THEATRE

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - JOHN NATHAN Square Rounds

Fin­bor­ough Theatre

WHEN TONY Har­ri­son’s verse play, which ex­am­ines the use and mis­use of two weapons of mass de­struc­tion dur­ing the First World War, was first seen at the Na­tional Theatre in 1992, the use of gas in con­flicts seemed a thing of the past.

This all-fe­male pro­duc­tion — the first Lon­don re­vival of the play — ar­rives just as Syria’s Pres­i­dent As­sad is ex­pected to at­tack the mil­i­tant and civil­ian pop­u­la­tion of Idlib with chem­i­cal weapons such as gas, the very death method first de­ployed on the killing fields of Europe.

Yet de­spite such un­happy mod­ern rel­e­vance it is hard to see what theatre com­pany Proud Had­dock thinks is es­sen­tial about the play. The cen­tral fig­ures are the Jewish sci­en­tist Fritz Haber whose tech­niques for ex­tract­ing ni­tro­gen from the air al­lowed for the pro­duc­tion of fer­tiliser, in­creas­ing farm­ers’ yields and thus feed­ing mil­lions. Mean­while the Amer­i­can-born Bri­tish in­ven­tor Hi­ram Maxim dreamed up the first fully au­to­matic ma­chine gun, the am­mu­ni­tion for which de­pended on the in­ven­tion of TNT which was also the re­sult of ex­tract­ing ni­tro­gen.

If all this sounds more like a lec­ture than a play then to large ex­tent that is what you get — only in rhyming cou­plets. An aw­ful lot of en­ergy and ef­fort is ex­pended on a com­monly known truth, that sci­ence can be used for the good of the peo­ple and also to kill them. If this ba­nal lit­tle ob­serva- tion was the seed of Har­ri­son’s play then it’s hard see why among all the ex­am­ples avail­able to him — nu­clear physics, bi­ol­ogy — he chose Maxim and Haber.

There is a pos­si­ble an­swer in the sec­ond half of the play which fo­cuses on Haber’s Jewish­ness. Much against the wishes of his Jewish wife Clara, Haber de­vel­oped his tech­nique for pro­duc­ing fer­tiliser to come up with an an­ti­dote to Maxim’s ma­chine gun — gas.

The an­tisemitic Kaiser “would never have used you if he could find/ A gen­tile ge­nius with an in­ven­tive mind,” says Clara, which is a fair enough point. But Har­ri­son is ap­par­ently so ob­sessed with with the fact that a Jew was the first to de­velop poison gas, he can’t help but dwell on the fact. “If he could find and Aryan as bril­liant as you/ Do you think he’d bother with a bloody Jew?”, says Clara, who ob­vi­ously thinks the point worth re­peat­ing.

Clara, the first Ger­man woman to be awarded a doc­tor­ate in chem­istry, killed her­self be­cause of her shame that her hus­band used his knowl­edge as a sci­en­tist to in­vent the weapon of poison gas. This is its own moral judge­ment on Haber. But Har­ri­son adds his own with the smug cer­tainty of what came later, pil­ing more guilt on Jewish Haber than he does on Maxim.

Granted, Haber is por­trayed as be­liev­ing that his poison gas will end all war and there­fore save more lives than it ends. But the sug­ges­tion here is that Haber de­serves a greater bur­den of guilt be­cause two decades or so later, Jews like him were gassed by the Nazis. And I don’t want to de­fend Haber any more than Clara did, but that’s not fair. Nor is there any ev­i­dence that Haber’s in­ven­tion aided the Nazi geno­cide.

There are are some in­ter­est­ing his­tor­i­cal facts here. The square rounds of the ti­tle refers to the more painful bul­lets that were re­served for nonEuro­pean foes such as the Turks. And the young cast in Jimmy Wal­ters’ in­ven­tive and at times play­ful pro­duc­tion are com­mit­ted and ex­cel­lent through­out.

But the play it­self is lit­tle more than a dis­play of virtue sig­nalling in the part of its au­thor, and if it’s not re­vived for an­other 30 years it’ll be no great loss.

PHOTO: COURTESY OF S R TAY­LOR PHOTOGRAPHY

Square Rounds

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