Written by Jacques Treiner and Olivier Treiner
Broken Leg Productions
Directed by Christopher Bellis
Teri Black, Chris Ceraso, Jarel Davidow, Larry Swansen, Martha Lopez Gilpin, Michael Kennealy, Phil Garfinkel, and Jerry Vermilye.
French father-son team Jacques and Olivier Treiner premiered a new translation of their prize-winning play Fission at the Art of Science Reading Series. Staged in an airy hall of the CUNY Graduate Center, the play depicts the race to create an atomic bomb on both sides of the Atlantic. Fission is as much a celebration of scientific imagination as it is an examination of the ethical issues of one of the most significant inventions of the twentieth century.
of American atomic weaponry in the Manhattan Project cost over $2 billion dollars and required the dedication of 130,000 highly
trained scientists, engineers, and military personnel during World War II. ($2 billion would be an estimated $27 billion in
today’s dollars, though the monthly amount spent in Iraq strangely makes even this figure seem paltry). This achievement
was a multicultural one that involved the harnessing of brilliant émigrés, mostly Jewish, from Hungary and Germany.
Germany proved unable to develop an atomic weapon before the war’s end, and the reasons remain shrouded in mystery.
Fission reminds us that behind the race to harness atomic power were burgeoning minds hoping to push the frontiers
of science. But their collective contributions were not free of the conflicts that afflict all people. The scientists’
desire to be ‘first’ was balanced by a concern for the consequences of their pursuit.
The fewer the perceived choices, one may generalize, the more likely that human rights abuses will occur. The brutality of the Nazi regime framed the scientific explorations of atomic energy as a matter of good versus evil, of killing before being killed. But these scientists also desired to publish their results and enhance humanity’s knowledge at least as much as they were motivated by national security. At the same time Fission suggests that evidence was rampant of atrocities on both sides of World War II – from the fire bombing of Dresden to the mass executions of Jews – and no one could claim ignorance. Trumpeting the discoveries as purely advances of science denied the fact that the mere act of going to the laboratory in World War II was steeped in political content.
Fission’s message is that the act of ‘discovery’ may be unearthing what is already there, but ‘invention’ is an act of creation marked by intention. Mucking about in the laboratory with radioactive isotopes is not the same as developing the trigger for an atomic bomb. The world may not have held the scientists accountable under the law, but their own consciences likely did so.
The actors in Break a Leg Productions convincingly brought the characters to life in the stage reading, adopting
passable German, Danish, and Hungarian accents and draping such an effective veil of artifice that it became easy to forget
they were reading from scripts. Jarel Davidow’s portrayal of the Hungarian physicist Edward Teller was flecked with
cynicism and insight. The baritone Larry Swansen also infused the chemist Otto Hahn with heartfelt conflict over his role
in the eventual destruction of Hiroshima.
The most compelling scenes in the play tended to involve Edward Teller. His character’s wit exposed the moral dilemmas inherent in the scientists’ work while avoiding an historical or scientific ‘information dump’. By turning his colleagues’ words against each other, he cut to the heart of the forces at work. Similarly, Otto Hahn’s own consternation about his role in Hiroshima for discovering fission - a key building block in the theories that led to the bomb - was touching.
Act 3 offered the most potential in Fission and could be lengthened into a full play itself. Set at Farm Hall Manor in England, these scenes portray the imprisonment by the Allies of the top scientists involved in the German nuclear program. The scientists’ squabbling after the dropping of the Hiroshima bomb encapsulates the most moving themes: the thrill of discovery, the longing for stability and for home, the confusion of war, the headlong pursuit of questionable goals, and the perverse sense of shame for having ‘failed’ to make the bomb before the Americans. Yet being ‘first’ would have meant the incineration of tens of thousands of innocent civilians. On the one hand was failure and, on the other, unimaginable cruelty. The setting at Farm Hall manor itself underscored these contradictions. There is something endlessly intriguing about the absurdity of the English manor in the face of war, of clipped lawns against the horrific backdrop of gas chambers.
If there was a major setback, it was that Fission tended to drag in the areas heavy with elements.
Although the task of manufacturing pure uranium was gargantuan, such innovations were not interesting on the stage when filtered
through technical language. There is no easy fix here: either the play could be dumbed down for a lay audience, or a little
homework could be required of the audience in the form of a primer. Another challenge of the production was that the characters
were not immediately identifiable. They rarely used each other’s first names, for example. A more detailed cast of characters
in the playbill along with basic biographical information could help. My own limited research into the events surrounding
the play unearthed the sheer number of tremendous personalities involved in the Manhattan Project and German experiments –
they were eccentric Nobel Prize winners, after all – yet the large cast of characters can become distracting. But how
do you leave out a scientific giant like Werner Heisenberg, or Leo Szilard?
The playwrights for the most part managed to balance jargon with dramatic nuance, and this should be expected: Jacques Treiner (père) is a physicist who has helped shape France’s national science curriculum, and Olivier Treiner (fils) is an established dramatist. Olivier prefaced the production by stating that he sought to explore the fission within the scientific ranks and to understand the ability of the scientists to make sense of participating in a project that was so much larger than each individual experience. In this respect, he has succeeded. These Nobel laureates could argue over the quality of a pastrami sandwich while meditating on neutrons, and I certainly left hungry for more.
Would you like to know more?
Copenhagen, by Michael Frayn, an award-winning
play. also set during this fascinating episode of scientific history.
Harvard’s primer about the Nürnberg trials, which held the perpetrators of the Nazi regime accountable. (Under the articles of the court, the atomic scientists would have likely escaped prosecution.)
Science & The Arts at CUNY Graduate Center.