Theater Review: “Copenhagen”—A Dazzling Production Conceals Moral Confusion

Despite the dazzling rewards of this virtuoso Underground Railway Theater production, Copenhagen short circuits its central theme: exploring the moral responsibility of scientists during wartime.

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn. Directed by Eric Tucker. Presented by Underground Railway Theater at Central Square Theater. Cambridge, MA, through November 15.

Steven Barkhimer & Robert Najarian in the production of "Copenhagen." Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

Steven Barkhimer & Robert Najarian in the Underground Railway Theater production of “Copenhagen.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

By Ian Thal

In the closing scenes of Bertolt Brecht’s The Life of Galileo, its protagonist, now elderly and living under house arrest, sums up his failures to a former protégée, Andrea Sarti:

In my time astronomy reached to the street, and in these quite extraordinary circumstances the courage of one man could have changed the world, if I had resisted, if I had said no, then scientists may have had a Hippocratic Oath of their own. They might have promised their gifts to mankind but instead, I have fathered a race of inventive dwarfs who can be hired for anything.

For Brecht, the dwarfs are the metalsmiths and artisans of Germanic myth—which is fitting, given that the playwright, a Marxist, was thinking about science as a form of production that could be used to advance both class struggle and class exploitation. But in later revisions of the script, he is referring to the role that science had played in World War II, both in the American creation of the atomic bomb and, more obliquely, in the Nazis’ use of racist science. Galileo does, after all, warn Andrea to “be careful as you go through Germany.” (Quotations from The Life of Galileo from the David Hare translation.)

The seminal question Brecht raises about the moral responsibility of scientists in wartime is at the center of Michael Frayn’s drama Copenhagen. But, as in Brecht’s play, his script raises and then fudges perplexing issues about the values of those who judge the scientists.

Frayn’s narrative is set in an undefined afterlife, in which Niels (Steve Barkhimer) and Margrethe Bohr (Debra Wise), are joined by Werner Heisenberg (Robert Najarian). Niels Bohr is one of the leading theoretical physicists of the era; he attracted so many talented students around him that Copenhagen became the world capital for cutting-edge research in physics. Heisenberg, before ascending to a university chair at Leipzig, had been among Bohr’s most talented assistants. From their perspective, the Bohrs ponder why Heisenberg visited them in their home during a tense period in 1941. A year earlier, on April 9, 1940, Germany had invaded Denmark. Bohrs, though an atheist, was Halachically Jewish, being born of a Jewish mother (the play refers to him as “half-Jewish” because of his father). He was very much aware of the persecution of Jews elsewhere in German-occupied Europe. Meanwhile, Heisenberg had become head of Germany’s nuclear energy program. Officially, he was in Copenhagen to give a lecture as an expression of Germany’s good will toward the Danish intelligentsia. His unofficial motives have been a matter of controversy among biographers and historians.

Before the war, Bohr had already lectured on the theoretical possibility of creating an atomic bomb—though he doubted it was technically possible to extract enough uranium-235 to manufacture such a weapon (the more common uranium-238 is incapable of being weaponized). After the war, Heisenberg would claim that he came to inform Bohr that his team now believed it was possible to create a critical mass of uranium-235 and that such a possibility placed an enormous moral weight on him and his collaborators. Bohr claimed not to understand the purpose of the visit, but eventually understood that Heisenberg intended to arm Germany with a nuclear weapon. Their friendship would not survive the meeting.

Copenhagen has become one of the most popular ‘science’ plays since its 1998 premiere. (Besides its numerous awards, in 2002 it was adapted for television with Daniel Craig as Heisenberg.) The script has been staged a number of times in the Boston area (this is at least the fifth production in less than a decade). It’s best to let actual physicists judge whether the text offers insight into either the nature of the uncertainty principle or nuclear fission, but the script obviously has plenty of dramatic appeal for both theater artists and audiences. And it does an effective job of showing how science, no matter how abstract, is a social institution: we see how competing theoretical approaches are interwoven into national, institutional, and personal rivalries, how social capital is accumulated within the field, and, of course, what happens when governments wish to exploit practical applications of research.

Previous productions of Copenhagen have used a twinkling lighting construct as a stand-in for a model of the atom—a conceit that has never added much to the proceedings. Director Eric Tucker wisely eschews high-concept distractions for an almost bare stage that contains only three chairs and a piano and piano bench. The welcome focus here is on the language and the actors, not blinking lights.

The cast of Steven Barkhimer, Robert Najarian, and Debra Wise (who are also performing together in Einstein’s Dreams, which is in repertory with Copenhagen ) once again show themselves to be a solid ensemble. Their collective mastery of the script and its nuances underlines the characters’ intimate awareness of the complex relationship between ideas and power, of the political situation of German-occupied Denmark, and of physics. Their arguments, as well as their playful moments, are effortlessly rapid-fire. The dialogue’s impassioned volleys convey the intelligence of the characters, as well as the bitter reverberations of a broken friendship. Their performances are speedy and engaging, a welcome departure from earlier productions that have often been slow and plodding. (This production clocks in 15 minutes shorter than the American Repertory Theater’s 2008 staging.) The text’s emotional and narrative arcs are given further resonance by the live piano accompaniment of Han Nah Son—who often plays excerpts from the classical repertoire referenced in the script. (Heisenberg was an accomplished pianist himself, and Najarian briefly demonstrates his own skills at the keyboard at the beginning of the second act.)

Debra Wise, Steven Barkhimer, Robert Najarian, and Han Nah Son (piano) in the URT production of "Copenhagen." Photo: A.R. Sinclair. Photography.

Debra Wise, Steven Barkhimer, Robert Najarian, and Han Nah Son (piano) in the URT production of “Copenhagen.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair. Photography.

Still, despite the dazzling rewards of this virtuoso Underground Railway Theater production, Copenhagen short circuits its central theme: exploring the moral responsibility of scientists during wartime. Frayn’s attempt to use Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle—which states that a subatomic particle position and momentum cannot be known simultaneously because measuring one alters the other—as a metaphor for the elusiveness of moral judgement (or, on a psychological level, of our inability to understand our motives completely), falls short.

Rather than mine the ambiguities in the historical record for drama, Frayn simplifies (or ignores) the historical record in order to envision Heisenberg as a victim and a moral actor—the result is that the playwright could be seen (unwittingly?) as serving up a subtle form of Nazi-apologetics. Rather than offer up an honest explanation about how a prominent German scientist threw his lot in with Hitler, Frayn paints a portrait of Heisenberg as a good and honorable German who simply wants what’s best for his country—which inevitably means procuring a nuclear weapon for a genocidal regime.

The key to the play’s waffling is Bohr’s escape from Denmark and his subsequent contribution to the Manhattan Project. Unlike most of occupied Europe, Germany at first intervened very little in the internal affairs of Denmark, and because German resources were being allocated to the war effort and genocide in other parts of Europe, they did not prioritize the export of their Final Solution to their “Model Protectorate” until 1943. On September 28, German diplomat Georg Ferdinand Duckwitz, who had come to sympathize with the Danes, leaked to Hans Hedtoft, leader of Denmark’s Social Democrats, Germany’s plans to round up Denmark’s small Jewish community of 7,800 and deport them to the Theresienstadt concentration camp. Hedtoft, in turn, leaked the plans to the Danish resistance, members of the Danish civil service, and leaders in Denmark’s Jewish community. On the evening of October 1, Rosh Hashanah — the Jewish New Year — a fleet of Danish fishing boats and ferries smuggled 7,220 Danish Jews and 686 non-Jewish spouses to safety in neutral Sweden.

Frayn wants us believe that Duckwitz was Heisenberg’s man or “one of them.” But that overlooks the fact that it was Bohr who secretly traveled to Sweden and engaged in negotiations with the Swedish government—including meeting with King Gustav V—to publicly announce that Sweden would give asylum to the Danish Jews. He even made it a condition of his agreement to work on the Allied nuclear program. Why would Frayn withhold this information unless his intention was to misrepresent?

Likewise, Frayn makes great efforts to represent German-victimhood in the voice of Heisenberg, when he describes the situation in June 1942: “…the RAF have begun terror bombing. They’ve obliterated half of Lübeck, and the whole centre of Rostock and Cologne.” No mention is made of the fact that it was the Axis powers—specifically Germany, that initiated “terror bombing.” At the outset of World War II, Britain and France had a stated policy of not bombing residential areas (restricting themselves to industrial targets.) But in 1937, Germany pioneered the tactic of bombing civilians, destroying Guernica during the Spanish Civil War. Japan commenced bombing civilians in Nanjing and Canton later that year. At the start of World War II, Germany was routinely bombing cities in Poland, the Netherlands, France, and, by September 1940, the United Kingdom. The Royal Air Force only changed its policy and begun attacking cities in December 1940. Of the roughly 60 million people killed in World War II, 62% were civilians—but only 4% of that total number—roughly 2.4 million, were Axis civilians.

In short, when Frayn’s Heisenberg taunts that “you were dropping [the bomb] on anyone who was in reach. On old men and women in the street, on mothers and their children,” the dramatist ignores the fact that German and Japanese military strategy had been predicated on dropping bombs on men, women, and children since 1937.

Steven Barkhimer, Debra Wise, Robert Najarian, and Han Nah Son (piano). Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

Steven Barkhimer, Debra Wise, Robert Najarian, and Han Nah Son (piano) in the URT production of “Copenhagen.” Photo: A.R. Sinclair Photography.

Frayn has Heisenberg glare accusingly at the Bohrs, asserting that “you never had the slightest conception of what happens when bombs are dropped on cities. Even conventional bombs. None of you have ever experienced it.” The implication is that he is protesting that many of the scientists working on the Manhattan Project had every hope of finishing their work on time to use it against the Third Reich. Of course, that was just a matter of the chickens coming home to roost. Much of Europe had already experienced that kind of destruction at the hands of the German Luftwaffe.

Finally, Frayn suggests that Heisenberg’s failure to create an atomic weapon signifies a moral victory over Bohr’s minor contribution to the Manhattan Project (The latter is credited with coming up with the triggering mechanism for the Trinity Test and the bomb that was dropped on Nagasaki.) Citizens of democratic societies expect that when waging war their military and civilian leaders will do so in a humane manner that minimizes noncombatant casualties. Ultimately, those in charge understand that they will be judged for their actions—at the very least by historians. But Germany (which was pursuing nuclear weapons) and Japan (which was using chemical and biological weapons) were expansionist empires driven by racist ideologies. They were not hesitant about killing civilians by the millions.

So the play is at its clumsiest when it needs to be at its most ethically nuanced; Frayn flounders at patiently differentiating between the moral gray areas of democratic societies at war and the utter immorality of the Axis powers. The impressive artistry of the Underground Railway Theater production has a number of strengths—but they can’t distract from the black hole at the center of Copenhagen.

Ian Thal is a playwright, performer, and theater educator specializing in mime, commedia dell’arte, and puppetry, and has been known to act on Boston area stages from time to time, sometimes with Teatro delle Maschere. He has performed his one-man show, Arlecchino Am Ravenous, in numerous venues in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. One of his as-of-yet unproduced full-length plays was picketed by a Hamas supporter during a staged reading. He is looking for a home for his latest play, The Conversos of Venice, which is a thematic deconstruction of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. Formerly the community editor at The Jewish Advocate, he blogs irregularly at the unimaginatively entitled The Journals of Ian Thal, and writes the “Nothing But Trouble” column for The Clyde Fitch Report.

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