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Frayn of Mind

The author of Copenhagen on the genesis of his new play. logo
"When I wrote the play, I had no expectations for it at all. I wrote it because I wanted to write it." This is Michael Frayn talking about Copenhagen, the unlikely nuclear-physics thriller just opening on Broadway. "I didn't think there would be anyone idiotic enough to produce it. And if there were anyone idiotic enough to produce it, I thought nobody would come and see it."

Though Frayn is chatting in low, even tones about his award-winning opus, he is at one end of a trans-Atlantic telephone interview. When it's suggested that, as a dramatist, he will understand the importance of filling readers in on character and setting, he gives the following information as if it were a stage direction: Michael Frayn, 66--tall, with thinning gray hair, wears spectacles, donnish--is discovered sitting by the windows in a North London flat overlooking the sunny Park Village East gardens.

Copenhagen (Frayn pronounces it with a long "a") is the playwright-novelist-essayist-translator's two-act speculation about a meeting in 1941 between physicist Werner Heisenberg and his mentor and estranged friend, Niels Bohr. The third party present at an event known to have taken place, but about which no precise records have surfaced, is Bohr's wife, Margrethe. The threesome's conversation is assumed to have revolved (at least in part) around the touchy subject of nuclear fission, and is therefore believed to have far-reaching implications for the development of the atomic bomb. But since only vague recollections of the contents have worked their way into political and scientific histories, Frayn has indulged himself in imagining some provocative exchanges that proliferate and double back on themselves in the course of one afternoon.

"I had no scientific training," Frayn admits as he launches into an account of how his play came to be, "but I did study philosophy, and you have to know about quantum mechanics. I was interested in Heisenberg." That interest prompted him to scan a review of Thomas Powers' 1993 book Heisenberg's War: The Secret History of the German Bomb. Taking note in the critique of a reference to the intriguing 1941 reunion between teacher and student, Frayn wondered whether there might be something in the volume that would give him the basics elements of a plot. After all, Heisenberg is famous for--among other things--his uncertainty theory.

Linking that brand of uncertainty about activities in the nucleus with uncertainty about Heisenberg-Bohr gabfest, Frayn recalls thinking that Powers' tome might "provide a way of looking at the difficulty of assessing human motivation"--a theme that has often held him in thrall. So Frayn sat down with the book and found that "it bore out my guess. It's not a trivial mystery: the question of why [Heisenberg] went and, most important, what did he say.

"Theoretically," Frayn continues, "to write, all you need is a stack of paper and a pen." But with Copenhagen he took a more complicated approach. Presumably, his North London office--around the corner from the home he shares with his wife, biographer Claire Tomalin--is chock-a-block with books. That's because he can be pulled into prolonged study. For Copenhagen, he says, he "didn't intend to do very much research, but I was extremely fascinated." Consequently, preparing the play took "vastly longer" than he'd anticipated. Then, with director Michael Blakemore he went to Richard Eyre, who at the time was about to quit his post as artistic director of the Royal National Theatre. Eyre said he would pass the manuscript on to his successor, Trevor Nunn. Nunn, however, remembers finding the play in a file--a happenstance Frayn considers amusing, because it reinforces his sense of how complicated it is "reconciling people's memories."

Now that the play has surprised Frayn and Blakemore by filling the National's tiny Cottesloe Theatre for an extended period and subsequently transferring to the West End, where it's still running, Frayn's uncertainty fantasy is coming to New York. There will be some script changes, though not because anyone thinks it's necessary to dumb down heady material for stateside audiences. The revisions--some instated in England, some new here--have come about because of factual mistakes. Frayn reports that, although he made great efforts to verify all the scientific data he'd packed into his dialogue before rehearsals began, there were "two horrendous mathematical errors" that had to be expunged.

There has also been the "ticklish" Max Born issue. Born made significant strides that influenced Heisenberg's work, and his son, Gustav, let Frayn know about the oversight--always, the dramatist stresses, "with the greatest temperance." Frayn has gladly made conciliatory adjustments.

Other changes in the production from the way it appears in London can't be vouchsafed in any detail by Frayn, because he hasn't been around for rehearsals. He knows that the set will be "as absolutely alike as we can make it" and therefore will continue to suggest a surgery theater. "Part of the plan, of course," Frayn explains, "was to keep the idea of the audience in the minds of the audience. One of the things the play stresses is how often science has put the human observer at the center. What the play suggests, finally, is that one of the reasons why Heisenberg may have been visiting Bohr was to get an audience for what he was thinking, and Bohr was the ideal audience."

Neither did Frayn participate in the New York casting: Philip Bosco, Blair Brown, and Michael Cumpsty are the players. "There's a lot to be said for Americans doing it," he offers, declining to make the usual demurrals about the loss of a British company since, in Copenhagen, the characters are two Danes and a German. Frayn trusts Blakemore implicitly, and says of the director with whom he has worked on five productions, "He knows exactly what I think and I know exactly what he thinks." In other words, Frayn has the kind of certainty about Blakemore that he finds lacking in so much of the cosmos clockwork.

Well, the two men did organize Frayn's masterpiece comedy, Noises Off, the second act of which is regarded in many quarters as the single funniest sequence ever written for the stage. As it shows a group of second-rate performers botching a third-rate sex farce, that play seems to be another instance of Frayn confirming aspects of Heisenberg's uncertainty theory. (Frayn recalls that the Noises Off second act was "torturously difficult" to cobble together; he also feels that the comedy validates those who contend that "my works are about an ordered world breaking down into disorder."

Frayn collaborated with no one on Headlong, his recent, Booker Prize-nominated novel about a man who thinks he's located a missing Bruegel in the home of an acquaintance and sets out to gain possession of the perhaps hugely valuable canvas. Once more, uncertainty--the truth of the painting's origin and the outcome of the protagonist's manipulations--is an ingredient.

Having been astonished at Copenhagen's reception in England, does Frayn have any predictions as to the response the play is likely to provoke in New York? "I don't think it's any good thinking about how audiences are going to react," the author says, "because it's absolutely unknowable."

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