Sunday, February 13, 2005


In a tribute to Arthur Miller in today's Times, David Mamet describes what makes great theater great:

We are freed, at the end [of "Death of a Salesman" and "The Crucible"], not because the playwright has arrived at a solution, but because he has reconciled us to the notion that there is no solution--that it is the human lot to try and fail, and that no one is immune from self-deception. We have, through following the course of the drama, laid aside, for two hours, the delusion that we are powerful and wise, and we leave the theater better for the rest.

Michael Frayn's "Copenhagen," in its final performance at Playmakers this afternoon, compellingly warded off delusion for almost three hours. The theme of the play is radical uncertainty: Werner Heisenberg's "uncertainty principle," the moral uncertainty of the nuclear scientist, the uncertainty of human motivation, the uncertainty of memory and of ultimate knowledge.

It's a mystery story: exactly what went on one night in the fall of 1941 when Heisenberg paid a dinner call on his old mentor Niels Bohr at his home in occupied Denmark? Was he asking for absolution as he got deeper and deeper into helping the Germans with their atomic fusion program? Was he trying to get from Bohr what he knew about the American program? Was he trying to make a conspirator out of Bohr? Most of all, why did he even come to Copenhagen? Haunted by these questions even in death, the principal characters do not know.

Anybody smart enough--which excludes me but includes Tucker, who went with me--can understand the basic issues involved in the physics. While all of that is important, it is not essential.

In a PBS interview, Frayn talks about the process of paring down the play to the three essential characters: Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Heisenberg. The Paul Green Theater with its "thrust stage" is perfect for this kind of intimacy. The set was minimal: a floor that looked like the structure of an atom. Around that floor the characters paced and circled, steadily but uncertainly as electrons.

My friend Karen Blansfield, who teaches in the UNC drama department and wrote her dissertation on Frayn, was the production's dramaturg. Congratulations to her and everyone involved. David Mamet, and I dare say Arthur Miller himself, would have liked it.

No comments: