Tuesday, October 18, 2011

To Denmark and back again

For the past few days, my mind has been a jumble of half-formed thoughts. It is only today that I begin to see the rather startling and somewhat oddly elegant symmetry of the past week. It began with reading about renegade political scientist Francis Fukuyama and his phrase 'getting to Denmark' from his book The End of History, a phrase that suggests that a liberal democracy like Denmark represents the end-point of the world's socioeconomic development. It ended with Michael Frayn's maddeningly complex meditation on the physical, the political and the personal, the incredible play, 'Copenhagen' a play drawing its name from that great Danish capital city, I previously associated with Hans Christian Andersen alone.

The play suggests that if events on a fateful evening in Copenhagen in 1941 had played out differently, Denmark wud have been not the end-point of the world's development but the starting-point of the end of the world as we know it.

The nearly three-hour long play is peopled not by characters, but by ghosts. Ghosts with a haunting, restless, questive quality. Ghosts that refuse to let us rest in peace. They make us, the unseen audience, the judge and jury to a decades-long argument - an argument that has followed them from life into its after.

What made it impossible for me to write about the play, is that all things that are discussed and described herein happen in a place located in memory or in limbo, not in any place inside of the space-time continuum.

The ghosts of Niels Bohr, his wife Margrethe, and Werner Heisenberg push past the pages of the history books, striding onto the creaking floorboards - questioning, always questioning the past, the present and the future.

When the play starts on a September evening in 1941 in the middle of the Second World War, on the eve of the atomic age, in German-occupied Copenhagen, the Bohrs, the rather apprehensive Danish couple are expecting a visit from their former protege and friend, German physicist, Werner Heisenberg. They try to guess at the purpose for his visit, both implicitly agreeing that it is not simply to revisit the past. "He wants to show off to us that he's a famous German professor of physics now." says Margrethe. "He wants to talk about fission. And he's not that famous!" grumbles Niels.

"Talk about physics, and not politics." Margrethe warns her husband. "The two can be difficult to keep apart." replies her husband coolly. By the end of the evening, they are about to realize exactly how difficult.

Heisenberg walks in, as on an ambush, we want to warn him. He is treated equally as old friend and new enemy. The conversation is a minefield. Old memories of colleagues, and skiing and three glasses of wine are brought forth, but are not enough to smoothen the rough edges of the conversation that alternates between assertions of patriotism, the detailing of how friendships go sour, the possibilities of escape and immigration, and of course, the war that is on about them. The war that has recast an old friend, teacher, employer as a possible source of information about the enemy's war effort.

There is also the painful awareness that the house is bugged and wired and Hitler's silent sniffer-dogs, the Gestapo are waiting in the shadows. The awareness brings with it long silences, and painful pauses.

Margrethe is a commentator in the silence. We learn that it was all different in the 20's. Between the wars, Bohr and the upstart young German he'd befriended were as close as father and son, Margrethe informs us with a strange but characteristic mixture of warmth and bile. She tells us about Christian, a son they lost in a sailing accident, how he had been all but replaced by the charming, brilliant Heisenberg in Bohr's heart, long before Heisenberg was lost, too, this time to the war and we can see how things would never be the same between them again, no matter which side won the war.

As the silence ends, the reminiscing over, a walk is suggested. For old times' sake. A walk that Margrethe says lasted barely for ten minutes, ending as abruptly as it began.

This walk is also the reason the play was written. Heisenberg said the sole reason he had come to meet Bohr in Copenhagen was to discuss a terrifying possibility that had occurred to him - the possibility of using radioactive uranium to build atomic bombs and the moral repercussions of scientists becoming involved in such a project, a project whose disturbing outcome Bohr preempted. Bohr balked at the idea, refusing to discuss it, or even consider the calculations involved, ending the conversation before it had begun. What was said that autumn evening, or rather what wasnt said, would change the course of human history.

In assuming that Heisenberg would build the bomb and help Hitler win the war, Bohr had jumped to a conclusion that Heisenberg would defend to his dying breath. It would also ensure that a fatal error in Heisenberg's calculations would not be corrected in time. The bomb would be built in America, not Germany. Bohr himself would later be part of the legendary team that successfully built the world's first atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico. Heisenberg would fade from glory, ostracised by the international community for running Germany's ultimately unsuccessful nuclear programme, punished severely for his idealised patriotism. As a consequence he would never have the blood of innocent millions on his hands. By misunderstanding his friend's intentions, Bohr had unconsciously done him a great favour, it would seem. But, of course, this is only one version of events that occurred that night and throughout the play, these events will be subjected to various revisions and additions and editions. No one can know for certain what really happened in Copenhagen. Skepticism and Uncertainty dominate all to the very end.

(From left to right, Veera Abadan as Margrethe Bohr, Vivek Tandon as Werner Heisenberg and Tom Alter as Niels Bohr in "Copenhagen" at the NCPA.)

Another recurring theme throughout the play is the connection between the material world, governed by the laws of physics and our inner worlds, governed by rules of the heart alone.

"A particle, when observed, changes its behaviour." Margrethe intones as she shrewdly but silently observes Bohr and Heisenberg as they awkwardly attempt small-talk.

"Doubt always cast a shadow on your thinking. That is why you discovered the uncertainty principle." Bohr reproaches the impetuous Heisenberg as he boasts about his impulsive strategies - strategies that helped him win not only skiing contests but also the woman who wud be his wife.

"You always assume the worst about people, and then you decide to forgive them for it. Complementarity is in your very nature." a crestfallen Heisenberg bristles at Bohr as he brings up a discredited former student.

It is as if we were nothing but extrapolations of the billions of subatomic particles that constitute the behemoths that are our bodies - our actions as random and chaotic as anything else in the quantum world. This is at one point rather vividly illustrated as Heisenberg and Bohr pretend to be electron and photon - colliding in the darkness, spiralling away, forever changed by their singular interaction.

As for the characters, it is, of course, incredible to view famous scientists whose names have become by-words for theories and principles in physics textbooks come so forcefully to life as people in whose hands and in whose minds lay the key to saving or dooming the lives of millions of people, the key to changing the face of the twentieth century, and the outcome of the Second World War.

"Theoretical physicists are of no use in wartime. They are yet to find a way to kill people using theoretical physics." jokes Bohr at the beginning of the play. And an hour later, we learn that this very man, a half-Jewish proponent of quantum mechanics, which Hitler called "Jewish science", forced to flee his country in the face of the Holocaust would have a hand in building the two atom bombs that wrought such death and destruction as the world has scarcely seen.

The characters are brilliant men but they are played by actors who seem to follow not from the at-times assiduously scientific language of the play but from the deeper feelings behind it. Tom Alter plays Niels Bohr with a defeated air, a man who sees no hope in the world and who assumes only the very worst of his former friend.

Heisenberg is played by an actor who, unfortunately for the character, goes for breadth over depth. As a result, this Heisenberg is hapless, but not haunted. He is bright but not clever. He is confounding but never enigmatic. He is at his best in the scene where he recalls his childhood in a defeated, war-ravaged Germany, a memory that strengthens his resolve to do everything in his power to prevent Germany's defeat in yet another war.

Margrethe seemed most perfectly formed to me. A woman who stays mostly in the background of the play but sees with most clarity what happens in the foreground of her life and the lives of those around her.

My favourite part of the play was a monologue in the second act, where Bohr explains to us that in the early 20th-century was born an idea that humanized physics like never before. Einstein's relativity theories that restored man's place at the center of the universe. "That measurement is not an impersonal event that occurs with universal impartiality", but "a human act that had meaning only when carried out from a specific point of view in time and space."

Thus, man can stand at the center of the universe and while he can see all the world, he cannot see what lies behind his eyes. This fundamental unknowability of people, even and especially to themselves, is an important idea the story plays with. If man is indeed the measure of the universe, then nothing is really quantifiable. This is a surprising idea, my favourite from the several brilliant ideas the play threw up.

And as the evening comes to an end, we realize the three characters have brushed against each other in such different combinations that this friction has caused them to each emerge more clearly. At the end, we have come to know them all, from the inside out - rather than the reverse.

There is so much thought here, even when we choose to look past the layers of the science and the politics, we find the fervid, ambivalent father-son relationship between the two men. The sharp marital protectiveness and the simultaneous subtle resentment that Margrethe possesses, the pain of the loss of a child, the personal tragedy of war and how it scars forever even those that survive it bodily unharmed.

By the end, what they transmit to us most, is their spirit of ravenous curiosity. We may yet learn the secret ways of strings and quarks but we cant ever know exactly who we are, or why we do what we do. Our motives and intentions are often shrouded in ambiguity, moreso than the fate of Schrodinger's famous cat. Our memories are as unreliable and dynamic as an electron on its unpredictable trajectory.

As we witness the different permutations and versions of what may have happened on that September evening in Copenhagen in 1941, we learn that definite knowledge is probably unattainable in "Copenhagen". But how much more interesting life is, as a result. You know, that familiar letdown as you reach the end of the story in a mystery novel? Well, you wont find that here. In the world of "Copenhagen", no such anticlimaxes exist. The thrill of the chase is infinite.

P.S. Heisenberg, ever ebullient father of the Uncertainty Principle, has an epitaph over his grave that reads 'He lies somewhere here.' Uncertain in death as in life.

P.P.S. A friend who watched the play the same evening as me and who sat beside me in the latter half of the play, whose post pushed me to finish my own has perhaps a clearer, more elegant set of thoughts. Here.


Sakshi said...

Had someone explained physics to me with so much romance, I would have fallen in love with this subject!
I love the depth that you have! Your writing is as good as the play! My luck, that we don't have such great plays (add to that, a not so enthusiastic company for watching theater)that I have no seen great plays in ages now!
But whenever you capture the beauty of these plays here, I can almost see myself sitting there and watching it with you!

I loved the play. And, I am going to copy a couple of lines for my FB status! :)

T. said...

i really miss when those evenings we used to watch plays at prithvi theatre. antigone, dear liar, the vagina monologues. then, sitting in prithvi cafe, talking and laughing loudly. wish i was back home right now. :-) see u in december cookie!!

Arumugam said...

Wow,that was a terrific piece of writing!And thank you for this,I haven't seen a single play in the past 4 years and this post has rekindled my interest.I am already looking up the Rangashankara website for something here in Bengaluru:D

Gustaf Valström said...

My parents watched Copenhagen when it was performed at the National Theatre in London in the nineties. Michael Frayn is known for his intricately written material. I wish I could have stuck around long enough to watch it with you. I think you should consider an alternative profession as a theater and/or book critic. :)) I've seen Noises Off also written by Frayn performed by the drama department here at U. of Manchester. It was rather risque though. I wasn't aware Bombay had such a thriving theater scene.

You should come here. We'll go to the Proms and the National. You'll love it. I promise you that!

Brilliant writing as always. Read it aloud to me dad. He was very appreciative.

Gustaf Valström said...

I forgot to mention my great grandmother was Danish. She was from a place called Aalborg in Jutland. I visited Copenhagen as a teenager. Denmark is a beautiful country!

Tangled up in blue... said...

Sakshi, thank you! I was fortunate enuff to have three teachers who taught physics with so much passion and thoughtfulness that it came alive for us. :) Also, mathematics which is my favourite subject. And Sakshi, you must tell me when you come to Mumbai, we'll go for a nice play together, definitely! :)

Tawf, I'll be studying in December :( but there'll always be time for a trip to Prithvi! :) And keep your fingers crossed for something special by Motley. :) I cannot wait for you to get back, I miss you. Piyu is such a total ditcher! :D She skipped out on Copenhagen because her boss wouldn't let her off work at six thirty! Can you beat that?

Tangled up in blue... said...

Arumugam, ooh, awesome! What are you gonna watch? Do tell! And thank you. :) I'm glad this post rekindled your interest in theater. Frankly, we dont have enuff good original stuff from here. Whatever has good writing is mostly an adaptation. Although, I was lucky enuff to have a senior of mine from college invite me to this awesome series of short plays, most original first-time efforts by Indian writers and directors. And enuff of them were impressive, or atleast effective for me to hope for the very best in the future. :)

mgeek said...

Your diffuse ideas are sprinkled beautifully here. It's like walking in a garden full of colorful flowers. Some of them you recognize, some are unknown. But you enjoy the way your hand feels when you touch them anyway...

Tangled up in blue... said...

Gustaf! You have a profile on blogger now? And what a smashing photograph to go along with it! :) Now all that's left to do is start blogging. *wink, nudge, wink* :D Come on, you said you'd consider it! I am so very flattered that you read it out to your dad. Aww! :) *blushes* I cant believe they actually saw the original. I can only imagine how brilliant it must have been! I wish you'd been able to stick around, too. I miss our conversations, man! And Bombay doesn't have a thriving theater scene. I mean, it's very small as compared to London. There's small groups who do quality stuff in English. As for Marathi theater which is my native language, that can be called thriving, but people mostly like comedies and musicals. You know, like Broadway. I loved this play because it was unlike anything else I'd seen before really. But then, I havent seen much.

I wonder if you remember but I told you I watched a screening of National Theatre's Frankenstein around three months ago. I was very impressed. The sets and the actors are completely brilliant. If I'm really, really lucky then maybe I'll get to watch it all live in London. And you'll have to be my guide since you've promised now. :D

Oh, and wow! I'd love to go to Scandinavia one day. Northern Europe has a beauty all its own. And I really, really want to be there at the right time to witness the Aurora Borealis. :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

mgeek! Wow, I just commented on your blog, like a second ago! :) And thank you, that's a truly beautiful simile, man! :)

Unknown said...

You see, KK, while I felt extremely honoured, I must say that you were making a terrible error of judgement in underestimating your powers and overestimating mine...asking ME to see whether the lucidity is intact! :)

An excellent appreciation of an exceptional play. You have that unique gift to move the heart and stir the brain... :)

On a personal note, it was yet again a case of 'grazing on new pastures' for me. Before coming here, my awareness about the entire issue was limited to the vague recollection of reading a book-review about Heisengberg's biography, in which the bone of contention was whether Heisenberg sabotaged the German nuclear ambitions on purpose.

And I envy the social ambience in which you are living. I think I've told you about the ever-burgeoning number of philistines and the 'illiterate literates' populating the country's most 'literate' state ['Pah, humbug!', as Scrooge says]. Theatre is literally 'dead' down here. And that's only a fragment of the miserable story.

Therefore, all that 'the-boy-who-still-messes-with-his-haves-hads-and-have hads' can say is that he owes you a lot for widening the horizons of his knowledge.

Finally, a heartfelt 'hello, welcome & nice to meet you!' to the benign gentleman who seems to be named after some 19th century Russian aristrocat [sounds so 'Tolstoyan'!!]. It's only natural that 'birds of a feather flock together...' :)

P.S - I did considerable (re)searching and among the various interesting facts, found this -


Tangled up in blue... said...

Rohith, thank you! :) I absolutely had to ask you to read it because I always trust you to give me an honest assessment. :) And because I admire your own flowing prose style.

You, my friend, underestimate yourself! I had no idea about the involvement of Heisenberg with the German nuclear programme at all, before I read the summary of the play. Before that, he was to me only the progenitor of the Uncertainty Principle which I studied in junior college. Now, I realize how complex his life was - a deprived childhood in a country shackled by a defeat in the Great war, the upward-struggle to establish himself as a physicist of note in such a country, his supreme self-confidence that always made him state what he thought was right, his patriotism to his country and his apparent moral rectitude. I admire him greatly now.

Bombay is a truly great city and I am grateful to it for everything it has offered me. But one wishes it could be greater, like a London or a New York. I want to experience life - atleast, cultural life, there, too. I wonder if that will happen for me. As for now, please consider a trip to Bombay, my dear friend and allow me to repay in kind the gesture of friendship you showed me in Kochi. :)

Also, I've nudged 'the benign gentleman' in the direction of your blog. :D Thank you for the link, it appears very engrossing indeed! :)

Arumugam said...

@TUIB - An update.So I am all set to watch a play after ages,inspired by this post:D
Past few weeks, I have been discovering that the theatre/cultural scene out here is quite small:-( So after bribing some friends for company:D,I am all set to watch this play titled The Real Inspector Hound.

Tangled up in blue... said...

Arumugam, awesome! That's the one with Kalki Koechlin, right? If I lived in Bangalore, I'd come watch it with you at the Ranga Shankara! :) And you wouldn't even have to bribe you! :D

Tangled up in blue... said...

Oh, and it sounds real interesting! Tell me how it was! :)

Arumugam said...

######## Minor spoilers ###########

The Real Inspector hound is a real theater-lover's play.You must watch it.This extremely satirical play goes down some very quirky paths,like a play within a play!(Christopher Nolan seems less original now:D).As two self-obsessed,narcissistic theater critics are drawn into the scene of crime,so is the audience drawn into the twisted tale.

Then there was the dead body that never budged an inch, and remained half-sprawled throughout the play, making one wonder whether it was real!

I was in absolute awe of Felicity Cunningham and the English Maid characters,though most of the audience's attention was on Kalki Koechlin.I realize I need to be a lot more discerning,during a satire.I did need some help to put it all together at the end:D

Tangled up in blue... said...

Wow! Sounds pretty interesting. I hope it comes to Bombay soon. I'd love to take a crack at solving the crime in my head. :) I'm real glad you had so much fun!