Hannah and Martin

TimeLine Theatre Company

I will never be able to possess you, but you will henceforth belong in my life, and my life will grow with yours.

We never really know what we can become for others through our being.

–Martin Heidegger, from a letter to Hannah Arendt

In a postshow Q & A, first-time playwright Kate Fodor said the principal challenge of writing for the stage was the need to be “representational.” By this she referred to Hannah Arendt’s model of political science, which held the unfettered airing of every perspective to be the only reliable safeguard against totalitarianism. Just as liberal democracy relies upon this check against the right, left, and middle, engaging drama requires a realistic, subjective characterization for every role, even those that seem mouthpieces for damnable sentiments.

It’s a sound approach with a rich pedigree. Shakespeare’s ability to sink into each and every character, no matter how incidental, is key to both his poetics and to his importance as a thinker and social critic–the latent dialectics in his work function because every dog has its day, letting the logic work itself out. Shaw’s humanization of every angle underlies his sarcastic charm. And Aldous Huxley’s modernist masterpiece Point Counter Point triumphs thanks to his successful articulation of the 20 or so isms racking early-20th-century history.

Fodor’s tack is well suited to her Hannah and Martin, which is both abortive romance and cerebral investigation. And the way its method and subject matter indirectly rebuke the nazification of post-9/11 America hasn’t been lost on director Jeremy B. Cohen, who alludes to the looming allegory in his program note. Since the play concerns the tragedy of a mighty idealism that destroys itself via cocksure implementation in the real world, its implicit accusation and apology gain resonance from a multiplicity of fully realized voices. There are no monsters in Fodor’s or Arendt’s universes, only struggling, deluded spirits who think they can save the world by destroying it. A poignant commentary on Heidegger and our president alike–the banality of evil indeed.

The play is based on fact: In the 1920s Martin Heidegger, perhaps the most important thinker of the 20th century, and Hannah Arendt, who would become famous for her coverage of the Nuremberg and Eichmann trials, met as professor and student. An intense affair ensued, which ended with Heidegger sending Arendt off to study with a colleague, Karl Jaspers. As Hitler rose to power, Heidegger, influenced by his wife and possessed by romantic notions of a German “revival,” lent his mind to the National Socialists, legitimizing their ideology by aligning it with his. Meanwhile Hannah, a Jew, fled the creeping police state, landing in New York in 1941 after an eight-year layover in a French labor camp. When she returned to Germany after the war, her disgraced Svengali prevailed upon her to rehabilitate his name.

Hannah and Martin, drawn largely from letters between the two, exists in a historical void: the moment when Arendt decided to begin a public defense of her former lover. Scenes in which Hannah’s horrified young protege demands an explanation bookend the show and repeat several times; Hannah sketches an abbreviated account of her involvement with Martin in flashbacks, beginning with their meeting in 1924 and ending with their postwar reunion. In many ways Hannah and Martin isn’t a play at all but a “representational” peek inside Arendt’s hypothetical mind.

Arendt had ample reason to hate Heidegger. Like his rabidly pro-Hitler wife, he made anti-Semitic, proto-McCarthyite accusations against Arendt’s first husband, a student who, like her, had sought out Heidegger as a rising academic star. Jaspers, the friend Heidegger handed Arendt off to, was excommunicated by Freiburg University under Heidegger’s watch as rector in the high days of the Reich because his wife was a Jew. Heidegger never raised his voice against the rising tide of racism, even in support of his Jewish mentor Edmund Husserl; instead he became an enthusiastic tool for the Nazis. (Heidegger was very likely as powerless as he’d later claim. But it’s one thing to be silent, fearing reprisal; it’s another to declare, as in Heidegger’s infamous address to the Freiburg student body, “The Fuhrer himself is the future of Germany and its law.”) In general, Heidegger’s absolutist philosophy helped destroy the Germany Arendt loved. Later he used her to reclaim his place in history, and her complicity in the process echoed her submissive relationship to him as lover and acolyte, disturbing given her otherwise defiant worldview and international stature as an ethicist.

But Fodor’s script also hints at the voices compelling Hannah toward forgiveness. In fact the playwright casts her as a courageous figure willing to follow her own principles even to their peril and her own disgrace. Whether she lost her innocence to Martin or not, he was undeniably her key intellectual influence. If the corruption of his philosophy proved a tragedy for the world, it also doomed the fiercely brilliant young man who first inspired her and dealt an awful blow to the discourse he’d helped generate. And they had been lovers: the letters explode with rapturous abstractions, dazzling expressions of a smoldering, hyperconceptual ardor. At least in the flower of their romance, Arendt made a bizarre sensualist of Heidegger, something gorgeous to behold in a mind so large.

Fittingly, Fodor makes a largely intellectual case for Arendt’s loyalty to Heidegger: she had a philosophical debt to him. Deeply influenced by Nietzsche, Heidegger (among others) sounded a cry oft heard in the 20s and 30s to clear away the outdated convention and confused thinking that divided Western culture against itself. Only thus, the theory went, could a new beginning, linked to the heroic pre-Christian past, be made. How such a philosophy could slide into support of censorship seems as obvious as, say, the unconstitutionality of the Patriot Act. But it’s important to remember the soundness of its underlying mechanism: Heidegger’s radical anxiety, which sought to make truth manifest by cutting away everything inessential to a thought, belief, or political stance. His ideology eventually led him to a very bad place, but the methodology itself was brilliant, leaving its mark on students as various as Marxist Herbert Marcuse, existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre, and Arendt herself.

Bringing the paradoxical relationship(s) between Arendt and Heidegger across onstage and down to a human level is no mean feat, but Fodor accomplishes it with deceptive ease, framing their evolving, interconnected perspectives as an elegant series of philosophical problems. Hannah first comes to Martin’s attention thanks to an essay on Saint Augustine, in which she’s ferreted out the contradiction between love of man and love of God. Pressed to sum up the problem, she responds, “You can’t both have rid yourself of any investment in what happens on earth and be devoted to your man. You can’t love your neighbor and yet love nothing but God.” The scene both demonstrates the intellectual seduction going on and hints at the philosophical divide already separating them.

In another bit of pillow talk, Hannah and Martin discuss his notion that we are most ourselves at the moment of death: “You are all of your possibilities, but you can’t yet know them and so you can’t yet know yourself. It isn’t until your death that it’s clear what you have been. So, you see: At the moment of dying, you are–completely–you.” Only later, as an exile, does Hannah come up with a response: “It is true that there is a defining event in each man’s life that makes him unique, that makes him free. But it isn’t his end, it’s his beginning….Each individual possesses at the moment of his birth infinite potential and uniqueness, the ability to introduce something into the world….There is no greatness in a herd, but nor is there greatness alone in a room….We keep the world alive each time we act or speak with purpose and originality.” The basic humanism differentiating Hannah from Martin couldn’t be more clear, nor the dangerous nihilism underpinning Heidegger’s phenomenology–and Fodor’s argument is all the more persuasive for being articulated in his terms.

In their final scene, Hannah and Martin are reduced to bitter sparring as they debate Martin’s party past. Martin, champion of “right” ideas to the exclusion of the “wrong,” ironically ends up invoking Hannah’s ideology of universal tolerance and freedom of expression as an argument that his voice, effectively banished from discourse, be heard. Meanwhile Hannah struggles to reconcile her harsh judgment of war criminals with a more sympathetic view of Martin’s excesses. Having held figures like Eichmann more accountable because they weren’t monsters makes her support of Martin for the same reason blatantly contradictory. But Hannah’s worldview ultimately emerges the victor–mostly because it can accommodate what Martin’s doesn’t: other opinions. His system, in fact, comes off as akin to young Adolf’s famous sketches of cityscapes: meticulously constructed, remarkably complex, and entirely devoid of people.

And yet without Martin there could be no Hannah. The core of Fodor’s treatment comes out here: Hannah knows she can’t be objective even though her developed outlook is at cross-purposes to Martin’s. Personally and professionally, she recognizes that she’s a textbook example of how even a dangerous ideology can contribute to a discourse, its usefulness persisting, its failings generating rebuttal. And having recognized this, she has no choice but to raise her fallen mentor.

History has held Arendt accountable for her devotion to Heidegger. Elie Wiesel remarked after the couple’s correspondence was published, “Arendt was so arrogant that she thought she alone could decide who should be forgiven and who should not.” And Arendt’s excuses for Heidegger are definitely stomach turning in places. But for a talented writer like Wiesel to presume to understand the heart and mind of a major thinker like Arendt is a bit like failed artist Hitler passing judgment on decadent art, or draft dodger George W. Bush donning a flight suit to visit the San Diego “war front.”

Fodor grounds this heady material in realistic, sympathetic characters. Among her strengths is a gift for incidental humor, which Cohen and his cast fully exploit; there are a surprising number of laughs, none of them corny or distracting. The players speak with light German accents, and thanks to flawless execution this risk pays off, heightening the sense of place. Overall the timing and pacing are impeccable, reinforcing Fodor’s conceptual ballet.

As Martin, David Parkes is excellent; a trifle too smooth in the early sections, he plays his last scene to the hilt and in general makes the role troublingly accessible. Danica Ivancevic also shines as Heidegger’s wife; saddled with a handful of difficult cameos very different from one another, she seems a new actor in each. And as Hannah, Elizabeth Rich is divine, anchoring the evening with a winning mix of self-doubt, assertive intelligence, and existential anguish, embodying her character’s wary compassion.

In this age of empire, racked by denial of imperialism, where the right and left have consigned one another to history’s dustbin, the relevance of Hannah and Martin can’t be overstated. Once opposing forces stop listening to each other and forget that they’re talking about the same place, people, or culture in all its shades, fascism of one kind or another is inevitable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Lara Goetsch.