By EDWARD RUBIN
“The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the dedicated Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (i.e. the reality of experience) and the distinction between the true and the false (i.e. the standards of thought) no longer exist.” – Hannah Arendt (1906-1975)
Thinking is not merely l’engagement dans l’action [engagement in the action] for and by beings, in the sense of the actuality of the present situation. Thinking is l’engagement by and for the truth of Being. The history of Being is never past but stands ever before; it sustains and defines every condition et situation humaine – Martin Heidegger (1889-1976)
In bringing the lives of political theorist and philosophical thinker Hannah Arendt and philosopher Martin Heidegger to the stage at the Theatre for the New City – the play runs through October 14 – playwright Douglas Lackey, known for his historically grounded, highly-researched, and deeply thought out plays (Kaddish in East Jerusalem, Daylight Precision, A Garroting in Toulouse), has now tackled an historical subject more directly related to his so-called “other life,” that of a practicing professor of philosophy.
Through a series of 23 trenchantly sketched scenes in two acts, the Arendt-Heidegger play billed as a love story, starts in 1924, when the brilliant, and wide-eyed, 18-year-old Hannah Arendt first meets her teacher, the 35-year-old, philosopher Martin Heidegger, soon to be lionized for his book “Being and Time.” It ends in 1964 in a dramatic confrontation between the two, only a few years after Arendt has coined the eponymous term “banality of evil,” which has brought her worldwide fame.
In addition to Hannah (Alyssa Simon) and Martin (Joris Stuyck), who command the majority of the scenes in the play – we get to take many a walk through the Black Forest with them as they talk about their love, politics, philosophy, and Zionism. We even witness quite a few passionate kisses between them. Also, inhabiting the stage is Heidegger’s Jew-hating wife Elfride (Alexandra O’Daly), no friend of “Hannah the Jew”, and philosopher Ernst Cassirer (Stan Buturia), an adversarial colleague of Heidegger’s. Both make several effective appearances.
In one compellingly combative scene, Heidegger and Cassirer are in Davos, Switzerland participating in a heated debate of opposing views, each eager to debunk the other’s position. The subject being debated: “Is Immanuel Kant still relevant in 1929?”
During the play’s 110 heady minutes, we are made privy to the thoughts, ideas, and actions of these two major 20th-century thinkers, whose very names in this day and age of intellectual forgetfulness are better known than their writings.
To prepare the audience for what they are about to see, a note in the play’s program informs us that “the facts of the Arendt-Heidegger relationship have been progressively made known by scholars. Martin Heidegger’s relationship with the Nazis is also well-documented. We know what happened. We don’t know why. This play addresses the ‘why’ question. As in Shakespeare’s Histories, much of the dialogue and action is invented. The play goes beyond the facts. But everything in the play is consistent with the known facts.”
I see this as a niche play for an intellectual audience that is aware, at least on some level, of Hannah Arendt, if not Martin Heidegger, as well as a play for those philosophy-loving newbies with an intellectual bent.
Wisely, the playwright starts this play by prepping the audience, before reverting back to the play’s strict chronological order, with a 1952 expository scene which introduces most of the play’s topics that we will see unfold in greater detail throughout the play.
In this Act One, Scene One, we find ourselves in Germany at the Freiburg Hotel dining room with Arendt (Alyssa Simon), now 46 and happily married to her second husband, and the 63-year-old Heidegger (Joris Stuyck) also married with two sons. It is their first post-World War II meeting. Heidegger had been blocked from teaching by the French Military authorities for his association with the Nazi Party and only then allowed to resume teaching at the Freiburg University. Arendt is intent on understanding why he has kept silent all these years about his support of the Nazi regime.
“I once loved you more than all the world,” she says, “and now the world hates you. They hate your silence. How can you remain silent? Martin, they put me in a concentration camp! Me and six million other Jews. The Nazi Party did this. YOUR party did this. How can you tell me that terrible things happened to Germany and not speak out about what happened to the Jews? To me? To all the Jewish children shot in Russia, gassed in Poland.
“…I still need explanations,” Arendt continues. “When you were in charge, when you were the exalted Rector of this Freiburg school, you fired Jewish professors. Martin, you fired (Edmund Husserl 1859-1938) your own teacher! A man we both loved. You can’t blame the Americans for that.” Heidegger’s reply, one that he and thousands of others trotted out whenever interrogated, was that he had no responsibility for his actions, as he was following government orders coming from Berlin.
By this point in time, Arendt had already written her first major book in 1951, “The Origins of Totalitarianism.” Yet to come was her coverage of the 1961 Eichmann trial for the New Yorker Magazine that spawned her most famous and controversial book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil,” in which she examines the question of whether evil is radical or simply a function of thoughtlessness, a tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion without a critical evaluation of the consequences of their actions. Arendt sided with the latter and used this same defense, most-likely for herself, as well as others, when explaining her life-long friendship with Heidegger.
Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story, though small scene-wise, is huge in its character-driven, thought-provoking ideas, many of which, like racism (both genuine and opportunistic) and the attendant emergence of right-wing autocratic nationalism, appear be on the rise around the globe like a pandemic virus. It is a timely play, to say the least.
Breathing life into this production is the masterful melding, under the deft hand of director Alexander Harrington, of the actors and technical crew, the latter which played a major part in accurately presenting, both time and place. Especially spot on, are the scenic and video projection designs by Lianne Arnold and her associate Asa Lipton. Every scene had an image projected on a screen that let us know in what city, what location, the action was taking place. Setting the mood to all of this is the continually changing, scene by scene, lighting genius of Joyce Liao.
While all of the actors were simply wonderful, it was Simon’s uncanny channeling of Hannah Arendt that kidnapped the entire audience. With a cigarette, most always in hand – Arendt was a noted chain smoker – Simon radiated intelligence and an overflowing love of humanity, commandeering every scene she appeared in, just as Arendt is said to have done in real life. At times I felt that I was watching the real Arendt herself. And that is the kind acting, rare as it is, that brings me back to the theater, hoping for such a repeat, again and again.
Note: I might add, in order to more fully understand the ideas and life of these three tremendously productive and deeply intellectual writers and thinkers, I was driven to make a small study of both Arendt and Heidegger, as well as Cassirer, which included reading 2 books, numerous essays, wading through loads of online data, and having many constructive conversations with David Audon, a student and friend of Hannah Arendt and a brilliant thinker himself.
Also, extremely helpful were playwright philosopher Douglas Lackey’s notes, “Why I Write Plays,” “What Is This Play About?,” and “Is Heidegger’s ‘Being and Time’ A Nazi Book?” These invaluable notes can be found here.
Stan Buturla (Ernst Cassirer), Alexandra O’Daly (Elfride Heidegger, First Student, Second Student), Alyssa Simon (Hannah Arendt)
Scenic and Production Design: Marsh Shugart, Co-video Designer and Associate Scenic Designer: Asa Lipton, Lighting Design: Joyce Liao
Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story, opened on September 28, 2018 (Preview September 27) at Theatre For The New City, 155 1st Avenue, in New York City. It is slated to close on October 14. The show runs one hour and 30 minutes. Tickets are available by phone at 212- 254-1109 or click here.
Director: Alexander Harrington