Theater Abroad: The Character Speaks Out

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Mining recent history for villains and heroes has turned into a profitable industry. By implying that Pope Pius XII was guilty—at least by omission—of not staying the Nazi slaughter of the German Jews, Playwright Rolf Hochhuth, in The Deputy, racked the stages of Europe and Broadway with controversy. Now another play, In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by another German playwright, Heinar Kipphardt, now playing in Berlin and Munich, has become the talk of Europe. One key difference: Pius was dead and unable to refute the charges; J. Robert Oppenheimer, current Director of the Institute for Advanced Studies at Princeton, is very much alive, and furious.

Ostensibly the new Oppenheimer play is based on the 3,000-page transcript of the Atomic Energy Commission hearings. And at moments, real-life testimony reads better than Strangelove and Fail-Safe, as when Oppenheimer says: "In all Russia there are only two targets where a hydrogen bomb would make sense—Moscow and Leningrad—whereas in the U.S. we have 50. Before we opened the door to this horrifying new world in which we live today, we should have knocked. But we have chosen to fall into the house together with the door."

Where the play is flawed is not so much in inflating Senator Joe McCarthy, who appears as a dark, looming cloud over Washington, but rather in what Oppenheimer himself sharply calls "improvisations which were contrary to history and to the nature of the people involved." Oppenheimer branded as false the script's statement that Physicist Niels Bohr disapproved of the work at Los Alamos because he was worried about domination by the military. "Bohr understood and welcomed what we were doing," says Oppenheimer. An even graver distortion is the script's assertion that Oppenheimer felt that in making the bomb, "we have done the work of the devil." "This is the very opposite of what I think," said the real Oppenheimer last week. "I had never said that I regretted participating in a responsible way in the making of the bomb." In a letter to Playwright Kipphardt threatening suit, Oppenheimer added, "You may well have forgotten Guernica, Dachau, Coventry, Belsen, Warsaw, Dresden and Tokyo. I have not."