— Hywel Owen (@hywelowen) August 7, 2013
The line comes early in Louis Slotin Sonata, and then gets recapitulated and transposed as the music of the play develops.
(Slotin opens a case and removes two halves of a shiny metal sphere. He holds them up in either hand.)
SLOTIN: And this... is Rufus.
SLOTIN: Every plutonium core gets a name. And this one has quite a personality to boot.
GRAVES: Is this the one that...
SLOTIN: Killed Daghlian?... As a matter of fact it is... but never fear. Final revenge will be ours. Rufus is what we're blowing over Bikini next month.
Clearly Professor Owen wanted to know whether I had a historical basis for the nickname, or had I just flashed my poetic license and made one up. I was fairly confident that I had a citation. It wasn’t the sort of thing I would make up, but I couldn’t recall the source. I thought about checking my notes, then I remembered that about seven years ago I gave them all to the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts for safekeeping. On a lark I reached out on Face Book:
And just like that, Thia Stephan Hyde was making plans to pay my notes a visit. All that day she updated me with emails and pictures from her time with my darlings. At the end of it she sent me the following lovely email, which she has graciously allowed me post. Reading it felt like an injection of light straight into my worn-out artist’s heart.
From: Thia Stephan
Date: Tue, Aug 13, 2013 at 3:40 PM
To: Paul Mullin
I stayed as long as I could, to no avail. I can try another day, if you'd like, just not sure when at this point. As promised, here are some thoughts - I jotted them down on the subway just now, and haven't proofed them, and I am certainly not the writer you are, in any way, but feel free to use any/all/none. I don’t know, there might be things you can share.
Warmest Wishes from NYC,
There is a sub-genre of theatre people who are absolute full-on theatre geeks. We are the ones who revel not only in the delight and the accolades of the performances themselves, but who glory in the research that leads up to the live show. Theatre geeks don’t think of it as “homework”, theatre geeks actually get off on endless hours of dramaturgy, historical research and literary cross-referencing, and GO off on intellectual tangents that may not have any direct correlation with any actual decision put into the work of rehearsal or performance. . . though I insist that you never, ever know what tiny tidbit of historical backstory or arcane research may lead to a tiny choice that lifts a performance from serviceable to inspired.
Anyway, when playwright Paul Mullin mentioned on Face Book that he wondered if someone in New York might have a chance to go visit some materials he had loaned to the Library for the Performing Arts here in town, I was an instantly enthusiastic volunteer! (and I am already registered as a researcher at said library, because – why? I am a theatre geek. You got it.)
Paul is one of my favorite playwrights. A little over a decade ago, I was living in Los Angeles, and desperately missing New York and the theatre scene here. Then I stumbled into a production of Paul’s play An American Book of the Dead – The Game Show, and was intensely relieved and delighted to have found GREAT theatre (intelligent, brave, wildly theatrical theatre!). I ended up working with that theatre company, the imaginative and committed Circle X, getting to know Paul a bit through friends of friends, and always making a point to see or read anything of his I could get to or could get my hands on. The next year I got to do a reading of another terrific play Paul wrote, The Good Ship Manhattan, at a different LA theatre (The Blank), though the full production was done elsewhere. Also, since Paul and his family and MY family all live in Seattle now, I am blessed to follow him almost in a “home town” way!) In any case, Paul Mullin represents to me all that is GREAT about contemporary American Theatre, so I was excited to spend some time delving into his thoughts, so to speak.
The materials of Paul's at the New York Public Library are the research and production materials for his brilliant play Louis Slotin Sonata. If you are not familiar with it (well, if you aren’t, I suggest buying it and reading it right now, it’s on Amazon), but in the meantime, just know that - through a structure inspired by classical music’s sonata allegra form - the play follows the last nine days of life of the chief bomb builder at Los Alamos in 1946, after a small “blunder” gives him a fatal dose of radiation. He relives the fateful moment over and over again, in a devastatingly beautiful and beautifully devastating piece of theatre.
The first thing I had to do was get hold of a librarian by phone. Some of the “special collection items” are kept “off campus”, and I needed to make sure they would have them available when I arrived. Paul’s research, though, gets to live in the beautiful Lincoln Center Library itself, not in some storage unit, which made me inordinately happy. :-)
When I arrived today and filled out my call sheet, I was told it would be 15-45 minutes, and was escorted to the Special Collections Reading room, where, by the way, the light is absolutely gorgeous, even on a rainy day like today was. Big skylights in the ceiling give everything a warm and clear glow. As I was waiting, I surveyed what other folks were working on: one was carefully handling (with gloves on) sheet music over 150 years old, another was looking at articles about the history of Carnegie Hall, and one was going through letters from actors of the 1950s. In a back corner, a newly donated collection of poetry was being sorted. Of course I wondered if any of then would notice when I started pulling out color photos of Louis Slotin’s radiation burns. (Luckily for them and for me, that wasn’t the focus of my research today. But those photos are there.)
About 25 minutes later, the boxes arrived, very officially delivered on a cart, signed out from the page who brought them to the librarian, and then signed out again from him to me. I was told to turn in my pen, as only pencils are allowed at the desks, and was told that yes, I could take photos of the material. But I could only have one box at a time, and could only remove one folder at a time from each box. Where to start, where to start? I guessed that “Box 1” was the earliest of the papers (Ding Ding Ding Ding Ding!!), and I started with the “generative notes” folder, which was fascinating. Truly, from just a few scribbled words on a few pages (the very first said: “The relationship of horror and happiness”) through longer philosophical paragraphs and charts of dramatis personae and timelines through feedback from early draft read-throughs, I got to see the “birth” of a play.
Some things that jumped out at me from Paul's notes:
"Death Wish versus Death Defiance"
*I prefer the human touch* (this showed up over and over again, in different places/times/colors of ink.)
“This god-hood stuff is all well and good but it’s not a story. What is the story?”
“Neutrons are little illusion balls – illusions ripping my illusion to smithereens.”
“Slotin as a little Nagasaki”
“We, none of us, get our Slotinium”
“Why am I so worried about this being sad? What happens to Louis is not so peculiar. Everyone dies. Some suffer more than he did, some less.”
And SO much more. Honestly, I found almost every scribble compelling.
Moving on to other folders, I found out:
That Paul’s own father had been a physicist. (I never knew this.)
That a fellow named Thomas Keenan who was associated with Los Alamos after the fact thought the play contained a “disturbing amount of non-pertinent philosophy and mental meandering”. (Paul pointed out that of course THAT is of what a play consists. . . Hamlet, for example)
That a CD was being rushed to “Anzide’s”, which tickled me because I adore Jim Anzide, and got to work with him in a Circle X production of a play written by another favorite of mine, Tom Jacobson.
That Louis Slotin was not covered by insurance and that the US Government haggled and dragged its heels over compensating his family and returning his belongings to them. And that though they didn’t want to do so at first, eventually the government decided that it would be good to give sick leave pay to the other scientists for the days they had been hospitalized, as it had “been determined advisable in order to ensure confidence on the part of employees . . . who may perform similar operations or experiments in the future.” Sigh.
That I had forgotten how we all used to live by the FAX machine! The faxes, the faxes, the piles of FAXES!
Sadly, I was not able to find the exact bit of information I was were looking for on Paul’s behalf, so I may need to re-visit the materials another time, but before I had to go, I did, in fact, look at the pictures of the man, the real Louis Slotin himself, in the hospital. Not because I wanted to, but because I didn’t want to. I really did not. But it seemed the right thing to do after delving into personal details of his now long ago life and death, and the beautiful work of art that it inspired.
“I must say the kaddish for my son since he has no sons to say it for him.”
Thia Stephan Hyde
thrive! create! keep in touch!
While Thia was doing all that, my friend and mentor, Richard Rhodes, who won the Pulitzer Prize for his consummate history of the Manhattan Project, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, got back to me to confirm that indeed I had not made "Rufus" up.
I had already learned 12 years ago in the Los Alamos High School auditorium during a post-reading discussion of Louis Slotin Sonata, when second wave scientists wanted my head for bringing Josef Mengele into Slotin’s nightmares, there’s nothing so satisfying as having Dick Rhodes have your back.
So thanks, Dick! And thanks a million, Thia! It’s so great to hear from my luvies.