Genius at work: Turing’s life examined in “Breaking the Code”

Jason Rowe as Alan Turing and Karsten Topelmann as Ron Miller (photo by Ariel Ogden)

“Breaking the Code,” a biographical drama and comprehensive character study that deciphers the life of Alan Turing – brilliant mathematician, code breaker, and founder of computer science – opens at 8 p.m. Thursday, May 30, at the University of Oregon’s Hope Theatre.

The Hugh Whitemore play is based on the book, “Alan Turing: The Enigma,” by Andrew Hodges and is the culminating event in a series of campus-wide activities created to commemorate the June 2012 centenary of Turing’s birth.  The events were spurred by the UO Computer and Information Science Department’s participation in the world Mathematics and Computer Science community’s declaration of 2012 as “The Year of Turing.”

Turing, an eccentric genius, played a major role in winning World War II by breaking the complex German code called Enigma. For that, he was awarded the OBE (Order of the British Empire) for his contribution to the Allied victory over the Nazis.

Yet it was the other code Turing broke – the taboo against homosexuality – and his admitted relationship with another man that drives the drama of the play as it seeks to balance the duality of Turing’s praised intellectual and persecuted emotional lives.

“Breaking the Code” is set in England and spans the years 1928 to 1954, covering Turing’s school years, his work at Bletchley Park and his post-war research on computer technology and artificial intelligence. As he outlines his professional life, Whitemore delves deeply into Turing’s personal complexities and relationships.

Tackling the play and working with university students to convey its themes is a challenge, but one eagerly met by UO Theatre Arts Instructor Joseph Gilg, who volunteered to direct it.

“I was familiar with the play from its premiere in the mid-1980s and had it on a long list of ‘maybe, some day’ plays,” says Gilg.

While researching the play and working with the script, Gilg and the students had a glimpse into Turing’s genius – what it means and how it works. They also explored the injustice done to him by an intolerant society.

“That has been instructive regarding the current debate about same-sex marriage and other issues of minority rights,” Gilg says.

For students, Gilg says the play has meaning because “everyone uses a computer,” and those students who’ve studied 20th century history are aware of Turing’s World War II code-breaking work and his computer research. As a man persecuted for his sexual orientation, Turing’s story “has resonance on many different levels,” he says.

Despite the heavy themes, Gilg says the play is entertaining, as well as informative. The play is well-written and has been critically acclaimed during many of its runs.

“It is informative about science and code-breaking in an accessible way and it also explores the way laws regarding morals can often work against our own best interests,” Gilg says.

“Breaking the Code” runs at 8 p.m. on May 30, 31, June 1, 6, 7 and 8, and at 2 p.m. on June 9 at UO’s Hope Theatre. Tickets are free for UO students. Other ticket information is available online or at 541-346-4363.

- by Aria Seligmann, UO Office of Strategic Communications