Playwrights who’d like to dramatize philosophical principles would do well to look at Jean-Paul Sartre’s Dirty Hands and the Mary-Arrchie Theatre’s staging of it.
In a small European country called Illyria an angry young man, Hugo, has rebelled against his privileged upbringing and self-perceived wimpiness by joining the quasi-Marxist Revolutionary Party. Recognizing a thinker and not a doer, the party sets him to work on its newspaper. Hugo longs to be a man of action, however, and finally gets an assignment to assassinate a party leader who’s been displaying signs of compromise and cooperation with the party’s enemies. Hugo dutifully goes incognito, installing himself and his apolitical, innocently seductive wife, Jessica, in the heavily guarded household of his target. But the charismatic Hoerderer proves to have arguments so rational and social analysis so keen that the intellectual Hugo can’t help but hesitate. Eventually his mission is accomplished, under farcically sordid circumstances, but not until Hugo’s cherished “purity of principle” has been irrevocably muddied.
Sartre was writing in 1946, with the confusion of World War II fresh in everyone’s minds. But the ideas expounded by Hoerderer, who represents the playwright, are as valid today in a country torn by class conflict. If chaos is to be prevented–a chaos so debilitating as to leave the country open to domination by opportunistic aggressors–then social and philosophical differences must be put aside: different factions must agree to disagree. Human lives are more important than abstract principles, and the end justifies the means when the end is the preservation of peace. As Hoerderer says, “Purity is an idea for a yogi or a monk. Intellectuals and bourgeois anarchists use it as a pretext for doing nothing. Well, I have dirty hands. What did you hope? Do you think that one can govern innocently?” Hoerderer’s discourse (as well as his insight into the real source of Hugo’s discontent) stirs conviction even in the frivolous Jessica. Hugo resists the truth about himself and the ideas he’s adopted, however. “You talk too much,” a true-believer party member observes of him. “He thinks with his head!” one of Hoerderer’s bodyguards says accusingly. And a thinker cannot stop himself from thinking (one of the chief reasons for using psychopaths or imbeciles as assassins). Killing a human being is never easy, but committing a meaningless murder will drive any thinker to suicide.
All this can be found in Sartre’s 55-page essay, “Materialism and Revolution,” but plowing through that dense manifesto can’t match the experience of watching Mary-Arrchie’s wryly humorous, eminently entertaining production of this difficult and rarely performed play. Former New Criminal Jeff Bek has broken with that troupe’s slam-bang style to direct a show as intellectually satisfying as it is emotionally engaging and kinetically stimulating. Veteran actor Michael McNeal conveys patriarchal gravity and wisdom in the complicated role of Hoerderer, which contrasts nicely with the sensitive vulnerability of Christine Ashe’s Jessica. Stealing every scene in which they appear are Turk Muller and Frederick Husar as a pair of bodyguards whose combined height is just under 13 feet and combined weight just under 500 pounds. Christopher Scheithe as a Patton-like general, Dan Weissmann as an effete prince regent, India Whiteside as a big-sisterly party member, and Richard Cotovsky as a robot-brained saboteur provide able support. At the center is the naive Hugo, played by Armando Gutierrez with an adolescent intensity that’s perfect. Bill Cusack has designed a multiple-screen set that expands and contracts with Hugo’s universe, and Stacy Ellen Rich’s costumes reflect the conflict between the clarity of Hoerderer’s world and the confusion of Hugo and Jessica’s.
A three-hour play may seem daunting, but Mary-Arrchie’s production makes the experience far more fun than the same amount of time spent reading “Materialism and Revolution” would be. And there’s no quiz.