Heinar Kipphardt was one of the foremost practitioners of the documentary drama, a style of playwriting popular in the 1960’s in which pieces of recorded history (transcripts, tapes, and publications) are adapted creatively to illuminate issues of social and moral concern. The author’s aim by dramatizing an event is clearly not to eradicate every social evil but rather to present it in minute detail, thereby provoking and challenging the audience to judge, deplore, and commiserate, whichever would come first as a natural reaction. Bertolt Brecht’s epic and moralizing theater without any doubt left its indelible mark on Kipphardt’s dramas, not so much influencing their structure or subject matter as perhaps shaping them in a uniquely Brechtian atmosphere of alienation (Verfremdung). Kipphardt’s Die Stühle des Herrn Szmil or Die Nacht in der Chef geschlachtet wurde could in no way affect the audience as, for example, the French comédie larmoyante did. In the face of these dramas, the audience remains dumbfounded but at the same time works itself into a rage that goes far beyond disbelief or amusement. Again, it is not only the sociopolitical content in Kipphardt’s plays that strikes the audience as unconventional, but also, and more important, the deceptively bland manner in which his issues are presented.
Kipphardt’s rather early confrontation with the theater of Socialist Realism (so aptly ridiculed in Shakespeare dringend gesucht) could very well have marked him for the remainder of his career. The sheer colorless atmosphere omnipresent in Socialist Realist theater and its influence on Kipphardt could in part account for the development of his dry, oftentimes flat style. This early development of an individual Kipphardtian style also included the element of psychoanalysis. A psychiatrist by profession, Kipphardt, as noted above, exercised the art of healing at the Charité Clinic in East Berlin, as well as the art of moralizing onstage. He was chief dramatist and director of the Deutsches Theater for nine years (1950-1959), a period that finally ended in disillusionment and defection to the West.
In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer
Artistically, though, this period was a turning point for Kipphardt, who shortly thereafter created In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, his most significant documentary drama. Originally planned as a radio play but revised by Kipphardt for stage production, it soon appeared, with spectacular success, in theaters in Berlin (produced by Piscator) and Munich and throughout West Germany. Other European capitals soon saw productions of the play, whose true-life hero, J. Robert Oppenheimer, threatened to sue the playwright.
The play is based on the 1954 hearings of the Atomic Energy Commission, after which Oppenheimer was branded as a security risk. Kipphardt’s dramatization is clearly critical of American policies; at one point in the play, Oppenheimer, not eager to develop the hydrogen bomb, dramatically explains that the Soviet Union has only two targets of value, Moscow and Leningrad, while the United States has fifty.
In the course of the play, the commission’s counsel and several hostile witnesses fight fiercely against Oppenheimer. Edward Teller appears as a somewhat friendly, if occasionally grouchy, mediator between the extremes. Senator Joseph McCarthy broods demoniacally over the play, prompting the thought that no dramatist as yet has presented a full and convincing picture of McCarthy in all his evil aspects.
In relation to Kipphardt’s play, the actual Oppenheimer objected to what he described as “improvisations which were contrary to history and to the nature of the people involved,” particularly referring to Kipphardt’s representation of Niels Bohr, who had died two years before the play’s premiere, as being opposed to the creation of the bomb at Los Alamos. Oppenheimer (who himself died not long after the controversy, in 1967) also stated that, contrary to the play, he was not opposed to the making of the original bomb. In a letter to Kipphardt, he recalled the atmosphere of the time: “You may have forgotten Guernica, Dachau, Coventry, Belsen, Warsaw, Dresden, and Tokyo. I have not.”
The truth is that Kipphardt, while preserving the original trial structure in In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer, condensed the three-thousand-page report on the proceedings of the Security Committee of the United States Atomic Energy Commission, recorded in 1954, while reducing the number of witnesses from forty to six. He rewrote the dialogue here and there, added Oppenheimer’s monologue at the end, and polished some of the courtroom skirmishes to make them more theatrically effective. His most substantial departure from the documentary record—and it is admittedly a significant distortion—occurs in his presentation of Oppenheimer’s views, fully justifying the scientist’s rebuke.
(The entire section is 2050 words.)