Black Lives, Black Words

Black Lives, Black Words premiered in Chicago in July 2015. This international project has since explored the Black diaspora’s experiences in some of the largest multicultural cities in the world, Chicago, Minneapolis, Cleveland, Toronto and now London. Over sixty Black writers from the UK, USA, and Canada have each written a short play to address Black issues today. This blog is taken from the introduction to the book, written by Madani Younis, the Artistic Director of The Bush theatre where the pieces were performed last month.


It’s on us. It’s always been on us.

From Claudia Jones to Michael X, from Frank Crichlow to Darcus Howe to Doreen and Neville Lawrence, there is a rich and fierce tradition of resistance that has defined the past century in this great city.

2016 was a significant year in the UK. Following the Brexit vote to take us out of the European Union, few of us could have predicted the steep rise in racially motivated hate crime, or the vitriol that was unleashed on the ‘immigrant’, a term which became a dangerous and charged catch-all and scapegoat. And a term that, in the eyes of the dominant right-wing media, is almost always defined as non-white. That exists outside the bubble of privilege and power occupied by wealthy, white Europeans.

It has been a 12 months in which our world seems to have shrunk around us, to have become smaller and more insular. Many of us who had always called this country home, suddenly began to question what home really meant.

Eight years ago, when the first presidency of an African American was in its infancy, many looked forward to a new horizon, to a post-racial reality. Instead, the list of Black lives violently ended, of justice miscarried, has only grown longer and more terrible. Against this backdrop, we’ve seen a rise of right-wing thought in both volume and acceptability, from the anti-Islamic, anti-immigrant rhetoric of a new breed of populist politician through the proliferation of the Alt-Right, to the very different president now squatting in the White House.

Black Lives Matter is different in both form and function from the civil rights movements of the past. As Jeff Chang notes in his extraordinary book We Gon’ Be Alright, this was not a movement which formed around one forceful, charismatic male voice. It was started by three women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi. It is an insurgent movement; a reaction; a disruption. It has a sense of urgency, of crisis and of place. It represents the latest form in a continuum of struggle that stretches back as far as slavery, a new, horizontal, open source resistance.

It speaks to an American reality, a 21st century reality, to the prison-industrial complex, urban poverty, and the frustration of an underclass who found themselves left in limbo and threatened by systemic violence even under Obama.

I have been struck by how the media perception of the Black Lives Matter movement has seen it framed as a negative force for change, and I would fervently argue that instead it gives a voice to the voiceless in political debate, debate no longer centred on New York, Washington DC and the Houses of Parliament. That it opens up a creative space for Black activists and artists to fashion and articulate a response.

In a year in which the Bush Theatre has been nomadic, in which we’ve spent the last 12 months working in and alongside the lives and communities of West London, it seems appropriate that we return to Black Lives Black Words. Initiated in 2015 by poet, playwright and producer Reginald Edmund, Black Lives Black Words is a conversation held across continents, where we come together to speak to the vital question of what is the value of Black lives in America, the UK and across the world.

Madani Younis, Artistic Director of The Bush theatre

I was 15 years old when Stephen Lawrence was murdered, a Black British teenager killed in a racially motivated attack. The ripples of that watershed moment in media and public perception of Black lives in the UK flowed through my late teens and my early 20’s. The Macpherson Report, the growing awareness of institutional police racism, the killing of Christopher Alder, and of Mark Duggan, and the subsequent 2012 London riots. Since 1990, a tenth of identified deaths in police custody were people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. There is a concussive effect of turning on the news each day and seeing men and women who look like you portrayed so negatively, and violently. There is a concussive effect to daily reminders that in the eyes of some, you do not belong, and your voice is not welcome. So it is no surprise to me that we have seen the emergence of our own Black Lives Matter movement in the UK and across Europe, as a vital shared form of resistance to a conservativism that is wrecking lives and silencing dissent.

As a theatre, we have always existed in Shepherd’s Bush, on one of the country’s most multicultural roads, but also a place of extreme contrast, where some of the city’s greatest deprivation exists a street or two away from its most valuable housing. And these are extremes which so often break down across racial and class lines.

When we first welcomed Reginald and Black Lives Black Words to our theatre, where together with Artistic Directors of the Future they brought these vital voices to the UK, we felt a kinship with their concerns and their strategies. So it seemed only appropriate that now, as we prepare to re-open our building on the Uxbridge Road, that we should mark that with a statement about the kind of work we want to enable, the kind of voices we want to amplify, the kind of world we want to live in. To return to the words of Jeff Chang

The horizon towards which we move always recedes before us. The revolution is never complete. … All that signified progress may in time be turned against us. But redemption is there for us if we are always in the process of finding love and grace.’

– Madani Younis, March 2017


You can find out more about Black Lives, Black Words HERE, and more about Black Lives Matter HERE. With thanks to Reginald Edmund and Madani Younis.

 

Voices From The Armenian Genocide

Rebecca Maltby. Main image courtesy of Armenian National Institute Inc, courtesy of Sybil Stevens (daughter of Armin T. Wegner). Wegner Collection, Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Top image – Designed by Rebecca Maltby. Original image courtesy of Armenian National Institute Inc, courtesy of Sybil Stevens (daughter of Armin T. Wegner). Wegner Collection, Deutsches Literaturarchiv, Marbach, and United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. All other images – Scott Rylander.

Commemorating the centenary of the deportations that began the Armenian Genocide, I Wish To Die Singing – Voices From The Armenian Genocide is a controversial documentary drama uncovering the forgotten secrets and atrocities of a denied genocide – featuring eye-witness reportage, images, music, poetry from Armenia’s greatest poets, and verbatim survivors testimonies from one of the greatest historical injustices of all time.
In this piece, writer Neil McPherson reflects on his reasons for writing the play, his process, and the reactions he’s had.
(The below is taken and edited from Neil’s preface to the play text.) 

Armenian 2As far as I remember, the first time I ever heard about the Genocide was when I was eighteen and read Tim Cross’ The Lost Voices of World War One which included the work of three leading Armenian poets, all deported from Constantinople on April 24th 1915.

Seventeen years later, as Artistic Director at the Finborough Theatre in London, I was programming the theatre for the 2005 season. As usual, I researched the anniversaries that fell in that year as they can sometimes be a useful marketing hook for a production. When I learned that 2005 was the 90th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, I decided to search for a play that we could produce to commemorate it. All of the plays I could find were by Armenian-Americans. Most were very short, and focused on the experience of the Armenian diaspora in the United States. They all assumed that their audiences already possessed a good working knowledge of the Genocide.

Armenian 5But I quickly learnt that the Armenian Genocide was very far from common knowledge. Most people I spoke to had never heard of it. A very few had, but only vaguely, and then solely in relation to the Holocaust, rather than as an event in its own right. It was then that I started to learn about Turkey’s ongoing denial of the Genocide. I soon found myself reading all the evidence I could find to see if there was any merit in what the Turkish government insist on calling ‘the other side of the story’, so that I could make up my mind for myself.

In the end, it wasn’t the horror of the Genocide itself which forced me to try and tell this story, but Turkey’s denial of it. I needed to scream about how these wounds, hurt, anguish and grief were all intensified because of a blank-faced refusal to tell the truth. And if I wasn’t able to find a play that would do that, then I vowed to try and create one myself.

Armenian 4I called an old school friend who, with his customary generosity, lent me some rare books to get me started, and despite some death threats (always a sign that you’re doing something right), the 2005 production completely sold out its few performances. I decided to wait until the centenary in 2015 before doing it again so that we could open the production on the exact anniversary of the start of the Genocide – 24th April.

Internationally, the denialist lobby were careful to keep their heads down in the run up to the centenary, and so we were able to present the 2015 production without any death threats. The reaction of the Armenian community was overwhelming, including parents bringing their children, and even people who travelled especially to the theatre from as far afield as Beirut and Yerevan to see it.

We did however receive some quite spectacular abuse on social media, which is where not being Armenian myself really came into its own. The first accusation would invariably be ‘What can we expect? You’re just a ‘LIARMENIAN’ and were shocked to learn that no, I wasn’t, not at all. Their second accusation would usually then be that I was obviously a 9781783193059sell-out and the whole production had been paid for by Armenian money. To which the answer was – with no pun intended – ‘I wish’. After that, they usually moved on to suggestions that were mainly scatological and probably anatomically impossible, but which worked very well when I quoted them verbatim in the play itself.

And if you still might be wondering the reason why a non-Armenian felt compelled to try and share this story, the last word should go to the poet Peter Balakian:
‘If the extermination of a million and half people and the erasure of a three-thousand-year-old civilization isn’t important enough to write about, what the fuck is?’

 

I Wish to Die Singing is available to buy from the Oberon Books website

Yaël Farber: three plays in a new collection

Ingrid Rowland is a Professor at the University of Notre Dame School of Architecture, a frequent contributor to The New York Review of Books and the author of The Culture of the High Renaissance: Ancients and Moderns in Sixteenth-Century Rome and The Scarith of Scornello: A Tale of Renaissance Forgery. In her introduction to Yaël Farber Plays One which includes Molora, RAM: The Abduction of Sita into Darkness and Mies Julie Rowland describes how Farber has taken on classical drama texts, made them her own, and even arguably improved them in some ways for modern audiences. Rowland believes that “rooting these plays in such specific times and such specific settings actually enhances Farber’s power, as playwright and director, to draw out their universal qualities”

9781783191512Yaël Farber has described her involvement with theatre as a mission. At the heart of her productions, therefore, no matter how dark, there is always a luminous vision to guide characters, actors, and audience forward from the magical rite of performance into a transformed awareness of normal life. Paradoxically, as in these three plays, she draws power from traditional stories and traditional rituals to address contemporary problems head on. Unlike the ancient Greeks, who hid away the most graphic events of tragedy – murder, suicide, rape – Farber shows it all. As a director, she drives the human body to extremes, asking incredible agility of her dancing, leaping, whirling, wrestling actors, pressing their willingness to bare body and soul to the very limits of endurance. She makes comparable demands of her public: we are present to bear witness, to be engaged rather than simply entertained. Each of these plays begins with a warning that production on a proscenium stage will ruin its effect; players and public must meet face to face, on the same level, to recognize their common humanity – and, sadly, inhumanity.

Furthermore, each of these three dramas is based on a classic of dramatic or epic literature transported to a new place and time. Molora (2008) sets the ancient Greek saga of the Oresteia in contemporary South Africa, with the Commission on Truth and Reconciliation taking the role of the ancient Athenian Court of the Areopagus. Ram: the Abduction of Sita into Darkness (2011) recounts a grim episode from the Hindu epic Ramayana in connection with a strike by modern Indian sanitation workers. Mies Julie (2012) moves August Strindberg’s Fröken Julie from the midnight sun of a Swedish Midsummer to Freedom Day on an arid South African farmstead. And with each of these transpositions, something remarkable takes place. Rooting these plays in such specific times and such specific settings actually enhances Farber’s power, as playwright and director, to draw out their universal qualities. For these great tales, times and continents hardly matter; our similarities as human beings prove stronger than our differences, especially when we gather in a circle to hear a story unfold.

Ingrid Rowland

Ingrid Rowland

At its origin, the Oresteia was a tale of the dying Mediterranean Bronze Age. Agamemnon, the general who led a thousand Greek ships to conquer distant Troy, belonged to the last generation to rule from a series of massive palaces decorated with elaborate frescoes and brimming with gold. Shortly after the Trojan War, between about 1200 and 1100 B.C.E., this palace civilization was destroyed; political systems broke down, writing was lost, Greeks descended into extreme poverty. Memories of that breakdown persist in the story of Agamemnon’s homecoming from Troy: his queen, Clytemnestra, has taken a lover during his ten-year absence, and when he finally returns, she kills her husband and abandons their children. Electra, the daughter, descends into bitterness. Their son, Orestes, is bound by tradition to avenge his father’s death by slaying the murderer, but that murderer is his own mother. His conflicting obligations potentially make Orestes a monster no matter what he does; significantly, his name means ‘mountain man’ – he is, by fate and by definition, a kind of savage. All three of the great Greek tragedians, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, wrestled with Orestes’ dilemma, using it as a way to call for new, more profound forms of justice, aware that their ancestors had created a new civilization, their own, from the ruins of the Bronze Age. In their retellings, Orestes slays his mother, but is tormented by the Furies, his mother’s avenging spirits. In his great tragic trilogy. Aeschylus finally turns Orestes over to a court of law, which reaches a split decision. In a spectacular finish, Athena decides to acquit him, but she also gives the Furies a new home and a new cult in Athens.

Yaël Farber

Yaël Farber

In Molora, the dying Bronze Age becomes the dying system of South African apartheid. Farber replaces the ancient Greek chorus with a chorus of Xhosa women singers. Those ancient Athenians sang melodies and danced, vigorously, in patterns we can only guess at now. But the hypnotic two-tone throat singing of this contemporary chorus creates an ecstatic atmosphere sufficient in itself, one in perfect harmony with the play and with its new South African venue. Aeschylus ended his famous Orestes trilogy of 458 B.C. with a torchlight procession as dusk fell over Athens, knitting up all the unanswered questions of his story with the irrational, energetic rush of pure celebration. The final chorus of Molora may be sung in a different language to different instruments than those known to Aeschylus, but the language of bodies in motion knows no borders, and the effect of this South African dance must be no less exhilarating than the memory of that long-ago torchlight parade. Likewise, the sword dance that Orestes performs in Molora as he circles around a smoldering altar hews with absolute truth to the spirit of Greek tragedy, not only because tragedy is the stylized product of an ancient circle dance around a burnt sacrifice, but because, in human terms, Orestes needs to work himself into a frenzy before he can contemplate doing what he must do with that sword – namely drive it into his mother. But Farber’s most brilliant transformation of the Orestes legend is to have the chorus, as the embodiment of Truth and Reconciliation, stop the murder before it has happened, to hold Orestes to their superior, forgiving justice before he awakens the Furies.

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‘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.
9781783192106

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

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.

“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.”

OBV

© Operation Black Vote – http://www.obv.org.uk/

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. 

Oppenheimer

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