Sunday, January 13, 2008

Elsinore by Way of Copenhagen

Oh God, I could be bounded in a nutshell, and count myself a
king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.

-Hamlet, Act II, scene 2

After seeing the American Repertory Theatre production of Copenhagen at the Loeb Drama Center I was struck by the references to Elsinore. Two of the characters bring up a visit they once made together to the famed setting of Shakespeare's famous play. One of the characters observes that Elsinore, the real place, was changed forever for Hamlet having been written about it. The playwright, Michael Frayn, aims for his play to have to the same effect on another setting.

Three large rings, each sending a pulsing blue light around its circumference, hover above the audience and the thrust stage. Set off on different angles, like the orbits of electrons around a nucleus, they mirror the three characters, Neils Bohr, Werner Heisenberg and Borh's wife Margerethe. In history, Bohr and Heisenberg, physicists of the early part of last century, not only witnessed, but actively revealed mysteries of the universe.

Neil's Bohr, referred to as the Pope of the physics world at the time, and his pupil, Werner Heisenberg, each planted stakes in the ground along the massive territorial rush into the landscape of physics. Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle and Bohr's Complimentarity are explained by Frayn in simple terms, using metaphors that the characters mouth in ways that seem unlikely, but not impossible. Making a fast decision while skiing downhill or watching somebody move in and out of city streetlights become examples that allow the physics to stretch into the larger moral universe to which Frayn is aiming.

The play takes place, not in the 1920's or the 1940's, but in a kind of limbo where, liberated from earthly constraints of time and physical deterioration of mental agility, these three beings are gathered to work on a discovery of a different kind.

On the dark stage, under a very dim light, the ghosts, dressed in grey, business-like attire, keep playing out the events of one night in 1941 when Heisenberg, then working for his home country of Germany, visited Neils Bohr, who was living in occupied Denmark. The meeting did happen, but the kernel, the "what if" that powers the genesis of Frayn's drama, is the elusivness of the recollection of that meeting. Bohr and Heisenberg, after World War II could not seem to come to agreement on the actual details or even the words spoken.

From the very first, there is a stricken and even ashen look to the characters. John Kuntz as Heisenberg, a wunderkind now on the other side of eternity, cuts a tentative figure of man now humbled after the defeat of his beloved Germany.

The first re-enactment of the visit to the Bohr's home in Copenhagen opens with Heisenberg awkwardly asking if Bohr has been sailing or skiing. Bohr's reply that the harbor is under control of the navy and that under occupation he, a half jew, could hardly travel to a ski resort underscores the obvious: Heisenberg's visit, under these circumstances, could harldy be social.

There is also the ever present idea of the Nazis listening in on the conversation. This feeling is intensified by the thrust configuration of the seating and would probably be more so in the round. The characters, weary from history, time, and the threats inherent in totalitarian surveillance, cannot openly discuss almost anything about the present situation during the thick of World War II.

So, they are left with physics and the past. Happier times are recounted, and the circumstances of their greatest contributions to physics are outlined. Margarethe (Karen Macdonald) is always there to act as the audience's guide and turns addressing all three sides of the audience.

As the science and recollections begin to energize the characters, the staging moves further from the static and seated center stage into the peripheries of the darkness. The characters are sometimes addressing each other across the expanse of the cold, grey floor of their purgatory, and brushing and colliding with each other. But every time the scenes or events begin to reach a climax, we are brought back to the central mystery, voiced in the opening question of Margarethe, "Why did he come to Copenhagen?"

Like the ghost, foretold by the opening question of Hamlet, Heisenberg's visit is the spectral voice of justice. Will Lebow's Bohr is man haunted by the idea that his life's work has resulted in oblivion, and his realization that things might have been different if he had handled the historic meeting differently. For Hamlet, the rest is silence, but for these men, there is no rest. When Bohr says that someday all of this will come to an end, there is a faltering hope in the tone. Though a crucial calculation for fission rests at the heart of Heisenberg's Nazi escorted visit to Copenhagen, for these characters, the solution to that equation is not sought for personal glory, military victory or the advancement of science. It for the ease of their restless souls.

When Bohr or Heisenberg are illuminating scientific principles they usually speak in terms of dualities. Schroedinger's cat is referenced multiple times for instance. And Frayn amplifies the principles with his dramatic dialouge. Margarethe speaks of Heisenberg as being two people at once. And Heisenberg talks of himself as the "invisible other," while asking others questions with negatives: "why didn't I give them the information?"

The somber, almost funereal feeling of this production succeeds in rendering the characters a bit more inscrutable, but the impact of the play's revelations gets away because Michael Frayn's philosophy is a little shakier than his skills as a playwright.

The scenes lack dramatic arcs in purposeful way. Like Bertolt Brecht's attempts to eschew climaxes, Copenhagen's dramatic events keep ending with anticipation and ideas, but no emotional release. The understated acting choices of Scott Zigler's production are simultaneously alienating on a personal level and engaging on larger more intellectual level. While the physics and metaphorical discussions fade into the black of the atmosphere, the central moral question comes to the fore with ever increasing dread. Will the purgatory end for these souls? Did Heisenberg vigorously pursue a bomb for Hitler? Did Bohr contribute significantly to the Los Alamos project?

In the world of dramatic psychological realism, which cocoons most all of us in our mainstream entertainment choices, the questions would be answered: Nazis and their sympathizers bad. Allies good. Frayn's larger indictment, however, includes Allies and Nazi's, Bohr and Heisenberg, and, to top it off, science, the world and the ever expanding darkness of the universe about it.

Frayn's recent philosophical work, The Human Touch, argues in essay what he attempts to dramatize in Copenhagen. The idea that WE create the universe. It is a sophisticated reversion to pre-Copernican world view and follows in the footsteps of other significant philosophers. Heisenberg's duality, a concept Frayn would go on to dramatize more starkly in Democracy, a play about German politics, relates to a sort of moral relativity that, (from best I can understand,) stems from our inability to ever know ourselves. Frayn argues that the Copernican view, which helps to absolve us of responsibility by placing us farther from the center of the universe, also enables us in our moral abdication as well - what's the use, right?

It is disappointing that the play's philosophy rests on several fallacies, because this production, which emphasises and underlines the heart of Frayn's argument almost topples the whole thing over.

Behind the circle of darkness that encompasses the playing area, the depths of the stage reveal the poisoned fruits of the technology of war just for a brief moment in the first act. The vision never returns, but we know it is there, hovering outside the consciousness of the three characters. Ominous and relevant, but ultimately unreachable on a gut level, because the play is not about moral dilemma, it is about categorical imperative.

The scientific talk is all just formula to support his philosophical ideology- Not empty padding as much as justification for his argument. When Margarethe, late in the second act, accuses Heisenberg of more selfish motives for coming to Copenhagen, Karen Macdonald reveals some of the passion beneath the suffering the Bohr family has seen. But those types of moments are few and far between in this production.

Interpretation of events is everything to Frayn's philosophy, he is not interested in the outcome as much as he is the arrival at the outcome. For instance, the Bohr's experiences are to be trumped by Heisenberg's description of his trek across Germany's lawless wasteland after the Reich began to fall. However, it requires a little sleight of hand to absolve Heisenberg's relationship with the Nazis.

Shakespeare's plays take many liberties with historical events, and modern plays do as well. Local playwright Russell Lees' Nixon's Nixon imagined the conversation between Nixon and Kissinger to great dramatic effect. Unlike many dramatists Frayn doesn't want to imagine and create a fiction which we can then contextualize into our own experiences. Instead, Frayn aema to want us to take life's empirical observations and contextualize them around his imagined universe.

After the play, the mind is invigorated with the possibilities of interpretation of events, but facts that exist outside the Loeb Drama Center and Frayn's imagined universe still remain facts. And so while it is true that the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, to which Bohr contributed, killed hundreds of thousands, (a point Frayn and the the production at the ART go a long way to emphasize,) it is equally true that the Nazis sytematically killed millions and Heisenberg was more than proud to lend an assist to the Reich.

Frayn's play is a masterpiece of drama, and the final moments succeed in creating a great anti-climax as our assumptions of guilt and innocence are reversed and shattered. However, in this portentuous production at the American Repertory Theatre the darkness seems more pressing, a bit more suffocating. As if the production has been built around the allusions to Elsinore, it resembles a modern dress interpretation of Hamlet, right down to the attire and the dark lighting.

1 comment:

Ian Thal said...

Thank you for reminding me over Facebook of this essay (assuming that I read it the first time around-- I'm uncertain.)

As I mentioned on my own blog, the more I think of it, the more I am troubled by Frayn's attempts to use poetic truth and poetic justice to trump the very real historical facts and draw moral equivalencies where none exist. Now the interesting matter is that you found a link between Copenhagen and Frayn's philosophical writings, while I noted that Frayn, relied heavily on the Nazi-apologist and Holocaust denier, David Irving, for his research on the German bomb program.