I am becoming increasingly alarmed attending theater and opera performances reflecting what could be called the “revisionist view of world history.” What frightens me is the effect the recent trend in “altering what really happened” will have on generations of theatergoers. Nothing, but nothing — well, maybe a radical imam — can affect the minds of the young as much as an attractive media formula, as Marshall McLuhan noted a generation ago.
My current case in point is Doctor Atomic, the agitprop opera about Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer by John Adams and Peter Sellars. It is the first Adams opera of recent years without a libretto by fellow American Alice Goodman. (Her libretto of The Death of Klinghoffer was regarded by an outraged world Jewry as pro-PLO and some feel this is why she is now a Christian chaplain at Cambridge University, having converted from Judaism.) Doctor Atomic asserts in a relentless, two-act cacophony the notion that the men who worked on the wartime atomic bomb in the Manhattan Project were filled with angst and guilt. It is notable that Edward Teller was one of the proponents of the “super-weapon,” the hydrogen bomb. In the opera, however, Teller is a doubter. When Oppenheimer’s loyalty was brought into question in the McCarthy-era communist witch-hunts, General Leslie Groves testified to the scientist’s loyalty and we know that Teller continued to promote the super-bomb.
The English National Opera’s home, the London Coliseum, was packed the night I attended Doctor Atomic; the appreciative crowd was buzzing during the interval. From snippets of conversation one could deduce this was a young, anti-war, and Guardian-reading audience. So I decided to engage with an elderly operagoer and he expressed his pessimism at the premise that Los Alamos was teeming with guilt-ridden scientists and anguished staff.
One of the mantras propagated every August is the “criminal behavior of the American government” at Hiroshima and Nagasaki that ended the Pacific war but started the nuclear age. Pre-atomic, the carpet bombing of the Japanese mainland created a hellish firestorm. In The Fog of War, former American Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, who was a young aide to General Curtis LeMay during this operation, observes that had the United States lost the war he and LeMay might have been had up for war crimes. These reflections are seized upon by contemporary revisionists to prove how truly evil the American military machine was, but it is accepted by most historians that had a ruthless campaign not been used against imperial Japan, a brutal land war would have been waged for decades with millions of fatalities on both sides.
At the end of the opera a deafening din is created to replicate the detonation of the first atomic bomb test in the New Mexico desert and we see words projected onto a thin screen expressing the anguish of a Japanese victim of Hiroshima. Having been the daughter of a World War II veteran who saw unspeakable things done to American and British prisoners of war, male and female (my mother visited the women in psychiatric hospitals, where they lived for the rest of their lives), this is classic revisionist culture. It is designed to make the world see America and its war allies as the true criminals. How glad I was that some people booed at the end of Doctor Atomic the night I went.
In the same week in which I attended Doctor Atomic, a play by Christopher Trumbo about his late father Dalton was produced at the Jermyn Street Theatre. It is a mammoth screed about the blacklisting of Trumbo by the House Un-American Activities Committee in the 1940s, whose work against Hollywood was followed by the 1950s Joe McCarthy Senate Committee. One accepts the fact that many writers and performers were ruined by blacklisting and went to live abroad. Some who refused to name names of communist collaborators or sympathizers went to jail, as did Dalton Trumbo. The play, performed to a capacity audience of mostly young people, paints a grim picture of a claustrophobic America in the Eisenhower era. I could not help but think of how the United States has moved on and how these stories are, to me, irrelevant in the world in which we live today. As Donald Rumsfeld used to say, Americans “have a good center of gravity and know the country needs to arrange itself to deal with new threats.” As I write this, Muslim pirates seem to be kidnapping American ships willy-nilly, Pakistani students are being rounded up across Britain and charged with planning to blow up shopping malls, and prisoners in Guantanamo continue to rail against the American devil.
What purpose do plays like Trumbo serve in the modern world? Why must theater that denigrates the United States be the only fodder on offer since 9/11?
Let us go back in time to a Royal National Theatre 2007 production of A Matter of Life and Death, a staged version of the Powell-Pressburger movie of the same name and released in the United States as Stairway to Heaven, starring David Niven as an RAF hero who falls for the American dispatcher before he parachutes. It is a moving story of wartime hope and romance but the National Theatre’s Nick Hytner decided to turn it into a polemic about the evils of Allied bombing raids. Happily Lizzie Loveridge of Curtain Up magazine said this: “The thing about anti-war campaigners is that they take the moral high ground and fudge the issues that lead up to the difficult decision to go to war. If Hitler had not been stopped, what do they think would have been the outcome?” The women of Coventry and Dresden voice misgivings about the actions of the airmen and the dispatcher becomes British because the fear was that 2007 London audiences would not like an Anglo-American romance!
The show lasted two hours and fifteen minutes without an interval and was greeted with disdain and, in some quarters, anger. Nicholas de Jongh of the Evening Standard said the musical was “a finger-wagging, pacifist sermon, as if victory over Hitler in 1945 was a source of shame, not joy.” He said the production was “fit for mercy-killing.”
During the past ten years there has been an avalanche of similar productions attempting to show how bad Americans and Jews are and how good the villains really were. Amongst the plays and musical pieces to have enraged me have been The Death of Rachel Corrie (when I tried to reason with one of the producers about Israel’s viewpoint he, in keffiyeh but reeking of whiskey, told me he would have me removed from the theater if I did not belt up); Seven Jewish Children; Go to Gaza, Drink the Sea and The Madness of George Dubya (both plays are by Justin Butcher, perpetually furious with Israel and America; the Gaza screed actually features a pile of shoes equating Gaza with the Holocaust); Fallujah, a polemic about those brutal Yanks; Prayer Room (in 2005 I wrote: “This is an unfinished work based on a questionable premise: that hordes of impressionable young people were pouring into the Edinburgh Royal Lyceum … is disturbing”); Guantanamo; and Stuff Happens, David Hare’s condemnation of Rumsfeld and Cheney.
It is bad enough that the clerk in my local greengrocer berates me about the apartheid state of Israel because “I read Robert Fisk” but the worldwide proliferation of plays, musicals, and operas that time and again depict America and Israel as the biggest evils ever perpetrated on humanity unsettles me. If the young are made to think German and Japanese tyrants were misunderstood goodies and modern-day terrorists are figures of affection, we face a dangerous future.