The Long Shadow of History Falls Over Copenhagen and the Race for the Atomic Bomb in World War II

Culture Watch


Bruce Chadwick lectures on history and film at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He also teaches writing at New Jersey City University. He holds his PhD from Rutgers and was a former editor for the New York Daily News. Mr. Chadwick can be reached at

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In December 1941, Werner Heisenberg left Nazi Germany, where he was the head of a team directed to build an atomic bomb, and visited Nazi-occupied Copenhagen, Denmark, to visit his old friend, fellow physics wizard Niels Bohr. The two men were at the top of their game in world physics; both had won the Nobel Prize. Nobody knows what happened at this meeting, but Michael Frayn’s dazzling play Copenhagen, attempts to explain the encounter. The play analyzes a lot of things about the history of the Nazis, World War II, Denmark and nuclear weapons.

Copenhagen, a revival of the show that won the Tony Award in 2000, unfortunately starts off interminably slow. Heisenberg arrives and chats with Bohr and his wife, Margarethe. The two scientists take a long walk, come back and then Heisenberg suddenly leaves. There is nothing but talk, talk, talk.

The play heats up in the middle of act one when the men get into powerful discussions about the development of the atomic bomb. Heisenberg explains that if the Nazis have it they can immediately destroy all of London, Paris, Amsterdam and Copenhagen. He is an avid German nationalist and wants to supervise this destruction, he leads Bohr to believe.

Act two is far better than act one and in it both men go back over their relationship. Heisenberg worked with Bohr for three years in the 1920s and then went back to Germany to become a professor at a famous university. He won the Nobel in 1932, was appointed to head a science institute and his fame grew.  Bohr, a Jew, sixteen years older than his friend, went on to become one of the world’s most renown physicists, not leaving Copenhagen until the Nazis threatened to deport all of the Jews. He fled to Scandinavia and then to America where he worked on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, New Mexico.

In act two the question is asked, again and again -- why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen in 1941 to see Bohr? What was he looking for? What did he find out, or not find out?

Frayn’s play grows in layers, one richer than the other. We find out about the failed atomic bomb project in Germany and the successful nuclear development in the U.S. The history of Nazi destruction until 1941 is traced, as well as Heisenberg’s rise in power. The persecution of the Jews is discussed and so is Bohr’s long and distinguished career. Margarethe becomes more of a force in act two, telling Heisenberg that he and her husband did not work on many famous science projects together, as he remembered from fourteen years earlier; they worked on them separately. Bohr did not agree with Heisenberg’s great "theory of uncertainty," as Heisenberg believed. The two were really professional colleagues and not close friends, as Heisenberg believed. And, Margarethe tells them, that Heisenberg came back to Copenhagen in 1941 not to discuss physics, but to “show off,” to let his old mentor knew that he, Heisenberg, was now the darling of Germany and the Third Reich.

The play is a treasure trove of World War II and nuclear history. The Luna Stage has done a wonderful job of accentuating that. The producers set up a large screen television monitor in the lobby that displays a lengthy slide show that gives the history of Bohr and Heisenberg and other European scientists involved in atomic research, such as Albert Einstein. The slide show documents the relationship between Bohr and Heisenberg and explains what happened to each after the war. The walls of the lobby are filled with historical quotes from the two scientists about their work in nuclear development.

The story of the meeting between the two men was verified by both, but never completely explained.

The play’s director, James Glossman, did a good job with the drama. His hands were tied because the play takes place in the round without a set. Glossman kept his performers moving about the stage to create as much activity as he could, given the circumstances. He received a fine performance from Ian Gould as the hyperactive Heisenberg, who flies about the stage, arms waving, like a jet airplane. Paul Murphy is far quieter, but just as effective as the laid back, fatherly Bohr. Linda Setzer is good as Margarethe, but she really has little to do with the story until the latter stages of act two.

One real problem with the play is that too much time is spent explaining theories of math and physics. Frayn attempts to explain how the atomic bomb works, but nobody can follow it. I think a graduate class from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would be lost, too.

The marketing teaser for the play is that “the world would never be the same,” a reference to the development of nuclear weapons. It would not have if the Nazis had the bomb first. But they did not.

What is interesting about the play is that it tracked the history of atomic weapons in World War II, and by 2000, when it was staged on Broadway, and nearly a decade after the collapse of the Soviet Union, no one worried much about nuclear war anymore. Then the World Trade Center was destroyed by terrorists, North Korea started nuclear tests and so did Iran. ‘Dirty’ nuclear bombs were developed. Now, in 2012, Frayn’s play about nuclear destruction has just as much impact as when it was written, perhaps more so.

History buffs, especially those intrigued by World War II and the Nazis, will love Copenhagen.

PRODUCTION: Produced by the Luna Stage. Sets: Carrie Mossman, Lighting: Richard Currie, Costumes: Deborah Caney, Sound: Jeff Knapp.

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