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History in Theater

History in Theater

To the Editors:

While the recent spate of new plays and even musicals dealing with scientific topics is exciting ("Science as Theater," November–December), we should be critical of the rewriting not only of scientific history but also of the images of scientists. Despite the fine writing in Michael Frayn's play Copenhagen, his details are suspect, and the white-glove treatment of Werner Heisenberg distorts the role of this scientist during World War II.

The climactic scene at the end of the play paints Heisenberg as a man of principle without the blood of innocent people on his hands while depicting Niels Bohr as an individual responsible for the death of hundreds of thousands of people when the atomic bomb was used against Japan. Certainly Heisenberg, a man in the upper echelon of Germany, was well aware of the death camps. However, he chose to state at an international conference in Zurich that it was painful to see Nazi Germany lose the war and that it would have been wonderful if they had won.

Rewriting science as well as history is to be deplored. Unfortunately, this is what Michael Frayn does in Copenhagen.

Nelson Marans

Silver Spring, Maryland

To the Editors:

As much as I enjoyed the discussion of the interaction between science and the dramatic arts, I am surprised that Harry Lustig and Kirsten Shepherd-Barr's coverage of Copenhagen didn't mention the revelations in the secretly recorded conversations at Farm Hall, where Heisenberg was held in British captivity along with other German atom scientists. The transcript of those tapes shows his understanding of both the science and morality of the bomb.

Charles N. Brennecke

Saint Paul, Minnesota

Drs. Lustig and Shepherd-Barr reply:

Several historians and other commentators have expressed Mr. Marans's criticism that the author of Copenhagen, Michael Frayn, rewrites history, in particular by whitewashing Heisenberg and allowing him to get away with pronouncing Bohr culpable for the thousands of deaths resulting from the Anglo-American A-bomb. Frayn and other writers have rebutted these charges, and we provided references to sources on both sides of the controversy in the bibliography to our article. We can easily understand why the critics are disturbed, even outraged, by Heisenberg's eloquent, exculpatory curtain speech. However, in our view, the author does not present Heisenberg's version as the "final truth." Rather, in accord with the thesis that informs the entire play—that uncertainty and complementarity rule in human perceptions and interactions as they do in quantum physics—Frayn presents the scene as a provocative albeit not easily dismissed "draft."

As Mr. Brennecke recognizes, our article discussed the interaction of science and the dramatic arts, using selected plays as case studies. Consequently we did not, in the Copenhagen segment, undertake to deal with the actual history of why the Germans did not get an atomic bomb, or with any other historical facts. But, to respond to Mr. Brennecke concerning the Farm Hall tapes, the transcript shows that Heisenberg was dumbfounded when he heard on the radio that Hiroshima had been devastated by a uranium bomb. From his reaction it appears that either he had incorrectly calculated the critical mass required for a bomb, or had not calculated it at all, and had simply assumed that it was several orders of magnitude larger than the quantity of uranium-235 that could be assembled. Indeed, even after the news of the bombing of Hiroshima, Heisenberg made an error in trying to estimate the critical mass required. It took him several days to make the right calculation and to get a reasonably correct estimate.

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