Emotional Fascism

The young Hannah Arendt, who would go on to become one of last century's most brilliant political theorists, was the star pupil of phenomenologist Martin Heidegger in mid-1920s Germany. When Arendt was still a teenager, they began a romantic relationship that endured, in secret, until secular Jew Arendt fled the country after the rise of Hitler. Heidegger, a reformed Catholic, stuck around and was briefly active in the Nazi Party.

Incredibly, Heidegger and Arendt's relationship was rekindled in the 1950s, and the recent publication of their correspondence has led to much speculation about how that was possible. It is now said that Arendt's writing about Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann was an attempt to clear her lover's name by proxy.

Mario Diament's new play, A Report on the Banality of Love, is a product of this sudden enthusiasm for Arendt and Heidegger. It comprises five brief encounters between the lovers, from their first meeting in 1925 to their first after the war. Arendt fans will be shocked to see Amy McKenna's portrayal of the cool-headed thinker in the early scenes: giggling, girlish, and nervous. Slutty too. Early trysts show an Arendt who cannot wait to give it away, melting in the hands of a Heidegger, who's as transparent and manipulatively lecherous as any playground child molester. In his office, he cries that their meeting has been "led by a force that transcends social morality!" while his hands fumble after Arendt's teenaged tit. It's icky and feels historically and dramatically irrelevant.

Nothing in the execution of this naughty thing suggests that these are two of the 20th Century's great minds. The addition of actual snippets of Arendt and Heidegger's correspondence to the dialogue doesn't help matters: People usually don't talk the way they write, and no one talks the way Arendt and Heidegger wrote. "You've converted me into a being totally dependent on my senses," says Arendt, bosom heaving, splayed out on a bed. "All I can think about is satisfying my physical appetites. I live like an instrument, impatient to be in the hands of its master, and I vibrate like a string each time you touch me."

The Heidegger of the first scene is equally hard to believe, at least if you intend to leave the theater with any respect for the man. But actor Colin McPhillamy eases into the role shortly thereafter and soon presents a Heidegger we can like and empathize with: so deeply involved with his own mind that he is largely cut off from the gritty truths of the outer world. He is genuinely confused about Nazism. On McPhillamy's face, you can read Heidegger's Nazi tendencies as rooted less in some savage impulse than in Heidegger's naive belief that no one could be as nasty as the Nazis were rumored to be. Nazi or not, he's quickly believable as a kindly (if grabby) old crank that you'd rather like to have tea with.

It takes McKenna longer to rev up, and audiences may have a difficult time squaring her presence onstage with the Arendt they think they know. Reading Arendt is a singular experience: Her voice is full of ice and fire, a molten moral outrage tempered by superhuman analytical powers that give her an air of almost creepy detachment. Only as McKenna's Arendt begins to understand the depths of Heidegger's betrayal does the historical and literary Arendt begin to inform McKenna's performance. As she bids adieu to Heidegger for however long Hitler's Germany may last, you can see McKenna's Arendt saying farewell as well to any ordinary kind of womanhood. She has been forced to make irrevocable judgments, and in McPhillamy's performance, you can sense his knowledge that the world Arendt now inhabits excludes him and her girlish love for him, just as his Nazi-run world must now exclude Arendt. This transformation is not quite organic — Heidegger's admiration for the Nazis never feels quite heartfelt in the face of Arendt's counterarguments, and only in the final scene do Arendt's conflicted feelings find a truly believable balance. But in a play like this, it barely matters. A Brief Report is an excellent play that's not quite as excellent as Arendt fans would wish: a blow to the head where we might hope for a knife to the guts.

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Brandon K. Thorp