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Copenhagen Paperback – August 8, 2000
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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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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.
I have a serious criticism of the *publication* of this play though: in order to keep it more streamlined (I imagine), they omitted the stage notes for the characters. This is a shame, and makes the reading of it all the more complicated for those who haven't seen the play in person. Having seen it on Broadway, one of the most striking things was the physicality of how this "talky" play was handled. The stage was set in the round, with a small percentage of audience members overlooking the stage as if at a lecture or a medical examination. The stage was completely circular, and the cast members would often take off in spirals, their bodies acting as electrons around the nucleus (most often Margrethe). They would interact, split off in other directions, speed up their rotations. It was a fascinating reenactment of molecular activity, and the dramaturge or editor who approved this edition should be taken to task for this decision. But don't let this dissuade you from picking up "Copenhagen": it's absolute thought-provoking perfection in every other way.
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....)