Hannah Arendt is having a moment. There’s renewed interest in this brilliant 20th century political philosopher, probably best known for her writing on the Adolf Eichmann trial in Israel, published in her 1963 book, Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Her work is relevant today because of her perspectives on totalitarianism, ideology, the nature of evil, and the plight of refugees.
Shattered Globe Theatre’s production of Kate Fodor’s Hannah and Martin, the story of Arendt’s relationship with her lover and mentor, Martin Heidigger, is the latest homage to the writer/philosopher, who taught at the University of Chicago in 1963-67. (Spertus Institute currently is displaying an exhibit, The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, based on a graphic biography by Ken Krimstein. More info below.)
Directed by Louis Contey, Hannah and Martin is a fascinating treatment of this affair between two intellectual giants. It begins with their meeting in 1924, when Arendt is an 18-year-old student and Heidigger her professor, 17 years her senior. There is an instant spark of interest, both intellectual and romantic. Hannah, played by Christina Gorman, is eager to learn from Heidigger (a superb performance by Lawrence Grimm), who is amenable to having an acolyte. He has become a legendary philosophy professor at the University of Marburg, known for his mesmerizing lectures.
One exchange early in their relationship sets the scene. “Surely you know how to think?” he asks her. “Yes, yes, I’ve learned and learned,” she replies, “but now I want to think.” And he says, “Learning is easy, you realize. It’s accumulation. Sort of like furnishing a bourgeois living room…. But thinking is something else. It’s casting off comfort and entering a dark sort of maze. I warn you now that it is lonely and frightening work.”
Hannah and Martin have what was probably a brief but passionate affair (he was married with two children) before he became involved with Nazism. Hannah moves to Heidelberg to study philosophy with Karl Jaspers (Doug McDade); he and his wife Gertrud (Daria Harper) develop a parental fondness for the talented student. In 1929, Hannah marries Gunther Stern (Steve Peebles), also a student of Heidigger’s.
After Hitler becomes chancellor in 1933, German universities are pressured to support the goals of National Socialism by eliminating Jewish scholars and “Jewish doctrine.” Heidigger becomes rector of the university of Freiburg and soon after joins the Nazi party and becomes an active supporter of Hitler’s goals. Hannah by this time has become a supporter of Zionism as well as a fighter for free speech and expression. Despite Martin’s protestation to Hannah that he only supports Nazism as a matter of expediency, she points out that he appears in public protected “by SS thugs.”
In anti-fascist post-war Germany, Heidigger has been banned from teaching and publishing. Hannah determines to support his return to academia and writes a letter in his defense. Her assistant Alice (Jazzma Pryor), who is typing the letter, argues with Hannah that her position is wrong. “He cleared that campus of its Jews as if they were rats. If you’d been there, it would have been the same for you.” And finally, “Do you or do you not believe that this man did his own small piece of irreparable harm to this country?” Hannah’s final words are, “I do.”
Director Lou Contey does a masterful job with a script that has its difficulties. His cast is capable, with Lawrence Grimm playing a complex, difficult man. Christina Gorman successfully makes the transition from nervous young student to committed intellectual. Nick Mozak’s functional set design works as office, classroom, home and courtroom. Lighting is by Simean Carpenter and costumes by Hailey Rakowiecki. Christopher Kriz’ sound design and original music also includes the necessary excerpts from Wagner.
The play mostly focuses on periods 20 years apart—1924 and 1946—and says little about Arendt’s years as an émigré from Nazism until she finally arrives in the U.S. in 1941. When she escapes from Germany in 1933, she is an exile, without papers, a stateless person. She moves first to Prague, then to Geneva and to Paris. She was held with other Jewish women in a German internment camp in the Vichy area of France. She was able to escape and found a way through Spain to Lisbon, Portugal. In May 1941, she secured passage on a Portuguese ship to New York where she begins a new life. She becomes an American citizen in 1950, writing and teaching at several universities. Her seminal works include The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), On Revolution (1963) and Eichmann in Jerusalem (1963), which was first published as a reportage series in the New Yorker. She died in 1975 in New York.
Hannah and Martin is a mesmerizing and talky production. If you enjoy listening to smart people debating ideas, then this is the play for you. But if you prefer a lighthearted plot, a diverse cast of characters and stories, then you may want to skip Hannah and Martin. Shattered Globe’s program includes a helpful timeline of events.
Kate Fodor’s play had its world premiere at Timeline Theatre in 2003 and was staged off-Broadway in 2004. Her other plays include 100 Saints You Should Know, RX, and Fifty Ways. She also is a television writer.
See Lit editor Dan Kelly’s review of The Three Escapes of Hannah Arendt, the graphic biography by Ken Krimstein. The parallel exhibit, adapted from Krimstein’s work, has been extended through August 18 at Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan Ave. The institute is open daily except for Saturday (closed for Shabbat). More info here.
Hannah and Martin by Shattered Globe Theatre continues at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont, through May 25. Tickets are $15-$39.