Thursday, November 6, 2008

Doctor Atomic and American renewal

On Wednesday, I saw Doctor Atomic at the Metropolitan Opera. I was interested in it not just because of the mixture of science and art but also, of course, because at UTC61 we produced a play called Hiroshima: Crucible of Light last year. Both pieces focus on Robert Oppenheimer and The Bomb.

Frankly, I was underwhelmed by the opera- by the design, by the direction, by the libretto, and even by the music, by John Adams. Doctor Atomic is all about waiting, specifically waiting for the first atomic bomb to be tested at Los Alamos. The final scene (after 3.5 hours of waiting) was quite literally a scene about waiting, waiting through a countdown in which two minutes somehow took ten. It takes a avant garde master like Beckett to dramatize waiting, and Doctor Atomic definitely didn't reach the level of Godot. We sat up in the cheap seats, which I do love at the Met - they aren't bad, even all the way up there. Thank goodness some seats are affordable, much more so than Broadway.

But one thing the opera did make me reflect on was a statement I read on the BBC news right after the Obama win - I can't find the exact article again, but what it said was almost identical to what U.N. President Kofi Anan stated: Obama's win once again demonstrates "America's extraordinary capacity to renew itself and adapt to a changing world."

I've seen sentiments like that often in the last few says, mostly on the international news sites, often enough to make me think that renewal and reinvention are virtues somewhat commonly attributed to us by the rest of the world.

How does this relate to Doctor Atomic? Well, the opera was of course a reminder that for all the great good the U. S. has done (and I do believe we have at times managed to do great good), we have also committed some terrible sins. My mind boggles at the idea that we were actually able to bring ourselves to drop that monstrosity on Japan. Everyone here talks of World War II in terms of Germany (and by implication Hitler and the Holocaust), because that way we can talk about WWII as the only morally justifiable war, but we forget the war, or at least our involvement in it, started and ended with Japan.

I think about that time in particular because it was on the heels of the New Deal and our emergence from the Depression. And of course the day Japan surrendered because of our atomic assaults, VJ day as it was called then, was a cause for jubilation at the time - and who can begrudge a nation sick of war celebrating its end? But in the midst of that celebration was the seeds of those problems that would shape the era to come, problems partly embodied by The Bomb.

Now, we are in celebration mode again, at least among the New Yorkers who comprise the majority of my associations. We have renewed ourselves in racial politics, but at the same time, Proposition 8 in California shows that we are having far less success in the area of homophobia. Will we someday renew ourselves again, get rid of our discriminatory laws, and maybe even elect a homosexual president? I hope so, but it will be a long time in coming.

And this time, unlike that moment at Los Alamos, we are heading into bad economic times, not out of them, and it will take a lot more renewal to find our way through. I'm glad that the international community is excited about Obama, and that in itself is an important renewal, regaining our status in the world. But we are not done.

The truth is, we will never be done.

No comments: