Explosive drama
Michael Fox Kennedy portrays Danish physicist Niels Bohr, one of the key figures in the development of the atomic bomb.

Explosive drama

Michael Frayn's ‘Copenhagen,’ about the creation of the atomic bomb, opens at ATP

Based on an historical event that occurred in 1941 in Denmark, Michael Frayn's “Copenhagen” keenly explores moral responsibility and patriotism when two fellow physicists, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, who once worked in collaboration, are now placed on opposite sides of World War II.

“Copenhagen” opens at Actors Theatre Playhouse in West Chesterfield, N.H., on Aug. 28, for a four-week run. This award-winning drama explores what may have happened at a meeting between Bohr and Heisenberg in the German-occupied city during World War II, an event that is still clouded in mystery and which historians are debating to this day.

In Frayn's reimagining of history, the spirits of Heisenberg, Bohr and Bohr's wife, Margrethe, meet after their deaths to attempt to answer the question that Margrethe poses in the first line of the play, “Why did he [Heisenberg] come to Copenhagen?” They spend the remainder of the two-act drama presenting, debating and rejecting theories that may answer that question.

Frayn's play vividly dramatizes for contemporary audiences what might have been said said at that meeting in Copenhagen. Was Heisenberg trying to develop an atomic bomb for Hitler or was he trying to prevent its development? Did he want Bohr to use his influence to stop the American bomb program?

“Copenhagen” won the Evening Standard Award of London Award for Best Play of the Year in 1998, New York Drama Desk Award for Best New Play, New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play and the Tony Award for Best Play, all in 2000, and France's Prix Molière.

The Actors Theatre Playhouse production of “Copenhagen” stars Gregory Lesch as the German physicist Werner Heisenberg, Michael Fox Kennedy as Danish physicist Niels Bohr, and Christopher Emily Coutant as his wife, Margrethe Bohr, and is directed by Burt Tepfer.

Tepfer confesses that he became '“obsessed” with the play and the historical incidents it explores after he saw Copenhagen on Broadway, and his interest was was further piqued when he saw it again at the Weston Playhouse.

He brought the idea of doing it in Southern Vermont to Sam Pilo, the artistic director of Actors Theatre Playhouse, who became enthused about the prospect. When Tepfer spoke to Michael Kennedy about joining him in this venture, Kennedy confessed that he too was considering putting on this play.

Tepfer believes that the Frayn's drama requires three top actors, and luckily he has them with Kennedy, Coutant, and Lesch.

“All the actors say this play is very difficult for them,” Tepfer says. “First of all, since Copenhagen is only a three-person play, each part is very large. Then there are so many names, dates and places each actor has to remember. Furthermore, rather than a traditional drama, the play is free form, and it does not have much of a plot in the traditional sense. Often characters speak in internal monologues. Overall, the play is not dialogue driven, which means that that there is often minimal interaction between characters. All of this increases the difficulty of our actors in getting down their parts.”

Tepfer and his cast have spent the past nine months preparing for this production.

“There's a lot to grab onto in this play,” Tepfer says. “We found ourselves absorbed by the drama, and so we began reading historical accounts, biographies and social analysis. The more we could understand the historical background of this drama, the better prepared we were.”

Both Nobel prize winners, Niels Bohr and Heisenberg were two of the most eminent physicists in the world. A half-Jew living in Nazi occupied Denmark in 1941, Bohr is often considered the father of modern physics, Harry Lustig notes that “Most of the world's great theoretical physicists... spent periods of their lives at Bohr's Institute.” Bohr would later work on the American nuclear program at Los Alamos.

Heisenberg was one of Bohr's former protegees. While not himself a Nazi, Heisenberg considered himself a loyal German and he headed Germany's nuclear reactor program.

Tepfer writes in a press release, “Could the atomic bomb have been avoided? Frayn's play vividly dramatizes that controversy for contemporary audiences. What was said at that meeting? Was Heisenberg trying to develop an atomic bomb for Hitler? Or was he trying to prevent its development? Did he want Bohr to use his influence to stop the American bomb program? Did he hope that would give Germany time to win the war with conventional weapons.”

Tepfer finds the play compelling on many levels. “It is about the passion of both friendship and physics,” says Tepfer. “Bohr and Heisenberg were once very close. They had a father/son sort of relationship, and Heisenberg even lived with the Bohrs and their children for a while. The two men worked intimately together in the 1920s when the ideas of modern physics were exploding.”

Consequentially, Tepfer feels that what happened in Copenhagen is more than a historical drama; it is also a personal one too. “After this meeting, Bohr and Heisenberg never saw each other again,” he says.

The friendship had gone bad.

“The two men's accounts of what happened in Copenhagen are very different. After the war, Heisenberg wrote that he went to Copenhagen trying to stop the development of the nuclear bomb. Bohr saw things differently. Bohr was very upset by the meeting. He composed seven different drafts of letters to Heisenberg telling him how he felt, and he never sent any. The Bohr Archives have only recently released these, after Frayn's play had been written.”

Kennedy who portrays Bohr says in an Actors Theatre press release, “The outcome of the war may have been at stake at that meeting in 1941. And even more so today! The fate of the world may hinge on some of the issues raised by Michael Frayn in this play. Have we forgotten the tens of thousands of nuclear weapons in our arsenals, enough to destroy the world many times over? What is our moral responsibility as citizens? What is the responsibility of scientists whose discoveries may lead to unintended consequences dangerous for life on earth?”

Tepfer does not want to give the impression of “Copenhagen” as a boring analysis of nuclear physics.

“Bohr's wife is in the play as a listener, an everyman, so that everything must be said in a way that a non-scientist might understand,” he says. “She also functions as a sort of Greek chorus, commenting on the action between the two men. In result, the play is not full of dreary scientific jargon that might put an audience to sleep. Rather it is a very emotional drama about, among other things, the loss of friendship.”

Tepfer says that another theme of “Copenhagen” is how people make decisions.

“What guides them?” he asks. “Sometimes, the reasons for a decision are unknown. Decisions must be made so fast you have no time to think about it. Other times you meditate on the choice for very long time. Sometimes historical events force how decisions must be made. People in various stages of life find themselves believing things quite differently from what they might 20 years earlier.

“All these aspects of decisions are teased out in 'Copenhagen.'”

Like himself and his cast, Tepfer believes audiences will be enthralled and challenged by this intellectual journey.

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