Interview: Tom Milton of ‘American Prometheus’ by Theatre With Teeth

Theatre with Teeth presents ‘American Prometheus’, a new play written by Exeter’s own, Tom Milton. Playing with time and history, psychiatrist Jamie is transported back to 1945, where the first test of an atomic bomb took place in the Jornada Del Meurto Desert. Jamie experiences the test in his dreams, through the eyes of the Manhattan Project Director, Oppenheimer. Through interaction with historical figures and creators of the bomb, Richard Feynman, Edward Teller and General Groves, Jamie is faced with the challenge of preventing imminent tragedy or allowing history to repeat itself. We see Jamie try to make sense of reality with the aid of his wonderfully crazed, grammar-obsessed patient, Erin. Innovatively written, with enigmatic technical design and some captivating performances, particularly from Bryony Skinn as Erin, we can certainly expect more from writer and director, Tom Milton. We catch up with him to talk about ‘American Prometheus’.

Tell us a bit about your intentions and the play itself.

Well I originally gave it the slightly wanky subtitle of “A Tragicomedy with Science and Grammar” which gives you a vague idea of what it’s going to be like. It was an interesting experiment to see if I could make tragicomedy work, balancing lighter and darker moments. But really the play is a very long call to action for the Jamie character. He just has to make a choice. I didn’t want to present a correct choice of any sort, hence why the three desert characters all have fairly equal weight, but I wanted to leave an audience thinking about what they would have done if they had been given the choice to go ahead with the test or not.

What motivated you to write ‘American Prometheus’?

That would also be one reason I wrote the play. I also wanted to take a closer look at some of the history of the atomic bomb. I did a fair amount of research for the play and I think it paid off. But the thing that first gave me the initial idea was Oppenheimer’s “Now I am become death…” speech. It’s always struck me as an incredibly poignant (if ungrammatical speech) and I got to thinking about what would I do if I were literally in Oppenheimer’s shoes. In the end I concluded that I’d probably do a similar thing to Jamie and be so overwhelmed the magnitude of responsibility I would be unable to decide.

To what extent did you stay true to the actual events of the Trinity Test and the history behind the Manhattan Project?

As far as actual history goes I took inspiration from an interview with Richard Feynman years after the test. He talks about how no one at the time was really considering the morality of what they were about to do. Everyone was so caught up the scientific pursuit of making the bomb work and it was only after the test that people really thought about the consequences. I wanted to show these conflicting states of mind mainly through the Feynman character, as he was so affected and also Teller as well whose cold logic emerged from the test, so I took a little dramatic license with the chronology. This is best explained in the play itself where Oppenheimer explains to Jamie that he saw a “version” of what happened, more of a “highlight reel of some of the thoughts and feelings at the time”. (Feynman discusses his immorality in chasing success in creating the atomic bomb, even when the Germans were defeated. The interview link can be found at here.)

How much experience have you had writing and directing?

This is probably the most ambitious project I’ve done in terms of writing and directing. I’m more of an actor really, since I’ve been here at Exeter I’ve done “Twelve,” “Coated in Love,” “Look Back in Anger,” “Lost, if Found” and “Withnail and I.” But I did also write a rapid response piece in my first year and put on another play I wrote called “The Rise and Fall of Tedtopia,” a farce about a man who starts a country in his own house, as part of Drama’s Term 3 festival. I have one more year left at Exeter after this one so hopefully this won’t be the last you hear from me.

Directors: Tom Milton and Jessica Burrage

Producers: Amy Scarrett and Laura Christopher

by Isabelle Pitman, Razz Film and Literature Correspondent

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