COPENHAGEN (Lantern): Observable quantities

Bohr: … if people are to be measured strictly in terms of observable quantities…
Heisenberg: Then we should need a strange new quantum ethics. There’d be a place in heaven for me.

Copenhagen Lantern Theater

Werner Heisenberg (Charles McMahon), Margrethe Nørlund Bohr (Sally Mercer) and Niels Bohr (Paul L. Nolan) in COPENHAGEN. Photo by Mark Garvin.

Three people, all deceased, look back in time. They and Lantern Theater Company’s audience attempt to understand Werner Heisenberg’s intention for his visit to the Bohr’s home in occupied Denmark in 1941, and to determine exactly what happened. Niels Bohr (Paul L. Nolan), his wife Margrethe (Sally Mercer), and Bohr’s old protégé, Werner Heisenberg (Charles McMahon), once good friends, are estranged. They have ended up on opposite sides of the war.

[In a letter released by his family in 2002 Niels Bohr wrote that a “great matter for mankind was at issue in which, despite our personal friendship, we had to be regarded as representatives of two sides engaged in mortal combat."]

What did the German citizen, Heisenberg, hope to achieve? As the house was almost certainly bugged, they spoke outside.

Michael Frayn’s play makes demands on actors. Except for a partial reprieve for Margrethe, who steps out for awhile, the actors are on stage all the time for two long acts. There’s no furniture beyond a few built-in benches on the edge of the circular wooden performance platform that looks like the drawing of Bohr’s model of the hydrogen atom that hung in my father’s den. There are no helpful props at all. It’s not easy for the director, Kittson O’Neill, either: No stage directions are provided. Sound and music are nearly subliminal with an ominous movie-like hum at crucial parts. The lighting, mostly rather featureless, is over-bright to mark critical moments. An intriguing use of lighting is confined to the black backdrop area at the very start of each act.

The cast, amazingly spontaneous and completely engaged, keep this long and talky intellectual play compelling. Paul L. Nolan is a wonderful Niels Bohr, angry but affable, a famed physicist who’s not a bit stuffy. Like a nucleus, he stays put a lot. Charles McMahon plays Heisenberg a bit antsy. He strides around. Like an electron, he can barely stay still in this tale of the impossibility of simultaneous measurement of position and momentum, energy and time. The more precisely you measure one, the less precise the other. Elusive Heisenberg says, “I’m your enemy. I’m also your friend. I’m a danger to mankind; I’m also your guest. I’m a particle; I’m also a wave.”

Discussions about the Uncertainty Principle and Complementarity are intercut with anecdotes that illustrate scientific principles— skiing, their walks, table tennis, and a family tragedy. They speak of other scientists, Jews in peril, the war, Nazis. The actors repeatedly re-enact significant moments that transpired at their critical meeting at the Bohrs home, reassembling and commenting on the past in an attempt to understand what was said and what it meant. In acting out versions of what it was that happened in 1941, their behaviors change as they replay them, the Uncertainty Principle in action, a demonstration of the impossibility of knowing anything for sure. Our memories are uncertain, and one memory can blur and alter another.


Photo by Mark Garvin.

Sally Mercer plays Margrethe, the observer, tough and canny— with offhand asides. She’s suspicious. At the very least she thinks Heisenberg has come to brag. Maybe he’s bragging when he eventually lets it slip that he is involved in, and may be head of, the German nuclear program. His connection to the ultimate failure of the program is an issue that emerges. Did Heisenberg make incorrect calculations or did he deliberately help Germany lose the war? The playwright, in a letter to the New York Times (03/11/07) wrote: “I must put the record straight on one matter of fact. Holt (reviewer of Frayn’s book The Human Touch) repeats the myth that Heisenberg claimed after the Second World War to have ‘deliberately sabotaged’ the German atomic bomb project. Heisenberg never, so far as I or anyone else knows, made any such claim. Nor did he claim even to have unconsciously sabotaged it (which is roughly what the fictitious Heisenberg in my play rather tentatively suggests at one point).”

Did Heisenberg really ‘accidentally’ mess up the calculations? He believed that Germany could win the war if he could get a reactor, which could produce plutonium. Yet he failed to tell Speer, the director of Hitler’s Ministry of Armaments, about plutonium. Heisenberg seems to truly care for Bohr, his former mentor and the ‘Pope” of physicists. What did Heisenberg want? Did he want info on the Allies? Bohr’s help for Germany? When the bomb was brought up, Bohr didn’t think it was possible yet and he didn’t want to talk about it. And Heisenberg may have tried to warn Bohr, half Jewish, who felt safe in Denmark, that it wasn’t safe there anymore. Strangely, with all the uncertainty around Heisenberg, he never did make a bomb or kill anyone. But what were his intentions? Bohr, who wound up at Los Alamos, was instrumental in building nuclear bombs that killed some hundred thousand people.

The playwright had Bohr and Heisenberg decide to speak in “plain language” so that Margrethe (and the audience) could understand them. But when COPENHAGEN first opened in England there was criticism in the press of the relentless cerebral scientific language that some could not understand. However, Frayn’s play has met with great success over the years, and is ”considered one of the greatest plays ever written about science.” (Charles McMahon). Besides the mystery and well-placed humor in the piece, I suspect that among the reasons COPENHAGEN has been so successful is that it invites audience members to believe – for a couple of hours— that they are smarter than they actually are. I sit safely among my fellow audience members and think, “Yeah, Heisenberg, do the math.”

[St. Stephen’s Theater, 10th and Ludlow streets] January 11– February 18, 2018;

The Lantern helpfully provides basic information in Theoretical Physics: A Primer (Meghan Winch, Dramaturg) in the program, on their website, and on twitter.

Afterword: Playwright Michael Frayn: “Bohr and Heisenberg get a chance they never had in life to revisit and attempt to decipher the meeting that ended their friendship… there is something profoundly characteristic of the difficulties in human relationships… in that picture of the two ageing men…puzzling for all those long years over the few brief moments that had clouded, if not ended their friendship. It is what their shades do in my play, of course. At least in the play they get together to work it out.”

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About the author

Kathryn Osenlund, theater and film junkie, is a former National Critics Institute fellow, NEA fellow in Arts Journalism, and member of the American Theater Critics Assn Steinberg and Osborn playwriting awards committee. A Barrymore Award nominator and professor emeritus in communications and theater, Kathryn also writes for NY-based On twitter @theatrendorphin.