Snazzy musical numbers, snappy dialogue and souped-up friction between bureaucrats and scientists make Atomic: The Idea that Shook the World a sizzling treatment of the history of the Manhattan Project.
Leo Szilard is not the best-known maker of the Atomic Bomb but his dramatic story highlights the high-pressure situation from 1936 to 1945. The play’s run off-Broadway at the Acorn Theater ties to a surge of public interest in the Cold War era. This week is the 75th anniversary of the August 2, 1939 Einstein-Szilard letter to Pres. Roosevelt alerting him to the necessity to move quickly to beat the Nazi regime to the development of an awesomely powerful new weapon.
The play draws much excellent material from William Lanouette and Bella Silard’s biography, Genius in the Shadows: A Biography of Leo Szilard. Director Damien Gray fashions the book and lyrics by Danny Ginges and Gregory Bonsignore into a memorable production that cherry picks incidents and settings to throw audiences into the dilemmas of science in the service of war. The plunge is exciting and engrossing, although it can only act as an appetizer for some other main course of history that viewers might consume post-play.
The Hungarian-born Szilard, admirably played by Jeremy Kushnier became friends with Albert Einstein at Berlin’s Institute of Technology but fled Nazi power in 1933, first to England, then to a teaching position at Columbia University. His experiments with fellow physicist Enrico Fermi (Jonathan Hammond), a refugee from Italian fascism, led him to conclude that nuclear fission was possible.
The formation of the powerhouse of scientists, mathematicians and managers that became known as the Manhattan Project is handled as a story of personalities as volatile as the uranium being extracted. Szilard’s clashes with the military manager of the project. Gen. Leslie Groves were legendary. Szilard became increasingly worried about the use of the bomb he helped to create. His campaigning against deploying the atomic bomb put him on a collision course with the military that claimed all policy matters were the domain of generals and the president. Of course, vice-president Truman was not even told of work on the bomb until 12 days after Roosevelt’s death on April 12, 1945.
The composer Philip Foxman is versatile and adept in musical idioms. Cheerfully eclectic, music sucks beats from the great Rhumba nightlife at Copacabana New York, a hoedown of hillbilly flatfoot for scenes at Oak Ridge and table-stomping math and physicist routines punctuated with dazzling light shows.
Well-rehearsed actors are whisked on and off stage, spun around, and spotlighted in flash-framed confrontations that keep the production pace popping. Enrico Fermi’s “Amore” number camps and vamps on the stereotype of the Latin love, and the prancing office girls are brazenly staged as comic floozies. This is mighty different from John Adams 2005 Doctor Atomic opera, which focused on J. Robert Oppenheimer, a figure better able to deal with the political bureaucracy and the public than Szilard, and yet also doomed to become a target of anti-left sentiments in the Cold War.
Peter Sellars’ libretto for Adams’ 2005 opera digs for gold in the primary sources, such as this opening chorus:
We believed that “Matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.”
We believed that “Energy can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form.”
But now we know that energy may become matter,
and now we know that matter may become energy
and thus be altered in form.
Concentrating on the Trinity explosion, the July test of the bomb that was used on Hiroshima, the opera embraces the tragic dimensions of the atomic moment through Oppenheimer and his wife Kitty. Listen to a clip of the symphonic version of the opera Doctor Atomic which won a Grammy here.
Other signs of interest in our atomic past are cropping up. WGN America debuted its original TV series Manhattan, on the social-sexual tensions bubbling at the new town of Los Alamos, on Sunday, July 27. The series, running through the fall, features John Hickey as a maltreated scientist and plot lines pit PhDs against government bureaucrats and army automatons.
The first episode loves mad scientist outbreaks of chalked equations and ego-driven rivalry fueled by heavy drinking, and suggests top-secret work with such shattering potential outcomes will deform the confined community and its prickly members. Naturally this has entertaining consequences for the viewer. The threat of national betrayal seems less a patriotic mission than an over–the-top obsession – as if the sensibility of Trey Parker and Matt Stone ruled these ruminations on the past. Since the spy vs. spy framework of the Cold War has become a cartoon rather than an explanation, it’s noteworthy to see how Atomic era memories are surfacing for public consumption.
Jon Weiner documented social amnesia about the Cold War by visiting sites across the US where various incidents, personalities and myths were enshrined in How We Forgot the Cold War: A Historical Journey across the US. He observed that few of the historical sites were very popular, and his interviews show a decisively fuzzy memory of what it was all about. Few New Yorkers recall that Nike missile sites were dug on Hart Island in the Bronx: a defense system worthy of a South Park episode, since any nuclear device targeted by them would be exploded directly over East Coast population centers anyway. These varied treatments of the Cold War bomb fallout show how new generations are grappling with the legacy of the Atomic Age, and making sense of it through satire, song and dance, as much as in foot-noted revisionist versions produced at universities.