(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 1/23.)
“Oppenheimer’s stature is not in question, but do we have a playwright big enough to depict him?” That was the question posed by critic Eric Bentley in 1969. The answer has been found in the shape of Tom Morton-Smith, a 34-year-old dramatist with a handful of fringe credits, who has come up with this massively impressive three-hour play for the RSC: one that shows the father of the atomic bomb and leader of America’s Manhattan project to be a genuinely tragic hero.
Oppenheimer’s tragedy, in Morton-Smith’s version, takes many forms. The most obvious is that this visionary scientist, who led the team that created the bombs released on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had to live with the moral consequences of his discoveries: “I feel,” he says, “like I’ve dropped a loaded gun in a playground.”
But Oppenheimer is also tragic in that his espousal of communism in the 1930s forces him, once he is employed by the US military, to either abandon or, in the case of the academic Haakon Chevalier, betray his former colleagues. And, in terms of his own nature, Oppenheimer is a man in whom professional pride is accompanied by “a core of cold iron”.