THEATER REVIEW The prosecution of genius

Breaking the Code gives Alan Turing the recognition he deserved half a century ago

Breaking the Code

Directed by Adam Zahler

April 7 - May 8, 2011

Central Square Theater

The lights rise in the black box at the Central Square Theater. Alan Turing (Allyn Burrows) speaks nervously with the constable (Dafydd Rees). He is reporting a personal theft — committed, we’ll discover, by a lover many years his junior. The losses themselves are trivial — clothes, half a bottle of sherry — but are reported out of principle. It is principle, and idiosyncrasy, that defines Turing. He is a man unable to be untrue about his ideals — whether they pertain to science, mathematics, or love.

Turing’s honesty was his undoing. Upon disclosing his homosexuality to the police, Alan Turing, the war hero responsible for breaking the German Enigma codes, would be convicted of gross indecency. He was ordered to take high doses of estrogen as a means of chemical castration — “I’m growing breasts,” he remarks woefully in the play — in lieu of prison. Two years later, Turing took his own life.

Hugh Whitemore’s Breaking the Code is a testament to a genius, a shaming a society that let him suffer in solitude, and, above all, a eulogy to a trailblazer who made the world safer for the unique, the original, and the forward-looking.

But the lessons of Breaking the Code are not merely funeral rites, and the production at the Central Square Theater does a good job pointing out that Turing’s scientific struggles are the struggles of all scientists and that his romantic struggles are still felt by homosexual people today. The use of a single actor — Danny Bryck — to play all of Turing’s lovers lends them all a very archetypical quality. The play’s design is nonchronological and shifts between Turing’s middle age and his youth, but the production eschews makeup to mark these changes. Through Turing’s life, we see the old, tired, somber Turing. It is as if we are seeing his interior throughout — without the distractions of collagen, even the young Turing is struggling and tired, weary of making the world around him understand what he sees so clearly.

—Samuel Markson

Breaking the Code, a play about mathematician and computer science visionary Alan Turing, strikes close to home. In the happier scenes, Turing — as portrayed in Central Square Theatre’s production of the play — looks as if he might step off the stage and out the door, walk down the street into the Miracle of Science, and strike up a discussion over the ramifications of quantum algorithms on computational complexity theory. These are the moments when the character of Turing is pleasantly reminiscent of your best friend in Course VI: quantitative to the point of exasperating his mother, eager to tell you how computers work even if you’re just trying to eat lunch quietly, happy to fix your broken radio, and socially awkward in the most endearing manner possible.

Yet here is a man gifted with logic so pure and ethics so selfless that he confesses his homosexuality to the police as easily as he articulates the difference between soundness and completeness of mathematical proofs. The miracle of Allyn Burrows’ performance as Turing is that he manages to be both familiar to us as a computer nerd of the highest caliber and completely astonishing as a man victimized by his own reason. Sure, Turing may be related to the guy down the hall at CSAIL as the Neanderthals are to Homo sapiens, but in some deeper sense he’s a complete alien to most of us. Who are we to understand the loneliness of an underappreciated mathematician whose life’s work seems useless to nearly everyone he meets? Or the frustration of losing his career because of his sexual orientation? Or the horrors of undergoing forced hormone treatment in order to prevent him from committing the alleged crime of homosexuality?

Ultimately, Breaking the Code is a tragedy that pushes us to question our own ethical consistency as scientists and mathematicians as carefully as Turing once considered the consistency of formal systems of logic. At the least, it makes us grateful to live in a time when Alan Turing has finally received the completeness of recognition he deserved.

—Yan Zhu