The Perfect Detonator

The Perfect Detonator, the Duke University Department of Theater Studies fall MainStage play, finished a successful run this past November. The play, based on Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent, was adapted and directed by Duke theater professor Jody McAuliffe.

McAuliffe’s work follows Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber, as he reads Conrad’s story of an anarchist cell in nineteenth-century London plotting to bomb the Greenwich Observatory, a major symbol of science and industrialization at the time. As the play unfolds, Conrad’s fictional tale intersects with Kaczynski’s real-life bomb plots in the United States. “Like the Unabomber, Conrad saw industrial society as at odds with the human heart,” McAuliffe says.

As McAuliffe told the Duke Chronicle, the genesis of her project was an encounter with the work of filmmaker James Benning, who came to Duke in 2013 as part of the visiting artist lecture series Immersed in Every Sense 2.

“Benning had reconstructed Henry David Thoreau’s and Ted Kaczynski’s iconic cabins,” McAuliffe said. “He used these structures to reflect on utopian and dystopian versions of social isolation. Benning’s visit reignited my interest in the controversial figure of Kaczynski, particularly in his connection to Thoreau. I developed a plan to read the books that Kaczynski kept in his cabin and I started, fatefully, with Conrad’s ‘The Secret Agent,’ a most significant book for Kaczynski.”

McAuliffe pursued the natural connections between her production and the work and concerns of the broader academic community. Tim Nichols, an expert on counterterrorism and homeland security and Executive Director of Duke’s Counterterrorism and Public Policy Fellowship Program, was involved in the rehearsal process. After the opening-night performance he led a public discussion of domestic terrorism, joined by fellows from his “National Security Decision-Making” class. Two nights later, Professor of Slavic and Eurasian Studies Beth Holmgren presented “A Brief Intro to Joseph Conrad, a Man Between Empires.”

McAuliffe, who is Chair of Theater Studies and Professor of the Practice of Theater Studies and Slavic and Eurasian Studies, found collaborators in other arts departments, as well. William Noland, Professor of the Practice of Visual Art & Theater Studies, was the video designer, assisted by MFAEDA students Aaron Kutnick and Windrose Stanback. Noland was also responsible for bringing James Benning to campus. Emeritus Professor Frank Lentricchia was the dramaturg. The sound designer was composition graduate student Ben Daniels, and the choreography was created by Clay Taliaferro, an emeritus professor of dance.

In addition, McAuliffe brought in Roz Fulton-Dahlie from UNC School of the Arts for lighting design and local designer Sonya Drum for set design. The vocal coach was Duke theater studies alum Madeleine Lambert.