The play, Copenhagen, revolves around Werner Heisenberg and Neils Bohr, two contemporary physicists. Copenhagen focuses on the meetings between these two physicists, and in the first meeting, Heisenberg and Bohr discuss World War II and the atomic bomb project. They talk about how Heisenberg was never really able to discover how to create the atomic bomb and the potential reasoning behind it. The next meeting between these physicists in the play occurs after their deaths when they along with Margrethe Bohr, Neils Bohr’s wife, and the three of these characters discuss the reasoning behind Heisenberg’s travels to Copenhagen.
The writer of this play was Michael Frayn, who ultimately attempts to analyze the epistemological, ontological, and ethical issues that are part of the lives of physicists and scientists in general during Hitler’s Germany. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that is concerned with “knowledge” whereas ontology is the philosophical study of “being.” In order to understand and analyze the potential conversation between Heisenberg and Bohr in 1941, Frayn introduces three possible scenarios. The first scenario involves Heisenberg and his point of view on the situation as well as the field of epistemology. In his point of view, Heisenberg claims that he was working against the intentions of the atomic project. The second scenario presents the general public opinion during the time by involving Margrethe Bohr. This scenario actually goes directly against Heisenberg’s claim, and talks about how Heisenberg was simply incapable of ultimately creating the atomic bomb. The third and final scenario introduces the field of ontology as well as Frayn’s philosophical interests (Frayn, 1999).
Criticism for Michael Frayn and his play, Copenhagen, mainly comes from Karen Barad, the author of “Meeting the Universe Halfway.” In this, Barad talks about how Frayn ultimately goes back and forth between epistemology and ontology, and she criticizes how he’s unable to focus on one field at a time. Because epistemology involves knowledge and ontology involves the state of being, there is a clear confusion in the play. Frayn is simply unable to focus on the effects of each at a time. Additionally, Barad condemns how Frayn falsifies history in the play by disregarding factual information and creating a sense of bias. For example, Barad says, “He admits only one inaccuracy: that he portrays Bohr as having forgiven Heisenberg too readily” (Barad, 2006). This means that Frayn might have been too ignorant and dismissive about his own mishaps and inaccuracies by glossing over actual history and factual knowledge. Barad also suggests that Frayn’s own biases helped to take the scrutiny away from Heisenberg. For example, Frayn argues that people simply cannot assume what Heisenberg’s intentions were regarding the atomic bomb project and that it would be unfair to judge him because of a lack of proof.
Barad, K. (2006). Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Duke University Press.
Frayn, M. (1999). Copenhagen. Anchor Books