Theater archives

Unclear Physicist


Half a century ago, red was the nastiest cussword in the right-wing lexicon. Today it’s the symbol of right-wing voterhood. Half a century ago, Republicans made great political hay out of a Democratic administration’s having “lost” the giant country they invariably referred to as “Red China.” Today, they’re all running eagerly to make deals with the same government to which we “lost” it. That’s the trouble with Republicans: They have no principles, and haven’t had any for most of the last century. What they have instead, of course, is the love of weaponry, the desire to destroy, at whatever cost. Unmistakably, that’s the unconscious agenda behind George Bush’s unnecessary war in Iraq, and his new nuclear game of chicken with Iran. In the dark recesses at the back of the Republican mind, the lap-dissolve succession of mushroom clouds that closes Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove is the happy ending devoutly to be wished.

Considerably less flamboyant than Dr. Strangelove, Heinar Kipphardt’s documentary play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, originally premiered around the same historical moment, ranks as a kind of aesthetic counterbalance to Kubrick’s raucously funny film in its study of right-wing lunacy and how it can affect the arms race. Currently receiving its first major New York revival from the enterprising Keen Company, Kipphardt’s drama is a modest, sober, understated work; its revival, staged by Keen’s artistic director, Carl Forsman, nevertheless manages to pack a vast number of reverberant aftershocks into its soft-spoken few hours. If your ear is attuned to history, almost every second line rings with startling relevance. From national security to Homeland Security, from the Cold War to the Axis of Evil, amazingly little has changed in the way the death peddlers and their political proxies crush dissent while inventing excuses for their own ill will.

Oppenheimer was apparently a natural-born dissenter and a charismatic leader, as well as a gifted physicist. Widely read and inquisitive culturally as well as scientifically, he was the sort of man who would express his reaction on seeing the first successful atom bomb test by citing two contradictory quotes from the Bhagavad Gita. Idolized by many of his colleagues, he had been the natural choice to head the research operation at Los Alamos that made nuclear weaponry possible. The project had been started out of fear: Émigré physicists who had been expelled from Germany knew that Hitler had a team, headed by Werner Heisenberg, working on nuclear fission; they urged FDR to create its equivalent, thus inadvertently causing what they most feared. Heisenberg, it turned out, had mis- calculated—though the notion that he did so deliberately to thwart Hitler, toyed with in Michael Frayn’s recent play Copenhagen, is untenable—but the brilliant phalanx of scientists gathered at Los Alamos under Oppenheimer’s direction did not miscalculate. In 1945, the U.S. dropped atom bombs on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The world reeled. The permanent overhanging terror of our time had begun.

Inwardly, Oppenheimer reeled too. A man of his sensitivity and moral intelligence could not have abetted the cause of such destruction without feeling deep, remorseful qualms. Dubbed “father of the atom bomb” in the popular press, he cringed at the title ever after. He wasn’t alone in his self-recriminations: Like every aspect of American intellectual life in the 1930s and ’40s, science was full of secularized, left-leaning freethinkers who found socialist ideals attractive and viewed Soviet Russia as an ally against fascism, from which many leading physicists were refugees. Though Oppenheimer was surrounded by leftists, repeated security checks never found any evidence of disloyalty on his part. At worst, he had occasionally bent a rule to protect a friend from getting into trouble. (There were Soviet spies at Los Alamos, but their activities had nothing to do with Oppenheimer.)

What undid Oppenheimer, causing the Atomic Energy Commission to suspend his security clearance, thus provoking the hearings we watch in Kipphardt’s play, was not his leftist circle but his inner moral conflict. During wartime, he had worked willingly on a hypothetical weapon. Seeing its appalling effects in reality, he became a believer in disarmament. When the Soviet acquisition of nuclear technology made America’s “military-industrial complex”—Eisenhower’s phrase, not mine—crave bigger, more lethal weapons, Oppenheimer put himself in the path of the arms race. While FBI investigators and lawyers niggled over his relations with known or alleged Communists, big-bomb enthusiasts like Oppenheimer’s nemesis Edward Teller fumed about his “lack of enthusiasm.” Lack of enthusiasm for mass destruction manifestly isn’t treason, but they got him anyway. The panel appointed to hear Oppenheimer’s “matter” found that there had been justification for canceling his security clearance, he was ejected from his chairmanship of the AEC’s scientific advisory committee, and overnight, in the tabloids, he turned from national hero into pariah dog.

Tracing the hearings’ path to this foregone conclusion, Kipphardt’s play resembles a horrifying game of hide-and-seek. With the possible exception of Oppenheimer himself, all the characters know exactly how things must turn out. But the predictability is, in a sense, its own surprise. Watching while the government witnesses quibble, the prosecutors slant questions, the defense lawyers bitterly voice their sniping objections, we sit in an agony of tension, waiting for someone to speak out against the idiotic charade, to tell the government that it’s wasting a precious human resource. A few characters—the wartime security officer John Lansdale, the physicist Hans Bethe—do speak sanely, but their sanity went unheard in 1954. All the more praise to Forsman and his cast for letting it speak now.