In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
June 6, 2006
Keen Company deserves our gratitude for choosing to revive Heinar Kipphardt's play In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer at this particular political moment. This documentary-style drama about the Atomic Energy Commission's security clearance hearing for the famed physicist explores important and timely questions about the tradeoffs between personal freedoms and public safety. The hearing took place in 1954, at the height of the Cold War and the McCarthy Era, when fear of the Communist Menace approached hysteria, and many Americans willingly surrendered liberties they once held dear in the name of increased governmental protection against a supposedly pressing threat to national security.
Although Oppenheimer wasn't precisely on trial, Kipphardt's play takes the shape of a classic courtroom drama, with a pair of prosecutors vying against a pair of defense attorneys before a panel of three (appointed, impartial?) judges. At stake is Oppenheimer's political future: his security clearance has been canceled on suspicions that his one-time Communist leanings influenced his very public opposition to the Hydrogen Bomb. Speaking for Oppenheimer are a pair of compelling witnesses, John Lansdale (chief of security at Los Alamos, where Oppenheimer headed up the Manhattan Project to develop the world's first atomic bomb), and fellow scientist Hans Bethe; the prosecution's witnesses are Colonel Pash, Lansdale's subordinate, and the so-called "father of the H-Bomb," Edward Teller. Of course Oppenheimer himself provides the most evidence, as his career is reviewed during the hearing, from the pre-war era when he became moderately involved in left-wing causes, through his time at Los Alamos, up to the late '40s and early '50s, when he became a passionate opponent of the acceleration of the then-nascent nuclear arms race.
The play, almost by definition, is pretty much all talk. But such talk!—the words uttered here are important and enormously relevant. Kipphardt traces two main threads in his play, both worth serious consideration, then as now. The primary strain looks at the moral questions underlying the development of nuclear weapons—a problem that loomed large in our lives through the Reagan administration but which, troublingly, seems to be of less concern nowadays, even as states proclaimed rogues by our own government toy with acquiring the capability to produce bombs and other paraphenalia that could, as the play reminds us, destroy whole islands; whole cities.
The climactic exchanges in Act Two revolve around this issue, with Teller (and the government behind him) putting forth the alarming but oft-repeated notion that superior military power is the only route to deterrence:
I am convinced that people will learn political common sense only when they are really and truly scared. Only when the bombs are so big that they can destroy everything there is.
I spent a whole night talking with my friends, Weisskopf and Placzek, both of them eminent physicists, and we agreed that after a war with hydrogen bombs, even if we were to win it, the world would no longer be the world which we wanted to preserve, and that we would lose all the things we were fighting for, and that such a weapon should never be developed.
Kipphardt's a humanist, but he gives the arguments equal time and weight, just as they deserve; similarly, he never makes any of the characters mere two-dimensional heroes and villains. Teller's a flawed man, but so is Oppenheimer; and the lawyers and judges each get soliloquies that help us understand who they are and how they came by their attitudes and prejudices.
This approach holds true for the work's secondary theme, which meditates on whether it is appropriate for a government to suspend certain freedoms to assure the safety of its citizenry. Director Carl Forsman plays this point up—sometimes at the expense of Kipphardt's other one, I think—presumably because he wants his 2006 American audience to recognize itself in this 1954 American portrait. It's a worthy impulse, but it results in a kind of artistic dishonesty: Forsman has distorted the message of the play, perhaps; and he's certainly eliminated some of its nuance and complexity by instructing his actors to play Kipphardt's very fleshed-out characters as good or evil caricatures.
He's also saddled his actors with a staging concept that makes their jobs very difficult. The set (designed by Nathan Heverin) places the familiar components of the courtroom onto a set of tiers, one above the other, with Oppenheimer and the witness stand on the stage floor, the prosecutors just above him, the defense attorneys next, and the judges at the top. It literalizes the hierarchy for no good reason that I could think of (surely the Connelly stage is deep enough to hold a naturalistic courtroom set comfortably) and makes it impossible for the actors to actually act with one another: all of the confrontations and rounds of questions and answers are done with/to dead air, as if the play were a series of monologues. The innate drama of the thing decreases considerably as a result.
All that said, the play benefits from some fine performances, notably Thomas Jay Ryan as an earnest and clearly troubled Oppenheimer (he probably misses some of the arrogance and suavity of the original, but he's a compelling protagonist just the same); Matthew Rauch as the younger and more zealous of the prosecutors; Wilbur Edwin Henry as the chief judge, towing a line of impartiality, but just barely; Jonathan Hogan as the security expert Lansdale; and Keith Reddin, who gives us the physicist Teller as a self-justifying opportunistic genius.
I'm glad to have had the opportunity to see and hear In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer; its very serious and well-considered examination of issues of authentically fundamental importance makes it the exception rather than the rule in contemporary theatre. Everybody needs to listen to the arguments that comprise the core of this play: is there ever a justification to give up liberty for some national good? is there ever a justification to devise a way to irrevocably destroy the world? Kipphardt's potent play reminds us that these questions still matter, never stopped mattering. Have we stopped thinking clearly and carefully about them?