Copenhagen (play)
Copenhagen is a play by Michael Frayn
Michael Frayn
Michael J. Frayn is an English playwright and novelist. He is best known as the author of the farce Noises Off and the dramas Copenhagen and Democracy...

, based around an event that occurred in Copenhagen
Copenhagen is the capital and largest city of Denmark, with an urban population of 1,199,224 and a metropolitan population of 1,930,260 . With the completion of the transnational Øresund Bridge in 2000, Copenhagen has become the centre of the increasingly integrating Øresund Region...

 in 1941, a meeting between the physicist
A physicist is a scientist who studies or practices physics. Physicists study a wide range of physical phenomena in many branches of physics spanning all length scales: from sub-atomic particles of which all ordinary matter is made to the behavior of the material Universe as a whole...

s Niels Bohr
Niels Bohr
Niels Henrik David Bohr was a Danish physicist who made foundational contributions to understanding atomic structure and quantum mechanics, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1922. Bohr mentored and collaborated with many of the top physicists of the century at his institute in...

 and Werner Heisenberg
Werner Heisenberg
Werner Karl Heisenberg was a German theoretical physicist who made foundational contributions to quantum mechanics and is best known for asserting the uncertainty principle of quantum theory...

. It debuted in London
London is the capital city of :England and the :United Kingdom, the largest metropolitan area in the United Kingdom, and the largest urban zone in the European Union by most measures. Located on the River Thames, London has been a major settlement for two millennia, its history going back to its...

 in 1998. Within the National Theatre in London, it ran for more than 300 performances, starring David Burke (Niels Bohr), Sara Kestelman
Sara Kestelman
Sara Kestelman is an English actress. She is perhaps best known for her role as Lady Frances Brandon, Lady Jane Grey's mother, in Lady Jane.-Biography:...

 (Margrethe Bohr), and Matthew Marsh
Matthew Marsh (actor)
Matthew Marsh is an English actor. Matthew Marsh is the older brother of Jon Marsh of English dance band The Beloved. He has appeared in the films Alambrado, Spy Game, An American Haunting, Hawking and Bad Company, and guest-starred in the sixth series of the spy drama Spooks in 2007 and the...

 (Werner Heisenberg).

It opened on Broadway
Broadway theatre
Broadway theatre, commonly called simply Broadway, refers to theatrical performances presented in one of the 40 professional theatres with 500 or more seats located in the Theatre District centered along Broadway, and in Lincoln Center, in Manhattan in New York City...

 at the Royale Theatre on April 11, 2000 and ran for 326 performances. Directed by Michael Blakemore
Michael Blakemore
Michael Howell Blakemore OBE is an Australian actor, writer and theatre director. In 2000 he became the only individual to win Tony Awards for best Director of a Play and Musical in the same year for Copenhagen and Kiss Me, Kate....

, it starred Philip Bosco
Philip Bosco
-Personal life:Bosco was born in Jersey City, New Jersey, the son of Margaret Raymond , a policewoman, and Philip Lupo Bosco, a carnival worker. Bosco went to high school at St. Peter's Preparatory School in Jersey City. He attended the Catholic University of Washington, D.C. Bosco married Nancy...

 (Niels Bohr), Michael Cumpsty
Michael Cumpsty
Michael Cumpsty is a British actor. He has been acting since childhood. He has worked extensively performing Shakespeare, as well as both musicals and dramas on Broadway...

 (Werner Heisenberg), and Blair Brown
Blair Brown
Bonnie Blair Brown is an American theater, film, and television actress. She has had a number of high profile roles, including a Tony Award-winning turn in the play Copenhagen on Broadway, as well as a run as the title character in the television comedy-drama The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,...

 (Margrethe Bohr). It won the Tony Award
Tony Award
The Antoinette Perry Award for Excellence in Theatre, more commonly known as a Tony Award, recognizes achievement in live Broadway theatre. The awards are presented by the American Theatre Wing and The Broadway League at an annual ceremony in New York City. The awards are given for Broadway...

 for Best Play, Best Featured Actress in a Play, Blair Brown
Blair Brown
Bonnie Blair Brown is an American theater, film, and television actress. She has had a number of high profile roles, including a Tony Award-winning turn in the play Copenhagen on Broadway, as well as a run as the title character in the television comedy-drama The Days and Nights of Molly Dodd,...

, and Best Direction of a Play (Michael Blakemore).

In 2002, the play was adapted as a film
Copenhagen (film)
Copenhagen is a 2002 British TV film adapted by director Howard Davies from Michael Frayn's 1998 play of the same name, and starring Francesca Annis, Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea...

 by Howard Davies
Howard Davies
Howard Davies is the name of:* Howard Davies , Wales rugby union international* Sir Howard Davies , Former Director of the London School of Economics and former British financial regulator...

, produced by the BBC
The British Broadcasting Corporation is a British public service broadcaster. Its headquarters is at Broadcasting House in the City of Westminster, London. It is the largest broadcaster in the world, with about 23,000 staff...

 and presented on the Public Broadcasting Service
Public Broadcasting Service
The Public Broadcasting Service is an American non-profit public broadcasting television network with 354 member TV stations in the United States which hold collective ownership. Its headquarters is in Arlington, Virginia....

 (PBS) in the United States
United States
The United States of America is a federal constitutional republic comprising fifty states and a federal district...


Historical debate

The meeting took place in September 1941 when Bohr and Heisenberg were 55 and 39, respectively. Heisenberg had worked with Bohr in Copenhagen
Copenhagen is the capital and largest city of Denmark, with an urban population of 1,199,224 and a metropolitan population of 1,930,260 . With the completion of the transnational Øresund Bridge in 2000, Copenhagen has become the centre of the increasingly integrating Øresund Region...

 for several years starting in 1924.

Heisenberg historians remain divided over their own interpretations of the event. Frayn's 1998 play brought more attention to what previously had been a primarily scholarly discussion. A collection of historical essays provoked by the play was published in English in 2005.

Much of the initial controversy stemmed from a 1956 letter Heisenberg sent to the journalist Robert Jungk
Robert Jungk
Robert Jungk , also known as Robert Baum and Robert Baum-Jungk, was an Austrian writer and journalist who wrote mostly on issues relating to nuclear weapons....

 after reading the German edition of Jungk's book, Brighter than a Thousand Suns (1956). In the letter, Heisenberg described how he had come to Copenhagen to discuss with Bohr his moral objections toward scientists working on nuclear weapons, but how he had failed to say this clearly before the conversation came to a halt. Jungk published an extract from the letter in the Danish edition of the book in 1956 which, out of context, made it look as if Heisenberg was claiming to have sabotaged the German bomb project on moral grounds. (The letter's whole text shows Heisenberg was careful not to claim this.) Bohr was outraged after reading this extract in his copy of the book, feeling that this was false and that the 1941 meeting had proven to him that Heisenberg was quite happy to produce nuclear weapons for Germany.

After the play inspired numerous scholarly and media debates over the 1941 meeting, the
Niels Bohr Archive in Copenhagen released to the public all sealed documents related to the meeting, a move intended mostly to settle historical arguments over what they contained.
Among the documents were the unsent letters Bohr drafted to Heisenberg in 1957 about Jungk's book and other topics.

These drafts proved to be significant in several respects. First, they proved to be relatively consistent with Heisenberg's recollections of the meeting given to Jungk in 1956, meaning that the course of the conversation can now be fairly well established. Bohr and Heisenberg agree that Heisenberg started the visit by stating to Bohr that nuclear weapons were now conceivable. As Heisenberg wrote to Jungk,
This talk probably started with my question as to whether or not it was right for physicists to devote themselves in wartime to the uranium problem -- as there was the possibility that progress in this sphere could lead to grave consequences in the technique of the war.

Bohr confirms this by writing
It had to make a very strong impression on me that at the very outset you stated that you felt certain that the war, if it lasted sufficiently long, would be decided with atomic weapons.

Heisenberg repeated his convictions on the technical feasibility of building nuclear weapons. As Heisenberg recalled:
He [Bohr] replied as far as I can remember with a counter-question, "Do you really think that uranium fission could be utilized for the construction of weapons?" I may have replied: "I know that this is in principle possible, but it would require a terrific technical effort, which, one can only hope, cannot be realized in this war. Bohr was shocked by my reply."
Bohr's draft letters are consistent with this:
I did not respond to this at all, but as you perhaps regarded this as an expression of doubt, you related how in the preceding years you had devoted yourself almost exclusively to the question and were quite certain that it could be done...

(This point is of interest, because it is at odds with the view of some people that miscalculations by Heisenberg had led him to conclude erroneously, that atomic weapons were not feasible.) According to Bohr's later notes, Heisenberg then told Bohr that he had not come to discuss the technical aspects of the potential weapons:
Heisenberg said explicitly that he did not wish to enter into technical details but that Bohr should understand that he knew what he was talking about as he had spent 2 years working exclusively on this question.

Unfortunately, because of Heisenberg's concerns about being monitored — his discussion of any details of Germany's nuclear efforts with someone in an occupied country would have been illegal — his remarks were cryptic. Indeed, Bohr's letters note that Heisenberg spoke "in vague terms", from which Bohr was only able to form an "impression" about Heisenberg's efforts.
Bohr wrote of this:

I listened to this without speaking since [a] great matter for mankind was at issue in which, despite our personal friendship, we had to be regarded as representatives of two sides engaged in mortal combat. That my silence and gravity, as you write in the letter, could be taken as an expression of shock at your reports that it was possible to make an atomic bomb is a quite peculiar misunderstanding, which must be due to the great tension in your own mind. From the day three years earlier when I realized that slow neutrons could only cause fission in Uranium 235 and not 238, it was of course obvious to me that a bomb with certain effect could be produced by separating the uraniums. In June 1939 I had even given a public lecture in Birmingham about uranium fission, where I talked about the effects of such a bomb but of course added that the technical preparations would be so large that one did not know how soon they could be overcome. If anything in my behaviour could be interpreted as shock, it did not derive from such reports but rather from the news, as I had to understand it, that Germany was participating vigorously in a race to be the first with atomic weapons.

This circumspect discussion, combined with Bohr's shocked reaction to it, apparently cut off the discussion between the two. Thus, the Bohr letters cannot resolve the question, posed by the Copenhagen play, of what Heisenberg had tried to convey to Bohr.

The Bohr letters are significant here, because they do eliminate some of the more sinister motives that had been postulated. For example, in a 1998 book, Heisenberg and the Nazi atomic bomb project: a study in German culture Paul Lawrence Rose
Paul Lawrence Rose
Paul Lawrence Rose is the Professor of European History and Mitrani Professor of Jewish Studies at Pennsylvania State University.Rose specializes in the study of anti-Semitism, Germany history, European intellectual history, and Jewish history. -Notes:...

 had speculated that Heisenberg had visited Bohr as "an intelligence-gathering mission." The release of Bohr's letters disprove that claim, showing that Heisenberg had not come to elicit information from Bohr and did not even want to discuss the technical issues of building a bomb:

Heisenberg said explicitly that he did not wish to enter into technical details but that Bohr should understand that he knew what he was talking about as he had spent 2 years working exclusively on this question.

This shows that Heisenberg wanted to move the discussion into another area of nuclear weapons, not the technology. This passage also appears to counter the arguments of some Heisenberg critics (such as Rose and Bernstein) that Heisenberg's errors in 1940 had led him to conclude that building nuclear weapons was not possible.

Finally, the 1957 Bohr draft letters, written 16 years after the meeting, suggest a conflict between Bohr and Heisenberg. Heisenberg's letter to his wife, written on the eve of his departure from Copenhagen, provides no hint of a fracture. In it, he related his final evening with Bohr as very pleasant and unremarkable: "Today I was once more, with Weizsaecker, at Bohr's. In many ways this was especially nice, the conversation revolved for a large part of the evening around purely human concerns, Bohr was reading aloud, I played a Mozart Sonata (a-Major)."

In a March 2006 interview Ivan Supek
Ivan Supek
Ivan Supek was a Croatian physicist, philosopher, writer, playwright, peace activist and humanist.-Early years and education:Supek was born on April 8, 1915 in Zagreb, Croatia...

, one of Heisenberg's students and friends, commented that "Copenhagen is a bad play" and that "Frayn mixed up some things". Supek also claimed that Weizsäcker
Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker
Carl Friedrich Freiherr von Weizsäcker was a German physicist and philosopher. He was the longest-living member of the research team which performed nuclear research in Germany during the Second World War, under Werner Heisenberg's leadership...

 was the main figure of the meeting. Allegedly, "Heisenberg and Weizsäcker came to Bohr wearing German army uniforms. Weizsäcker tried to persuade Bohr to mediate for peace between Great Britain and Germany and Heisenberg practically completely relied on his political judgement". Supek received these details in a confidential conversation with Margrethe who thought he would never make them public. Supek however felt it was "his duty to announce these facts so that future generations can know the truth about the Bohr - Heisenberg meeting".

Supek's statements about Bohr's recollection of "the Bohr - Heisenberg meeting" mixes up the visit and in so doing, suggests the reason why the meeting did not achieve its purpose. Because Heisenberg could only visit Bohr in occupied Denmark on behalf of the German government, Heisenberg was obliged to make public lectures on behalf of the Government which were monitored by German government officials. Heisenberg had hoped to convey his concerns later during private discussions with Bohr. Heisenberg's contemporaneous letters to his wife and later correspondence with Jungk place the private conversation on Wednesday evening during a walk at Bohr's house away from Weizsäcker. ("This talk then took place on an evening walk in the city district near Ny-Carlsberg,") ("Late at night I walked under a clear and starry sky through the city, darkened, to Bohr."). That Supek stated that Margrethe believed that Weizsäcker was present and that Bohr recalled this private meeting as taking place "in my room at the Institute", where Heisenberg and Weizsäcker had made their public statements may suggest that Bohr blurred two events and did not distinguish between the public statements Heisenberg made and the private message Heisenberg hoped to convey to Bohr later that evening at Bohr's house.

Plot synopsis

The spirits of Werner Heisenberg, Niels Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, meet after their deaths to attempt to answer the question which Margrethe poses in the first line of the play, “Why did he [Heisenberg] come to Copenhagen?” They spend the remainder of the two-act drama presenting, debating and rejecting theories that may answer that question.

Heisenberg – “No one understands my trip to Copenhagen. Time and time again I’ve explained it. To Bohr himself, and Margrethe. To interrogators and intelligence officers, to journalists and historians. The more I’ve explained, the deeper the uncertainty has become. Well, I shall be happy to make one more attempt.”

Along the way, Heisenberg and Bohr “draft” several versions of their 1941 exchange, arguing about the ramifications of each potential version of their meeting and the motives behind it. They discuss the idea of nuclear power and its control, the rationale behind building or not building an atomic bomb, the uncertainty of the past and the inevitability of the future as embodiments of themselves acting as particles drifting through the atom
The atom is a basic unit of matter that consists of a dense central nucleus surrounded by a cloud of negatively charged electrons. The atomic nucleus contains a mix of positively charged protons and electrically neutral neutrons...

 that is Copenhagen.


In most dramatic works where the characters are based on real people, there is a point at which the character deviates from the real person. Michael Frayn works to keep this distinction as small as possible. Having studied memoirs and letters and other historical records of the two physicists, Frayn feels confident in claiming that “The actual words spoken by [the] characters are entirely their own.” With that in mind, the character descriptions apply to both the representative characters as well as the physicists themselves. There is a great amount known about all of the primary characters presented in Copenhagen; the following includes those bits of information which are directly relevant and referenced in the work itself.
  • Werner Heisenberg was born in 1901 in Würzburg
    Würzburg is a city in the region of Franconia which lies in the northern tip of Bavaria, Germany. Located at the Main River, it is the capital of the Regierungsbezirk Lower Franconia. The regional dialect is Franconian....

    , Germany. The son of a university professor, Heisenberg grew up in with an intense emphasis on academics, but was exposed to the destruction that World War I dealt to Germany at a rather young age. He married Elisabeth Schumacher, also the child of a professor, and they had seven children. He received his doctorate in 1923 from the physicist Arnold Sommerfeld
    Arnold Sommerfeld
    Arnold Johannes Wilhelm Sommerfeld was a German theoretical physicist who pioneered developments in atomic and quantum physics, and also educated and groomed a large number of students for the new era of theoretical physics...

    , and went to Copenhagen to study quantum mechanics
    Quantum mechanics
    Quantum mechanics, also known as quantum physics or quantum theory, is a branch of physics providing a mathematical description of much of the dual particle-like and wave-like behavior and interactions of energy and matter. It departs from classical mechanics primarily at the atomic and subatomic...

     with Niels Bohr in 1924, when he was 22, and replaced Bohr’s assistant, H. A. Kramers. In 1926, The University of Leipzig
    University of Leipzig
    The University of Leipzig , located in Leipzig in the Free State of Saxony, Germany, is one of the oldest universities in the world and the second-oldest university in Germany...

     offered him the opportunity to become Germany’s youngest full professor. Heisenberg is best known for his “Uncertainty Principle,” (translated from the German Ungenauigkeit [inexactness] or Unschärfe [lack of sharpness] Relation, which was later changed to Unbestimmtheit meaning “indeterminate.”) In 1927, he and Bohr presented the Copenhagen interpretation
    Copenhagen interpretation
    The Copenhagen interpretation is one of the earliest and most commonly taught interpretations of quantum mechanics. It holds that quantum mechanics does not yield a description of an objective reality but deals only with probabilities of observing, or measuring, various aspects of energy quanta,...

     of quantum mechanics. During the Second World War, Heisenberg worked for Germany, researching atomic technology and heading their nuclear reactor program. After the war, his involvement with the Nazis earned him certain notoriety in the world of physicists, mainly due to the fact that he could have given Hitler the means to produce and use nuclear arms. He continued his research until his death in 1976 in Münich
    Munich The city's motto is "" . Before 2006, it was "Weltstadt mit Herz" . Its native name, , is derived from the Old High German Munichen, meaning "by the monks' place". The city's name derives from the monks of the Benedictine order who founded the city; hence the monk depicted on the city's coat...


  • Niels Bohr was born in 1885, making him 38 when Heisenberg first came to work with him. He married Margrethe Norlund in 1912 in Copenhagen and together they had six sons, two of whom died. Harry Lustig
    Michael Jackson
    Michael Joseph Jackson was an American recording artist, entertainer, and businessman. Referred to as the King of Pop, or by his initials MJ, Jackson is recognized as the most successful entertainer of all time by Guinness World Records...

     notes his biographies that “Most of the world's great theoretical physicists... spent periods of their lives at Bohr's Institute.” For this reason, along with some fairly fundamental theories on quantum mechanics, Bohr was referred to as “The Pope,” a title which Heisenberg actually uses in the play. Before the war, his research was instrumental in nuclear research, some of which led to the building of the bomb. During the war, however, Bohr was living in occupied Denmark and somewhat restricted in his research; he escaped to Sweden in 1943, just before an SS sweep which would have incriminated him through his Jewish heritage. In America, he worked in Los Alamos
    Los Alamos National Laboratory
    Los Alamos National Laboratory is a United States Department of Energy national laboratory, managed and operated by Los Alamos National Security , located in Los Alamos, New Mexico...

     on the atomic bomb until the end of the war. He died in 1962 and was survived by his wife, Margrethe.

  • Margrethe Bohr, known later in her life as Dronning or “Queen” Margrethe, was born in 1890 in Denmark
    Denmark is a Scandinavian country in Northern Europe. The countries of Denmark and Greenland, as well as the Faroe Islands, constitute the Kingdom of Denmark . It is the southernmost of the Nordic countries, southwest of Sweden and south of Norway, and bordered to the south by Germany. Denmark...

    . She was closely involved in her husband’s work; he would commonly bounce ideas off of her, trying to explain them in “plain language.” She died in 1984, survived by several of her children. Her son Hans wrote, “My mother was the natural and indispensable centre. Father knew how much mother meant to him and never missed an opportunity to show his gratitude and love.... Her opinions were his guidelines in daily affairs,” and this relationship shows in Michael Frayn’s dialogue.


Copenhagen cannot be labelled simply as a comedy
Comedy , as a popular meaning, is any humorous discourse or work generally intended to amuse by creating laughter, especially in television, film, and stand-up comedy. This must be carefully distinguished from its academic definition, namely the comic theatre, whose Western origins are found in...

 or tragedy
Tragedy is a form of art based on human suffering that offers its audience pleasure. While most cultures have developed forms that provoke this paradoxical response, tragedy refers to a specific tradition of drama that has played a unique and important role historically in the self-definition of...

; the lack of a protagonist and direct conflict prevents this in large part. David Rush explores a sub-genre of theatre, a later hybrid form known as “drama,” which he describes as a piece which cannot be specifically categorized as a tragedy, but which he notes involves “serious people going about serious business in a serious way.” Seeing as the characters in Copenhagen are already dead, they cannot suffer any tragic fall; though there is definite wit in the arguments, it is taken in a very serious light seeing as it regards subjects like war, fear and nuclear arms. It is most nearly a “drama,” but works in many ways as an expository piece in the manner it presents information to the audience.


The construction of the plot is non-linear, seeing as it does not exist in time and space. Sometimes one character will not notice that there are other people in the space, and speak as if to no one. The world that Frayn presents is outside of our conceptions as audience members, simply by virtue of the fact that no one attending the play has ever died. So the world in which Copenhagen is based is somewhere between heaven and an atom.

It can also be thought to exist “inside the heads” of the characters present. It is a subjective world, taking and manipulating history, picking apart some events and mashing others together to better compare them. The characters are all plagued by some form of guilt or another, particularly in reference to the atomic bomb, and they are trapped in this world, doomed to forever speculate on that evening in Copenhagen in 1941 to determine how the world might have been changed. These are all traits of the artistic style known as Expressionism
Expressionism was a modernist movement, initially in poetry and painting, originating in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century. Its typical trait is to present the world solely from a subjective perspective, distorting it radically for emotional effect in order to evoke moods or ideas...


In his preface to A Dream Play
A Dream Play
A Dream Play was written in 1901 by the Swedish playwright August Strindberg. It was first performed in Stockholm on 17 April 1907. It remains one of Strindberg's most admired and influential dramas, seen as an important precursor to both dramatic Expressionism and Surrealism.-Plot:The primary...

, August Strindberg
August Strindberg
Johan August Strindberg was a Swedish playwright, novelist, poet, essayist and painter. A prolific writer who often drew directly on his personal experience, Strindberg's career spanned four decades, during which time he wrote over 60 plays and more than 30 works of fiction, autobiography,...

 notes that in these worlds, “everything is possible and probable. Time and space do not exist. Working with... real events as a background, the imagination spins out its threads of thoughts and weaves them into new patterns.” Copenhagen is an embodiment of these principles.

Reoccurring images and motifs

Because the concepts in physics and politics are at times very complicated or very abstract, Frayn uses several controlling images to better relate certain ideas to his audience.

Skiing and Table-Tennis – These two activities are referred to as a pastime of Bohr and Heisenberg’s, and both demonstrate the competition between the two (representative of national competition.) They are also used to suggest Heisenberg’s speed and recklessness which contrasts Bohr’s caution and tediousness.

Invisible Straight – An anecdote in which Bohr managed to bluff himself in a game of poker by betting on a straight that he thought he had, but he really did not . This principle is applied to nuclear weaponry, suggesting that nations will act differently when they think that an opponent can produce nuclear arms, whether or not the opponent can.

Cap-Pistols, Land Mines and Nuclear Reactors – These fall into the Toy vs. Weapon theme and once again presents anecdotes of Bohr and Heisenberg’s lives. Their fascination in playing with the new toy blinds them to the danger that it poses.

Bomb – The term “bomb” appears as a literal looming image in many cases, but it is used figuratively in a couple of instances, as if it should be a joke, but with such grave implications that it cannot be found funny. (In example, Heisenberg refers to a “bomb having gone off” in Bohr’s head .)

Christian Reaching for the Life-Buoy – Christian was one of Bohr’s sons, who tragically drowned while he and Bohr were out sailing . The phrase “Christian reaches for the life-buoy” appears several times during the play, and every time, the characters seem to hold their breath in the hope that this time, Christian will survive. Bohr had concluded that they would have both drowned had he jumped in to save his son, and this presents an idea of futile heroics, particularly with reference to Heisenberg and what should happen if he were to resist Hitler’s rule .

“Another Draft” – Whenever the characters conclude that an interpretation of their 1941 meeting is incorrect, they call for “another draft.”


Though the dialogue does not contradict logic, it cannot be called realistic in the strictest sense. One character’s line might fade into the next, as though the second person knew exactly what he was going to say; sometimes a character will slip into a memory and partially relive a former or younger self in a monologue; and over the course of the show, there is a definite ambiguity as to whether they are speaking to one another or to the audience.

The play was originally written in English, but the real people in the exchange may have had this conversation in Danish or German. But even with translation in mind, Frayn defends that the words in the script are those that the characters would actually say. In his post-script, he writes, “If this needs any justification, I can only appeal to Heisenberg himself.” Understandably, Frayn needs to present the characters in an interesting and dramatic light, as well as depicting a setting that no living person has visited, so the accuracy of such dialogue is subject to dwindle by degrees.

Plain language and scientific language both operate in this play. There are several instances when the two physicists start speaking too scientifically for many people to understand, and one of them will remark that they must revert to plain language, to explain it in a way that Margrethe will understand. Even for this effort though, criticism arose about the complexity of the play and the difficulty for viewers to comprehend. A writer for The Commonweal commented on the Broadway premiere, saying that “the play’s relentless cerebral forays can... be frustrating.”

Production history

London Premiere – 1998

Copenhagen opened in the National Theatre in London and ran for more than 300 performances, starring David Burke as Niels Bohr, Sara Kestelman as Margrethe Bohr, and Mattew Marsh as Werner Heisenberg. It was directed by Michael Blakemore.

Broadway Opening – April 2000

Continuing under the direction of Michael Blakemore, it opened on Broadway at the Royale Theatre on April 11 and ran for 326 performances. Starring Philip Bosco as Bohr, Michael Cumpsty as Heisenberg and Blair Brown as Margrethe, it went on to win the Tony Award for Best Play, along with two others for Best Featured Actress in a Play (Blair Brown), and Best Direction of a Play (Michael Blakemore). But even for its success, Frayn admitted in an article that “A number of commentators expressed misgivings about the whole enterprise .” Several critics noted that it was heavy with scientific dialogue, a little too heavy for the common audience. Though a writer from Physics World hailed it as “brilliant theatre ,” a Charles Spencer, of the Daily Telegraph, wrote, “I felt that my brain was being stretched to breaking point -- well beyond breaking point, in fact.”

TV Movie – 2002

The play was adapted as a television movie
Copenhagen (film)
Copenhagen is a 2002 British TV film adapted by director Howard Davies from Michael Frayn's 1998 play of the same name, and starring Francesca Annis, Daniel Craig and Stephen Rea...

 in 2002, with Daniel Craig
Daniel Craig
Daniel Wroughton Craig is an English actor. His early film roles include Elizabeth, The Power of One, A Kid in King Arthur's Court and the television episodes Sharpe's Eagle, Zorro and The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Daredevils of the Desert...

 as Heisenberg, Stephen Rea
Stephen Rea
Stephen Rea is an Irish film and stage actor. Rea has appeared in high profile films such as V for Vendetta, Michael Collins, Interview with the Vampire and Breakfast on Pluto...

 as Niels Bohr, and Francesca Annis
Francesca Annis
Francesca Annis is an English actress, known for her film and television appearances, most recently in the BBC series Wives and Daughters, Cranford, and Deceit.-Early life and education:...

 as Margrethe Bohr. The movie substantially cuts down the script of the play, eliminating several recurring themes, and most of the material that established the community of scientists in Copenhagen. It also abandons the abstract staging of the theatrical version in favour of being set in the city of Copenhagen, in Bohr's old house.

Recent revivals

The play has been revived at:
  • Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, with Tom Mannion as Niels Bohr, Sally Edwards as Margrethe Bohr, and Owen Oakeshott as Werner Heisenberg. It was directed by Tony Cownie.

  • the New Vic Theatre
    New Vic Theatre
    The New Vic Theatre is situated in Newcastle-under-Lyme, Staffordshire. It was purpose-built as a theatre in the round and opened in 1986, replacing a converted cinema, the Victoria Theatre, Hartshill, Stoke-on-Trent.-History:...

     in Staffordshire with John O'Mahony as Niels Bohr, Jamie Hinde as Heisenberg and Deborah Maclaren as Margrethe Bohr. It was directed by James Dacre
    James Dacre
    -Selected work:*As You Like It by William Shakespeare * World Premiere of The Mountaintop by Katori Hall , 2010 Olivier Award for Best New Play, nominated for a further five Olivier, Whatsonstage and Evening Standard Awards*King James Bible *Judgement Day by Mike Poulton, after When We...


Awards and honors

  • 1998 Evening Standard Award
    Evening Standard Awards
    The Evening Standard Theatre Awards, established in 1955, are presented annually for outstanding achievements in London Theatre. Sponsored by the Evening Standard newspaper, they are announced in late November or early December...

     for Best Play
  • Drama Desk Award
    Drama Desk Award
    The Drama Desk Awards, which are given annually in a number of categories, are the only major New York theater honors for which productions on Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway compete against each other in the same category...

     for Best New Play
  • New York Drama Critics' Circle Best Play
  • Tony Award for Best Play
    Tony Award for Best Play
    The Tony Award for Best Play is an annual award celebrating achievements in live American theatre, including musical theatre, honoring productions on Broadway in New York. It currently takes place in mid-June each year.There was no award in the Tony's first year...

  • Prix Molière

Physicists referenced

Over the course of the play, a number of renowned physicists are mentioned. Many of them are referenced in the context of their work with either Bohr or Heisenberg. This is the order they appear in the script:

  • Max Born
    Max Born
    Max Born was a German-born physicist and mathematician who was instrumental in the development of quantum mechanics. He also made contributions to solid-state physics and optics and supervised the work of a number of notable physicists in the 1920s and 30s...

  • Pascual Jordan
    Pascual Jordan
    -Further reading:...

  • Carl von Weizsäcker 
  • Rozental Petersen
  • Christian Møller
    Christian Møller
    Christian Møller was a Danish chemist and physicist who made fundamental contributions to the theory of relativity, theory of gravitation and quantum chemistry...

  • Samuel Goudsmit
  • Albert Einstein
    Albert Einstein
    Albert Einstein was a German-born theoretical physicist who developed the theory of general relativity, effecting a revolution in physics. For this achievement, Einstein is often regarded as the father of modern physics and one of the most prolific intellects in human history...

  • Wolfgang Pauli
    Wolfgang Pauli
    Wolfgang Ernst Pauli was an Austrian theoretical physicist and one of the pioneers of quantum physics. In 1945, after being nominated by Albert Einstein, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his "decisive contribution through his discovery of a new law of Nature, the exclusion principle or...

  • Otto Frisch
  • Lise Meitner
    Lise Meitner
    Lise Meitner FRS was an Austrian-born, later Swedish, physicist who worked on radioactivity and nuclear physics. Meitner was part of the team that discovered nuclear fission, an achievement for which her colleague Otto Hahn was awarded the Nobel Prize...

  • Arnold Sommerfeld
    Arnold Sommerfeld
    Arnold Johannes Wilhelm Sommerfeld was a German theoretical physicist who pioneered developments in atomic and quantum physics, and also educated and groomed a large number of students for the new era of theoretical physics...

    , Max von Laue
    Max von Laue
    Max Theodor Felix von Laue was a German physicist who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1914 for his discovery of the diffraction of X-rays by crystals...

    , and Karl Wirtz
    Karl Wirtz
    Karl Eugen Julius Wirtz was a German nuclear physicist. He was arrested by the allied British and American Armed Forces and incarcerated at Farm Hall for six months in 1945 under Operation Epsilon.-Education:...

  • Otto Hahn
    Otto Hahn
    Otto Hahn FRS was a German chemist and Nobel laureate, a pioneer in the fields of radioactivity and radiochemistry. He is regarded as "the father of nuclear chemistry". Hahn was a courageous opposer of Jewish persecution by the Nazis and after World War II he became a passionate campaigner...

     – credited with the discovery of fission
  • Fritz Strassmann
    Fritz Strassmann
    Friedrich Wilhelm "Fritz" Strassmann was a German chemist who, with Otto Hahn in 1938, identified barium in the residue after bombarding uranium with neutrons, which led to the interpretation of their results as being from nuclear fission...

  • Enrico Fermi
    Enrico Fermi
    Enrico Fermi was an Italian-born, naturalized American physicist particularly known for his work on the development of the first nuclear reactor, Chicago Pile-1, and for his contributions to the development of quantum theory, nuclear and particle physics, and statistical mechanics...

  • John Wheeler
    John Wheeler
    John Wheeler may refer to:* John Wheeler , American Emmy Award-winning audio/video engineer* John Wheeler , Union officer in the Civil War; killed at Gettysburg* John Wheeler John Wheeler may refer to:* John Wheeler (audio/video technologist) (born 1957), American Emmy Award-winning audio/video...

  • Robert Oppenheimer
    Robert Oppenheimer
    Julius Robert Oppenheimer was an American theoretical physicist and professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley. Along with Enrico Fermi, he is often called the "father of the atomic bomb" for his role in the Manhattan Project, the World War II project that developed the first...

  • Erwin Schrödinger
    Erwin Schrödinger
    Erwin Rudolf Josef Alexander Schrödinger was an Austrian physicist and theoretical biologist who was one of the fathers of quantum mechanics, and is famed for a number of important contributions to physics, especially the Schrödinger equation, for which he received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1933...

  • Hendrik Casimir
    Hendrik Casimir
    Hendrik Brugt Gerhard Casimir FRS was a Dutch physicist best known for his research on the two-fluid model of superconductors in 1934 and the Casimir effect Hendrik Brugt Gerhard Casimir FRS (July 15, 1909 in The Hague, Netherlands – May 4, 2000 in Heeze) was a Dutch physicist best known...

  • George Gamow
    George Gamow
    George Gamow , born Georgiy Antonovich Gamov , was a Russian-born theoretical physicist and cosmologist. He discovered alpha decay via quantum tunneling and worked on radioactive decay of the atomic nucleus, star formation, stellar nucleosynthesis, Big Bang nucleosynthesis, cosmic microwave...

  • Oskar Klein
    Oskar Klein
    Oskar Benjamin Klein was a Swedish theoretical physicist.Klein was born in Danderyd outside Stockholm, son of the chief rabbi of Stockholm, Dr. Gottlieb Klein from Homonna in Hungary and Antonie Levy...

  • James Chadwick
    James Chadwick
    Sir James Chadwick CH FRS was an English Nobel laureate in physics awarded for his discovery of the neutron....

  • Victor Weisskopf
  • Fritz Houtermans
    Fritz Houtermans
    Friedrich Georg "Fritz" Houtermans was a Dutch-Austrian-German atomic and nuclear physicist born in Zoppot near Danzig, West Prussia...

  • Edward Teller
    Edward Teller
    Edward Teller was a Hungarian-American theoretical physicist, known colloquially as "the father of the hydrogen bomb," even though he did not care for the title. Teller made numerous contributions to nuclear and molecular physics, spectroscopy , and surface physics...

  • Leó Szilárd
    Leó Szilárd
    Leó Szilárd was an Austro-Hungarian physicist and inventor who conceived the nuclear chain reaction in 1933, patented the idea of a nuclear reactor with Enrico Fermi, and in late 1939 wrote the letter for Albert Einstein's signature that resulted in the Manhattan Project that built the atomic bomb...

  • Paul Dirac
    Paul Dirac
    Paul Adrien Maurice Dirac, OM, FRS was an English theoretical physicist who made fundamental contributions to the early development of both quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics...

  • H.A. Kramers
  • George Uhlenbeck
  • Rudolph Peierls

See also

  • Doctor Atomic
    Doctor Atomic
    Doctor Atomic is an opera by the contemporary American composer John Adams, with libretto by Peter Sellars. It premiered at the San Francisco Opera on 1 October 2005. The work focuses on the great stress and anxiety experienced by those at Los Alamos while the test of the first atomic bomb was...

  • History of nuclear weapons
    History of nuclear weapons
    The history of nuclear weapons chronicles the development of nuclear weapons. Nuclear weapons possess enormous destructive potential derived from nuclear fission or nuclear fusion reactions...

  • Operation Alsos
    Operation Alsos
    Operation Alsos was an effort at the end of World War II by the Allies , branched off from the Manhattan Project, to investigate the German nuclear energy project, seize German nuclear resources, materials and personnel to further American research and to prevent their capture by the Soviets, and...

     (postwar attempt to gauge the progress of the German bomb project)
  • Manhattan Project
    Manhattan Project
    The Manhattan Project was a research and development program, led by the United States with participation from the United Kingdom and Canada, that produced the first atomic bomb during World War II. From 1942 to 1946, the project was under the direction of Major General Leslie Groves of the US Army...

     (Allied wartime bomb project)
  • Uranverein (Nazi wartime bomb project)

External links

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