This is part of a series of posts inspired by the Royal Society’s One Culture festival of literature and the arts.

Guest post by Alice Aylett Roberts, digital volunteer

The culmination of the first day of the One Culture festival celebrating science, literature and the arts was a well-attended lecture by one of Britain’s best loved writers. Michael Frayn’s rousing discussion of his play Copenhagen was introduced by Professor Uta Frith FRS and began with an amusing anecdote about the last time he had lectured on this topic to a packed hall at a university in Australia. 

A loud and distracting thunderstorm took place during the lecture and Frayn thought that this was affecting the lighting of the lecture hall, which flickered off-and-on intermittently. It wasn’t until the lecture had finished, that Frayn was informed his decision to sit on the edge of a desk meant he had inadvertently sat on an electrical panel that controlled the auditorium’s lighting. Luckily for us, the unusually balmy October weather at the Royal Society building presented no such difficulties, and Frayn carefully scanned his seat to avoid a similarly embarrassing incident before launching into the discussion.

Photograph of Michael Frayn, speaking at the One Culture festival

The basis of Frayn’s 1998 play Copenhagen is the real life meeting between world renowned physicists and former associates Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg. It was in 1941, at the height of World War II, that the German-born Heisenberg visited his former mentor Danish-born Bohr, but the nature and purpose of this discussion has been long disputed. In fact the play is so preoccupied with Heisenberg’s motivations for his visit that the opening lines include with the seemingly unanswerable question; “Why did he come to Copenhagen?” Most scholars now agree that, although the exact details will always be in dispute, it’s likely that Heisenberg visited Bohr to discuss the Nazi’s atomic weapons programme.

Frayn’s discussion at this event outlined his desire to portray as accurate an interpretation of events as he possibly could, but he stressed that it would be impossible to know what really happened. Frayn even made the intriguing assertion that historical record is subjective and that, in some rare cases, fiction can even determine historical record. The best example of this, are the events that took place in the aftermath of Copenhagen’s premiere. The debut of this play led to an academic conference on the subject and the revelation of a secret stash of letters from both Bohr and Heisenberg, which shed new light on the details of their infamous 1941 meeting. All subsequent discussion of this meeting and historical interpretations are informed by Frayn’s Copenhagen, which is ostensibly a work of fiction.

Interestingly, Frayn admitted that had he known about the existence of the letters, he would have written his play differently. However the not-knowing clearly has its charms since Frayn revealed that one of the play’s core themes was the parallel between Heisenberg’s research (i.e. the uncertainty of fully understanding the behaviour of fast moving particles) and the impossibility of fully comprehending human nature.

The breadth of the discussion from scientific principles and literature to history and philosophy left our eager audience impatient for the upcoming revival of Copenhagen next year and hastily dashing off to purchase a copy of the play at Foyles. Once he had finished his book signing I asked him a few questions about arguably his most famous play, Copenhagenclick here to watch our interview.

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