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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama



Michael Frayn

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To purchase Copenhagen

Title: Copenhagen
Author: Michael Frayn
Genre: Drama
Written: 1998
Length: 132 pages
Availability: Copenhagen - US
Copenhagen - UK
Copenhagen - Canada
Copenhagen - India
Copenhague - France
Kopenhagen - Deutschland
Copenhagen - Italia
  • Copenhagen has won many, many theatre awards, including the Tony for Best Play (2000)
  • Includes a Postscript by the Author
  • Copenhagen was made into a television film in 2002, directed by Howard Davies and starring Stephen Rea, Daniel Craig, and Francesca Annis

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Our Assessment:

A : clever, engaging play

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chron. of Higher Ed. . 5/5/2000 P.L. Rose
Commonweal . 16/6/2000 Celia Wren
Daily Telegraph A . Charles Spencer
The Guardian A+ 10/2/1999 Michael Billington
The Lancet A 17/3/2001 Paul Crichton
The LA Times . 7/1/2002 Daryl H. Miller
Massachusetts Review . Summer/2001 Robert L. King
The Nation . 5/6/2000 Carol Rocamora
The New Republic . 22/11/1999 Robert Brustein
The NY Times . 12/4/2000 Ben Brantley
Physics World A+ 6/1998 John Ziman
Science . 14/4/2000 David Voss
Time . 24/4/2000 Richard Zoglin
TLS A 12/6/1998 Maggie Gee
The Village Voice . 18/4/2000 Michael Feingold
Wall St. Journal . 12/4/2000 Amy Gamerman

  Review Consensus:

  Almost all very enthusiastic, with only a few moral qualms and some concern that talk overwhelms action

  From the Reviews:
  • "The intellectual vertigo induced by Frayn's quicksilver writing may be intended to capture some of the intellectual excitement inherent in the discoveries of science, and of life. But the price we pay for the dramatic thrill Frayn has concocted -- the sacrifice of historical and scientific truth -- is simply too great. The Copenhagen experience carries the audience along headily on a scientific roller coaster. Forget about understanding -- just look at the views ! (...) Frayn perverts the moral significance of the meeting as well as distorting and suppressing its scientific and political agenda." - Paul Lawrence Rose, Chronicle of Higher Education

  • "Observing Copenhagen itself may thrill well-rested viewers with academic hankerings and excellent powers of concentration, but the play's relentless cerebral forays can also be frustrating. Frayn treats his play like a kind of theatrical subcompact, getting maximum mileage from the uncertainty principle while the story dwindles in the rearview mirror." - Celia Wren, Commonweal

  • "I suppose there may be some boffins who will take it all in their stride, but watching Michael Frayn's fascinating and profound new play I felt that my brain was being stretched to breaking point -- well beyond breaking point, in fact. (...) What is certain is that Frayn makes ideas zing and sing in this play (...) It is impossible not to admire its elegant intelligence, but Frayn has turned the piece into a joke-free zone." - Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

  • "Not the least of its virtues is that it shows that out of a three-character, one-set play you can create both intellectually gripping drama and a metaphor for what Lear called 'the mystery of things'. (...) Some claim to have been blinded by Frayn's science I emerged deeply moved by his simultaneous awareness of life's value and its inexplicable mystery." - Michael Billington, The Guardian

  • "Probably not since Dürrenmatt's Physiker has there been a play about modern science of such power and seriousness." - Paul Crichton, The Lancet

  • "Part of the thrill of Frayn's play is reaching its end and feeling you've understood it. The dialogue is filled to bursting with names, dates and places, along with principles of quantum physics and nuclear fission." - Daryl H. Miller, The Los Angeles Times

  • "From the first word of Copenhagen, Frayn locates the audience in the ambiguous space between Heisenberg certainty and Bohr suggestiveness; we are teased into thought without following Brechtian signposts or Shavian deductions." - Robert L. King, Massachusetts Review

  • "An evening with Michael Frayn's dazzling new drama will be among the most exhilarating, challenging and involving two and a half hours you ever spend in a theater. And you don't need an advanced degree to understand the profound questions it raises about motive, morality and the betrayal of memory. They're at the very epicenter of the turbulent twentieth century from which we're just emerging, questions that take us straight to the heart of human existence." - Carol Rocamora, The Nation

  • "(A) gripping intellectual exercise." - Robert Brustein, The New Republic

  • "Those who dismiss the work as likely to be yet another populist mishmash of half-understood physics, personality stereotyping and political mystery-mongering would be wrong. An enquiry into the events of a particular evening in Bohr's home becomes a wise and perfectly informed journey to the core of the scientific enterprise. It is also brilliant theatre." - John Ziman, Physics World

  • "Michael Frayn steps courageously into this void, summoning the spirits of Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Heisenberg into the theatrical equivalent of a three-particle collision. Copenhagen is not a nice chat in a Danish sitting room, but rather a boxing match in two acts, fought among haunted souls trying to reclaim the past." - David Voss, Science

  • "Yet Copenhagen is an easier play to admire than to enjoy. Frayn's dialogue is heavy with exposition, both dramatic and scientific, and despite some human filigree (references to the drowning death of Bohr's son), the characters remain heads in search of bodies. In the end, the play is too speculative for history, too cerebral for drama. Frayn's postscript to a published edition of the play, describing the scholarly debate over Heisenberg's motives, is oddly more compelling than the play itself." - Richard Zoglin, Time

  • "Its first act is slightly static, but the second becomes swiftly compelling, as the dialogue rises to the challenge of the subject-matter: how to make scientific technicalities comprehensible to a lay audience. (...) But this is above all a play of striking intelligence, in which Michael Frayn brings clarity to complexity and uncertainty." - Maggie Gee, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Tossing about its alternative hypotheses, Copenhagen has the odd, brainily diverting quality of a salad made of cut-up strips of conflicting doctoral dissertations -- hard to swallow but great fun to toy with on the plate. What's hardest to swallow, oddly enough, isn't the physics, which Frayn sets out lucidly and Blakemore's staging often illustrates charmingly. It's the moral material at the core." - Michael Feingold, The Village Voice

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Copenhagen is among the unlikelier dramas of recent times to have become a great success. It focusses on an historical incident: the 1941 meeting between German physicist Werner Heisenberg and Danish physicist Niels Bohr. What was discussed at the meeting has long been the subject of debate among scientists and historians; recently released letters (see them at the Niels Bohr Archive) shed more light on matters, without completely clearing up the question.
       At issue, in essence, was the atomic bomb. But it was 1941, and it was unclear how or even whether an atomic bomb could be built. Heisenberg appears to have sounded out Bohr, to determine ... ah, well, that's part of the mystery. Add to that conditions under which the meeting arose. Heisenberg was one of the few German scientists who did not flee as the Nazis consolidated their power. He was an important scientist in what was the most powerful country in Europe at the time. The United States had not yet entered the war and a German victory still seemed more than plausible. Tiny Denmark, meanwhile, was an occupied state.
       Copenhagen has only three characters -- the two scientists and Bohr's wife. They are also all dead, reconvening in some sort of afterlife and going over old times. Though it is not written in any stage instructions, the stage is clearly meant to be essentially bare. It doesn't sound in the least promising, and yet as Frayn presents it it is truly gripping theatre.
       The characters reminisce, after a fashion, and replay some of the events. Margrethe Bohr isn't very happy with Heisenberg, while Bohr can be seduced by his scientific brilliance. Heisenberg also remains an ambiguous figure, not willing to renounce Germany and its horrible government, but in many respects a caring soul.
       There's a great deal of talk about physics, along with some personal anecdotes, and there's always the spectre of the bomb. Frayn's great success is in his presentation of the material: the dialogue skips along, clever, witty, fast. The three characters dance around one another in elementary orbits. And uncertainty -- and unknowability -- are principles throughout.
       The science is served up well (and utilized well, in support of the material). The history is interesting. And it is all put together in a very entertaining way.
       If there is any weakness, or disappointing aspect to the play, it is the history -- or rather, the fact that so much is made of it. Does Frayn have it right ? people wonder. Did they really talk like this, about these things ? It's a shame, in a way, to judge the play on this basis, as if Hamlet should be considered just in terms of how close it is to historical truth. Frayn isn't attempting to write history, and many of the issues he raises are as valid as they would be even if he got every historical aspect of the play wrong.
       The play's the thing, not the history, and if enjoyed as such it is a very fine achievement. (It's damn good too even if one considers it merely as inventive docu-drama.)

       The play also contains an extensive Postscript by the author, discussing much of the historical background to the play (and including a useful bibliography). Though interesting, note that some of this material has since been superseded: new information about the meeting has since surfaced (including the letters released by the Niels Bohr Archive) and a great deal has been written re-evaluating what is known about the meeting.

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Copenhagen: Copenhagen - the TV film: Reviews: Michael Frayn: Other books by Michael Frayn under review: Other books of interest under review:
  • See the index of Drama at the complete review

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About the Author:

       Michael Frayn was born in 1933. He is best known as a playwright. He has also written several acclaimed novels.

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© 2002-2015 the complete review

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