All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Before the 2014 movie, “The imitation Game” popularized Alan Turing’s story as a World War II hero, one responsible for saving many of our lives, who is prosecuted by archaic British laws pertaining to personal sexuality, Hugh Whitemore’s excellent and moving 1985 play, “Breaking the Code” brought Turing’s shameful adjudication to pathetic light.
The code referred to in Whitemore’s title only casually alludes to the Enigma Code, which the Nazis used to scramble messages pinpointing the position of Axis and Allied ships and the martial maneuvers Axis vessels would tactically initiate on a given day. The code Turing significantly cracked by combining mathematic and technical skills to create what amounts to an early computer. Whitemore is more concerned with the statutes by which a genius and preserver of Western freedom can be reduced to facing prison or Draconian corrective measures for merely having a sexual liaison with a member of his own gender. Whitemore’s play dramatically asks what the exact harm fomented by Turing is and contrasts it with the harm he prevented, considering D-Day and other campaigns that led to Allied victory over maniacal Fascist tyranny may not have been possible if Gen. Eisenhower and Gen. Marshall were unable to receive intelligence about Axis movements via an accurately interpreted Enigma Code.
“Breaking the Code” operates on a personal level. Its emotional power derives from how compact and intimate a view we get of Turing’s post-war life shortly after his breakthrough at England’s primary intelligence gathering site, Bletchley Park. A scene or two acquaints us with Turing’s wartime activity, including his famous recruitment to cryptography unit by Dillwyn Knox and some lovely sequences with his wartime colleague and Platonic love, Pat Green, but Whitemore concentrates more on how Turing’s dalliance with what we once upon a time called “rough trade” led to his almost surreal entanglement with the law, a law, that as frequently happens considering the paucity of gray matter in most legislators, pays no attention to perspective or proportion.
“Breaking the Code” exposes the insidious civility with which the law frequently operates. The police detective who, as in “The Imitation Game,” can’t let Turing’s offense rest, acts as if he and the British constabulary are doing Turing a favor by arresting him and subjecting them to their stupidity.
The law is the law, the officer says. That’s true, and most of the time, I would be for the law being upheld. But as I’ve said in a rare instance of being political, laws are made by men and women who are frequently vindictive, moralistic, and idiotic jackasses. (Think for a moment about any legislator for which you have unconditional esteem or respect. I dare you.)
In Turing’s case the law involved is the same one that condemned Oscar Wilde to imprisonment and premature death — gross indecency, a term that can be used to describe the law itself (as Moises Kaufman does in his play about Wilde’s trials). It was generally enforced against men who admitted having sex with men.
Like Wilde, Turing hoist himself on his own petard. The police were unaware and uninterested in Turing’s sexual activity until he nonchalantly mentioned it. The police were investigating a burglary Turing reported of his home in a rural part of England. Turing thought he could help the police by giving his opinion about who the robber was. A natural battery of questions followed. The police would be obliged to ask why Turing would suspect a specific individual and want to know how the alleged miscreant might know to rob him.
The problem comes when Turing surmises that the rough lad, an ex-convict, with whom he’s been communing on a regular basis — He has him to dinner. He brings him on a visit to his mother’s. They have frequent sex. — told a rougher character yet about valuables in Turing’s home during a random encounter at a nearby pub. Turing’s friend, Ron, recounts his meeting with this other rogue to Turing after the burglary, and Turing shares Ron’s story with the police.
Upon hearing of Ron, the officer loses interest in the burglary. He is now interested in Turing’s relationship with the ex-con. He drops a warning that Turing may have broken the law and says it’s his duty to arrest him and refer his case to the courts if a moral crime on any level has been committed.
Turing, having an intellect that doesn’t necessarily factor in the small-mindedness of legislators or police officers, talks on and incriminates himself.
That may be enough for some jurisdictions. Cut-and-dried, Turing violated a law. If others, since Wilde, have been prosecuted, or if others are jailed, for gross indecency. he may not be able to protest adjudication too keenly. Or raise public sympathy and outcry for his prosecution, which Alan initially takes in his stride and is almost stoic about until he sees how committed the police officer is to making sure he pays for his crime.
But “Breaking the Code” can both protest Turing’s treatment by the law and foster sympathy for a hero so needlessly dishonored. The wonderful part about Whitemore’s play is the author doesn’t mount the battlements and scream “bloody murder.” He quietly and steadily unveils Turing’s story, letting drama come intrinsically from the scenes before our eyes rather than resorting to outsized emotion or a great outburst by anyone once they know Alan’s predicament. He acquaints you with Turing, his family, and even Ron, none of whom pose the threat to civic order the police pose to Alan.
By staying on as civil and high-toned a plane as the almost too polite police investigation Whitemore depicts, “Breaking the Code” indicts a system that is so rigid and lacks such perspective, it will pursue criminal charges when no one has been harmed by any activity, however illegal. Whitemore’s excellent constructed piece illustrates the insanity and subjective properties of the law and its practice. It’s chilling to see how Turing, a quiet university professor and servant of mankind, is denigrated because in addition to his important, life-saving work, he has enjoyed intimacy with a man, one of consensual age who know exactly what is going on and has his pleasure along with Turing.
Whitemore lets you see how insane the law is and how even more insane it is to enforce it. No one, including I, advocates that laws should be flagrantly broken or that their violation should be ignored. In “Breaking the Code,” it’s more a matter one policeman making a priority, a crusade almost, from a prurient offense that doesn’t belong in the statutes, while being only slightly interested in the burglary that is the real crime. It isn’t so much that Turing should be above the law as the law, especially as enforced, is so much below Turing. It is harrowing to witness brilliance being cowed by pettiness, by a worthy, one-of-a-kind contributor to mankind being negated and degraded by a police officer who is nickel a dozen, if that valuable. In his subtle, cumulative, revealing way, Whitemore shows us tragedy in the making, and though we remain as quiet as Turing, we seethe as he watch his fate.
Turing, we learn in “Breaking the Code,” was at a disadvantage compared to Oscar Wilde. Wilde, and his achievements, were internationally known. Wilde has reason to think his fame and notoriety would spare him criminal prosecution and embarrassment, let alone two years in Reading Gaol, enough to assure the remainder of his life would be brief.
Turing was not known to the general public. The secrecy attached to operations at Bletchley Park was sacrosanct. No one could discuss his or her work there. All was considered a matter of the deepest security, and all were sworn to a code of confidentiality.
This is one code that could not be broken for Turing’s defense. His work at Bletchley was so confidential, of so private a nature, it could not be revealed. Documents proving it were sealed and would be for years, which is why books and plays about Turing began appearing in the 1980s and not immediately after the ceasing of combat or at the time of his suicide in 1954..
To gain precedence over people who would curtail or mitigate his work at Bletchley, Turing appealed to the single greatest figure of the 20th century, British prime minister Winston Churchill. In 1952, as he faced legal woes, he could not ask Churchill or Dillwyn Knox to testify about his war service and its significance. All was too secret. Diplomatic channels with other countries would be involved. Current security matters could be jeopardized. Turing, not being able to cite his heroism, was at the mercy of a petty police officer who clung stubbornly to his duty instead of ignoring an innocuous legal offense in his midst. He goes to Knox, not for help but to inform him of his arrest, and receives sympathy but is told British intelligence cannot breach security, even on a confidential level, to make Turing’s outstanding service a mitigating factor in his legal case. If anything, Knox, who is later revealed as gay, asks Alan’s assurance that Bletchley Park and the Enigma Code will not be mentioned as a defense.
“Breaking the Code” is not Written in chronological order, but is told with texture that become more intense as Whitemore’s drama unfolds. You learn a lot about Turing and see his day-to-day. His mother figures prominently in the play, as do his colleagues from Bletchley, and the young man he befriends. Rather than putting events in order, Whitemore staggers time so one scene can comment more tellingly on the passage preceding it.
Director Robert Bauer is as careful as Whitemore is giving “Breaking the Code” room to bloom and emerge with full effect. Early scenes engage with information. The second act, stronger in both the script and in Bauer’s production for Allens Lane Theater, lets the various threads of Turing’s story weave over you and engage you in a combination of outrage and sadness.
Both emotions are heightened by how businesslike Thomas H. Keels plays the officer, Mick Ross, who hounds Turing for confession and further adjudication. The peacefulness with which Turing faces pettiness and injustice is as harrowing as the emotionlessly clockwork way Keels’s Ross administers his course of justice.
Bauer and Allens Lane were lucky to find an actor who could make Turing immediately sympathetic by conveying the naivety that often accompanies genius, the swagger than also accompanies talent, and the urbanity that shows breeding and refinement at all times. Turing lives in a wide world but one that he narrows by remaining interested mainly in his scientific, mathematical, and philosophical theories, and being oblivious to just about everything else.
Dante Zappala captures the many traits Whitemore prescribes for Turing. You see the character’s easy, uncomplicated approach to life. His mind can absorb and negotiate complexity. His life is simple, work, some visits to his mother, and occasional sex with some bloke from the pub. Turing doesn’t call attention to himself. He has the self-assurance of Henry Higgins but not the flamboyance. He is a confident, acknowledge scientist going about his interest unmindful of much around him.
Zappala’s Turing is cognizant and proud of his war achievements but has moved on more cosmic, or cosmological, research that delves into deeper, less specifically detectable mysteries than the Enigma Code.
Turing is not interested in the mundane. Science is his metier. Uncommitted sex is his release. He likes listening to his friend, Ron’s, stories and hearing about a world a lot less genteel than his.
In visits to his mother and meetings with Knox and Pat Green, Turing displays impeccable British manners. Even with Ross, he expresses more wonder than anger at the curt, ongoing meetings and the advancing indictment.
Zappala conveys both the complexity and aloofness of Turing. Zappala makes you like the scientist in the same way Pat does, as an amiable, interesting, and benign companion who can talk about various subjects, is sensible about most matters, and goes about his business without hindering, or consulting, anyone else.
Turing is grateful that, as a first offender, he is spared prison, but he is less than amused at having to take estrogen to “quell his male urges” and go through other therapies the daft criminal justice system of 1952 devises. Turing confides to Pat Green that because of the estrogen, he is growing breasts. The terms of his probation, two years in duration, make Alan self-conscious and despondent. You can see his decline in Zappala’s performance. Turing’s world in interrupted. He cannot concentrate enough to work. He blames the drugs he is made to take, Because Zappala has been so engaging, you feel genuine tragedy as Allens Lane’s “Breaking the Codes” wends to the only conclusion Whitemore has at his disposal, the factual ending of Turing’s suicide.
Thanks to gross indecency, another genius who is more vaiuable to mankind than any legislator, police officer, judge, or psychologist is erased. One wonders if the average British citizen would have cared about Turing’s offense, whether he or she knew of Turing’s achievement or not. That’s thing about legislators. They purport to act in the public’s name, but they operate only in their small minds that contain little expertise about the subjects with which they deal.
Thomas H. Keels is superb as Mick Ross. Keels always acts the gentleman, just a diligent public servant going about his duty, while doggedly and stubbornly hounding Turing to accelerate the criminal justice process. Ross rankles if Turing is late to sign a paper that will incriminate, as if anyone should regard the timetable of the police if the result might be a sentence to jail. Keels’s Ross is both polite and irascible. He can’t see past the statute book in front of him. He sees his arresting of Turing as the most natural thing in the world. He, after all, doesn’t have to use his common sense, imagination, or idea of proportion to decide an arrest. Matters are out of his hand. He is just a worker going by the book.
Keels gives Ross dignity that covers a lot of stubbornness and a matter-of-fact manner that cannot fathom the pitiful act he is perpetrating. You respect Ross while despising his cool indifference to whether Turing’s sexual life matter and loathing more his robotic efficiency in getting things settled.
Carole Mancini is like a Shavian mother, formal and precise while being conversational and able to get out a barb or a joke, especially at her child’s expense.
Mancini’s Sara Turing, like others except for Knox and Green, know little about Turing’s wartime achievement. Sara knows her son has some status. She yet likes to tease him about not being married, especially since Pat would be willing, and a bit dismayed at the male company her son, an admitted homosexual, keeps, Ron hardly being impressive at their meeting.
Sara is more dismayed when she considers Alan may go to prison. Mancini is touching as Sara offers he love and continued support no matter what happens. She is equally affecting in late scene in which she can barely abide Ross and is defensive about Alan’s death.
Mort Paterson exudes wit, urbanity, and cultured camaraderie as Dillwyn Knox. McKenzie Jones Clifford is to the point and amiable as the accepting, still romantically smitten Pat.
Kevin Fennell triples as the men in Turing’s life, the young man he has a crush on at boarding school, a Greek lad he picks up on a Corfu beach, and Ron, who can’t hide with rough edges under a jocular demeanor.
“Breaking the Code” is a challenge for a director because it flows so quickly from one setting and one time to the next. Robert Bauer solves the dilemma with a clever use of lights that illuminated one prepared setting as characters walked off the previous playing space.
At times, Bauer’s production can seem a bit deliberate, but it always settles into a matter that interests you and flows more and more seamlessly as the production proceeds, especially in the second act.
“Breaking the Code” runs through Saturday, May 16, at Allens Lane Theater, 601 W. Allens Lane (Allens Lane and McCallum Streets), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Tickets run from $25 (at door) to $20 (in advance) and can be obtained by calling 215-248-0546 or by visiting www.allenslane.org.