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Copenhagen Paperback – August 8, 2000

4.4 out of 5 stars 66 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

For most people, the principles of nuclear physics are not only incomprehensible but inhuman. The popular image of the men who made the bomb is of dispassionate intellects who number-crunched their way towards a weapon whose devastating power they could not even imagine. But in his Tony Award-winning play Copenhagen, Michael Frayn shows us that these men were passionate, philosophical, and all too human, even though one of the three historical figures in his drama, Werner Heisenberg, was the head of the Nazis' effort to develop a nuclear weapon. The play's other two characters, the Danish physicist Niels Bohr and his wife, Margrethe, are involved with Heisenberg in an after-death analysis of an actual meeting that has long puzzled historians. In 1941, the German scientist visited Bohr, his old mentor and long-time friend, in Copenhagen. After a brief discussion in the Bohrs' home, the two men went for a short walk. What they discussed on that walk, and its implications for both scientists, have long been a mystery, even though both scientists gave (conflicting) accounts in later years.

Frayn's cunning conceit is to use the scientific underpinnings of atomic physics, from Schrödinger's famous cat to the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, to explore how an individual's point of view renders attempts to discover the ultimate truth of any human interaction fundamentally impossible. To Margrethe, Heisenberg was always an untrustworthy student, eager to steal from her husband's knowledge. To Bohr, Heisenberg was a brilliant if irresponsible foster son, whose lack of moral compass was part of his genius. As for Heisenberg, the man who could have built the bomb but somehow failed to, his dilemma is at the heart of the play's conflict. Frayn's clever dramatic structure, which returns repeatedly to particular scenes from different points of view, allows several possible theories as to what his motives could have been. This isn't the first play to successfully merge the worlds of science and theater (one is inevitably reminded of Tom Stoppard's Arcadia and Hapgood), but it's certainly one of the most dramatically successful. --John Longenbaugh --This text refers to an alternate Paperback edition.


“Endlessly fascinating…. The most invigorating and ingenious play of ideas in many a year…. An electrifying work of art.”–Ben Brantley, The New York Times

“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

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 144 pages
  • Publisher: Anchor (August 8, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0385720793
  • ISBN-13: 978-0385720793
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.4 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 7 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (66 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #41,332 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Who would think that a play about two theoretical physicists, Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr would pack such dramatic interest for people with little background in nuclear physics? Yet Michael Frayn's Copenhagen provides both the human drama of the scientists involved in the nuclear weapons race between Nazi Germany and the Allied Forces ,and the ironic parallels between the Principle of Uncertainty in physics developed by these scientists and the unpredictability of outcomes involving human variables in their own lives. My rather "dry " summary of the content of this play, however, does not begin to convey the drama, irony and humour in the play . Three characters, Heisenberg, Bohr and his wife Margrethe met once again after their death to try to understand Heisenberg's "real " reason for his strange visit to Bohr in 1941 in occupied Copenhagen while Heisenberg was heading the German nuclear reactor program. Through the recollection of each from their points of view about the events of the past, the play reveals the personal and professional relationship between the two scientists and others in the elite scientifc community. The dialog is fast moving, sparkles with humor and dazzling description of the mind games of the brilliant and ideosycratic group of scientists. But in these exchanges between the characters, one understands how important and potentially deadly these "games" and the players can be for humanity. With the three perspectives of the same events provided by the three characters, the play reveals mulitple motives and meanings that conclude in the abrupt termination of the meeting between Heisenberg and Bohr in 1941 that might have been the reason that the Nazis failed to develop an atom bomb before the Allied Forces!Read more ›
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Format: Paperback
The basic story of Copenhagen--and the playwright's leap of imagination to create the conversation of the 3 principles--deserves any accolades that can be awarded: what if, within one fateful day, the leading scientist for the German nuclear development team had received the insight he needed to arm the Nazis? The ramifications are so huge, so mind-boggling, that it's all the more important that Frayn chose to shrink the scale of his dialogue, and make this play as much about the dynamics of how humans understand each other as how we, as a race, could possibly comprehend the worldwide impact of nuclear arms. This is play about the moral ramifications of decisions made within the supposedly "ethnical no-man's-land" of scientific discovery.

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.
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Format: Paperback
Just saw Copenhagen on Broadway. I found it one of the most interesting evenings I have ever spent at the theater. Three people on the stage for 2.5 hours, discussing physics and personal issues sounds hard to take. Nevertheless, the experience was exhilarating, much like a Stoppard drama.
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....)
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Format: Paperback
This book contains the text of Michael Frayn's Tony Award-winning play (94 pages), a fascinating 38-page Postscript, and a two-page word sketch of the scientific and historical background to the play.
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.
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