This Royal Shakespeare Company production of the new Tom Morton-Smith play based on the story of Robert Oppenheimer and the building of the first atomic bomb received almost universal critical acclaim in the British Press. See for example Michael Billington’s review in the Guardian at
I saw the play recently during its London run at the Vaudeville theatre. As a play, ‘Oppenheimer’ was indeed very impressive. Yet, I left the theatre with a sense of unease and disappointment.
Over the years, I have read quite a bit about the science, the politics and the people associated with the Manhattan project and about the horror that the project has permanently unleashed on the world. No doubt, many others in the audience would also have been similarly familiar with the story.
There have been a number of recent biopics and plays based on the life and times of various well known scientists and artists. Some of these productions have garnered much acclaim and profit. ‘Oppenheimer’ is of this genre. It sets out to explore the moral character, motivations and the human flaws of the physicist Robert Oppenheimer, portrayed as a Shakespearean tragedy. And there is epic scope here for Shakespearian treatment of the man’s brilliance and flaws, his dilemmas and betrayals, his achievements and of the horrific historic context. The play was cleverly crafted with fine detail, and was brilliantly acted and staged. It was replete with clever and pithy allusions to the vast corpus of factoids, innuendo, insights, angst, guilt, foreboding etc which surround the story of the atomic bomb project and its protagonists. There was no glorification of the man or the project. Yet, there is no getting away from the fact that, essentially, the story of Oppenheimer and the Manhattan project is grist to the mill of yet another ambitious theatre production. And this does not feel right, given the incomparable magnitude and reach of the evil that this story is about. This story certainly is not just another fascinating biography ripe for theatrical exploitation.
There is further grounds for unease. The play was an impressive dramatisation, but only a dramatisation of the material that are by now encompassed within the conventional narrative that many are familiar with. The play provided very little fresh insight or enlightenment. It fails to question this western, essentially Anglo-American narrative and it certainly does not seek to go beyond it. But is that not, at least in part, what this play should seek to do? Is it not a cause for unease that the re-iteration of this conventional narrative in a powerfully theatrical form may only serve to reinforce it?
It is not as if there is a dearth of serious, credible and sincere alternative histories and analyses of these events. These are easy enough to find if one takes the trouble to search. Try for instance searching the net for ‘was the atomic bombing of Japan necessary?’ Also, quite apart from the differing academic histories and analyses, these events are charged with deep differences in perceptions, emotions and sensitivities for different peoples outside the Anglo- American world.
Just a few months ago, I visited Japan, including Hiroshima. It is impossible to contemplate a staging of this play for audiences in Japan. They have a profoundly different and much more universally humanist narrative of the deployment and effects of the bomb. But more importantly, this play which may come across to audiences in England as a worthy Shakespearean tragedy would be seen in Japan as grossly insensitive and as trivialising the single most massively evil deed in human history. And not just in Japan, but in Germany or Russia or even, say, in France, audiences may not receive this play with the same equanimity as Anglo-American audiences seem to be able to do. Why is there such a gulf? Is it because, for people in the Anglo-American world, the narrative that they have largely accepted has had the effect of normalising the collective and individual psychological impact of the actual historical and continuing calamity? And what of this play? Does it achieve anything more than powerfully re-iterating in theatrical form this received narrative?
And there is yet another source of unease: the perception and evaluation of this play by the English theatre critics. I have rarely seen such universal acclaim for a play. Hardly any criticism, no expressions of unease or misgivings. What are theatre critics for? Are they really anything more than mere appendages of the theatre industry?