Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story Brought to the Stage

Edward Rubin
Print Friendly

“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), left.

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), above, right

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 ran 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, covers the years 1924 when the brilliant, and wide-eyed, 18-year-old Hannah Arendt – some forty years before she coined the eponymous term ‘banality of evil’ which brought her world-wide fame – first meets her teacher,  the 35-year-old, the philosopher Martin Heidegger, soon to be lionized for his book Being and Time (1927), and ends in 1964 in a dramatic confrontation between both parties.

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, Zionism, and witness a few passionate kisses between them. Also, gracing 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, 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 views. The subject being debated, Is Immanuel Kant still relevant in 1929?

Left: “Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story” by Douglas Lackey. Directed by Alexander Harrington, presented by Theater for the New City. L-R: Alyssa Simon, Joris Stuyck. Photo by Rina Kopalla.

During the play’s 110 heady minutes we are made privy to the thoughts, ideas, and actions of these two major twentieth century thinkers whose very names in this day and age of intellectual forgetfulness are better known then 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 newbie’s with an intellectual bent.

The playwright wisely starts his 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.

Right: Alyssa Simon, Joris Stuyck. Photo: Jonathan Slaff

In this Act One, Scene One, we find ourselves in Germany at the Freiburg Hotel dining room with Hannah (Alyssa Simon), now 46 and married to her second husband, and the 63-year-old and Martin (Joris Stuyck) also married with two sons. It is their first post World War II meeting and Arendt, as she tells Heidegger who had been blocked from teaching by the French Military authorities for his association with the Nazi Party, and only just allowed to resume teaching at the Freiburg University, that she is intent on understanding why he has kept silent all these years about his support of the Nazi regime.

Left: “Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story”. Joris Stuyck, Alyssa Simon. Photo by Jonathan Slaff.

“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 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.

Right:”Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story”. Stan Buturla (l), Joris Stuyck (r). Photo by Rina Kopalla. 

At this point in time, Arendt had already written her first major book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951). 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 (1963) 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. She sided with the latter and used this same defense, most-likely to herself, as well as others, when explaining her life-longfriendship 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), along with the emergence of right-wing autocratic nationalism, like a virus gone wild, appears to be on the rise around the globe.

Breathing life into this play is the masterful melding, under the deft hand of director Alexander Harrington of the actors and the 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 design 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, is lighting genius of Joyce Liao.

Right: “Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story”. Alyssa Simon as Hannah Arendt. Photo by Rina Kopalla.

While all of the actors were simply wonderful, it was Alyssa Simon’s uncanny channeling of Hannah Arendt that kidnapped the attention of the entire audience. With a cigarette, most always in hand – Arendt was a noted chain smoker – Simon, radiated both intelligence and an overflowing love of humanity, commandeered every scene that she appeared in, just as Arendt is said to have done in real life. At times felt that I was watching Hannah herself. And that is the kind acting, rare as it is, that brings me back to the theater.


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’s, and a brilliant thinker himself.

Also, extremely helpful were playwright philosopher Douglas Lackey’s notes on, 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 on http://arendt-heidegger.com/playwright.htm#notes

By Edward Rubin, Contributing Editor

Performance ended: October 14, 2018

Leave a Reply

This blog is kept spam free by WP-SpamFree.