Review: Copenhagen, Michael Frayn

Ah plays. I bought Copenhagen in 2009 at the glorious glorious book sale in my hometown (oh my God that book sale, I dream about it sometimes) because it was fifty cents or something and I like plays, and then I chronically didn’t read it for a year and a half, and then I moved to New York and left it behind because I didn’t love it because I hadn’t read it, and then in January when I was at the library getting plays I was all, Dammit, I need to read this damn play. So I checked it out from the library and read it.

Believe me, I am well aware of how dumb this whole saga is. In March 2009 I had a job that paid me well and an empty bookshelf, and those are circumstances that make a girl spendthrift at a book sale. I was much more strategic about my acquisitions in 2010 when I was poorer. When I look at the picture from 2009 I’m like, Eh, I didn’t need a lot of those, but when I look at the 2010 picture I’m like, Wow, I’ve only had these very necessary books since then? I am actually considering flying home next year for this book sale. Oh God that would be amazing.

Anyway, Copenhagen is a play about the time that German physicist Heisenberg, of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which I think means you can’t measure two things really accurately at the same time, went to visit the Danish physicist Niels Bohr in Nazi-occupied Copenhagen. While there, he asked Bohr some questions about the ethics of atomic weaponry. Why he came and why he asked have — evidently! I didn’t know about it! — been the subjects of much debate, and Copenhagen circles around and around the meeting and what might have happened and what it all might have meant.

What I liked: The circling back around the same event, suggesting new ideas of what might have happened, new interpretations of what might have been said, and what might have been meant. We hear what Heisenberg remembers, what Bohr remembers, what Bohr’s wife Margrethe remembers, and what they all think it meant. I love, I adore, I cherish books that make me go back to events we covered earlier and say, Maybe it didn’t go that way, maybe it went this way. Maybe he didn’t mean that, maybe he meant this. That’s what actual real life is like, and I love seeing it reflected in fiction.

I also liked that the play is channeled through the memories of just three characters: Heisenberg, Bohr, and Bohr’s wife. They create a nice balance: Margrethe on the attack, Heisenberg on the defensive, and Bohr trying to find the middle ground that takes into account the personal (his past relationship with Heisenberg) as well as the political (Heisenberg belongs to the country that is occupying Bohr’s country). The characters represent three balancing perspectives without coming off as one-note, and all of their viewpoints were emotionally resonant.

What I did not like: Copenhagen feels very written, particularly at the beginning. Part of this is just the problem that a play is a play and not a book (cf., the last line in the movie Doubt, which I’m sure was a fine curtain-drop-preceder but felt like a strange way to end a film). As the play went on, the direct-to-audience communication worked better and felt less awkward. At the start, though, it was off-putting, and indeed it nearly put me off altogether. It was a massive infodump. It was Diana Rigg announcing haughtily, “It’s plot exposition. It has to go somewhere.”

Anyway, overall good! I would go see it in a theater if it were relatively cheap. I still haven’t decided whether I’m going to keep my copy of the play. I’ll have to revisit it at Christmas and see if it’s worth hanging onto.