“Comments of the Fictional Character ‘Michael Frayn’

on Mara Beller’s ‘Another Round’ ”


A talk for the Symposium “Drama meets History of Science”,

September 22–23, 2001, Niels Bohr Archive, Copenhagen


By Mara Beller



(Quotations from Michael Frayn’s works are in italics. MB)


"Another round?"   O r another impostor, pretending to be a playwright?  All these plays about science which have suddenly popped up all over the place. 


But why?  Why now?  For good reason, for bad reason and for no discernible reason at all, if I may quote my own line from “Headlong.”  But “Another Round” does not pretend to be a play, just an improvisation of my Copenhagen.  A sort of critique, and a peculiar one.  “Certain about uncertainty, predicting unpredictability” says Heisenberg in “Another Round.”  Is this irony directed towards my play? Or towards the Copenhagen Interpretation?  Or both?  Quite a nuisance, I would say.  But also a challenge of sorts.  Is challenge complementary to nuisance?  God, it does seem easy to find complementarity everywhere.


It is fragmentation, ambiguity and uncertainty of life that I am always struggling to express, in each of my works.  From my early years as a reporter I know that the world is an odder place than we imagine.  The world is not in words, and getting it into words is hellishly difficult.  And if my plays have a post-modern ring, it is because life itself is post-modern.  When it all becomes too burdensome, I turn to translation of Checkov’s plays.  A pleasure, a balm.  Like driving a Rolls Royce!


Yet I have to admit that “Another round” has a point.  The only thing that I exempted from uncertainty, ambiguity and multiplicity is the Copenhagen Interpretation itself.  I have learned since I finished “Copenhagen” that there are other, competitive interpretations, without uncertainty and complementarity, that Bohr’s proof supposedly forbade in principle.  One of them ‑ David Bohm’s objective, deterministic, observer-independent ontology seems to have quite a few followers today.  It is not that I have some special liking for Bohm’s alternative.  Rather its very existence is proof of the need for open dialogue and interpretive freedom that Copenhagen rhetoric seemed to suppress.  But I am happy about my oversight, just as Heisenberg was happy about his mistake in the uncertainty paper.  Without it there would have been no “Copenhagen!”


Though “Copenhagen” was a rest from my writing of farce, perhaps I could have used a little more humor.  Finn Aaserud gave me a wonderful present – a copy of the 1935 Journal of Jocular Physics, written in Copenhagen, by young physicists working with Bohr.  I read it at once.  It seems that what later became the official, humorless legitimization of the Copenhagen Interpretation, was in the early years a playful, light-hearted, self-mocking way to deal with contradictions, in physics and in life.  I especially liked Victor Weisskopf’s delightful self-refuting piece, “Complementary Philosophy of Jokes.”  It affirms elusiveness of truth but denies the possibility to express this elusiveness by any finalizing principle – such as the complementarity principle, I guess.  A young and playful spirit, a delight, similar to the spirit in which David Burke and I wrote our “Copenhagen Papers” – flamboyant, mischievous, juvenile.


But could I have written Copenhagen in this ironic, self-refuting spirit?  Uncertainty deconstructing uncertainty?  Metaphor of ambiguity and plurality – so powerful, so tempting, and still undermining itself?  I guess such an idea is too metaphysical, to heavy for audiences.  When, in my “Noises Off”, I dismembered the very notion of the play to the bone, so to say, and had actors getting out of their characters, people loved it.  But when in “Look Look” I introduced the concept of an audience watching an audience watching a play – it was a flop.  We knew it from the first preview night, we knew it was dead.  An awful time! 


The unpredictable irony of it all!  I wrote “Copenhagen” as a play, and not as a novel, let’s say, to eliminate the all-knowing narrator, his finalizing point of view. But by presenting the Copenhagen Philosophy along the lines of Bohr and Heisenberg, without as much as even mentioning the existence of interpretive alternatives, I volunteered all the weight of my artistic authority for dissemination of the Copenhagen Dogma, as the Copenhagen philosophy is often called.  Not only did I take sides as an author, but I diffused the Copenhagen spirit to much wider audiences than Bohr and Heisenberg could ever hope for.  And to think that I did it unintentionally!


I know from my student days that everything political is epistemological.  Now I realize everything epistemological is political.  So when we are going to talk at this conference about dissemination of scientific knowledge to a wider public, should we not ask ourselves: whose science? Whose knowledge?  And how do we get the knowledge to answer this thorny question about knowledge?


But it is the moral issues that are the most distressful ones.  Why did Heisenberg come to Copenhagen?  That he came to seek Bohr’s advice on a moral dilemma seems to me as credible today as that he traveled all the way to Copenhagen to ask Bohr whether it would be tactful to bulge into Bohr’s house together with Weizsäcker, in SS uniforms, as representatives of German occupation.


Did Heisenberg or did he not have a moral dilemma?  These two narratives, or two options, like in quantum superposition of states, do not have equal weight, not having a moral dilemma is morally not the same as having a moral dilemma.


I must admit, though, I found no documentary evidence that Heisenberg did have a moral dilemma.  Nowhere in his writings, then or at any other time, can we find the intense, painful awareness of the impact our deeds and words might have on others.  If we look at the picture of the visit, there is a difference between the iconography and iconology, as Martin in my “Headlong” would say, between a narrow focus and wider context.  As David Cassidy pointed out, our appreciation of Heisenberg’s visit to Copenhagen gets a different meaning when we take into account his other visits to occupied territories – to Netherlands after the deportation of Dutch Jews to Auschwitz, or to Poland after the annihilation of the Warsaw ghetto.  After 1942, wrote Mark Walker in his book on Nazi science, Heisenberg turned from a good will ambassador for National Socialism to an ambassador for genocide.  There seems to be enough documentary evidence for considering Heisenberg’s conduct during World War II morally unacceptable.  Paul Rose was especially indignant for what he considered a rehabilitation of Heisenberg.  And the ending of “Another Round” makes the same point: my appraisal of Heisenberg was too tolerant, too generous.


But are not all these professional historians missing the point?  Are they not too Whiggish, to use their own term?  The visit to Copenhagen in 1941 was before the deportations started.  What happened later should not enter into the story.  Or should it?  In any case, my play emphatically is not about the Holocaust.  The reverberation of uncertainties in physics and in life – that is what conquered my imagination.  When you get an idea in your head you can elect not to do it, but you can’t arbitrarily do something else.  The choice is either to follow it or not to follow it.  Writers have less control over what they do than other people think and less than they themselves think.  Authors do not choose ideas, ideas choose authors.  Would I have been burdened with the moral issues of Heisenberg’s visit in a wider context (which I do not underestimate), there simply would be no “Copenhagen”!  It’s not that there would be a different play Copenhagen! There simply would be no play about Heisenberg and Bohr!


And I had to attribute the moral dilemma to Heisenberg, regardless of whether he had it or not – for there would be no dramatic tension at all without such a dilemma.  Rolf Hochhuth disclosed in the historical postscript to his play “Deputy” (yes, I am not the first playwright to do so), that in Act IV he made Pope Pius XII face the conflict – to protest the killing of the Jews or to keep silent, even though the historical material argued against the Pope ever having been caught in such a conflict.  Despite the fact that this almost exonerates the Pope, wrote Hochhuth, “I was governed only by artistic considerations.”  Exactly the same with my Copenhagen and Heisenberg!  That’s why I was immediately enraptured by Thomas Power’s fascinating book, regardless of historical accuracy.  Complementarity between cooperation and sabotage – a highlight of drama!  Of course, this complementarity is also a wide-spread and trite excuse used ad nauseam by those who have cooperated with the Nazis: we had to make concessions at unimportant places in order to be able to influence important matters.  We had to cooperate with evil to prevent still greater evil.  An amazing human quality – an infinite ingenuity of self-justification. 


Real or imagined – dramatically it works!  Without it, there would be no drama, only the unbearable banality of evil.  What historians do not see is that there are only two really fundamental categories of plays – plays are either hits or flops!  Without a moral dilemma, Copenhagen would not have been a hit!


Still a doubt lingers.  When I read in the North Atlantic Review that even though American scientists refused to shake Heisenberg’s hand, it is Bohr’s hands who are stained by killing a hundred thousand people, and not Heisenberg’s, I did not feel at ease.  And when I read Thomas Power’s words that thanks to Copenhagen – to me – everybody finally listens to Heisenberg’s explanation (or some say fabrication), I have mixed feelings.  Where to draw a line, a cut, between tolerance and complacency, I ask myself.  If Heisenberg failed to get absolution from Bohr, does or does he not get the absolution from thousands of spectators who flock to see Copenhagen? 


So here is my moral dilemma, not quite like Heisenberg’s, yet not completely dissimilar either.  Am I responsible for my artistic creations – morally responsible I mean?  Am I accountable for its foreseeable and unforeseeable effects?  Can this complementarity between free art and self-censorship, between ethics and aesthetics be satisfactorily resolved?


A silly idea occurred to me.  Imagine somebody – a pretentious historian say – decides to use my name – fictionally – to advance some ideas in writing.  Let’s say for some inexplicable reason this piece gets widely disseminated.  People will remember not my words, but those of the fictional Michael Frayn.  A chilling thought, I must confess!


Just when I was deliberating in this way, a strange thing happened; just one of those uncanny coincidences.  A postman rang and I received a mysterious envelope, from some obscure place in Russia.  Was it another of David Burke’s intrigues?  I opened the letter – as much of my correspondence lately, it was about “Copenhagen.”



              ( Russian)       




“Deeply respected Mr. Frayn, it is with greatest admiration that I have read your Copenhagen.  An outstanding achievement, my heartfelt congratulations!  Especially unforgettable is the image of Heisenberg in Faelled Park on the horrible February night, discovering uncertainty, emerging from nowhere and disappearing, time and again The street lamps and darkness, the electron and water droplets that condense around particles, like cities around travelers.  A powerful artistic image, gospodin Frayn!  But I so much regret to say that it is completely wrong!


I have realized, after I have immersed myself in archival resources (I am a retired physicist, you see), that every thought of Heisenberg is a response to somebody else’s thought – appropriation, disagreement, modification.  The idea of a discontinuous path of an electron – Heisenberg took from the English physicist Campbell.  Gospodin Frayn, Heisenberg was not a lonely actor on the stage, nor was he there alone with Bohr.  The stage was populated by many other physicists, some better known, some vanished into history, without whose presence Heisenberg would not have been able to utter a word.  I came to believe, Mr. Frayn, that this dialogical responsiveness, this amazing multi-addressivity is something absolutely fundamental – in science, in art, in life.”


The letter goes on and on, but it did strike a chord.  I do not even know what is in my own head without getting a reaction from somebody else – I said these very words on my previous visit to Copenhagen.


So perhaps our world is not a collection of different worlds, of different narratives, but only appears to be so because of its incomprehensible complexity.  Perhaps our world is nothing but this pervasive flux of addressivity, of enormous plurality of voices, a multidimensional polyphony. This is the world in which we take a stand, consciously or not; in which we sign our signature, deliberately or not. Not an assembly of multiple perspectives, despite the power and legitimacy of this literary device, but one historical world -- elusive, incoherent and outrageously confusing.