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Characters & Structure

On Margrethe 

I thought we needed three characters. We obviously needed Werner Heisenberg and Niels Bohr, but I thought we needed Niels Bohr's wife Margrethe as well.

We needed her for two reasons. Partly because she historically had no scientific training and yet her husband discussed all his work with her. And they agree at the beginning that they are going to make everything plain to Margrethe. So Margrethe is our representative there.

The second thing about Margrethe is that she didn't much like Heisenberg. Niels Bohr adored Heisenberg. She always had a much more negative view of him and she was particularly suspicious of that meeting in 1941. She said afterwards, whatever anyone says, that was a hostile meeting.

Margrethe is there in the way that all the other people in the world are attempting to explain his behavior. And almost everyone who is not Heisenberg took a very hostile view of Heisenberg's behavior. So the Margrethe character expressed that side.

Margrethe and Niels Bohr

Margrethe & Niels Bohr
Margrethe Bohr
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Michael Frayn on Margrethe

Bohr as Father Figure 

Bohr and Heisenberg met kind of a need in one another. Bohr was older and a kind of father figure, not only to Heisenberg but for a lot of young scientists.

Their relationship was one of the classic friendships of science.

Bohr did most of his original work as a young man. By the time he reached middle age he was doing some original work, but his best work was done in collaboration with young physicists who came and worked with him in Copenhagen.

Bohr was very good at challenging people to think about what they were saying, to go further in their thinking than they had dared to go before. Heisenberg was exactly the converse of this, someone who needed a father figure.

The Structure  

The play starts in a fairly natural mode.

Heisenberg arrives at Niels Bohr's house and it's a very embarrassing meeting because Bohr did not want to be visited by a German in 1941. He did not want to appear to be collaborating. Heisenberg plainly wanted to say something to Bohr or he wouldn't have insisted on the meeting.

The play begins with this very awkward conversation between them and then they go out for a walk. Something goes wrong with the conversation, we don't discover what, but they come back to the house and Bohr says Heisenberg's leaving.

Then the characters try to reconstruct what it was that was said during the walk, which they never agreed about. And they do three drafts of this. They go through the conversation three times before they come upon some sort of explanation of what was happening.

It never occurred to me when I was writing it, but some interviewer pointed it out afterwards, that it was the same structure as an earlier play of mine called 'Noises Off.' 'Noises Off' is a farce about the theatre and we see the same actor in the same play three times over.

I seem to be plagiarizing my own structure.

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Playwright Michael Frayn



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