BREAKING THE CODE
“That’s the way of the world,” says Alan Turing in Hugh Whitemore’s biographical drama Breaking the Code. “One never seems to hear of the really great mathematicians.” True enough, for a very simple reason: few writers of books, plays, or movies have been able to make an intellectual “sexy” enough, as show-biz parlance would have it, to appeal to an average audience.
Alan Turing has proved to be the great exception–which is ironic, since during his short lifetime (1912-1954) he was both overlooked and vilified. Overlooked, because his most significant work either was too far ahead of its time to be appreciated or else was conducted under a heavy veil of wartime secrecy. Vilified, because in 1952–at a time when intense Cold War paranoia had come to include “perverts” as well as communists–he was caught up in a sordid homosexual scandal. (“ACCUSED HAD POWERFUL BRAIN,” trumpeted a headline in the seamy News of the World.)
In the 20 or so years following his suicide, Turing was very little known outside a small circle of admirers aware of his important work in the theoretical development of the digital computer, his crucial role in helping the Allies win World War II, and the persecution he suffered in the last two years of his life. Three developments in the 1970s paved the way for Turing’s biographer, Andrew Hodges, to conduct the research that exhumed Turing from ignominy and indifference: official relaxation of the secrecy that surrounded Turing’s wartime intelligence efforts, the computer revolution that fulfilled Turing’s vision of the widespread uses of “electronic brains,” and the gay liberation movement.
The confluence of these three strands of progress allowed Turing to be appreciated not as a man of compartmentalized contradictions–a genius and hero brought low by criminal sexual urges–but as a man of consistent conscience, whose love of logic made him disinclined to lie when police began investigating his homosexual private life. Hodges, a Cambridge University-trained mathematician and gay activist, wrote Alan Turing: The Enigma (published in the U.S. in 1983) to honor (in Hodges’s words) Turing’s “pride, his stubbornness, and the moral force he brought to bear as a very private, reserved, shy man who nonetheless insisted that [being gay] was not a matter for hiding.”
Lucid and exhaustive, Hodges’s book is well worth reading, but it’s not easy for those untrained in mathematics, and many of its moral assertions will be rejected by those unsympathetic to the notion that homosexuality is not cause for shame. It’s certainly an unlikely source for a popular drama. Yet Hugh Whitemore was able to translate the book into Breaking the Code, a play that enjoyed considerable success in London’s West End, at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and on Broadway. Now it’s being presented by Interplay, a small company based in Pilsen. While retaining most of the essential information, the play differs from the book in a key way.
Whitemore wanted to write a big, successful play–not an agitprop piece for a fringe theater, but a mainstream drama for top-of-the-line audiences. One of his earliest decisions, it seems, was to avoid at all costs depicting Turing as a martyred, pioneering hero of gay liberation. It was dramatically as well as commercially a wise decision–nothing’s more boring than the posturings of a figurehead–but it leads Whitemore to distort the truth. The play downplays Turing’s strong sexual urges (presumably to win greater sympathy for the character) and turns him instead into a sweet, sad little man looking for affection. Turing’s acknowledgement of his homosexuality is presented as a blunder, blurted out to a dutiful and very surprised cop; in fact, the police investigated Turing when they got wind of his sexual inclinations. And the psychologically painful treatment Turing was forced to undergo for his “perversion”–drug therapy that rendered him impotent, impaired his intellectual powers, and made him grow breasts–is glossed over to weirdly and inappropriately comic effect.
These compromises don’t detract from the play’s greatest strength, which is to take a man involved in very intellectual work and make the work accessible to people (like me) who are generally ignorant of it. Whitemore integrates Turing’s concerns with “moral science”–the theories and the philosophical implications of thinking machines–into his emotional life: his conflicts with his mother, his early, unconsummated fixation on Chris Morcom, a schoolmate whose early death haunted Turing the rest of his life, his brief engagement to a female coworker during the wartime intelligence effort, and an ill-advised relationship with an untrustworthy playmate who eventually informed on him to the police. (There are echoes here of Oscar Wilde’s career-destroying involvements with bad boys, but the “feasting with panthers” pattern is hardly limited to homosexuals; I wonder what Marion Barry and Rasheeda Moore would think of this play.)
In emphasizing the arcane and often abstract nature of Turing’s work as well as its practical effects–he helped break the “Enigma” code that was the basis of Nazi military communications–Whitemore has written (and adapted from Turing’s own writings) some of the most intellectual dialogue ever heard on a stage. Yet it’s always dramatically compelling, because of the passionate involvement with which Turing states his points. But to work, it needs an actor of exceptional technique and talent who can find, as Turing did, the poetry in, say, a mathematical analysis of the patterns in a pine cone.
Whitemore created his play as a vehicle for English actor Derek Jacobi, whose face even now graces Interplay’s program. I saw Jacobi play the part in Washington, and it was one of the greatest performances I’ve ever seen. In some superficial ways a reworking of his stuttering, head-jerking Claudius in the public-TV series I, Claudius, Jacobi’s Turing was especially remarkable for its simultaneous expansiveness and intimacy; Jacobi played a small, shy man in a big, charismatic way, as the Broadway-sized production required, and his performance was enormously powerful. An actor of incredible skill on the level of Olivier, Jacobi also had the ability to age or grow younger in a split second, through technical command of his face and body, as the play jumps back and forth between three stages of Turing’s life (the idealistic 1930s, the committed and purposeful ’40s, and the drifting, increasingly paranoid ’50s).
David Perkovich, who plays Turing here and also directed, is no Derek Jacobi–but he’s not required to be in this small-scale production. In a far more technically precise and refined performance than is usually seen on Chicago stages, Perkovich’s nail-biting, eccentric, diffidently charming Turing is a credible combination of extreme analytical intelligence and dreamy spirituality, both of which set him apart from almost everyone around him. Whether he’s trying ever so nicely to explain computers to a group of schoolboys or shyly mentioning the long-ago death of his beloved school friend, Perkovich poignantly creates a man through whose gentle, restrained manner filters a rich vein of feeling.
The rest of the cast is less impressive; the other actors, all far less professionally accomplished than Perkovich, seem mainly concerned with being believably English (or in one unsuccessful case Greek), and thus the play lacks strong emotional dynamics. Daniel Pawlus is particularly disappointing as Chris Morcom, the play’s smallest, least well written role; precisely because Chris is onstage so briefly, yet exerts so great an influence on Turing, the actor playing him needs to make an extremely intense impression; Pawlus doesn’t begin to fill the bill.
The production also seems hampered by a limited pool of technical talent. Apparently in an effort to make the show simple to run, Perkovich separates the scenes with blackout after blackout. This overemphasizes the episodic arrangement of the script and makes for a sluggish evening. Still, though Interplay’s Breaking the Code lacks theatrical intensity, it tells an important and unusual story. And, contradicting almost everything else in mainstream entertainment, it affirms that intellect and emotion can coexist as effectively on a stage as they do in a human being.