The Opera's New Clothes
Why I walked out of Doctor Atomic.
But it was avant-garde! Difficult! Maybe dangerous. After all, it took defiant stands such as "nuclear bombs are bad." One almost expected to hear, "You can't hold children with nuclear arms" and other dorm-room poster sentiments. Perhaps my impression is unfairly skewed because I had just been rereading Tom Wolfe's "Radical Chic"—his essay about New York's rich and chic toasting the Black Panthers and listening intently to praise of cop-killing revolution in Leonard Bernstein's operatically grand apartment—in the New York Magazine 40th-anniversary anthology, New York Stories. (The book also includes my contribution, "Sid Vicious and Nauseating Nancy: A Love Story." Now there's an opera!)
The sense of self-satisfaction in the audience was almost as palpable as that among Wolfe's Panther Party participants. Except the notion of what was radical (nuclear bombs: bad!) was less contrarian than the Panthers' ("pick up the gun," not "put down the bomb"). Nonetheless it wasn't The Marriage of Figaro, right? It was heavy. (Well heavy-handed.)
And yet Doctor Atomic is one more sign of my thesis that nuclear war awareness has risen a quantum level, that we are witnessing the "return of the repressed," all the more well-timed with events in Georgia and the continuing threat represented by Pakistan and other regional flashpoints that make nuclear war (not merely nuclear terrorism) a real possibility once again. Demonstrating that it was, like Faust's signature, ineradicable. Perhaps bad art that calls attention to these developments is better than no art at all.
Still, bad art, even if it doesn't kill, hurts. At the intermission, I must confess, a combination of physical and metaphysical pain overtook me, and I just couldn't take it anymore. Couldn't face not just the words but the apparent contempt for words displayed. And so I decided to leave. I didn't go to review the opera, anyway, and I am not the type to boo lustily (wish I were), though if I'd stayed to the end there was a danger I might have. I decided to limit my critique to the words as seen in the printed libretto, since nobody else seemed to care about them.
To my amazement, the libretto was even worse than I imagined. Long-winded exposition, pages and pages devoted to debate over the weather conditions before the test, almost more than to the morality of the bomb. Ostentatiously tedious subjects like Los Alamos' project director General Groves' dietary concerns (the banality of evil? no, more like the banality of banality) juxtaposed with thunder and lightning and other super-duper hypermelodramatic "mounting tension" special effects. There's also an extremely wise Native American nurse—is there any other kind?—who recognizes ancient truths the scientists cannot comprehend and sings something called—I swear—"The Cloud-Flower Lullaby."
For me, the breaking point may have been the segment of the libretto most celebrated by critics, the appropriation of John Donne's "Holy Sonnet About the Trinity" ("Batter my heart, three-personed God …"). I found the attempt to "enhance" it by unnecessarily repeating words in its sung version evidence of a fundamental lack of understanding of the poem, the mechanics of which are as intricate as the internal dynamics of a nuclear chain reaction. Still, to top it all off, nothing matches the nuclear insipidity of the composer's self-congratulatory description of the opera's finale in the Playbill.
Consider how John Adams tells us to interpret his climax: First, he admits that "no operatic evocation of an atomic bomb could go head to head with the dazzling effects available to a Hollywood director ..." (Which slyly neglects the fact that you don't need a Hollywood director—actual horrifying footage of the Hiroshima and Nagasaki are available and could, in fact "go head to head" with anything an opera designer substituted to show off his "creativity.")
Instead, he tells us: "Ultimately I chose to create an extended orchestral countdown. ... At the high point of this countdown, with the chorus singing frantic wordless exclamations, the entire cast takes cover, lying prone on the stage, staring straight into the eyes of the audience. As the tape recorded voice of a Japanese woman repeatedly asking for a glass of water plays in the distance, the audience gradually realizes that they themselves are the bomb" (italics mine).
No, I didn't experience this moment in the theater. But come on. This collective guilt ploy wasn't convincing when Mick Jagger tried it ages ago in "Sympathy for the Devil"—Lucifer "shouted out 'who killed the Kennedys?'/ When after all, it was you and me"—and it doesn't make sense here, either.
If we, the audience members, are the bomb, we're also the planes and the grenades and the bullets of conventional warfare. So we should be ashamed for having fought World War II? Is this a Nicholson Baker pacifist argument?
It is certainly an oversimplification of Oppenheimer's moral dilemma, which is reduced to: Do I want to succeed in building a bomb that could be used to kill 100,000 people at a time, or is that bad?
I'll take bad for the win.
There has been endless postwar debate about whether the deeply divided Japanese government and military would have surrendered without a fight absent the bomb. A fight meaning a doomed but bloody resistance to an Allied invasion of the Japanese home islands, which both sides were gearing up for before the two bombs were dropped and the surrender was sealed.
It's easy now to say that the bomb was unnecessary. But Oppenheimer's moral equations were different at the time; he had to act on what he knew, and the word was that 1 million American combatants would die in an invasion of the home islands of Japan, as would an equal number of Japanese combatants, in addition to an inestimable number of Japanese noncombatants as well. We had already killed somewhere close to 100,000 Japanese civilians in a single night in the firebomb raids on Tokyo. Anything that brought that war crime-level slaughter to an end sooner could be counted, if not a blessing, then a welcome surcease.
The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombs killed more than 100,000 quickly and an untold number slowly. How does a mathematically inclined scientist like Oppenheimer do the moral equation: 100,000 versus millions, but 100,000 in a new horrible way that would change the world—although how, he could not know.
It doesn't help to reduce the tragic dimensions of his choice to dorm-room-poster simplicity. Imagine the agony and complexity of what must have been Oppenheimer's inner dialogue. A genuine challenge for a serious rather than simplistic historian, novelist—or opera-maker. There is something profound about the moment: A bright line was crossed for the first time; the descent into a fresh hell begun. And I probably come down on the side that says Bad Art that brings attention to the question, however clumsily, is better than no art. But that doesn't mean I have to suffer through it.
I guess it's a kind of Faustian bargain. One welcomes the idea of re-examination of the beginning of the Atomic Age as another seems to be dawning, but painful pretensions to moral seriousness given "weight" with lots of doomy music is—like the equations for nuclear fission or the vision of a grossly fat, naked emperor—tragically ineradicable.
Ron Rosenbaum is the author of The Shakespeare Wars and Explaining Hitler. His latest book is How the End Begins: The Road to a Nuclear World War III.
Photograph of Doctor Atomic by Terrence McCarthy.