Sunday, June 21, 2009

Plays of the 00s: Copenhagen

Art about science, even terrific art about science, and especially art about scientists, faces the same lurking threats as art about artists: that the promised engagement with the principles, the complexity, the mystery, and the urgency of the science will be totally sunk into a frustratingly stolid and anthropomorphic dumb-gaze at the man or woman who performed all the famous labor. Working to avoid that pitfall of boring externalization can lead into a different but potent problem of how to avoid twee correlatives where the structure or the narrative of the piece mirrors the structures of the science. These kinds of mimetic devices are often smart at communicating what's at issue in the story, but they teeter on a very slippery slope leading to derivative or diagrammatic art.

Michael Frayn's Copenhagen is a ghostplay in which the posthumous spirits of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Niels' notorious pupil and mentee Werner Heisenberg rehash the particulars and debate the implications of Heisenberg's tense and mystery-shrouded 1941 visit to the Bohrs' home in Copenhagen, amid his country's wartime occupation of theirs. Heisenberg is most famous for his "uncertainty principle," a theorization of how even the most empirical studies of particle behavior are essentially destabilized by the contexts of human observation and by the necessarily refractory modes of observing the particle's behavior via the traces or reflections it yields with respect to some other surface, usually light. I'm sure many people could offer a superior thumbnail sketch of Heisenberg's famous claims, but few would do it as deftly as Michael Frayn. Though his script brims with high-level scientific and theoretical discourse, Frayn makes this talk not just lucid but dramatically punchy and ethically provocative: it's a major accomplishment of his play that its rare slips into clunky exposition stand out so pronouncedly from a general field of persuasively impassioned, implication-heavy arguments about what, to most of us, is the head-scratching arcana of electron behavior, uranium processing, subatomic measurement, and jockeying for institutional prestige.

Still, with Heisenberg as a protagonist, you just know the play will delve into Uncertainty as a larger paradigm and conundrum. This kind of thematic extrapolation transpires at a range of levels in Copenhagen and in a multitude of ways that are not always as congruent as the play might suggest. Amid the velocity of dialogue and the gripping density of suspense, it's easy to confuse narrative gaps (what really happened? what did these men, especially, really say to each other?) with psychological enigmas (what could motivate these characters to act as they did?) with philosophical quandaries (can we ever really grasp our own behavior, or can it only be read as it impacts others or dictates events?). Frayn tackles such a prodigious set of riddles—physical, molecular, biographical, ethical, temperamental, historical, domestic, procedural, pedagogical, lexical, cultural—and streamlines them into such a fluid, economical structure of three characters in triangulated conversation, occasionally opening out with asides to the audience, that it feels somehow stingy to carp at all about Copenhagen's achievements. The play endows a truly meaningful contest of wills and ideas with a vital dramatic structure; it presents scientists not as walled-off esotericists but as morally invested and historically pivotal figures who feel deeply about what they do. Marvelously, though a live audience wouldn't know this, the script has the astonishing dramaturgical grace to forego almost a single stage direction. How's this for uncertainty: with almost every line in Copenhagen weighted with so many meanings and possible inflections, batted among three characters who have every reason to love, defend, pity, resent, and abjure each other, Frayn refuses to tell his actors how to speak a single utterance or mark a single emotional transition. He also frees his directors and designers to visualize this three-way standoff however they see fit, emphasizing either the Huis clos boundedness of the exchange or the worldly contexts of what's historically at stake or the numinous backdrop of rumination from beyond the grave. (From heaven? From hell? From oblivion? One wonders...) Put another way, Frayn confers remarkable dramatic freedom upon material that might easily have tilted into micro-managed and relentlessly footnoted diorama.

I loved the play. I admit to having turned the pages pretty breathlessly, especially through the first act and toward the end of the second. The third quarter of the play is prone to a fair amount of repetition, and it's laden with a lot of encyclopedic reconstruction that occasionally falters as dialogue, but even then, you never lose the heartbeat of the piece. Still, there is something slightly coy, maybe even flattening, about the implied parallels between particulate behavior and human interaction, and between the mysterious whats of the Bohr-Heisenberg encounter and the even more profound whys. These vulnerabilities in Frayn's conception tend to emerge most worryingly in relation to Margrethe, partially because she's such an obvious audience surrogate and convenient dramatic device as the resident non-Nobel Laureate. "But put this in plain language for Margrethe!" the scientists repeatedly remind each other, telegraphing just why Frayn needs the character, and cargoing some uncomfortable shivers of dumb-it-down-for-the-girl chauvinism. I also had my doubts about the interpolation of a belabored skiing metaphor and, even more gratuitously, of a terrible sailing accident that cost the Bohrs one of their children. This latter invocation embodies such a cheap way to condense the riddles of cosmic uncertainty and molar regret into the maudlin archetype of the dead child; eventually it invites qualified but still risky connotative analogies with the deaths of millions (of Jews, of Europeans), possibly with the apocalyptic death of everyone, via the atomic bomb, which is more thematic freight than this private calamity can possibly be asked to support.

But let me follow those caveats with a statement of how brave and richly satisfying it feels to read a story that furnishes itself such a detailed and specific platform for asking the terrible, cosmic, nuclear-age, "What does it all mean?" questions that lie at the heart of Copenhagen. Many a mopey, narcissistic drama has invoked these kinds of questions on infinitely flimsier premises, as though a short-cut to dignifying one's own navel-gazing or private fears is to link them to nightmares of annihilation or the specters of genocide. Frayn's characters, both because of what they did (and didn't do) and because of how they think and how they argue, put compelling human frameworks around the kinds of gigantic questions that can so easily sink a play, or fire it off irrecoverably into the realm of pure abstraction. Like its three personages, Copenhagen is smart, articulate, and disciplined, subtly humorous but appropriately sober about its subjects. It might be a little too neat, even in its expressions of unknowability and of abyss; not every passage has been fully translated out of the kind of lab-speak and historiographic diction from which Frayn has mined his sources. But the famously successful London and New York productions proved what the script augurs so powerfully: that Copenhagen makes ethics compelling in their very severity; that stories of science offer fertile grounds of drama and mystery, partly because the motives and protocols of science have been so disastrously marginalized and mistranslated into popular consciousness that a portrait this taut and this real has the kick of revelation; that the vagaries of history are fundamentally connected to the vicissitudes of human behavior and self-consciousness, even if I'm nervous about them being dramatized as something close to the same thing; and that audiences are deeply responsive to unabashed moral argument and intellectual history when they aren't slagged off as the preoccupations of eggheads and stuffy effigies, and when an artist as gifted, tactful, and disciplined as Frayn is in charge of relaying them for our benefit.

It's now a very close three-way question in my mind whether the elegant depths and historical urgency of Copenhagen, the exuberant deconstructions and nuanced burlesques of Dirty Blonde, or the claustrophobic compression and haunting archetypes of True West most deserved that 2000 Tony Award for Best Play, but two things seems clear: that it was a pretty banner year for that category and for spoken drama on Broadway, and that plays this rich and strong don't need to be seen in the flesh to be powerfully suggestive and deeply enjoyed.

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At June 21, 2009 at 4:29 AM , Blogger tim r said...

What a treat! You've really piqued my interest about Dirty Blonde -- how on earth might I track it down? I strugged with Copenhagen in Howard Davies's TV adaptation but you can probably see how digesting it that way (in very stilted play-for-today style) would come a distant third to reading it or watching it come alive on stage. I think I gave up. Should read -- I'm a Frayn fan...

Where's O'Neill on your sidebar? Not a hero? Currently on the bench?

Your Miller review also made me think more about The Misfits. Given your general suspicion of him, which I'm tempted to buy into, I'd love to know how you think that screenplay sits alongside his stage work. I'm not sure I was more impressed by how experimental it often seemed, or just amazed by how well Huston and the cast made even its most purplish and grandiloquent passages work. It's certainly the strangest bit of writing I've encountered by him, and it even seemed to have a different perspective on White American Guyness than I was primed for. Do you think we have Marilyn to thank?

At June 21, 2009 at 11:08 AM , Blogger NicksFlickPicks said...

O'Neill's sort of just missing the cut of the sidebar at present, but I'm sure he'll be there eventually.

I think Huston and Russell Metty deserve the bulk of the credit for how well The Misfits works despite all that orchidaceous writing. I appreciate that the script is kind of insane, with the usual Miller caveat of some diamonds of insight amid all the florid hectoring, but if it were shot or directed differently, I almost can't imagine bearing up through the whole two hours.

At June 21, 2009 at 2:48 PM , Blogger tim r said...

That's kind of where I was going too. It's almost a test case for how to shoot the hell out of a script that, in other hands, could have just seemed randomly excruciating. They do a remarkable job dignifying it, and I can't think of another movie from the period, except maybe Hud and The Innocents, where the b/w photography is so vital to its success.

One day I must use the word orchidaceous!

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