Going to the opera is like having a separate browser just for porn: You do it because you’re married. But when my wife called me at work to say we had free tickets to something called Doctor Manhattan at the Met and asked if I wanted to go, I was intrigued. With all the hoopla over how well Zack Snyder’s Watchmen movie will translate the graphic novel to the big screen, I hadn’t even heard there was a stage production. Better still, the music was by Star Wars/Raiders/everything else awesome composer John Williams, with lyrics by Peter Sellers. Superheroes and bombast and Inspector Clouseau–style hilarity!Well, I probably shouldn’t drink so much, at least not at work. The opera was actually called Doctor Atomic, and it was about J. Robert Oppenheimer, the physicist in charge of the, uh, Manhattan Project, and covered the time immediately leading up to the first nuclear weapon test. I got the other two names wrong, too. We were about a third of the way through the show when I figured out it wasn’t at all Watchmen-related, which at least was sooner than the last time I got burned like this, at a special naked performance by the Blue Man Group. This time, what clued me in was the abundance of fedoras. If you ever need to evoke the dawn of the Nuclear Age, dear readers, step one is to stick a fedora on every man in sight. You can’t get enough fedoras. Get a group of six to eight behatted guys huddled in a circle, hands in their pockets, chatting rapid-fire, drop a couple of wooden crates next to them, and tell two men in military uniform to wander around a few feet away, possibly smoking. Everyone who sees that tableau will know atoms are gonna get split sooner or later. In Watchmen, however, Rorschach is sporting pretty much the only fedora in sight—which is no coincidence. As the Cold War went on and men realized that felt offered little to no protection against hydrogen bombs or even the attendant fallout (and with the concurrent improvements made to hair product), most of them chose to enjoy feeling the sun shine on their naked heads before it was blotted out of the sky forever. Rorschach, of course, is a throwback; he wears his fedora not because it’s practical, but out of loyalty to an earlier time (and also, presumably, because he thinks Vidal Sassoon is part of a Communist plot). That time he’s remembering is back when an individual person was still somewhere in the same order of magnitude as the weapons that could be leveled against him or her—even the worst bombs used throughout most of World War II could take out a neighborhood at best, and would leave some neighbors surviving. That changed during the handful of days marked in Doctor Atomic.
And if the opera, which draws directly from the characters’ history for source material, is right, the change was entirely deliberate. It was tempting, as I watched, to associate Oppenheimer with his fellow scientist Jon Osterman, especially when he quoted John Donne in the aria that closed the first act: “Overthrow me, and bend your force, to break, blow, burn, and make me new.” Really, though, he was closer to another Watchmen character, whose identity I won’t reveal here for fear of spoiling a book written before spoilers were invented. Those of you who’ve read it will know whom I’m talking about: After his colleagues come forward with petitions for President Truman asking at least to warn the Japanese before unleashing their “gadget” upon them, Oppenheimer dismisses them, explaining that bombing cities containing civilians is the only way to “make a profound psychological impression” that will end the war for good. Essentially, he says, the only way to stop war is to scare people out of it by killing a bunch of them. He may not have been wrong. No conflict in the last 63 years has approached the scale of World War II, anyway, and the philosophy of mutually assured destruction was what kept both sides safe throughout the Cold War. But although the Soviet Union is gone, we’re still dealing with some of the consequences of that conflict, only in a much less stable world. And I couldn’t help but think about that when Oppenheimer’s wife, Kitty, sang at the start of the second act that “the peace the spirit needs is peace, not lack of war—but fierce, continual flame.” Is it enough for those of us who want peace to be satisfied with less war, like I think that Watchmen character is? Or do we have to actively cultivate peace? Because I think that’s harder. You go to the opera because you’re married, after all—but not just with a sigh, because you’re afraid your wife will be upset if you don’t. At least, not if you’re doing it right. You go and you smile about it, because you want her to be happy. Commenter Moff's real name is Josh Wimmer, and he can usually be found at scribblescribblescribble.com/blog.