Tom Morton Smith

We chatted with the Oppenheimer playwright


Tom Morton-Smith is an English playwright.  A former writer in residence for Paine’s Plough, Tom has written a number of acclaimed plays, most recently the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of ‘Oppenheimer’.  The play, about physicist Robert J Oppenheimer and the Manhattan Project, was a huge commercial and critical success, playing at the RSC in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring for a sell-out run in The West End.

Interview part of the archive of The Incomplete Map of the Cosmic Genome. Filmed in July 2015.  Full transcript below.

When scientists are portrayed on screen or on stage it’s often as a wizard type character.

On becoming interested in science

Gosh, my first memory of having any interest in science is probably quite late, in fact.  I wasn’t particularly interested in science as a child and it was only when I was in my twenties when I started watching documentaries about things on BBC4 and I kind of…like a lot of people of my generation, when you hear about quantum mechanics you go, wow, that’s amazing, why didn’t they teach us this in school, I would’ve been interested!  And I’m always a sucker for facts, I think it was a fact in a book I was reading that said you could fit…if you took all the space out of all the atoms that were inside every single person of the human race, you could reduce them down to the size of a sugar cube.  I kind of went, that’s mental.  And hungry for that sort of trivia, trivia and facts, meant that I just started reading more and more and more and more.

The documentary I watched that first kind of introduced me to ideas of science was on BBC4 and it was hosted by E, the lead singer of The Eels.  It was called Parallel Worlds, Parallel Lives, and E is the son of Hugh Everett III, who was the father of the multiple worlds theory of quantum mechanics, and I watched it because I was an Eels fan, I like the band, and that introduced me to things like the double slit experiment and interference patterns, and being a layperson and watching a layperson in the form of E be introduced to some of the more complicated areas of physics and science, it really showed the wonder and the awe that that quantum world stuff can inspire.

On choosing Oppenheimer as a subject for a play

The way that I came to write Oppenheimer, it started a few years before when I was commissioned by the Latitude Festival, which is a music and arts festival, to write a play for them and they gave me an open commission so I could write about whatever I wanted.  So I started writing a play and called it Uncertainty, which was all about quantum mechanics but trying to use the ideas of quantum mechanics as metaphors to tell human stories.  So there was a bit about a character who moved to the top of a tower block and he started ageing faster, and there was a bit about a guy who, whilst looking after his father’s cat, the cat needs to be taken to the vet and has to be put down, and then the father comes and is given the cat in the box but refuses to open it for fear that he kills the opportunity for it to still be alive.  So it was trying to find a way of using quantum mechanics and trying to find metaphors and transposing that into a human story.

And so whilst I was researching that I was reading books by Richard Feynman and Marcus Chown and all those kind of really great books that introduce you to the ideas of science, and it was when I was reading, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! that I was first introduced to some of the other characters of physicists, and particularly to Oppenheimer.  When the RSC asked me to pitch to them the biggest thing that I could think of to write a play about, something that suited the scale of the Shakespeare they do, I took them an eight play cycle on the history of physics in the 20th century and they kind of laughed and went, pick one.  And so thats why I picked Oppenheimer, the story of the atomic bomb, just because I thought that was a pretty epic story, through his own personal life, but also the impact that it had on the rest of the world at the time.

One of the things that I was really interested in showing was that…often when scientists are portrayed on screen or on stage it’s often as a wizard type character who are so beyond the reach of other human beings.  What I wanted to do was to take a character who seems so aloof from the history books and kind of show him to be a human being.  And I think the story of Oppenheimer, his central journey from starting off in a very idealistic place and eventually kind of betraying his younger self and giving up on his ideals and pushing away his friends and his family in order to create something that he thought was going to change the world; that journey from idealism to cynicism is one that I think everyone can identify with in a small way.  It’s a very universal kind of idea, it’s obviously a very extreme example but it’s something that makes a character who seems so aloof and so distant and so eccentric and so far removed from people’s everyday experience, it kind of brings that back down to a more relatable kind of story and character.

On the Shakespearean story

The links between Shakespeare and the character of Oppenheimer when I was just as influenced by…you can’t write a play for the Royal Shakespeare Company without thinking about Shakespeare – his name’s in the title – and so when I was doing my research, the story arc of J. Robert Oppenheimer and what he went through between 1939 and 1945 couldn’t help but be influenced by Shakespearean characters.  In many ways it’s a story about leadership, which so many Shakespeare plays are about, so when we were in rehearsal we were talking about Richard II and Henry V.  But also there’s a slight Macbeth quality to his relationship with his wife, there’s also his girlfriend who committed suicide in a bathtub, it puts you in mind of Ophelia, you can’t quite get away from the Shakespearean allusions when you’re writing for the Royal Shakespeare Company, to the extent that in one early draft I required a bear to come on stage, not to chase anyone off but, yeah, I kind of assumed the RSC might have one lying around in a prop cupboard somewhere, but they said, no, you can’t do that, too much money.

So, yeah, I think what Shakespeare does so well and what he does with his history cycle plays, which were the kind of main influence on tackling this, was to take a character who goes through a huge change and that change isn’t just a personal one but it affects society at large, and in Shakespeare’s time that would have been monarchs and in our time in the 20th century where this was set, for me, that meant it was scientists.

On explaining physics to a theatre audience

One of the things that I wanted to make sure was absolutely right in the play was that the science was correct, because when you’re writing a history play or a biography, then you’ve got to elide some events, you’ve got to amalgamate characters and you’ve got to speed through time in a way that isn’t based entirely on history.  What I wanted to make sure was that, though I may be taking liberties with the history and some of the biography, I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t taking any liberties with the science.  And so I wanted to make absolutely certain that the science was correct and, coming at it from someone who doesn’t have a scientific background but has an arts background like myself, tying the science to the story and what was important to the story to progress the story further, that was essential to me.  I can understand the science when I can understand how difficult it was for people to discover it.  And there were certain bits that I got a bit carried away with, certainly in the description of the internal workings of the atom where I had huge, great bits of science that were fascinating, but wasn’t essential to the telling of the story, so that found its way being cut.  So though it isn’t a complete course in particle physics, everything that is in there is appropriate and period appropriate to the 1940s that helps propel the story forward.

I think there’s certainly characters in the play, you know, you’re obviously…I would like to populate the play with as many Manhattan Project scientists as I could, there’s so many fascinating characters that have a story to tell within that world, I could probably go on writing plays about the Manhattan Project and various people forever, but trying to make those decisions about who to include and who to leave out were quite tricky.  Characters like Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr and Ernest Lawrence, I kind of wanted to include them but I had to remember that the story I was telling was Oppenheimer, not the Manhattan Project, so I had to leave some…there are some gaping holes in the history of the piece because, yes, they’re important to the story of the Manhattan Project but they’re not directly involved in the story of Robert Oppenheimer, and those were tough decisions to make.  I desperately wanted to include Madame Wu in there because I thought she has such a fascinating story, but she deserves a play all of her own and the play was already clocking up over three hours when we went into rehearsals, so I can’t include everything.

I think anyone who knows anything about the Manhattan Project or Oppenheimer has an opinion on it and him and I think what I wanted to do was, whatever your thoughts were on coming in, I wanted to show you the other side, so if you were completely against nuclear weapons and you find the idea of the Manhattan Project was irresponsible and horrific, I wanted to show you that, actually, there were very good reasons why it happened and these are the arguments used at the time. For anyone coming at it from the other side I wanted to show the other, the human cost of it as well.  So, not that I ever wanted to change anyone’s mind, but just that I wanted to open them up to the other side of the argument.  I’m not one for didactically telling people what to think, it should always be a discussion and open people up to asking further questions.