‘Copenhagen’ Probes Moral Qualms of Atomic Bomb

Tony Award–Winning Play’s Speculative Look at the 1941 Meeting of Physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg

<b>NUCLEAR AGE:</b> (from left) Brett Rickaby, Linda Purl, and Peter Van Norden star in Rubicon Theatre’s production of the Tony Award–winning play about a speculative conversation between atomic physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

The atomic bomb tends to be a topic we avoid thinking about, for obvious reasons. But however uncomfortable it may be to contemplate, it has recently resurfaced into our collective consciousness.

The 70th anniversary of the dropping of the weapon on Hiroshima was a sobering reminder of its destructive power. The current debate over ratifying a deal with Iran is largely driven by the threat of that nation going nuclear. And the superb television drama Manhattan has provided a fictionalized glimpse into the moral qualms and personal crises faced by the scientists who gathered in New Mexico to create this source of nearly unimaginable carnage.

So with our heads momentarily pulled out of the sand, it’s an excellent time to revisit Copenhagen, Michael Frayn’s Tony Award–winning 1998 play about the advent of the nuclear age. It’s a highly speculative look at a real-life event — a 1941 meeting, in the title city, between two brilliant physicists who were longtime friends and colleagues: Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg.

It must have been an awkward encounter. World War II had already broken out in Europe, and both men were aware of the theoretical possibility of building an atomic weapon. While Bohr (who would later join the Los Alamos effort) was fond of his former protégé, he was also acutely aware that Heisenberg was a loyal German.

“It’s a study of human behavior under pressure,” said director Judy Hegarty Lovett, whose new production of the play opens Labor Day weekend at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre. “That connects with all of us. We’ve all made decisions in our lives that might have been the wrong ones. Can you justify it later? Or do you live with shrapnel in your body?”

The play is set in “a kind of nowhere land,” Hegarty Lovett noted. The characters, we’re told, are long dead, yet they’re still trying to figure out exactly what transpired when the two men met and how it impacted the momentous events that would soon follow.

“I think [playwright Michael] Frayn (who is best-known for his intricate farce Noises Off) is playing with time and reality, which in a way mirrors the quantum mechanics that are discussed,” Hegarty Lovett said. “The ‘uncertainty principle’ certainly applies to human relationships.”

There is a lot of science in the play, and that could scare off some potential patrons. But the director insists it’s primarily a “human drama” that could serve as a gateway into physics for those who are interested in learning more. As Frayn presents it, Hegarty Lovett insisted, the science is compelling whether we fully understand it or not. “When two people are discussing something that points to a whole new world, we listen,” she said. “We get caught up in their whirlwind.”

Hegarty Lovett is best known for a series of haunting, small-scale shows she has produced over the years with her husband, actor Conor Lovett, including many works of Samuel Beckett, an adaptation of Moby Dick, and Will Eno’s Title and Deed (which was written for them). The couple creates the plays in their native Ireland and tours them around the world, including to the Rubicon, where they have been a regular presence since 2004. They have two shows touring to New York this fall: Waiting for Godot and an original music-and-theater piece based on Beckett’s writing.

For the moment, however, Hegarty Lovett’s focus is on the high-stakes drama of Copenhagen and the difficult issues it addresses. “Does science need to be [restrained by] moral considerations?” she asked. “Or do you forge forward in the name of invention and discovery? These questions are hugely relevant today.”


Copenhagen previews Wednesday-Thursday, September 2-3, and runs through September 27 at the Rubicon Theatre (1006 E. Main St.) in Ventura. Call (805) 667-2900 or visit rubicontheatre.org.


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