“This weapon is so terrible, it will surely end war.” Pope Gregory in the 14th century talking about the invention of the crossbow.
“Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Robert Oppenheimer quoting the Bhagavad-Gita after the detonation of ‘Little Boy’ over Hiroshima.
Ever since the inception of science, mankind has always had an uneasy relationship with ‘unlocking the secrets of the universe’. For every beneficial scientific breakthrough made, there invariably has been a moral quandary and the potential to weaponise the discoveries. More often than not, the questions raised have been not whether a goal can be accomplished, but whether it should. Written by Tony Harrison and directed by Jimmy Walters, Square Rounds examines the dichotomy of science and the ambivalence (in the truest sense of the word) regards its capacity to facilitate progress. While this British production is the first in nearly 30 years, aspects of the show have a timely relevance with the centenary remembrance of the First World War.
L-R: Letty Thomas, Eva Feiler, Gracy Goldman and Amy Marchant
Played by an all-female cast, the characters that feature in this show all played a major part in scientific and ‘technological’ breakthroughs in the late 19th and early 20th century. For the average man and woman, these ‘breakthroughs’ had a huge cost, especially in the lead up to- and during- the First World War. Women who worked in munitions over time acquired severe bronchial ailments from working on Sir Hiram Maxim’s ‘maximite’ – an important component of his fully automatic machine gun. To balance the ongoing ‘life-siphoning’ qualities of his instruments of war, he also invented a proto-bronchial inhaler to help the munitioneers.
However, the real ‘meat’ of the play is the ‘arms race’ between Britain and Germany, and the reasons used to justify ‘scientific progress’. One of the blights in Europe during the 19th century was famine in places like Ireland. In Germany, scientists such as Justus von Liebig expounded the virtues of ‘natural phosphates’ to rejuvenate fallow land, while Fritz Haber was able to synthesize in large quantities nitogren and hydrogen gas for fertilisers and explosives. Of course, once industrial-scale extraction of gases from the air could take place, to aid a ‘speedy end to the war’, the use of poisonous gases was rationalised, which would in turn be used during the Second World War in a slightly different capacity…
Of course science hasn’t always been used for harm to one’s fellow man. For centuries, hues used in painting had to be manufactured using ‘natural ingredients’ that possessed the desired colour in a concentrated form. As the play points out, with the advent of cutting-edge scientific processes, colours could be extracted from the very air itself, leading to innumerable possibilities.
Tonally, Square Rounds reminded me in some ways of Oh What A Lovely War! in the way that it commented on history in a non-naturalistic fashion. Prose is eschewed for verse (such as the use in pseudo-historical plays like King Charles III) and the all-female cast is a constant reminder that had women really had a say in martial matters at that time, how different history might have turned out. While the early part of the shows dealt with ‘earthy matters’ and a suitable tone to match, the second half of the show is of a more serious nature, as ‘the dots’ that have previously been referenced are connected.
So why call the play Square Rounds? Without giving anything away, it is an oblique reference to how ‘science’ has been used on others in a far-from-indiscriminate fashion. For every person that dreams of using it as a gift to all mankind, there are those who conceive of ‘justifiable circumstances’ for its misuse. It’s sad that it takes another civilisation from thousands of years ago to show how little we really have made progress…
© Michael Davis 2018
Square Rounds runs at Finborough Theatre until 29th September.
Cast: Eva Feiler, Gracy Goldman, Rujenne Green, Amy Marchant, Philippa Quinn, Letty Thomas.