Sunday, September 22, 2019
Cesear’s Forum’s “Copenhagen” asks whether a meeting between two physicists changed world history
Did a meeting between two world-famous Jewish physicists have an effect on Germany not developing an atomic bomb? Did that same meeting lead to the evacuation of Denmark’s Jewish population before a planned mass extermination by the Nazis? Did that same get-together lead to a major physicist leaving Europe and coming to the US to help in this country’s nuclear program?
These, and other questions are at the center of “Copenhagen,” Michael Frayn’s Tony Award winning play, now being staged by Cesear’s Forum.
The story is told in a non-linear pattern in which physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, and Borh’s wife, Margrethe, all now dead, look back at a meeting held in the Bohr’s Copenhagen home in September, 1941.
The spirits of the three attempt to answer the question that Margrethe poses in the first line of the play: "Why did he [Heisenberg] come to Copenhagen?" Unfortunately, though the meeting did take place, there is no written or oral record of exactly what happened.
What playwright Frayn has done, is to invent a “what might have been said and what did happen marriage of ideas and suppositions.” We spend two-and-a-half hours reliving the experience which presents, debates, accepts and rejects theories that may answer that question.
Frayn feels confident in claiming that "The actual words spoken by [the] characters are entirely their own."
The core of the play is based on a speech by Heisenberg who says, "No one understands my trip to Copenhagen. Time and time again I’ve explained it. To Bohr himself, and Margrethe. To interrogators and intelligence officers, to journalists and historians. The more I've explained, the deeper the uncertainty has become."
Along the way, Frayn has Heisenberg and Bohr draft several versions of their 1941 exchange. In these flashback discussions, “they argue about the ramifications of each potential version of their meeting and the motives behind it. They discuss the idea of nuclear power and its control, the rationale behind building or not building an atomic bomb, the uncertainty of the past and the inevitability of the future as embodiments of themselves acting as particles drifting through the atom that is Copenhagen.”
Heisenberg grew up in an environment with an intense emphasis on academics, but was exposed to the destruction of World War II. He is best known for his "Uncertainty Principle." During the Second World War, despite being Jewish, he worked for Germany, researching atomic technology and heading their nuclear reactor program.
After the war, Heisenberg’s involvement with the Nazis earned him certain notoriety in the world of physicists, mainly due to the fact it is speculated that he could have given Hitler the means to produce and use nuclear arms, but intentionally or through the lack of insight into the nuclear process, did not do so.
There is supposition that Heisenberg was also instrumental in sharing knowledge of the secret expulsion of the Danish Jews, so that they could be taken out of the country and hidden.
It is known that most of the world's great theoretical physicists spent periods of their lives at Bohr's Institute. Before the war, his research was instrumental in nuclear research, some of which led to the building of the bomb. During the war, however, Bohr was living in occupied Denmark and somewhat restricted in his research. He escaped to Sweden in 1943, came to America and worked on the atomic bomb until the end of the war.
Proving the value of the theatre, Frayn’s play inspired numerous scholarly and media debates over the 1941 meeting. The Niels Bohr Archive in Copenhagen released to the public all sealed documents related to the meeting, a move intended mostly to settle historical arguments over what they contained.
The Cesear’s Forum production, under the adept direction of the theater’s artistic director, Greg Cesear, though fascinating in content and idea development, is very long. The script could have used some heavy red-lining. Fortunately, the author has “dumbed down” many of the scientific concepts so that the ideas are listener friendly, even for the non-physics informed.
The cast, who each had hundreds-upon-hundreds of lines to memorize, make the interactions conversational and realistic. Mary Alice Beck (Margrethe), Brian Bowers (Heisenberg) and Dana Hart (Bohr) each nicely texture their performances and create real people.
Kennedy’s Down Under Theatre creates a perfect setting for this script. Sitting up-close and enclosed in the natural brick façade makes the experience a personal revelation.
CAPSULE JUDGMENT: “Copenhagen” continues Cesear’s Forum for doing small cast, high quality, thought provoking plays, that draw in a thinking crowd. Though a long sit, the play is an idea-expanding experience that is well-worth seeing.
“Copenhagen,” which runs about two-and-a-half hours, with an intermission, can be seen in Kennedy’s Down Under, in the Playhouse Square complex, on Friday and Saturdays at 8 pm through October 26, 2019. There are 3 pm Sunday performances on October 6 & 13. For tickets call 216-241-6000 or go to www.playhousesquare.org