A crucial meeting between scientific friends separated by the political divide of World War II provides the framework for a play being staged at Northwestern University’s engineering school this month.
One September night in 1941, the German Nobel Prize-winning physicist Werner Heisenberg visited his friend and mentor Niels Bohr in Nazi-occupied Denmark.
The two went for a walk, and their conversation ended in an argument, stemming from Heisenberg’s revelation that he was leading a research effort that might provide Nazi Germany with atomic weapons.
What was said and exactly why Heisenberg came to Copenhagen in the first place has remained a puzzle ever since.
This month three actors — including a Northwestern University professor — will revisit that fateful conversation about the atomic bomb in an attempt to unravel the physicists’ misunderstanding when the Tony Award-winning play “Copenhagen” by Michael Frayn comes to the stage (actually, a lecture hall) at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science.
Performances will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Sept. 23, through Saturday, Sept. 27, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 28, in Lecture Room 2 of the Technological Institute, 2145 Sheridan Road, on the University’s Evanston campus. Admission is free, with a suggested $5 donation to CeaseFire, an initiative of the Chicago Project for Violence Prevention.
Panel discussions after each performance will feature Northwestern faculty from various areas of the University (such as German language and literature, physics, history, fine arts, ethics and policy) sharing interdisciplinary perspectives of the play.
“Copenhagen,” which won a Tony Award in 2000 for Best Play, is presented by the McCormick School and by Magnolia Six Artists, a theater troupe founded in Munich, Germany, by American and British actors to provide modern and challenging English-language theater to a transcultural audience.
The play is part of a new outreach initiative at McCormick called ETOPiA: Engineering Transdisciplinary Outreach Project in the Arts, whose goal is to promote interdisciplinary dialogue about science and technology through artistic media. To this end, “Copenhagen” will be performed in a technical lecture hall to evoke the academic spirit of the play’s characters, using the existing props in a spare set.
The play is about uncertainty, the problem of memory and the subjectivity of history. Years later, Heisenberg and Bohr never agreed as to what happened — they experienced the same events but had different recollections. “Copenhagen” presents what happened before and after the meeting but lets the audience decide what happened during the event itself.
Heisenberg will be played by Matthew Grayson, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at McCormick. Grayson, also the play’s producer, has performed and directed theater in the United States and Germany.
“What I find most interesting about this complex play is the human element — the motivations and misgivings of each character,” said Grayson, who brought “Copenhagen” to Northwestern as the outreach component of his CAREER Award from the National Science Foundation. “And it’s a special opportunity to bring science and the arts together — two creative passions of mine.”
British actor Mansel David will portray Bohr, and British actress Alison Sandford MacKenzie will play Bohr’s wife, Margrethe. The director, as well as the founder of magnolia six artIsts, is Maureen Payne-Hahner, who attended The School at Steppenwolf Theatre. Cast and director have been together since Magnolia first performed “Copenhagen” in Munich in 2006, followed by performances in Vienna and Zagreb, all on university campuses.
In the play, Heisenberg and Niels and Margrethe Bohr engage in a posthumous analysis of that evening in 1941. Framed by the science of atomic physics, the work explores the three individuals’ points of view and delves into the metaphysics of human motivation.
Bohr and Heisenberg first met in 1922 and began a fruitful collaboration. Their work together on quantum mechanics and the uncertainty principle revolutionized atomic physics. Then World War II found them on opposite sides, both involved in developing nuclear weapons. Heisenberg was put in charge of atomic research for Nazi Germany; Bohr went to work for the Manhattan Project in 1943.
Reservations for “Copenhagen” are recommended and can be made online or by calling (847) 324-3298.