Copenhagen (Anglais) Broché – 8 août 2000
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Revue de presse
“Superbly dramatized…. [Frayn] has an elegant, almost algebraic way with the structure of a play…. Copenhagen offers a particular kind of brain-teasing pleasure.”–John Lahr, The New Yorker
“Scintillating…. A dazzling fugue.”–San Francisco Examiner
Présentation de l'éditeur
In 1941 the German physicist Werner Heisenberg made a clandestine trip to Copenhagen to see his Danish counterpart and friend Niels Bohr. Their work together on quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle had revolutionized atomic physics. But now the world had changed and the two men were on opposite sides in a world war. Why Heisenberg went to Copenhagen and what he wanted to say to Bohr are questions that have vexed historians ever since. In Michael Frayn’s ambitious, fiercely intelligent, and daring new play Heisenberg and Bohr meet once again to discuss the intricacies of physics and to ponder the metaphysical—the very essence of human motivation.
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Après leur vie sur Terre, Niels Bohr, sa femme et son ancien disciple Werner Heisenber s'interrogent sur les raisons qui poussèrent celui-ci à visiter Bohr à Copenhague en pleine Seconde Guerre Mondiale. Ainsi, le lecteur revit les débats autour de la bombe plongé dans la compréhensible angoisse des personnages, tout en explorant les aspects scientifiques de l'histoire à travers des intéressantes interprétations du principe de l'incertitude d'Heisenberg ou de l'équation de Schrödinger.
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Other reviewers have talked about the life history of the scientists, so I'll just sketch out more details about the piece itself. First of all, what an important and revelatory decision Frayn made in including the character of Margrethe, Bohr's wife. In his play, she is the intellectual equal of the physicists, wryly commenting about how many versions of each position paper she spent time typing. Her character makes this play unlike so many science-based dramas before it, because she is a woman and an outsider. Her humor, her humanity and her anger towards Heisenberg's for his involvement with the Nazis...all these issues keep the play grounded in real life, make it palpable to modern audiences not necessarily schooled in the fundamentals of atomic theory. It also insures that the play isn't just the typical strutting, cocksure junk that movies like "Dr Strangelove" aptly mock.
I have a serious criticism of the *publication* of this play though: in order to keep it more streamlined (I imagine), they omitted the stage notes for the characters. This is a shame, and makes the reading of it all the more complicated for those who haven't seen the play in person. Having seen it on Broadway, one of the most striking things was the physicality of how this "talky" play was handled. The stage was set in the round, with a small percentage of audience members overlooking the stage as if at a lecture or a medical examination. The stage was completely circular, and the cast members would often take off in spirals, their bodies acting as electrons around the nucleus (most often Margrethe). They would interact, split off in other directions, speed up their rotations. It was a fascinating reenactment of molecular activity, and the dramaturge or editor who approved this edition should be taken to task for this decision. But don't let this dissuade you from picking up "Copenhagen": it's absolute thought-provoking perfection in every other way.
HOWEVER, the discussion can be difficult to follow at times, not just because of the science, of course, but also because the author covers a lot of the politics of 1920s physics and 1930s Europolitics. After a couple of hours. I wished that I had read the play before seeing it. I recommend that you consider doing the same. (Don't worry: You won't lose any of the "plot" line by reading ahead. In fact, a readahead may make the interchanges seems richer....)
The play itself is brilliant (see my review of the PBS production directed by Howard Davies, starring Stephen Rea, Daniel Craig, and Francesca Annis available on DVD) and is the kind of play that can be fully appreciated simply by reading it. There are no stage directions, no mention of props or stage business. There is simply Frayn's extraordinary dialogue. A photo from the cover suggests how the play might be staged on a round table with the three characters, Danish physicist Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and German physicist Werner Heisenberg, going slowly round and round as in an atom. This symbolism is intrinsic to the ideas of the play with Bohr seen as the stolid proton at the center and the younger Heisenberg the flighty electron that "circles." Margrethe who brings both common sense and objectivity to the interactions between the ever circling physicists, might be thought of as a neutron, or perhaps she is the photon that illuminates (and deflects ever so slightly) what it touches.
At the center of the play (and at the center of our understanding of the world through quantum mechanics) is a fundamental uncertainty. While Heisenberg and Bohr demonstrated to the world through the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics that there will always be something we cannot in principle know regardless of how fine our measurements, Frayn's play suggests that there will always be some uncertainty about what went on between the two great architects of QM during Heisenberg's celebrated and fateful visit to the Bohr household in occupied Denmark in 1941. There is uncertainty at the heart of not only our historical tools but at the very heart of human memory (as Frayn explains in the Postscript).
"The great challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people's heads... Even when all the external evidence has been mastered, the only way into the protagonists' heads is through the imagination. This indeed is the substance of the play." (p. 97)
The three characters appear as ghosts of their former selves, as it were, and begin immediately an attempt to unravel and understand what happened in 1941. The central question is Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen? Was it an attempt to enlist Bohr in a German atomic bomb project? Was it to get information from Bohr about an Allied project or to pick his brain for ideas on how to make fission work? Or was it, as Margrethe avers, to "show himself off"--the little boy grown up, the man who was once part of a defeated country, now triumphant?
The play leaves it for us to find an answer, because neither history nor the recorded words of the participants give us anything close to certainty. With the conflicting statements of the characters Frayn implies that the truth may be a matter of one's point of view, that is, it may be a question of relativity. Ultimately it may even be that Heisenberg himself did not know why he came to Copenhagen.
Also being asked by Frayn's play is a moral question. Is it right for scientists to build weapons of mass destruction to be used on civilian targets? Heisenberg contends that this is the question he wanted to ask of Bohr. It is ironic that although Heisenberg was condemned by physicists around the world for his (presumed) unsuccessful attempt to build a fission bomb for Hitler, his work killed no one, while the universally beloved and admired Bohr had a hand in the Manhattan project that resulted in the bombs that were dropped on the Japanese cities.
As the electron is seen and then not seen, its speed measured and then not measured, but never both at the same time, so it is with Heisenberg's character in life and in this play. We are never sure where he is. Is he working for the Nazis or is he only pretending to? Is he working on a reactor or is he working on a bomb? Did he delay the German project intentionally (as he claimed), or was the failure due to incompetence, or even--as Frayn suggests--to an unconscious quirk of Heisenberg's mind?
In the Postscript Frayn recalls the historical evidence he used in constructing the play and cites his sources and gives us insights into what Bohr and Heisenberg were like. He quotes Max Born, describing Heisenberg as having an "unbelievable quickness and precision of understanding," while "the most characteristic property" of Bohr, as described by George Gamow, "was the slowness of his thinking and comprehension." One can see where Frayn got his metaphor of the atom with its heavy nucleus and its speedy electron. But Bohr was also thoughtful and thorough while Heisenberg was "careless with numbers." And of course these are relative terms since both men were Nobel Prize-winning physicists, brilliant men who reached the very pinnacle of their profession.
Bottom line: one the great plays of our time on an epochal subject, fascinating and cathartic as all great plays should be.