The Uncertainty Principle

"Copenhagen" Director Stephen Huff Talks About Michael Frayn's Atomic Drama


Jason M. Spitzer, Gregory Alexander and  Mary Buchignani portray real life characters in the afterlife at the center of a debate concerning memory, science and morality in Copenhagen,  February 13 - March 1, 2015, in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis. - PHOTO BY SKIP HOOPER
  • Photo by Skip Hooper
  • Jason M. Spitzer, Gregory Alexander and Mary Buchignani portray real life characters in the afterlife at the center of a debate concerning memory, science and morality in Copenhagen, February 13 - March 1, 2015, in the Next Stage at Theatre Memphis.

Every theater is a laboratory, every play an experiment — a methodical attempt to create new worlds built in and of imaginary space. Michael Frayn’s ambitious, math-centric drama Copenhagen, currently running on Theatre Memphis’ Next Stage, is just a little more overt than most. The play’s formal conceit: turn traditional dramatic structures into a series of scientific proofs, each of which has been designed to quantify the mechanical aspects of a private meeting between Niels Bohr, the Jewish father of quantum mechanics, and Werner Heisenberg, Bohr’s former pupil and the chief scientist in charge of creating Adolf Hitler’s atomic-weapons program. It’s a heady story told by ghosts in an otherworldly setting. 

The Bohr family and Heisenberg in a theatrical setting.
  • The Bohr family and Heisenberg in a theatrical setting.

Intermission Impossible:
I like that this is opening in the same season as The Physicists at the University of Memphis. Science and ethics are a major theme in post WWII art and literature, for obvious reasons. I suppose that's less of a question than a jumping off point for any historical context you might want to bring.

Stephen Huff: I was very excited about this coincidence, too, and I really enjoyed the excellent production of Dürrenmatt’s play that Bob Hetherington put together with Sarah Brown and the students. Now if only someone had produced Kipphardt’s In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer in Memphis this season, we’d have had a trifecta! I think it is one of the jobs of the theatre, like any other art form, to serve as a means of asking and discussing the big questions about human existence, and the conflicts between science and ethics have certainly brought up some huge questions, especially in the post-WWII era. Whether it’s Brecht’s Life of Galileo, Churchill’s A Number, or Dürrenmatt, Kipphardt, and Frayn, playwrights and other theatre artists have been juxtaposing scientific gains and human losses with regularity over the last seventy years. I found it especially interesting to note in Dürrenmatt’s “21 Points to The Physicists,” which were included in the program notes for the University of Memphis production, that several of these might be directly applied to Copenhagen:

14. A drama about physicists must be paradoxical.
15. It cannot have as its goal the content of physics, but its effect.
16. The content of physics is the concern of physicists, its effect the concern of all men.
17. What concerns everyone can only be resolved by everyone.
18. Each attempt of an individual to resolve for himself what is the concern of everyone is doomed to fail.

Intermission Impossible:The play's structure is unusual. The playwright playing with the idea of uncertainty. What challenges do these formal conceits present for the various artists involved.

Stephen Huff: Copenhagen is, in essence, a thought experiment, not unlike the ones mentioned in the play, such as Schrödinger’s cat or the particle that moves through two slits at the same time. The three characters work their way through three “drafts of the paper,” editing and re-editing until they come to a fuller explanation of what might have happened during that fateful meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr in 1941. As a thought experiment, the play is set in theoretical time and space. In other words, time and space are fluid and shift into many different modes. For most of the duration of the play, the characters exist in a time and space beyond their earthly being—or an afterlife, if you want to call it that. They argue about what happened in the past and re-live events and emotions in the present of that nebulous existence. But for a good portion of Act One, they re-enact a possible version of the moments surrounding the encounter, conscious only of those real-time moments in the past, except for when either Heisenberg or Margrethe breaks the fourth wall to speak to the audience about what is happening in the scene. Then in the final draft, all three of them simultaneously re-enact the encounter and comment upon its meaning, observing and specifying as they move through the events. The final edit of this third and final draft produces a conclusion, voiced by Margrethe, that seems to satisfy—at least for the time being—the query that she had set in motion at the very beginning of the play. (However, I tend to think of the play as circular; it could start right back at the beginning from where it leaves off.) Anyway, these are the three primary modes that characterize the three “drafts,” but there are other shifts as well, including three dream-like moments where the characters are awash in memory, speaking together but each lost in his or her own thoughts at the same time. So yes, it is a very unusual structure, and it does present challenges to all of the artists involved in a production. The actors have to be aware of the shifting modes and where (or when) they are at any given moment. And the director and designers have to stage the play in such a way that helps to clarify and move the story along, rather than to obscure. I certainly hope we’ve done that in this production. I’ve set the play in the round, which I think does a couple of things: symbolically, it underscores the orbital nature of the atom, which is of course the subject of much of the dialogue. And in a practical sense, it reinforces the inherent theatricality of the play. The forum-like arrangement of the space seems to me to be a natural fit for the re-enactments, the commentary to the audience, and the questioning and discussion in the play. It doesn’t let anyone forget that we are all—audience and actors alike—sharing time and space together in the theatre. And I feel very honored to be in the company of a really wonderful team of artists who have done some beautiful work in an effort to tell this complex and moving story.

Intermission Impossible:Nothing about Copenhagen is dumbed down. There's a lot of science talk integrated into the play. How much did that effect the process? Was there a lot more homework required?

Stephen Huff: Luckily for us, we’re almost two decades out from the first production of this play, and because of its tremendous impact there is a lot of information out there that is geared specifically toward understanding it. I mean, we are none of us nuclear physicists here—although I will say that all three of the actors are very smart people. But, for instance, MIT has a website that provides summaries of the physics discussed in the play, glossaries of people and places mentioned, and links to lots of other sources of information. Other theatres, such as the Timeline Theatre in Chicago, have published study guides for students as well as general audiences, and those are great resources as well. We all did a fair amount of research on our own in order to understand what we were dealing with in terms of the material, and we spent a good deal of time at the table during the beginning stages of rehearsal discussing and helping each other out with the interpretation of it.

Intermission Impossible: The play's impact is almost more interesting to me than the play. It caused a lot of academics to go back and try to nail down the particulars of this meeting. How has that post Copenhagen research changed how we might experience Copenhagen, if at all?

Stephen Huff: Yes, the discussion sparked by the play in the scientific community and elsewhere was as voluminous as to lead to the publication of at least one book of essays reacting to it, along with many other articles. The published version of the play includes Frayn’s own foray into these arguments in the form of a postscript and a post-postscript that together constitute much more of the volume than the play itself. The renewed interest in the controversy over the encounter between Bohr and Heisenberg incited by the play even compelled the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen to release sealed documents ten years ahead of schedule. Some of the criticisms and evidence offered in these arguments and documents seem to cast doubt on some of the details in the play, and Frayn answers to these in his postscripts. While delving into the plethora of written material provoked by Copenhagen might provide an audience member with a richer experience, the play, in and of itself, remains an intriguing and poignant theatrical exploration of the uncertainty of intentions.

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