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Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen”: Giving high school existentialism a bad name

We saw Michael Frayn’s Tony-award-winning play, “Copenhagen,” last night. Disappointing.

It’s about the mysterious meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg in 1941 in Newark, NJ. (Nope. In Copenhagen. Just kidding. Haha.) The play goes over various “drafts” of the meeting, trying out possible explanations of why Heisenberg, a loyal German (or is he??), would seek out his former mentor, a half-Jewish Dane living in Nazi-occupied Denmark. Heisenberg was the head of the German effort to create an atomic bomb (or was he??), and Bohr snuck out of Denmark and joined the Manhattan project (or did he?? … well, yes, he did). The play has some crackling good scenes as the two men fill us in on Heisenberg’s role in the Nazi effort. (Bohr’s wife is the third person in the play, but she’s just annoying, given to saying to the audience things like ‘And then: Silence.’ Embarrassing.) But it’s over-written and, worse, depends upon a stupid pun: Y’see, Heisenberg is famous for his Uncertainty Principle, and all of human understanding is also uncertain, so since both use the word “uncertainty,” they’ve got to be the same thing, right? So, let’s make a play about it.


Say, I have an idea! Let’s write a play called “Croton” about Pythagoras. It will draw a dramatic parallel (so to speak) between Pythagoras’ theorom about right angles and his own uprightness. “It is all a matter of finding and living the right angle,” he will say. “After all, aren’t we all a hypoteneuse?”

Or we could do one called “Strasbourg” about Louis Pasteur’s family life, because just as is his work confirmed germ theory — small bodies pass from one to another, changing everyone they touch — his wife and he pass their children back and forth, each time changed by that gentle touch. Also, he had an infectious laugh and a contagious enthusiasm.

Or how’d you like to invest in this sure-fire winner: “Naugatuck.” It tells the story of Charles Goodyear, who discovered vulcanized rubber quite accidentally — or was it on purpose? — and who lived a “vulcanized” life because, well, um, you see, things happen sorta accidentally – or on purpose? – especially when we bump into fiery emotions that transform us into more rigid and yet more durable beings. Yeah, that’s it!

And then: Silence.

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9 Responses to “Michael Frayn’s “Copenhagen”: Giving high school existentialism a bad name”

  1. Oh, I shouldn’t, I shouldn’t, this sort of thing gets me in trouble, but the temptation is too great …

    What about a whole business-guru marketing schtick about how selling is an interaction, and so is people talking to one another, thus they’re kind of the same, so Markets Are Conversations?

  2. Also, don’t forget that Einstein proved that “everything is relative”, so we now have no basis for making universal moral or aesthetic judgments. (I hope the playwright remembered to include this point as well.) If you also add in the amount of pseudo-scientific fluff that’s been written on wave-particle duality, the EPR paradox and quantum entanglement, and so on, you’ve got a whole Jeopardy category: “I’ll take popular misreadings of modern physics for $20, Alex.”

  3. I saw this at the AmRep a couple of weeks ago and felt the same way. It felt hokey. It promises a ‘high concept’- Bohr and Heisenberg met at an intriguing time in their careers (and world politics)- but doesn’t take it too far.

    @SethF- nice.

  4. Nevertheless, the point is that for those who opened Pandora’s box it is at least possible that they took pains to ensure the adverse risks of its inevitable opening were minimised.

    This play demonstrates the plausibility of that possibility.

    Despite appearances, scientists are not necessarily entirely divorced from humanity.

    But then, only the arrogant can be certain.

    Am I arrogant?

  5. Crosbie, those themes in the play are important, but I thought the play overwhelmed them with its own cleverness.

    Seth, we meant markets are literally conversations. People talking with other people. We are guilty of extending that metaphor, but we are not guilty of not _also_ meaning it literally. (Calling selling interactive is exactly the reduction we were arguing _against_.)

  6. Such ‘overwhelming cleverness’ smacks of a lack of confidence in maintaining the audience’s interest in the material. Something you eventually learn to ignore in this age of dumbed-down science/entertainment.

    Be thankful people weren’t dressed as animals or prone to song. Adverts and placed products are also thankfully absent

    Like cream on ice cream. It makes a dessert appeal to a wider audience, whilst mildly irritating a few connoisseurs who feel the ice cream is better enjoyed undistracted.

  7. No,no,no, David… The appropriate play for Pasteur would be a 1950’s Western radio serial.

    “‘Frontiers of Medicine’! With Louis ‘Frenchy’ Pasteur! And his sidekick, Émile ‘Rabid’ Roux!”

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  9. Nice post, Mr. Know-It-All,

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