Copenhagen by Michael Frayn and The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue by Michael Frayn and David Burke

9 December 2007

Continuing the previous post’s theme of a play by Michael Frayn, here are two books connected to another Frayn play with a similarly historical bent.

Copenhagen by Michael Frayn (playscript)

The premise of Copenhagen is based on a historical event: in 1941, German physicist Werner Heisenberg travelled to Copenhagen — which at the time was under Nazi occupation — to meet with Danish physicist Niels Bohr. It is recorded that Heisenberg met with Bohr and Bohr’s wife Margrethe, and Bohr and Heisenberg later went out for a walk so they could speak without being overheard by the Gestapo. But when Bohr returned from the walk he was absolutely furious about something, and Heisenberg left shortly afterwards. Though Bohr and Heisenberg had been close friends for many years before that meeting, they barely spoke to each other again after that. The substance of the Bohr-Heisenberg conversation has never been fully explained. Some historians say that Heisenberg was attempting to recruit Bohr to help with the Nazi nuclear energy project (on which Heisenberg was working at the time) in exchange for academic reinstatement and advancement…even though Bohr was half-Jewish. The other, more sympathetic theory is that Heisenberg was trying to give Bohr information about the Nazi nuclear project in the hope that Bohr would be able to pass that information along to the Allies — essentially, that Heisenberg was trying to derail the Nazi attempt to build atomic weapons.

Frayn’s play takes both of these theories and weaves them together, never quite promoting one or the other but (intriguingly) connecting both theories to the principles of physics that both Bohr and Heisenberg were famous for creating: Bohr’s complementarity principle and Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle. It’s an amazingly complex and multilayered play that only has three characters, Bohr and his wife and Heisenberg, and yet seems to contain many more voices than just those of two men and one woman.

The Copenhagen Papers: An Intrigue by Michael Frayn and David Burke

The Copenhagen Papers was jointly written by Michael Frayn and by David Burke; the latter played Niels Bohr in the original London run of the play. The subject of the book is an elaborate practical joke that Burke played on Frayn during the run of the play, and the joke is complicated enough to require a short historical background even before I can summarise it. The history hinges on the fact that at the end of World War II, Werner Heisenberg and the other scientists who had been working on the Nazi nuclear energy programme were taken to England and interned at an out-of-the-way requisitioned house called Farm Hall, where they were closely watched and interviewed by British intelligence.

David Burke decided that he wanted to play a joke on Frayn, some kind of joke related to the play that Frayn had written. Burke began by inventing a woman named Celia Rhys-Evans, who had apparently lived in Farm Hall at some point during the 1960s and had discovered a number of documents hidden under the floorboards of the house. These documents were written in cryptic, barely legible German, which nevertheless seemed to hint that the captured scientists had been communicating with each other without the knowledge of their British captors. Burke enlisted the help of some friends to fake 50-year-old German documents, and then (as Celia Rhys-Evans) he sent a number of the faked papers to Frayn, along with a letter that asked if these old papers would be useful to him if he ever wanted to write another play.

Not only did Frayn believe that the documents were genuine, but he also began a correspondence with Mrs Rhys-Evans to see if there were any other documents she might have on hand that dealt with the captured scientists. And thus Frayn and Burke set out on a strange and occasionally journey where one forgery followed another and another. Neither was willing to let go of his side of the story, but as the correspondence continued they both became so immersed in the fiction that the whole thing nearly ended in an exhausted stalemate. In the end, Frayn actually had to be told that the whole thing was a hoax.

The Copenhagen Papers is an account of the whole joke from inception to discovery — the truth was revealed by a sympathetic friend who thought that the joke had gone too far. The book is meant to be an exploration of some of the themes touched on in Copenhagen the play: the uncertainty of history and historical evidence, the ambiguous nature of language, the questions that are raised every time we learn something new about the past and how it may have shaped the future…or in this case, the present. Frayn and Burke clearly seem to have come to an understanding over this incident, enough to write a book about it and treat it fairly dispassionately. And even if my historian side almost can’t help but writhe a little to read about a deliberate forging of historical documents for a joke, The Copenhagen Papers is an intriguing exploration of what it means to be present at the creation of ‘history’.


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