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Michael Frayn's Copenhagen Essay

2245 words - 9 pages

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen

“Our children and our children’s children. Preserved, just possibly, by that one short moment in Copenhagen. By some event that will never quite be located or defined. By that final core of uncertainty at the heart of things.” (Frayn 94)

The final line of Michael Frayn's Copenhagen suggests an approach to reading the entire work that looks at the inseparable scientific and dramatic elements of the play. Heisenberg says that no one will ever fully understand the meeting in Copenhagen between himself and Bohr in 1941; Uncertainty forever preserves the moment. Therefore, it is Uncertainty that must guide the reading of the play. Understanding the basic principle of Uncertainty is necessary in understanding how Frayn uses it dramatically. Uncertainty states that when describing the state of an atomic particle, the more accurately you describe its position, the less accurately you can describe its velocity and vice versa (134). This means any observation of a particle will never fully describe it and that a certain amount of mystery will always exist. Demonstrating how Frayn uses scientific principles to construct his play, and then more closely how he uses Uncertainty to construct Heisenberg, demands a careful analysis of how the play functions, how Uncertainty connects to the drama (primarily through Heisenberg) and how this ultimately allows us to explore the moral implications of Copenhagen.

Frayn makes the connection between the drama and science in two ways. The primary method he uses is language. Characters’ observations about one another are integral in illustrating the properties of Complimentarity and Relativism. Complimentarity works in the play by saying an observer can observe all other points except the self. Relativism states that time also effects observations. Therefore the observations the characters make are often blind to one or more facts that they cannot see because they see the same instance differently. This obscuring of one dynamic by focusing on another illustrates the primary concept of Uncertainty as well. Frayn clearly makes the connection between his characters and the science in the following exchange:

Heisenberg: Listen! Copenhagen is an atom. Margrethe is its nucleus. About right, the scale? Ten thousand to one?

Bohr: Yes, yes.

Heisenberg: Now, Bohr’s an electron….I’m a photon. A quantum of light. (68-9)

This exchange connects the characters in the play to a hypothetical situation involving the core components in particle theory. The second method Frayn uses is staging which often reinforces what the dialogue depicts:

The staging of the play reinforces the scientific ideas. In the Broadway and London productions, the stage was round and bare, and the actors' motions around it called to mind the electrons, protons, and neutrons moving in an atom. Some of the audience sat in a tribunal at the back of the stage, watching and...

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