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A "Dramatic Extravaganza" of the Projected Atomic Age: Wings Over Europe (1928) CHARLES A. CARPENTER When a single American bomb flattened the city of Hiroshima, Japan, killing 100,000 people and leaving its imprint on the sensibilities of millions, the nuclear age began in earnest. Two days later, a New York Times columnist said that the bomb caused "an explosion in men's minds as shattering as the obliteration of Hiroshima.'" Since then, as poets have expressed it, we are all "on the road from Hiroshima"; Hiroshima "flows through US."2 But the onset of the nuclear age cannot be dermed only by the impact of a bomb. Shortly after Hiroshima (and Nagasaki), government officials and nuclear scientists set out to counter the 'bad press atomic power had received by heralding its potential benefits for mankind. A limitless supply of energy could now be made available, and this would lead to such an improvement in economic and social conditions that civilization could be transformed worldwide. Moreover, the mere existence of cataclysmic nuclear weapons might preclude full-scale war as an option of foreign policy, since other countries would surely develop them soon and since no defense against them was possible. As Bertrand Russell summed it up in 1947, "'no middle course is any longer possible' between annihilation and a utopian age of peace."3 The scientific seeds of the nuclear age had been planted, of course, long before they sprouted on August 6, 1945, as that ever-burgeoning mushroom cloud. In fact, as soon as the concepts of radioactivity, atom-splitting, and chain reactions reached the public eye, the vision of a world profoundly affected by atomic power began to glow in the minds of imaginative writers. From their fantasies emerged" projected Atomic Age (the banner-headline term they preferred). Not surprisingly, it featured the same dichotomy of terror at the prospect of atomic disaster and hope for "a utopian age of peace" that marked the post-A-bomb consciousness. Most of these representations of a projected Atomic Age appeared in science fiction magazines, which welcomed the new reality-based genre. Modern Drama, 35 (1992) 552 Wings over Europe 553 About fifteen full-length novels written before 1946 deal directly or obliquely with the theme.' Oddly, this quite copious literature includes only one work in dramatic fonn. Almost wholly neglected by scholars,' it is an interesting and highly symptomatic play which possesses distinctions well beyond its mere uniqueness. These stand out clearly by viewing the work in relation to earlier treatments of the same hypothesis, and by examining it as an unusual example of "Extravaganza," a dramatic genre that proved especially compatible to portraying the latent apocalypses of a new Atomic Age. The first and only work of drama to attempt this feat before 1946 is Wings Over Europe: A Dramatic Extravaganza on a Pressing Theme' It was written by the little-known poet Robert Nichols (1893-1944) in collaboration with an active man-of-the-theatre, Maurice Browne (1881-1955). The play, although the work of Englishmen and set entirely at No. 10 Downing Street, was first produced by the Theatre Guild in New York in 1928 and not in London until 1932.' It is a peculiar mixture of realism, fantasy, satire, and prophecy. The main character is Francis Lightfoot, a 25-year-old scientific genius (acclaimed by Einstein and Sir Ernest Rutherford, we hear). He confronts the Prime Minister and his Cabinet with the astounding news that he has learned how to control the energy in the atom. The double-edged consequence, he proclaims , is that human beings are now capable of wiping out the civilized world, or - with sufficient will and organization - of transfonning it into a utopia. Lightfoot is rapturously confident that his discovery can bring about a "New World, the Summer of Mankind, the Golden Age" (p. 518) - and he is willing to use the destructive power that only he presently controls to force that outcome, if necessary. The Cabinet members, skeptical and resistant to change, seem destined to make it necessary. In the context of earlier speculations about the results of harnessing the atom, the basic situation in Wings Over Europe is typical rather...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5286
Print ISSN
0026-7694
Pages
pp. 552-561
Launched on MUSE
2013-07-03
Open Access
No
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