memory, the variability of truth and the shadowy boundaries of friendship, patriotism and morality.
“I think the reason for its success is that the personal and moral questions are very graspable, particularly in the dialogue where they’re talking about nuclear confrontation and who has the right to do these things, who has the higher moral ground,” says Gregory Lehane, director of the Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre production of “Copenhagen” that begins performances Thursday.
“Copenhagen” begins long after its characters are dead with Bohr’s wife, Margrethe, asking “But why?…Why did he (Heisenberg) come to Copenhagen?”
Bohr and Heisenberg are nuclear physicists for whom quantum mechanics, photons, neutrons , fission and particle theory are dinner-table topics. Margrethe is also fluent in physics after years of acting as her husband’s sounding board as well as from typing and retyping his papers.
As they retrace the events of that evening from their separate perspectives, all three chatter easily about the differences between uranium isotopes U-235 and U-238, the availability of cyclotrons and the uncertainty of particles.
But, says Lehane: “I can’t imagine that Frayn doesn’t have in mind that most of the audience will not know the difference between U-235 and U-238. … It’s not about how a reactor works but why are you going on like thisâ¢ What’s the engine driving the action, the fuel that makes this go forwardâ¢ Are we getting anywhere understanding ourselves or othersâ¢ Ultimately, the huge metaphorical questions are very personal.”
Mary Rawson, who plays Margrethe, knows how important it is that those metaphorical questions seem personal. When she first saw the play performed, she found it totally uninteresting.
But that was before January, when Pittsburgh Irish and Classical Theatre’s executive and artistic director, Andrew S. Paul, asked her to do a reading of the play with Larry John Meyers and Darren Eliker, who now play Bohr and Heisenberg in this production. “When I read the play, (I realized) it’s not about physics. The production I saw was that and only that. It was not fathomable to me. But I think that was the failure of the production,” Rawson says. “In the reading, it just came alive. It wasn’t about physics. … Everything resonates. The physics has ramifications. Everything is personal.”
Rawson’s character provides an entry point into the drama for the audience.
“Dramatically, she’s the inciter. Whenever they get off to talking about good times, bad times she comes back to the questions,” Lehane says.
It’s Margrethe who urges on their reconstruction of events. When Bohr and Heisenberg’s conversations become too technical, they stop to simplify and explain it for her.
Rawson went into “Copenhagen” knowing little about physics.
“I didn’t understand the science, and I didn’t want to hurt my head, so I went to the library and found a book – ‘Niels Bohr for Adolescents,’ she says. That was a jumping-off place.
When preparing for a role, Rawson does a lot of research. “For me, the personal dynamics are very important,” she says.
References in the script to the Bohrs’ children impelled her to learn who were the boys they were talking about, how old they were, what their names were and what happened to them. “Anything in the text I don’t understand I’ve got to find out what they’re talking about,” she says.
By the time she got to rehearsals she had nearly filled a notebook with handwritten information and observations about Margrethe, her husband and their life as well as photographs of them, their children, where they lived and other important images.
“They were a wonderful pair. They say he was honored and revered. … But she was revered as well. I think that’s partly a reflection of him and of her serving him,” Rawson says.
“It’s worth noting, these are fascinating people, not pocket-protector people,” Lehane says. “They’re worthy of great characterization.”
Ultimately, the question is why Margrethe – and by extension, the audience – cares about what two physicists said to each other on a 10-minute walk on a winter day.
“It is something people have wondered about. We know their friendship was never the same afterward,” Rawson says.
“And history may have hung in the balance,” Lehane adds.
“Maybe in that walk the whole world changed,” Rawson suggests. “And in reality things change all the time like that. But not with these implications.”