The Problem of Untranslatability

Sophokles’ Antigone, in a new version by Anne Carson, has already been hailed as ‘a marvellous new translation… that crackles with canny colloquialism and insight’ (The Arts Desk). Currently on stage at The Barbican starring Juliette Binoche and directed by Ivo van Hove, Antigone is an iconic Greek Tragedy in which familial love and duty clash with politics and law, wreaking destructive consequences. Here Carson explains the difficulty in translating words and ideas from one language into another without losing rich subtext present in the original.  

Let me share with you the problem of untranslatability. Two examples.

At line 943 of this play Antigone utters her final words as a living person and exits to her death. She has just sung her own funeral dirge, unusual girl that she is, and the dirge ends with her summary statement of what she did wrong, the reason why she is condemned to die. Her tone is raw, astounded and sad, yet also unshakable. It makes no sense to her that things worked out the way they did, still she remains clear about the moral quotient of the situation. She expresses all this in a sentence that is almost a paradox:

I was caught in an act of perfect piety (943)

Surely piety is not a criminal act in which one is “caught”? Surely piety is a good thing? Surely the community that outlaws an act of perfect piety is a community that has tipped over the edge into nonsense? Antigone stands poised on this edge, holding onto sense.

Her wording emphasizes the precariousness of the moment: it is top-heavy with meaning. She has loaded two cognates of the same word (noun, verb) on top of one another in a way that is standard rhetorical procedure in Greek but sounds overdetermined in English, as if to say:

I have been completely pious in committing an act of complete piety

Both noun (eusebia) and verb (sebizo) derive from the Greek root seb-, which refers to the awe that radiates from gods to humans and is given back as worship. Everything 9781783198108related to this root has fear in it. But eusebia is a fear that moves as devotion – a striving out of this world into another and a striving out of another world into this. A kind of permanent elsewhere* located “in” human being.

Now consider the English word “piety”. Can we hear in it any flicker of the original sacral force of eusebia? Derived from an Old French word for “pity”, the word “piety” came over into English c. 1540 as a term for religious devotion or “moral vertue” (OED). In modern usage it seems to me to lack the depth and dread of the Greek word – perhaps English has lost touch with true religiosity. Our pieties are more a matter of protocol than dread. And where eusebia always implies ritual action, “piety” represents a mood rather than a pressure to act. Nonetheless, there we are. I could not find, I do not know, a different or a better translation. The actor who speaks line 943 on stage will evoke the permanent elsewhere of our longing for the love of gods by drawing it up from her own voice and being.

Second example.

The ancient Greeks did not like mixture. (Forgive this blatant generalization – translator’s notes are, by their brevity, blatant). Dirt, in the ancient definition, is matter out of place. The poached egg on your plate at breakfast is not dirt, the poached egg on the floor of the British Museum is. Dirt is matter that has crossed a boundary it ought not to have crossed; dirt confounds categories and mixes up form. Its name in Greek is miasma, whose basic sense is “defilement” or “impairment of the integrity of a thing.”

Throughout the play Kreon makes clear his preference for pure categories: friend, enemy; patriot, traitor; winner, loser; good, bad; me, them. The final scene of the play forces him to recognize the miscegenation of all these and to see his own boundaries penetrated by everything bad. Recognition is expressed in the language of dirt. As he holds his son’s dead body in his arms he asks,

O filth of death
who can clean you out (1284-5)

And a few lines later, standing over the body of his wife:

now I am perfectly blended with pain (1311)

It is Aristotle’s dictum that a tragic plot is most effective when the recognition and the reversal happen at one blow. Certainly that happens here. But let us probe a little deeper into the effectiveness of Kreon’s recognition/reversal. The word he uses at 1311 for “perfectly blended” is a compound of the basic verb “to mix” and the prefix syn-, meaning “with.” This verb is meant to remind us of all the horrific comminglings that made the house of Oidipous famous, and of which Antigone is a product. But more importantly, it reminds us that Antigone herself was the champion of “withness” from the beginning of the play until her death. Her defiant announcement to Kreon:

I am someone born to share in love not hatred (523)

contains two verbs that begin with the same prefix: synechthein (“to hate with”) and synphilein (“to love with”). Withness is Antigone’s morality, Antigone’s desire, Antigone’s disaster. She begins the play yearning to join her brother in the grave:

one day we’ll lie together in the grave he and I side by side (75-6)

And her final lament brings her to a tragic recognition:

I’m a strange new kind of inbetween thing aren’t I

not at home with the dead nor with the living (850-1)

Withness – reversed – is nowhere.

Translation cannot convey the complex interactions of this metaphorical system or the inevitability of the catastrophe to which it leads. Antigone and Kreon stand opposed to one another instinctually, in the very morphology of their language, in the very grain of the way they think and speak. Sophoklean tragedy has a quality of tidiness that can be terrifying. He tucks in every stray thread. Or rather he makes it seem that each of these threads was always already woven into the same net. Why did anyone think they could escape

* The term “permanent elsewhere” is borrowed from Judith Butler’s discussion of Hegel in Antigone’s Claim (New York 2000) p. 43.

Tickets and backstage tours for Antigone are available from The Barbican’s website
Anne Carson’s translation of Antigone is available from Oberon Books’ website

‘Never forget it’s someone’s life’ Robin Soans on telling someone else’s story

Crouch Touch Pause Engage, the new verbatim play by Robin Soans, tackles the subject of Welsh rugby legend Gareth Thomas coming out as gay, as well as exploring the infamous spate of youth suicides in the player’s native Bridgend. In this blog, Robin acknowledges the pressures and responsibilities of telling someone else’s story, and admits that this style of documentary drama can provoke suspicion and unease in some. 

Robin warms up with the cast of Crouch Touch Pause Engage

Robin warms up with the cast of ‘Crouch Touch Pause Engage’

It has been a recurring theme since I started writing verbatim theatre that certain guardians of the young and vulnerable in whichever location I end up, have suspected my intentions of being commercial and exploitative rather than humanitarian and sympathetic, and of using the stories I find to promote my own career rather than trying to widen our knowledge of a particular syndrome and hopefully persuade my audience that there is more to it than might immediately be apparent. During the workshop for A State Affair, I was in a bail hostel in Leeds, and the undermanager, having serious doubts about my intentions, said to me, ‘Never forget it’s someone’s life.’ Those words have resonated with me ever since, and are at the back, or even the front, of my mind whenever I conduct interviews or construct the text. I really don’t want to exploit the people who have given their time and stories for the enlightenment of others, but it still remains a suspicion among the gatekeepers that my motives are selfish and at worst could make the situation worse rather than better.

Mixed Up North

The cast of ‘Mixed Up North’

When I arrived at a theatre in Burnley during research for Mixed up North, there was a young cast… a mix of Asian, Caribbean and white… getting ready for the dress rehearsal of their play. One girl stood alone in the corner of the foyer holding her wrist. If anyone went near her, she would move away, and although she went through the motions during the dress rehearsal, she was clearly traumatised. Over the next few weeks I got to know her, and one day she said she would like to tell me her story. I went to her care worker and asked if this was ethical… I said I didn’t want to interfere or tread on anyone’s toes or exceed my brief. She said, ‘Oh no, that’s fine… if she wants to talk to you, that’s fine.’ I said, ‘Do you want to sit in with me on the interview… and tell me if I’m being unnecessarily intrusive?’

‘Oh no, no… I’m sure it’ll be fine… she’ll tell you what she wants to tell you.’ The girl and I went into the kitchen of the youth centre, I made her a cup of tea, gave her a biscuit, and asked her if she really wanted to tell me the story. I hardly asked another question… it came pouring out… how her relationship with her mother had soured, how her stepfather had abused her, and how on the way home from the theatre the day before I arrived, she had been raped by two boys in the corner of a dark street… and that had reopened all the trauma of what her stepfather had done to her.

Robin Soans

Robin at work

Her story, heavily disguised to protect her identity, appeared in the final script… and the very people from whom I had sought permission for the interview said Social Services were thinking of contacting the police and asking me to answer charges of exploitation. My initial reaction was one of frustration, especially when it was reiterated at post-show discussions, but actually on reflection it is perfectly understandable… in the bleak post-industrial landscape where I look at life, everyone is pigeon-holed by the coalition of press, politicians, and big business, everyone is robbed of identity and dignity and understanding, and you can understand their point of view as much as anyone else’s. There’s a line in Crouch, Touch, Pause, Engage… Alfie says, ‘If you’re the first person to do something, you have to be prepared to take the shit for it.’ Verbatim writers are pioneers… they are the first to look deep into the heart of matters, and the truth is they must be prepared to take the shit for it.

Crouch Touch Pause Engage is now touring Wales and England, directed by Max Stafford-Clark and produced by Out of Joint. Tickets and tour details can be found on the Out of Joint website.

The playscript is available from Oberon Books, along with Robin Soans’ other writing, such as Mixed Up North and Talking to Terrorists.

Andy Hinds on ‘opinion productions’ of Shakespeare

Derry-born Andy Hinds has been a theatre director, playwright and acting teacher for thirty years. For many years he taught ‘Acting Shakespeare’ at RADA, Shakespeare’s Globe, Trinity College, The Gaiety School of Acting, University College, Dublin, and in his own acting studio. In this blog, adapted from his new book, Acting Shakespeare’s Language, Andy elaborates on one particular issue to consider when directing, performing or producing a Shakespeare play that didn’t quite make it into the main body of the book – so no spoilers here! 

Most of what I speak about in Acting Shakespeare’s Language, I learnt through my work with students and actors over the years. In the course of the slow, difficult, but ultimately rewarding, process of then organising this knowledge into the subsequent chap­ters and sub-sections etc., I have, however, learnt a great deal more. I have become more fully convinced about certain ideas, have refined or rejected others, and have come to realise that there are areas about which I remain undecided, and which I need to look into more deeply.

‘This book is an immensely useful resource for anyone teaching, speaking and acting Shakespeare.’ Ralph Fiennes

‘This book is an immensely useful resource for anyone teaching, speaking and acting Shakespeare.’ – Ralph Fiennes

I would like to say a few words about one other matter which did not find a natural place in Acting Shakespeare’s Language.  This is a particular circumstance which often results in the language of a classic play (Shakespearean, Greek, Jacobean etc.) being less than well-served.

As well as encountering the many ‘opinion plays’, one regularly comes across stagings of classic plays which I would regard as ‘opinion productions’. These are ‘interpretations’ which can neuter the truth of a play by subjugating it to some opinion, or ideology, of the director; where a play is used as a wall on which to scratch slogans. In such cases, the staging often represents no more than a labour-intensive, often expensive, form of foot-stamping about some contemporary (and, in the great scheme of things, usually temporary) ‘issue’. Staging the play becomes an act of attempted control (‘I want to make you think this about that’); as opposed to its being an act of service; an act where one’s intention is to honour the text in such a way as to deepen the felt contact between the audience and their own souls; between the audience and their universe. ‘Issue’ productions direct the spectators to disapprove of, or even hate, something which the director disapproves of, or hates; this is divisive and less than wholly human. In the face of such enterprises, it can feel as if one is being told, ‘No need to attend to the specifics of the play’s language; more important is that you notice all the ways I, the director, have found to use the play, in order to impose judgement on certain sections of humanity. Please leave the theatre feeling righteous and condemning these people.’ Not a good thing.

I believe the challenge of artists and interpreters is to delve deep into our own consciousness, deep enough to reach a level beneath our individual ‘beliefs and convictions’; ‘beliefs and convictions’ we may cling to so dearly as to imagine they define ‘who we are’; ‘beliefs and convictions’ which, on the surface, may convince as being ‘only right and just’, but which ultimately serve to separate us from an awareness of what unites us as humans. Our endeavour must be to tap down into the clear waters of the more universal truths which run somewhere deep in all of us, which flow somewhere below the personal ranklings and dysfunctions which we all have, and which can so blind us to the greater realities of existence; realities which while being physically invisible, can be viscerally felt, and which are so much more meaningful, unifying, and nourishing to our souls than our ‘beliefs and convictions’.

Andy Hinds

Andy Hinds

Shakespeare was an artist who, with apparent effortlessness, tapped deeply into these rich waters; over and over again. He does not use his writing to wag the finger from a position of superiority to his characters or his audience. Nor need we use his words to do this. To make manifest to an audience the humanising truths on which Shakespeare’s plays draw, the task of the actor is to identify and serve, selflessly, and moment to moment, the structures and purposes of his language.

My final wish is that what I have striven to share within the pages of my book may, in some way, assist you towards that end.

Acting Shakespeare’s Language is available to buy alongside other titles by Andy Hinds from the Oberon Books website.

The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize

We are delighted to announce that not just one, but two of our playwrights are finalists for the prestigious 2015 The Susan Smith Blackburn Prize. Clara Brennan and Alice Birch have been nominated for Spine and Revolt. She said. Revolt again respectively.

Susan SmithThe prize, established in 1978  to recognise women who have written works of outstanding quality for the English-speaking theatre, is awarded annually and chosen by a panel of six judges. The winner, selected from the ten named finalists, will be announced on 2nd March in New York.


Spine has already been recognised with a Fringe First and the Herald Angel Award last year, while Revolt saw Birch win the Arts Foundation Award for Playwriting as well as the George Devine Award for Most Promising Playwright in 2014.

Clara Brennan’s new play, Boa, is on stage now at Trafalgar Studios, starring Dame Harriet Walter alongside her husband Guy Paul, whilst Alice Birch’s Little Light has recently opened at Richmond’s Orange Tree theatre. We’re wishing all the very best to both mischiefwriters for their current productions and keeping our fingers crossed for March 2nd – watch this space!

Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again is published in Midsummer Mischief: Four Radical New Plays, alongside new plays by E.V. Crowe, Timberlake Wertenbaker and Abi Zakarian.

Spine is also available to buy from our website.

‘Ivy & Joan’ interview

‘Ivy & Joan’ by Oberon publisher James Hogan recently ended its run at Jermyn Street Theatre. It is his first play since the 80s and 90s, when James stopped writing plays to concentrate on building Oberon Books. In this play themes of love, loss, and disappointed hopes are explored. Caro Moses from ThisWeek London recently caught up with James, hoping to find out more about his inspiration for the plays and his work here at Oberon.

Caro Moses: ‘Ivy’ and ‘Joan’ appear as a double bill. Are the plays linked, or do they stand alone?
James Hogan: They are intricately linked with many parallels; eg, each of the women has lost or never had emotional fulfillment. In visual terms, in each play a broken vessel (the broken heart) is symbolic. In ‘Ivy’ it’s a china tea-cup and saucer, in ‘Joan’ it’s a wine glass which is never filled, and which she sweeps aside in anger and shatters at the end. In each play there is a wedding in the background. In ‘Ivy’ it’s going on in the hotel where she has worked for 40 years. In ‘Joan’ it’s a memory of a wedding procession passing through the Piazza San Marco (Venice).

CM: Can you give us an idea of what they are about? What are the central narratives?
JH: In both plays the basic story is how any of us can face a bleak future without that

Lynne Miller plays Ivy and Joan

Lynne Miller plays Ivy and Joan

special person who would be the love of our lives. Many people carry this sad secret around with them, but they never let on. In ‘Ivy’ it’s a former head waiter in the hotel who disappeared years ago after a one-night stand, but ‘Ivy’ is still convinced that one day he will return and marry her. In ‘Joan’, she discovers that the man she has been married to for decades has never loved her. But there are wider, more worldly themes filtering through… for example, Joan is an amateur painter, she has returned from Venice believing that art is useless as a tool for civilization. In ‘Ivy’, our central character is obsessed, waiting for her lover to return, and the theme is futile hope, which lurks within most of us at some time or other in our lives.

CM: What themes do the plays tackle?
JH: ‘Ivy': Loyalty, both true and misplaced. The power of lost lovers/partners to dominate our lives.
‘Joan': We may long for another kind of life, but we only have this one. Most people’s lives fall short of their aspirations and ambitions. How do we cope?
Has the explosion of art in Europe, often sponsored by the church, made a better world? No, because not far away thousands of people are being slaughtered for their beliefs.

CM: What inspired you to write these plays? Where did the ideas for them come from?
JH: For me there’s always a point of departure. This can be a phrase I overhear, or a small incident.
For ‘Joan’ it was my own experience of Venice. I was sitting in the Piazza San Marco enjoying a glass of Chianti in the evening. A mist drifted into the Piazza from the Grand Canal, and through it there appeared a wedding procession led by folk musicians. It passed through the Piazza and disappeared down a narrow lane. Magical.
For ‘Ivy’, it was also my own experience working in a hotel as a student. During my break I listened to an old waitress who lived in the hotel and was obsessed with the delusion that one day her lover would return.

© Nobby Clark

© Nobby Clark

CM: As well as being a playwright, you are the founder of independent publisher Oberon Books, which specialises in publishing plays. How did you get into this field, and what made you decide to set up the company?
JH: In the early 80s, I was the joint convenor of a playwriting group at Riverside Studios. After 4 years I decided I had to move on. But I was struck by how difficult, and even unlikely it was, for new plays to be published. There was an embryonic programme text project at the Royal Court, but not much else. So I set up Oberon to fill the gap.

I had an agenda. The funded theatre and much of the fringe was riddled with cliques of one sort or another, eg, the intellectual left, which had a vice-like grip on everything that went on. The pseudo Trotskyites who set out to disrupt the system. The funded theatre was a power-base for all these aparachniks, and it had little to do with original writing. I remember being told that a play of mine would not be staged because it wasn’t left wing enough. Actually, it was. It just wasn’t partisan. Oberon is a response to all this. Bear grudges. It’s good for you.

CM: Through Oberon Books, you have championed unknowns and published the work of many notable contemporary playwrights. Do you have a favourite?
JH: Lots of favourites. But in terms of favourites, I think mainly of individual plays rather than writers. All writers have good and not so good moments. But as a publisher you embrace them all through it. Play A may be great, play B may be a disappointment, but by then I’m looking ahead to plays C D E and so on. A publisher is custodian of every writer’s total oeuvre. Cherry picking would be easy. Anyone can do that. And if it’s a financial headache to publish everything a writer does, it’s my job to face that challenge.

There have been great moments. When Sir Peter Hall joined Oberon I was over-awed. Our street-cred soared. He once told me why he’d come on board: because we publish so many new writers. I have my detractors too, but that’s life.

There is another priority, which is to reflect what is actually happening in the theatre. But I mean the whole of theatre, not just fashionable sections. This might mean that we miss out here and there on some over-hyped long-running hit. I never look at what other theatre publishers are doing, except out of envy now and then. We have our big hits too and that of course boosts our standing every time.

Our list should also be truly international, writers from just about every conceivable ethnic and cultural background. I remember a leading playwright saying that he couldn’t recognize an ideological thread in our list. I said “Which one d’you want?”

People ask me how I manage all this at my age. My response is always plain. I’ve filled Oberon with a team of extremely bright young people. I encourage them to lead. We have to meet a changing, ever modernising world head-on. Young people instinctively understand things that we older people don’t.

CM: What’s next for you? Are you working on more plays? What can we expect in the future?
JH: I’m working on a new play, but I’m not giving away the idea!

This interview was conducted and originally published by ThisWeek London – HERE
The play text and rights are available from Samuel French – HERE
Some reviews of this production can be read – HEREHERE and HERE


“Politics is life” – Juliet Gilkes Romeo talks diversity, progress and playwriting

Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play Upper Cut tackles the struggle for racial diversity in British politics. Here, Juliet tells Oberon about her inspiration, her research, and her hopes for how the play can influence the wider discussion. Upper Cut is on at Southwark Playhouse until 7 February.

Your play Upper Cut is loosely based on real events at the dawn of ‘New Labour’ in the mid-90s. Can you tell us any more about what inspired you to write this play?

There are currently just 27 Black and Ethnic Minority (BME) MPs out of a total of 650. I find this slightly shocking that the mother of parliaments is still so unrepresentative and I Upper Cut by Juliet Gilkes Romerowanted to know why? When Director Lotte Wakeham and actress Emma Dennis Edwards asked me to write a play about the black political landscape my answer was an immediate yes.

Upper Cut is seen from the perspective of a black female politician and unravels the fight for diversityand black representation through today’s coalition politics, the hope and rebirth of New Labour and straight into the troubled heart of a Labour party struggling under the might of Thatcher’s Tory revolution.

To understand present and past I had to re-examine an era when there were no black or Asian MPs in the House of Commons and why. It’s exciting to be the first new political play in a year where the general election could be the most unpredictable votein living memory.

I was very conscious of this while researching Upper Cut and believe the main three political parties will be forced to re-evaluate and finally embrace Britain’s diverse voters and the racial mix of Parliament.

The campaign group Operation Black Vote was established in 1996, the summer before New Labour’s landslide election victory.  How do you assess the progress made since then, specifically in terms of BME representation and political participation?

The progress is slow. Despite the triumph of 1987, there are currently just nine African and Afro-Caribbean MPs. Five of them are Labour MPs, a number that has barely increased since the late 1980s.

I admire their achievement in entering the House of Commons but I do feel a sense of disappointment that the figure is so low. I think this is best summed up by Diane Abbot. In the 2013 document ‘One Nation Labour, Black Representation Across The Party’ she  says “If you had told me that, 26 years later, the numbers of African and Afro-Caribbean Labour members of parliament would scarcely be any greater, I would have been shocked. We thought that we were opening a door, through which many others would flood through.”


© Operation Black Vote –

We clearly need to see more BME MPs and I am hopeful that my play will contribute positively and passionately to this debate. One of the black activists I interviewed as part of my research is now competing to be a Labour candidate in a North London seat.  I wish him well!

You were formerly a reporter and broadcast journalist for the BBC. How has this informed your playwriting career?

I think the years I have spent as a journalist have defined my playwriting.  Journalism has taught me to truly listen to what others have to say and because I’ve had the privilege of reporting overseas I am very drawn to writing stories outside of the traditional western perspective and indeed the ‘establishment’ wherever that may be.
When travelling through countries such as Ethiopia, Cuba and Haiti (and often alone) I learnt not to have any preconceived ideas about what I wanted to see or hear.
I have tackled subjects including genocide in Darfur, why we go to war, revolution and now the status of British parliamentary politics. I am always trying to surprise myself and hopefully the audience.

Upper Cut draws occasional similarities between the underrepresentation of women in politics to that of BME individuals; do you think these are issues that need to be treated with equal concern?

Absolutely. The Labour party transformed parliamentary politics through All Women Shortlists. It’s extraordinary when you consider that back in 1995 an industrial tribunal ruled the Labour party had broken the law by imposing the scheme.  But nothing else worked before then and it was a battle worth fighting and continues to this day.

What I find ironic is that the same constructive effort to reverse the under representation of women in politics is not used to do the same for ethnic diversity in Parliament. Why is the strategy good for one group and not for another? The Conservatives did manage to secure more minority MPs in 2010 by placing some on a candidates’ A-list. But the three main parties are still falling painfully short of reflecting the racial mix of the constituents they claim to represent.

The use of music in Upper Cut seems particularly significant – can you explain a little bit more about your song choices and their relationship to the script?

Music influences political movements and culture and I wanted certain tracks to reflect the evolution of Upper Cut’s unfolding years.

There are ten tracks in all but briefly It’s A Man’s World but sung by Cher ironically echoes the simmering tensions over  the selection of female  parliamentary candidates in the ‘90s. It attributes all the efforts of the modern world to men while almost grudgingly recognising that such progress would ‘mean nothing without a woman or a girl’.

Steel Pulse and Prodigal Son was a must.  During the ‘80s the band closely allied themselves to Rock Against Racism, a movement set-up to oppose racial conflict. Prodigal Son is very much Michael’s anthem. The paradox is that as he grows older he moves away from his roots and identity.

Two Tribes by Frankie Goes to Hollywood mirrors the opposing and entrenched political positions adopted by Karen and Barry. Their ideological fight unleashes a ‘cold war’ between them that lasts a while. During the ‘80s fears about global nuclear conflict and warring adversaries were at a peak.  Young Gifted and Black speaks for itself and is used in Scene 8 to underscore the idealism and hope of two you black activists determined to transform the landscape of British politics but in different directions.

Your play also explores the relationship that young people have with politics and politicians. What do you think can be done to help young people, in particular those from minority backgrounds, engage with current politics?

Politics should be compulsory on the school curriculum. I hope that doesn’t sound draconian but politics is life and if young people do not understand how democracy and parliament work they will never feel the motivation to visit a ballot box. Understanding politics should be as important as learning to read regardless of ethnic background.

Michael’s character appears to strive for a government that does not need to consciously acknowledge its election of black MPs, whilst Karen wants to keep fighting for black power by pushing for initiatives and schemes – is either solution preferable?

I do not claim to have the answer but deliberately set up the question, in the hope that the tension between idealism and political pragmatism makes for a politically compelling play.  I think both Karen and Michael have their strong and weak points and I would happily have my last supper with both and argue with them until the end of time! Barry too!

Oppenheimer: Why ask the question? Why dramatise this story?

Tom Morton-Smith’s new play Oppenheimer, which opened at the RSC’s Swan Theatre on 15th January, looks at the man behind the Manhattan Project. Here, Tom gives an insight into one of the most controversial figures of the 20th Century, and how the work Oppenheimer did has affected our collective history. 


At the RSC’s Swan Theatre until 7th March 2015

Even knowing very little it is hard not to have an opinion about J Robert Oppenheimer. Few of the 20th century’s great public figures were as complex and contradictory as the Father of the Atomic Bomb. For a period of time he was a hero, personifying America’s triumph of intellect, industry and will – a symptom, if not a cause, of the United States’ emergence as a superpower. During the 1950s Oppenheimer found himself at the centre of the Red Scare. He was a Communist sympathising socialist with a radical past and at the heart of government, a godless scientist with access to the highest levels of security – everything McCarthyism saw as dangerous. To those who opposed nuclear weapons he had opened Pandora’s Box – releasing a great evil into the world. He was pilloried by all sides as a war criminal or as a traitor. If people today know anything about Oppenheimer it is for the horrifying, arrogant, self-aggrandising quote: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Oppenheimer would argue that his actions safeguarded the world from a third world war. He believed, as many of the scientists who worked with him did, that the creation of a weapon as destructive as the a-bomb would make the concept of war so unpalatable that soldiers across the world would lay down their arms. This echoes the beliefs of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who said: The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.”

There are no right answers when it comes to J Robert Oppenheimer. He cannot be neatly labelled as either hero or villain. It is a remarkable coincidence that the processes of atomic fission were discovered as the first fully industrialised war broke out in Europe – had fission come ten years later the resource and the will for such a bomb may have never developed. But Oppenheimer saw that it was possible – and at a time when the Germans were the world leaders in particle physics – he knew that the atomic bomb was inevitable. The Battle of the Laboratories (as President Truman called it) was very real for the scientists of the time – and if it was a choice for the Nazis to have the bomb or the Americans – then for Oppenheimer the decision was straightforward.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, c. 1944

J. Robert Oppenheimer, c. 1944

With hindsight it is clear that nuclear weapons serve only to deter nuclear war. In his short story collection, Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis writes: “How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening the use of nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons.” Oppenheimer is very much part of the world that we have. We can fantasise a world without the atomic bomb – we can imagine alternate histories without the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – we can comfort ourselves with the thought that perhaps Oppenheimer was crushed by guilt for the rest of his life – but the bombs are here and the history is how it is. The scientists of the Manhattan Project believed that their work would end a war and save lives – and it did. Whether it was the ‘right’ thing to do is one of those horribly nebulous philosophical questions that will never have a satisfactory answer.

So why ask the question? Why dramatise this story? Why rake over these old coals of Communism, acts of war and particle physics? Because there will always be a new advancement in weapons technology. There will always be new science. There will always be a new war. There will always be a new ideological threat. And revisiting how we answered those unanswerable questions yesterday, will help us as we wrestle with what is unanswerable today.

Oppenheimer is available to buy on the Oberon Books website HERE
Tickets are available from the RSC’s website HERE