As with all types of art, works of theater tend to reflect the preoccupations of the society in which they are made. Because of this, it is unsurprising that stories about nuclear weapons have proven frequent fodder for dramatization in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. This article provides a brief guide to some of the more notable plays that have tackled topics related to nuclear history. Interestingly, a majority of these works are from the past few decades. This may signal a recent, renewed cultural interest in nuclear weapons and the early decades of the Atomic Age.
In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer
This 1964 play by German writer Heinar Kipphardt depicts the Oppenheimer security hearing of 1954. In the hearing, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) investigated Oppenheimer for his past associations with communist organizations, ultimately revoking his security clearance. Act I looks into the communist ties of the “father of the atomic bomb” before World War II, while Act II focuses on his disapproval of the development of the hydrogen bomb. Some viewed Oppenheimer’s objections to the H-bomb as a sign of his disloyalty to the United States.
Kipphardt gave the play the subtitle “a play freely adapted, on the basis of the documents,” the “documents” being the transcripts of the hearing. One of the dangers of fictionalizing recent history, however, is that the involved parties are often still alive and might object to the way they have been represented. This was the case with Oppenheimer, who complained that the play contained “improvisations which were contrary to history and to the nature of the people involved.”
In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer was one of the earliest notable works of theater to touch on the moral quandaries associated with developing nuclear weapons. Delving into issues of patriotism, loyalty, and fear, the play reflects the cultural backdrop of the 1960s. The work captures the critical attitudes of many in the sixties toward the paranoid McCarthyism of the previous decade.
In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer opened at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater in 1969, where it played for 108 performances. In 2006, there was an Off-Broadway revival at the Connelly Theater. There have been some amateur and college-level productions as well, though the play is not frequently produced.
Michael Frayn’s acclaimed 1998 play, Copenhagen, explores the different possible motivations physicist Werner Heisenberg might have had for visiting fellow physicist Niels Bohr in the titular city in 1941. The two were well-acquainted both professionally and personally, having been colleagues at the University of Copenhagen in the 1920s. Heisenberg was a main contributor to the Nazi atomic bomb program during World War II, and Niels Bohr went on to work on the Manhattan Project after fleeing Nazi-occupied Denmark in 1943. The motivations behind, and the precise content of, the wartime meeting between the two have often been the subject of historical speculation.
The play itself is, in some ways, about this process of historical speculation. The conceit of Copenhagen is that the spirits of Heisenberg, Niels Bohr, and his wife, Margrethe—long after their respective deaths—have come together in some undefined space to set the record straight on Heisenberg’s motivations in coming to Copenhagen. Heisenberg and Bohr offer multiple “drafts” of how their exchange may have gone, but the question of Heisenberg’s motivation and what happened in the meeting is never definitively answered. This mirrors a challenge historians often must tackle—in the absence of a reliable historical record of an event, it is impossible to have total certainty about what truly happened.
However, one common criticism of Copenhagen from historians is that it “leaves up in the air whether Heisenberg was trying to sabotage (consciously or not)” the German atomic bomb program (Wellerstein). Most historians do not believe it is plausible that Heisenberg could have been trying to sabotage the German bomb. The primary reason for this is a lack of evidence. Alex Wellerstein writes that “If one is to assume that [the German scientists] did any ‘sabotage,’ it must have been extremely subtle, so subtle as to be indistinguishable from them doing the opposite of sabotage.” As Copenhagen makes clear, achieving complete certainty about past events is impossible. However, some historical narratives are much more supported—and therefore more likely—than others, and many historians take issue with creating a “false balance” between narratives that are well supported and those that are less so.
Copenhagen premiered in 1998 at the National Theatre in London, transferring to the West End’s Duchess Theatre in 1999. The London production was successful; there were more than 300 performances at the National Theatre and 750 at the Duchess. The Broadway production won the Tony Award for Best Play in 2000. There have been numerous productions since, in such venues as the New Vic Theatre in Staffordshire, the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, the Lantern Theatre in Philadelphia, and The Living Theatre in New York City. Additionally, the play was adapted into a TV movie for the BBC in 2002.
Tom Morton-Smith’s 2015 play, Oppenheimer, opened as a Royal Shakespeare Company production in the Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon before transferring to the West End’s Vaudeville Theater. The play covers J. Robert Oppenheimer’s life in the years from 1934 to 1945. Oppenheimer traces the titular character in a wide range of spheres: his political activities, his professional life as a scientist, and the ups-and-downs of his love life with Jean Tatlock and his wife Kitty.
Oppenheimer also features numerous other historical figures, including Edward Teller, General Leslie Groves, Hans Bethe, Frank and Jackie Oppenheimer, Bob and Charlotte Serber, and Robert Wilson. In an interview, Morton-Smith said that he wanted to “populate the play with as many Manhattan Project scientists as I could, there’s so many fascinating characters that have a story to tell within that world.” However, for reasons of practicality and length, Morton-Smith ultimately included only those figures most relevant to Oppenheimer’s life.
As Morton-Smith drafted the script, he began to notice parallels between Oppenheimer’s life and iconic Shakespearean scenes. In the same interview, Morton-Smith cites Shakespeare’s history cycle plays as his main influence on Oppenheimer. He draws parallels between Shakespearean monarchs and twentieth-century scientists, both of whom faced problems that were not just personal, but impacted society at large.
The original production of Oppenheimer was well-received. Michael Billington, writing for The Guardian, gave the play five stars, calling it “massively impressive” and “the most fascinating play about the moral issues surrounding nuclear physics since Michael Frayn’s Copenhagen.” Matt Trueman, for Variety, also gave a positive review, though he remarked that some elements of the play “drag and detract from Oppenheimer himself.”
Oppenheimer will have its American premiere in October 2018 with the Rogue Machine Theatre in Los Angeles.
Louis Slotin Sonata by playwright Paul Mullin premiered in 1999 in Los Angeles. The play follows, with a mix of realist and surrealist elements, the last nine days of Louis Slotin’s life following his accidental irradiation during a botched criticality experiment at Los Alamos in 1946. As one reviewer for Variety writes, “Mullin shifts the onstage reality between the fact-based ‘incident’ and its aftermath to the emotional and spiritual interplay of hospitalized Slotin’s often drug-induced fantasies.” The show has also been produced in Santa Barbara, New Mexico, New York City, Seattle, Chicago, and Long Beach. In March 2001, the Atomic Heritage Foundation hosted a staged reading of the play in Los Alamos.
The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer, the 2003 play by Carson Kreitzer, has been produced at regional theatres in Minneapolis, Cincinnati, Chicago, and Atlanta. There have also been a few university productions, including a Brown University performance in 2016. The first act of the play, titled “Math,” deals with the Manhattan Project and the events leading up to bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Act II, the “Aftermath,” chronicles the following years, including the revocation of Oppenheimer’s security clearance. The play’s most unusual aspect is the inclusion of “Lilith,” an apocryphal figure in Jewish mythology known as Adam’s first wife before Eve. In this way, The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer deviates from a strict historical or documentary mode into something more “poetic and metaphysical,” in the words of one reviewer.
Richard Rhodes, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb and numerous other works, wrote a play based on his research into the Cold War nuclear arms race. The result, Reykjavik, chronicles the 1986 diplomatic meeting of Reagan and Gorbachev in the titular city, where the two leaders came close to agreeing on nuclear disarmament but ultimately failed to reach an agreement. Reagan and Gorbachev are the only two characters in the play, and as they debate such issues as the Strategic Defense Initiative, there are moments of personal connection between the two men as well. Rhodes prioritized historical accuracy; he writes that “more than half the text of Reykjavik is verbatim or near-verbatim transcript of the actual Reykjavik discussions.” Reykjavik has received staged readings in Chicago, Washington, New York, Santa Fe, Salt Lake City, and at Stanford University.
In recent years, there have been two musicals focusing on the atomic age. One is Atomic, a rock musical which originated in Australia before having its Off-Broadway premiere at the Acorn Theater in 2014. Danny Ginges wrote the book, Philip Foxman wrote the music, and the two collaborated on the lyrics. The musical focuses on Leo Szilard, while also portraying such figures as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Enrico Fermi. Since its short New York run, Atomic has been produced at the Meadow Brook Theatre in Michigan and New Line Theatre in St. Louis.
Miss Atomic Bomb, which premiered in London in 2016, is set in 1950s Las Vegas in the era of nuclear test tourism. A lighthearted “screwball comedy,” Miss Atomic Bomb riffs on the “Miss Atomic” pageants held in the city during this time of nuclear optimism. There have not been any additional productions since.
In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Miss Atomic Bomb
The Love Song of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Louis Slotin Sonata