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Beate Hein Bennett

A Dark Wind…
"Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story"

September 27 - October 14
Theater for the New City (Johnson Theater), 155 First Avenue (at E. 10 th Street)
Presented by Theater for the New City
Thurs – Sat @ 8 PM, Sun @ 3 PM
General Adm. $15, Seniors and students $10
TNC Box Off.: (212) 254-1109; Smarttix (212) 868-4444
www.arendt-heidegger.com; www.theaterforthenewcity.net
Reviewed by Beate Hein Bennett, September 30, 2018

Who would have thought that two philosophers could possibly be dramatic much less theatrical subjects? Author Douglas Lackey and director Alexander Harrington have managed to extract a thought provoking stimulating performance from two of the most controversial public intellects of the twentieth century: Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), a German-Jewish philosopher and social theorist and Martin Heidegger (1889-1976), one of the most renowned German philosophers to have succumbed to Nazism. The subject of their romantic entanglement, in conjunction with their political trajectories over the course of forty years, from the mid 1920s to 1964, is the dramatic core of this play in a series of 23 concisely scripted scenes.

Joris Stuyck, Alyssa Simon. Photo by Rina Kopalla.

Hannah Arendt, born into an assimilated Jewish family in Königsberg, East Prussia—the city of 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant—first encounters Martin Heidegger as a 19 year old student in his philosophy seminar at the University of Marburg. She is brilliant and challenges him as a thinker but her eroticism challenges him as a man. He is a respected professor and a married man. The mix of intellectual fireworks and erotic exhilaration erupts into a full-fledged love affair as the political storm in Germany gathers force until Hitler's election in 1933 seals the fate of all Jewish intellectuals (and any political opponents, such as communists and social democrats) first with expulsion from their positions, and ultimately with persecution, obliteration, and death.

Heidegger's retreat in Todtnauberg. Joris Stuyck, Alexandra O'Daly.

Douglas Lackey's play follows the two protagonists as they must reckon with the political reality in terms of their personal relationship, and their conflict is presented through an exhilarating poignant dialogue. Speech as action is underscored by Director Harrington's good use of the large space, designed by Lianne Arnold and Asa Lipton to suggest the variety of locales traversed by the protagonists: Heidegger's office is a desk with a couple of chairs; Hannah's room is a small writing table and a portable gramophone; the famous Philosopher's Walk in Heidelberg is a narrow ramp upstage across the full width of the stage space; Heidegger's retreat in the Black Forest (in Todtnauberg) is simply another raised platform further upstage center; upstage left and right some white birch trunks suggest exterior; a projection screen upstage center shows historic slides of Marburg, Heidelberg, and Freiburg where Heidegger taught, some in conditions before the war, some after the bombings of WWII. Arendt and Heidegger move in those locales with ease and familiarity.

To underscore Heidegger's tragic abrogation of any personal moral responsibility from failing to acknowledge the utter corruption of Nazi ideology and political behavior and his submission to the authoritarian manipulations without any resistance, Douglas Lackey highlights some significant events in the philosopher's life, mostly through scenes where Hannah Arendt raises the probing questions about his betrayals of colleagues, his inaugural speech as rector at the University of Freiburg that ends with his triple "Sieg Heil." Heidegger is mostly seen as a feckless man who avoids conflict and justifies his actions as following inescapable orders. During their last meeting in 1964 in a hotel in Freiburg, they exchange two books. Arendt gives Heidegger her book about the 1961 Eichmann trial, entitled "The Banality of Evil" for which she was attacked by fellow Jews as violating the memory of Auschwitz. Heidegger gives her an edition of his book, "Sein und Dasein" [The Being of Beings]—she opens the cover page and discovers that the original dedication to Husserl, his teacher and mentor, was missing. "Why?" Heidegger's quiet answer: "They told me to take the dedication out." A devastating exchange that gives insight into the personal collapse of a thinker under existential pressure. Douglas Lackey has distilled historical research and extracted with few but powerful words the tragedy of intellectual and personal collapse under totalitarianism. A choice quote by Hannah Arendt in bold print adorns the program's back page: "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." How apropos for the present political situation!

The actors Alyssa Simon and Joris Stuyck are a superb pair, attuned to each other, finding the nuances, and portraying in subtle ways the impact on their relationship that their external reality imposes: first the exhilarating life of the mind at a renowned university, to threatening Nazi politics and Heidegger's compromises, Arendt's experience of internment (Gurs in France) and forced emigration, geographic distance and age, post-war German reality. To give some contrast and balance to the protagonists, the author included Heidegger's wife Elfriede in a couple of scenes (set in 1933 and in 1959) that show her firm conviction of the Nazi cause to the end—Alexandra O'Daly is a good foil to Alyssa Simon in those two scenes, especially the confrontation between Hannah and Elfriede in Todtnauberg in 1959.

Stan Buturla as Ernst Cassirer. Photo by Rina Kopalla.

Stan Buturla plays an imposing Ernst Cassirer, another famous philosopher (and Jew) who manages to escape to New York—he is shown first in the famous Davos debate of Heidegger and Cassirer about Immanuel Kant and philosophy's proper inquiry into the nature of existence; according to Cassirer, Heidegger makes mythology while, to Cassirer, science must be the basis for philosophy. Later he has a short scene as Lionel Abel, one of Arendt's New York friends and colleagues. The actors must be commended for bringing to life figures that loom large in the intellectual horizon but are not exactly household names. Hannah Arendt gets ultimately no answer from Heidegger.

Joris Stuyck, Alyssa Simon.

The final image on stage is memorable: As she stands behind him with light above, she grabs his head by the forehead with a certain force, clutching his hair and his head, as if she wants to make him say something, her hand gently relaxes into a touch—no words are spoken. Dark descends.

Heidegger's retreat "Todtnauberg" in the Black Forest is the subject of Paul Celan's poem by the same title. Paul Celan, a Jewish poet, came to Heidegger on July 25, 1967 in search of an answer, like Hannah Arendt. Paul Celan, born in 1920 in Bukovina, had survived the death camps and written some of the most haunting poems about this reality—he was to commit suicide in 1970. "Todtnauberg" has some lines that resonate with Hannah Arendt's search for Heidegger's soul after the war:

"…in the hut,
In this book—
Whose name does it hold before mine—
This line written in this book
About a hope, today,
For a word by one thinking
A word
In the heart,…" [Bennett]

See other NYTW coverage of this show by Edward Rubin and Larry Litt.


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