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Making Sense Of Nuclear Disaster

September 27, 1987|DAN SULLIVAN

"Today there are over 400 nuclear power stations throughout the world and also 50,000 nuclear warheads. Each nuclear bomb represents an equivalent of 10 stations. We have 500,400 potential Chernobyls. Such is the face of the Atomic Age."

Vladimir Gubaryev made that statement to the Los Angeles World Affairs Council the other day. More than half a million Chernobyls waiting to happen! Think about it.

Hard to do. The mind resists big numbers, especially when they have unpleasant connotations. To make a danger real to people, you need to put a face on it.

And so Gubaryev, having collected the facts about the Chernobyl disaster for his science column in Pravda, tried to put the truth of it into a play.

"Sarcophagus" has now been seen in Russia, mainland Europe, England and the United States (both at the Los Angeles Theatre Center, directed by Bill Bushnell--its American premiere--and at the Yale Repertory Theater).

At LATC, it makes for a long three hours. The dialogue, translated by Michael Glenny, is stiff. The characters are types: the grand old woman doctor (Nan Martin), the blustering general (Tom Rosqui), the poor peasant woman with her cow (Nobu McCarthy), the Holy Fool (Gregory Wagrowski). The device of setting them down in a radiation clinic seems just that.

A more adroit playwright would either have focused on one or two key characters, as Arthur Miller did in "All My Sons"--another play investigating a disaster--or would have frankly made this a trial play, as Peter Weiss did in his play about the Holocaust, "The Investigation." "Sarcophagus" was written in 10 days. It shows.

But 10 days may have been all the time Gubaryev had. Perhaps he was obeying something more than an artistic imperative when he decided to retell his news story in fictional terms. Perhaps he had a very practical end in view.

For example, there's a scene where Ben Piazza as the nuclear station's director (it is never actually identified as Chernobyl) predicts that the authorities will never put him on trial. "They'd have to try to many others as well. It would start a chain-reaction."

As we know, there was a trial, and it was a public one. Perhaps Gubaryev's play helped to quash the natural temptation of the Soviet bureaucracy to put Chernobyl "behind us," as they say in Washington.

In any case, "Sarcophagus" is a play that has had already some real-world consequences. Bushnell went overboard when he described it as the "most important play of the century." But it could be the most significant play of the 1980s, in the sense that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was the most significant novel of the 1850s.

"So this is the little lady who started the big war," Abraham Lincoln supposedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Perhaps Gubaryev will one day get credit for having helped make a big war less likely.

His play has passed on to the Russian public the message that nuclear energy is more dangerous and less biddable than even the science editor of Pravda had realized--and therefore that it can't be unleashed without risk, even on a target halfway across the world. (A lobby display at LATC reminds us that radiation from the Chernobyl blast showed up on the West Coast within a week.)

"Sarcophagus" had another message for the Russian audience as well: that there was something wrong with the system. When Piazza suggests that the plant was sabotaged, Wagrowski hoots that you can't blame everything on the imperialists.

"Sarcophagus" speaks of safety codes being yawned at, of officials looking the other way while dangerous materials are substituted for safe ones, of delivery schedules being ridiculously rushed so as to please the bigwigs back in Moscow, of conscientious managers being fired in favor of hacks who don't rock the boat.

"Who switched it off?" asks Wagrowski, the truth-teller, of the back-up control that would have prevented the disaster. And he answers himself thus: "The system switched it off. The system which sees to it that no one takes responsibility."

Moreover, the shoddiness extends to other areas of Soviet life, such as the Moscow stores. "Sarcophagus" keeps its voice reasonable, but it's a devastating indictment of the Soviet system in practice --far more scathing than the plays of the 1970s, with their mild complaints about the housing problem.

An American feels smug, for about a minute. Then he recalls the explosion at Three Mile Island and the Challenger tragedy, subjects which have inspired precious few American scripts. Not because the script would have had to be submitted to the Ministry of Culture, but because American theaters can't afford to do big public plays these days. Same difference.

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