Writing for Us
A CurtainUp Review
Hannah and Martin
By Elyse Sommer
The facts are that Heidegger was Arendt's lover as well as the teacher who " taught her to think " and that Arendt's rise to prominence in the United States paralelled his descent into ignominy. Their story is the stuff of real life drama that no fiction could match. Instead of the familiar older teacher-impressionable young student love affair we see the student become more powerful than her teacher and finds herself in a position to help him to regain the ability to teach and publish.
This being a play about two intellectuals, the dialogue is packed with the sort of discussions that could easily make for a too dense and talky theatrical experience, interesting mainly to graduate philosphy students. But this is never the case here. The ideas discussed are consistently interesting and accessible. Director Ron Russell's staging brilliantly by-passes even a hint of static talking heads. Melissa Friedman is an utterly compelling Hannah, both as a student in pre-World War II Germany and as a distinguished teacher and writer in her forties. David Strathaim captures the complex nuances of Heidegger's arrogance and charisma and Svengali-like seductiveness.
The play moves backward and forward in time, beginning in a Nuremberg hotel room in 1946 where Hannah has written a letter which nullifies her previous condemnation of Heidegger's Nazi involvement. Alice (Teri Lamm) the young assistant and admirer n whom she mentored through her philosophy doctorate, is so outraged by this endorsement of a man she views as a criminal that she refuses to type the letter. This prompts a replay of recent and long ago events. We learn that Hannah is in Nuremberg is to write an article for The New Yorker about the war crimes trials, her special focus to be the case of for The New Yorker, which will focus on the case of Baldur Von Schirach (Brandon Miller), the teacher who spearheaded the Hitler Youth movement. The trial also prompted her to visit her own former teacher whose falling out with the Nazis during the war has made him a pariah at home as well as abroad. That explosive confrontation between the erstwhile lovers is fully detailed towards the end.
With Nathan Heverin's scenic design suggesting just enough of the various cities and towns and situations the play encompasses. The cross-cutting between time and place is achieved with remarkable fluidity. This fluidity also applies to the actors age and role shifts. Ms. Friedman quite amazingly transforms herself right before our eyes from her more mature persona into a bubbling with eagerness, super bright eighteen-year-old student.
Both Friedman and Strathairn send sparks of chemistry to the attraction between Hannah and Martin and the playwright has couched Heidegger's seduction in witty symbolism: the teacher brings an apple to the student, but while she bites into that apple she does so to sidestep a first kiss; when things go beyond kissing, Hannah is simultaneously initiated into the pleasures of passion and smoking (a double metaphor since cigarettes not only evoke their own visions of death but of smoking concentration camp ovens).
While the play centers on the title characters, the six supporting players, several playing double roles, add immeasurably to the dramatic impact. George Morfogen, who can always be relied on to give a solid performance, is especially endearing in his main role (he also plays von Schirach's prosecutor) as Karl Jaspers to whom Heidegger sends her to finish her studies. Heidegger's failures are underscored by his unwillingness to help Jaspers when the Nazis' persecute him because he has a Jewish wife (well-portrayed by Sandra Shipley). Laura Hicks is also excellent as the Teutonic Elfride Heideggger, as is James Wallert as the Arendt's first husband, a fellow student named Gunther Stern.
The many scenes and sharp dialogue make the two-plus hours move without dull spots towards the final Wagnerian confrontation between Hannah and Martin painting a telling picture of this brilliant man's arrogance and blindness to the meaning of his pro-Hitler stance. He admits to Hannah that he was wrong to give Hitler his support but angrily refuses to aplogize to the world ("I will apologize to the world when Hitler comes back to apologize to me!"). When he puts on a scratchy recording of "Siegfried's Death" from The Ring, the audience, like Hannah, is brought face to face with the question that has been swirling around the virulently anti-Semitic Wagner's music for years: Can you -- should you -- separate the value of the work from the unacceptable facts about the man?
Given Heidegger's persistent arrogance, not to mention that of his manipulative Nazi wife, I was inclined to view Arendt's decision as another seduction and understand why her actions aversely affected her reputation. Whatever your opinion, I think you'll find that getting to know her and the other characters who were part of these historic events makes for two hours of stimulating theater.
Consumer note: If you're unfamiliar with the Arendt/Heidegger story, plan to get to the theater early enough to read the helpful program notes. These include excerpts from their correspondence, quotes from their published works and a chronology of key events in their lives.
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The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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