qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

Twenty Tons of TNT

Last night we went to see the RSC's Oppenheimer at the Vaudeville Theatre on the Strand. The theatre was curiously compact, and perhaps more claustrophobic than intimate, but the stage size suited the production well. The approach was often cinematic, cutting rapidly between daytime (physics lectures, the latest research news from Europe) and evening (parties and Communist fundraising for the Spanish Civil War) in 1930s America. The outbreak of World War 2 is marked in the play by the Einstein-Szilárd letter and eventually leads on to the formation of the Manhattan Project. In a somewhat parallel universe to Bletchley Park, the military despair of the academic community that is formed to deliver a military product (in a more overtly political way than one would imagine in Britain), with already famous names such as Hans Bethe and Edward Teller (with added humour on the Hungarian condition), and up-and-coming ones such as Richard Feynman. As it becomes clear that the Nazi regime had not made any progress on developing an atomic weapon, the academics' sense of purpose fractures; but the decision is made to press on, and two bombs are dropped on Japan.

The scientific aspects of the play are well considered and reasonably accurate (though I'm not really sure why Maxwell's equations of electromagnetism appeared amidst the largely random chalk scribbling). Oppenheimer is portrayed as a driven man; not an inhuman one, but not sympathetic either. The physicists are clearly affected by the results of their work, but unlike the military they are divided about the justification for its use. In addition to bringing about an immediate end to the war in the Pacific (military planners estimated a net saving possibly into millions of lives on both sides, given the expected ferocity with which a conventional invasion of Japan would be met), the demonstration of such destruction may play a part in the fortunate fact that this has never been repeated (although it hardly proved to be "the end of all war" as Oppenheimer may have hoped). The play opens the lid on the ethics, but of course does not resolve it.
Tags: history, london, science, theatre
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