“History is what you remember as having happened, not what actually happened.” It was this thought, shared by Michael Frayn in a recent discussion with the Director of the Science Museum, that that lies at the heart of Copenhagen, the most famous work of the playwright and novelist.
Michael Frayn has a long-held interest in philosophy and the sciences, notably in his book The Human Touch: Our Part in the Creation of the Universe. However, he is best known for his Tony-award winning play, which was staged at the National Theatre in London and later on Broadway in New York.
Copenhagen is an enduring example of how the history of science can inform dramatic work, and vividly demonstrates the power of drama to explore history, bringing scholarly discussions to the attention of a wide audience.
The play examines the uncertainties surrounding the 1941 meeting between two Nobel prize winning physicists in German-occupied Copenhagen at the height of World War II.
Physicist Werner Heisenberg, head of the German nuclear energy project, and his Danish counterpart Niels Bohr, who later worked on the Manhattan Project, discussed the possibility of building an atomic bomb.
There was no accurate record of what was said at the meeting, and there are conflicting recollections made years later in unsent letters and transcripts from Heisenberg’s internment shortly after the war at Farm Hall, a bugged house near Cambridge. As a consequence, Frayn’s dramatisation of the meeting has itself become part of the historical record.
Those listening to Michael Frayn in the audience, included his wife, the biographer Claire Tomalin, Tony award-winning director of Copenhagen, Michael Blakemore, and Niels Bohr’s great grand-daughter, Esme Dixon. Prof Jon Butterworth of University College London, science biographer Graham Farmelo, Science Museum Trustee Howard Covington, Jean M Franczyk, Director of the Museum of Science & Industry and Andrew Nahum, Principal Curator of Technology and Engineering, were also present for the fascinating discussion.
You can watch the full conversation between Michael Frayn and the Science Museum Group’s Director, Ian Blatchford, here.