Radical Mischief

An edited version of this article appeared in the May 2014 edition of Radical Mischief, the Royal Shakespeare Company's new work newsletter.


Tom Morton-Smith discusses his new play Oppenheimer that opens in the Swan Theatre next year.

What was it that first sparked your interest in J Robert Oppenheimer and the story of the Manhattan Project?

I became fascinated with physics after watching a BBC documentary about Hugh Everett III, who first proposed the Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics. I watched it because it was presented by Everett’s son, E, who is the lead singer of a band I quite like (Eels). It inspired me to write my play Uncertainty, which took some ideas from quantum theory and attempted to humanise them. From researching that play I started to become familiar with some of the big names of physics – Bohr, Heisenberg, Fermi – and in particular it led me to read Richard Feynman’s fantastic memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman? It was the passages about Feynman’s time working at Los Alamos on the bomb project that really fired my imagination and first introduced me to Oppenheimer.

Oppenheimer is such a contradictory and difficult character. His levels of ambition, frailty and indecision strike me as quite Shakespearean. He is both hero and villain and his story seems to encapsulate all that is best and worst about the 20th century.

Physics is an attempt to understand the universe, which (in a rather trite comparison) is not too dissimilar to the purpose of theatre. The plays that have most engaged and thrilled me are the ones that tackle the big questions of science directly; Stoppard’s Arcadia, Complicité’s A Disappearing Number, Brecht’s A Life of Galileo and of course Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen. I love those plays, and I think it is very important that, if you are going to write plays yourself, you should always write the sort that you yourself love to see. 

Tell us about your research process for developing the play. Did you come across anything surprising or shocking during this process?

So many books have been written about the Manhattan Project, and pretty much everybody involved wrote an autobiography at some point. There’s a huge wealth of information and discussion that I had to ingest. I would read a biography or a history book and, whenever a significant event was mentioned – a scientific discovery, or the first meeting between two characters, or a significant landmark in WW2 – I would mark the page number onto this massive timeline, so that, when I came to write that scene or reference that event I would be able to draw from multiple sources at once.

I think what surprised me most when I came to write the play was how much the Manhattan Project was really the first action of the Cold War. I had in my mind this play about the destructive nature of discovery, and I found myself writing a John le Carré or Len Deighton style espionage thriller. I think I’ve struck a reasonable balance between the two now.

I was very shocked by the sheer weight of numbers involved – or rather I was shocked by how impenetrable they were. When you are reading about death-tolls reaching into the hundreds of thousands, it just becomes impossible to comprehend. This is not just in reference to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but, because I felt I needed a comparison with the death-tolls reached via more conventional ordnance, the firebombing of Germany and Japan leading up to the end of the war as well. I had assumed that the numbers of dead due to the two atomic weapons were unprecedented – but no, it was only the method of delivery that was.

How and when did the RSC become involved in producing your play?

I was invited by the RSC to take part in a couple of workshops. They wanted to see whether the resources they have available for their actors would be of any use to playwrights, particularly in terms of writing for large stages and thinking on a more epic scale. I worked with the vocal department and a rhetoric coach, looking at the construction of Shakespeare’s soliloquies, the ideas and scale of the ancient Greek chorus, and what sort of language and literary register is required to fill a space such as the RST or the Swan. I was then given the opportunity to come and pitch to the literary department, to see whether the workshop had inspired an epic idea. It’s not often a theatre asks you to bring them ‘the biggest thing you can think of’. I pitched them an eight play play-cycle on the history of physics in the 20th century. They kind of laughed and said: ‘Yeah … okay … pick one.’ So I picked the biggest – the story of the Manhattan Project, specifically the story of J Robert Oppenheimer. They commissioned a first draft from me, which they seem to have liked and, well, now it’s going on in the Swan next year.

How do you think the historical events featured in the play help us look at the world today?

So many of the decisions made around the Manhattan Project influenced the nature of political discourse in the following years. The secrecy that surrounded the project, the way in which science and technology became militarised and the questions it raised over privacy and surveillance are sadly still very relevant. With ever more efficient and advanced methods of remote killing being invented, (drone warfare for example), the lessons from the atom bomb are still there to be learned. Nuclear energy is still a very large part of our present in regards to climate change and any possible energy crisis. Nuclear weapons themselves are hardly out of the news seventy years later, with fears ongoing over North Korea and Iran. And it seems that the tussles between Russia and the West are resurfacing of late. In some ways I see the story of J Robert Oppenheimer as a creation myth for the modern world, so many aspects of what we are and what we have had to become seem to stem from those laboratories in New Mexico.

What would you most like your audiences to talk about after they’ve seen your play?

I hope the play provokes some debate around the political and scientific questions it raises, because I feel it’s a complex area of history that deserves a little more scrutiny than it currently receives, but mostly I’d like the audience to engage with the characters. There’s no point bandying about large chunks of politics, history and science if there isn’t a human story at it’s centre to anchor it all to. Also, it’s shot through with some great songs from the time period, so if the audience isn’t talking, I’d quite like them to be humming.