Part of the 15th Anniversary Season of the MIDTOWN INTERNATIONAL THEATRE FESTIVAL
Review by Robert Gulack
Imagine you — a very bright person, indeed — and a group of your friends are mysteriously locked up and kept from communicating with the outside world. Delicious food is served regularly, and you are allowed healthful exercise on a country estate. Every sign of hospitality is present: you are even allowed a piano, a chess set, and a variety of reading materials. But no one ever asks you any questions, and no one will tell you why you’re being held or when you’ll be allowed to leave. You and your friends are scientists, and you are all being forced to confront, day after day, the same ultimate factual riddle: Why do your captors want you there?
That was the real-life conundrum faced by the Nazi physicists captured by the Allies in World War II and spirited away to a handsome country hiding place in England referred to only as “Farm Hall.” It is the subject of the play, FARM HALL, written by David C. Cassidy, a Hofstra University professor of natural science and the winner of multiple awards as a historian of science. As a subject for a play, it offers both advantages and pitfalls.
The idea that, if these Third Reich physicists had just been a little bit more on the ball — or, on the other hand, if Hitler had been willing to sink the same level of money into nuclear research as he proved willing to spend developing rockets and jets — the Fuhrer would have wound up with nuclear weapons will always remain one of the most frightening might-have-beens of history. (As Einstein had warned FDR, there was every reason to suspect the Nazis would put together an effective atomic program. It was, after all, a German who first split the atom, on a desktop in Berlin.) And, since British military intelligence did, in fact, wire every guest room in Farm Hall with microphones, the whole world now has access to very complete transcripts of every private comment spoken by the Nazi physicists to each other during the course of their captivity. There is thus no lack of source material for a drama.
But the pitfalls are equally evident. First, the Nazi physicists never did really get to the bottom of why they were being held. (The right answer: to stop the world from discovering the imminent possibility of nuclear weapons before the U.S. was ready to use them in combat, and to prevent any possibility that these Nazi scientists would be captured and employed by the Soviet Union. In the meantime, by listening to the microphones, the British and Americans were trying to gauge just how far the Nazi atom program had gotten.)
Second, the basic revelation underlying the story of these particular men is simply that people who are intellectual giants can nevertheless be moral pygmies. Again and again, the Nazi physicists are revealed to be blinkered in the most juvenile possible manner.
In spite of all their brains (one of them had won the Nobel Prize, one was about to get a Nobel Prize, and one of them should darn well have gotten a Nobel Prize, but never did), these scientists are convinced, as a factual matter, that German science is inherently superior to American science. Since they, the Germans, never got an atomic reactor to work, the Americans could not have done so. (We did.) Since they, the Germans, never got achieved a workable A-bomb design, the Americans could not have built an A-bomb. (We did.) When the news of Hiroshima reaches the Nazi scientists in Farm Hall, they are convinced it’s all “a bluff.” These Nazis didn’t even believe the British were sophisticated enough to have wired up Farm Hall. (The microphone were there, nevertheless.)
Morally, these fools remain uniformly convinced that their highest mission in life — before, during, and after World War II — is to safeguard the reputation of “German science,” no matter how many tens of millions of innocents are being slaughtered by the German dictatorship, and no matter how many nations are being swallowed up into eternal slavery in a worldwide racist empire. Stale mindless Fascist bureaucrats, they remain convinced to the last that newspapers should be thoroughly censored by the powers that be.
But it is simply not very surprising that people who worked their hearts out to give Adolf Hitler nuclear weapons are, one, blinkered by prejudice, and, two, idiots when it comes to ethical analysis. So the underlying revelation inherent in this material can hardly come as a shocker to anyone who has the slightest idea what Nazis were.
Then, too, the situation within Farm Hall is, by its very nature, extremely static. At times, the endless waiting around of these Nazi scientists comes off like a production of Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT cast entirely with Nobel laureates. At other times, one is reminded of Sartre’s NO EXIT, but, in this case, hell is revealed simply to be other physicists. As these Nazis carry on and complain about how their families back in occupied Germany are upset, lonely, and deprived, one can scarcely stop oneself from climbing on the stage, slapping them around, and demanding of them whether the millions who died in concentration camps might, at times, also have been upset, lonely, and deprived.
The most experienced and resourceful playwright might find it challenging to keep this unchanging situation dramatic. This is David C. Cassidy’s first play, and, despite his diligent and long-continued efforts to redraft and rewrite the material, he has not yet succeeded in keeping the audience’s attention, even over the course of a relatively brief evening in the theater. These physicists are just not lively company. Only one shows the vaguest sign of having had a conscience, and no one in the audience is expecting the rest of them to acquire a shred of compassion or self-knowledge. They will spend the rest of their lives shoring up the sacred reputation of “German science,” and trying ineffectually to paper over how desperate they were to give the ultimate weapon to Adolf, and how ignominiously they failed to do so. (Some of Cassidy’s best material, though, is the very accurate depiction of how these scientists labored to come up with a detailed cover story that would depict their villainous efforts in the most flattering possible light. They were all desperate — all of a sudden — to appear pacifists, but not so pacifist as to be seen as traitors by their countrymen. It was a very delicate balance.)
Even when history gives Cassidy something really good to work with, however, he sometimes manages to push it to one side. For example, when the scientist who first split the atom heard about Hiroshima, he became suicidal for a time. Cassidy has the scientist report he felt suicidal at some previous time, but didn’t kill himself. Surely it would have been far more dramatic actually to see the man become suicidal, and attempt to deal, in front of us, with those feelings.
Neither has Cassidy found a way to deliver the necessary exposition. We are given each man’s resume in the clunkiest manner, with these scientists — who have all worked together for years — painfully rehearsing out loud what each of them already knows by heart — i.e., each physicist’s credits and credentials.
Cassidy also breaks with the basic realism of his play by shifting to a radically different style in order to announce the attack on Hiroshima. Suddenly, a character known only as the “Voice of Doom” is heard intoning what J. Robert Oppenheimer was thinking while he observed the first A-bomb test. Those in the audience unfamiliar with Oppenheimer’s penchant for quoting sacred Hindu texts to himself must have been left totally in the dark.
As presented in its world premiere by Break A Leg Productions on its July 15, 2014 opening night at the Midtown International Theatre Festival, Cassidy’s script was further handicapped by a production that appeared massively underrehearsed. The cast seemed not to be confident of their lines. The lights cues bobbed up and down mysteriously. The sound cues wobbled on volume for no apparent reason. One hopes these issues will be corrected before the July 19 and 20 performances.
In general, the cast has quite a physical resemblance to the actual Farm Hall physicists. Keith Herron has just the right presence for Werner Heisenberg, the scientific head of the Nazi A-bomb program (and, in fact, has played Heisenberg before, in a production of Frayn’s COPENHAGEN). But — perhaps due to lack of rehearsal — one was constantly struck by the failure of the actors to maintain credible and continuing emotional lives (not to mention credible and consistent accents). To cite only one example, when Otto Hahn mentions his wife is “in an asylum,” one would expect to hear some emotional response in Hahn’s voice. Is this a depressing fact to him? An embarrassing fact? We’re just not hearing a specific emotional response to what had to have been a very specific emotional situation.
Cassidy frames the Farm Hall detention with scenes involving the Dutch-American scientist who managed to grab these Nazis and keep them away from the Russians, but these scenes don’t give the material a satisfying climax. Neither does the dull recitation of all the wonderful material success and prestigious appointments that awaited these loathsome would-be mass murderers after they were freed by the Allies. Of course, had these physicists actually succeeded in vaporizing Washington, D.C. and New York, these men would no doubt have received even more important rewards from Hitler’s own hands.
FARM HALL, by David C. Cassidy, directed by Gerald vanHeerden, presented at the June Havoc Theatre at the Abingdon Theatre, 312 W. 36th Street, New York City, by Break A Leg Productions in association with the Midtown International Theatre Festival and the Science & the Arts programs of the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
ROBERT GULACK is the author of numerous plays seen in NYC, including CHURCHILL IN ATHENS, SIX HUSBANDS OF ELIZABETH THE QUEEN, and the award-winning ONE THOUSAND AND ONE.
Photo Credit: A.G. Liebowitz/WrightGroupNY