American Prometheus (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
Though he died at a relatively young age, J. Robert Oppenheimer, “the father of the atomic bomb,” lived long enough to see a play based on his life, In der Sache J. Robert Oppenheimer (pr. 1964, pb. 1966; In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, 1967), by the German playwright Heinar Kipphardt. It focused on the investigation of Oppenheimer as a suspected security risk during the Joseph McCarthy era. Though the play mesmerized audiences in the 1960’s, Oppenheimer himself was disgusted with it, saying that it “turned the whole damn farce into a tragedy.”
Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin recount his reaction at the end of American Prometheus, their Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Oppenheimer. That they have subtitled their book The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer leads one to wonder: Was Oppenheimer’s life the stuff of triumph or tragedy? It is the sort of thing that one might expect the authors to discuss in a conclusion, but none appears in this otherwise fine biography. An epilogue briefly recounts what happened to Oppenheimer’s wife and children after his premature death from throat cancer in 1967, but there is no measured evaluation of the meaning of Oppenheimer’s life by the two writers who might be best qualified to supply it.
Perhaps this is because there was so much ambiguity in Oppenheimer’s life. Indeed, it is the lack of ambiguity in the Kipphardt play that the...
(The entire section is 1780 words.)
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Bibliography (Magill's Literary Annual 2006)
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