Review of 'Hannah and Martin'

Love, philosopher Hannah Arendt once wrote, is "perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces." But she as much as anyone knew that the two tremendous forces of love and politics could complicate, even destroy (or salvage), each other. As a university student in the 1920s, she had an affair with her married professor Martin Heidegger. After the Nazis came to power, Arendt—a Jew—was arrested, interned, had to flee her native Germany; Heidegger stayed in Germany, joined the Nazi party and gave public speeches praising Hitler's philosophy. When the war had ended and Heidegger was banned from teaching, Arendt—by then a respected academician in her own right—helped resuscitate his career.

This real-life love story provides the basis for Hannah and Martin, a new drama by first-time playwright Kate Fodor that explores the fallout from a clash of love and politics. Can we forgive a loved one's politics, or is that a betrayal of values? Can we support them without forgiving? Are certain things beyond forgiveness? Are political ideas, even when they embrace Nazism, not always—as Hannah says in her mistranslated English in the play—"gray and white"?

This is the kind of play that will have audience members talking amongst themselves over their apres-theater drinks, though it's certainly not the first work to raise questions about what acts constituted complicity with the Nazis and what circumstances might make them forgivable. That it nonetheless stimulates such debate is a testament to the efficacy of the dialogue and performances. Hannah and Martin, which is produced by the Epic Theatre Center (dedicated to "socially minded" theater), is a thoughtful, polished production. The author's and director Ron Russell's ambitions—or perhaps their pretensions—do, however, get in the way of what could more streamlined storytelling. The stage is often cluttered with furniture and people, as in the opening tableau that places most cast members onstage even though Melissa Friedman, as Hannah, is speaking a monologue.

The first scenes of Hannah and Martin jump between Hannah discussing the Nuremberg trials on radio (which takes place in Germany) and her assistant challenging her decision to assist Heidegger (which takes place in the U.S.). These scenes could be excised since debate about Nuremberg defendants, which occurs during the radio show, is covered in other conversations in the play, and the disagreement between Hannah and her assistant is repeated in the second act. After its jumbled beginning, the play flashes back to Arendt and Heidegger's first private meeting, then proceeds mostly chronologically—as it should do from the start. Nothing's gained from the out-of-order sequencing; on the contrary, it necessitates Friedman changing clothes onstage, which jars with the aura of propriety surrounding these highly educated people.

Futhermore, Baldur von Schirach, Hitler's former youth organizer, and the judge and prosecutor in his trial are not needed as characters. Their scenes just elongate the play, which runs close to two and a half hours, when Hannah's conversations about von Schirach would suffice to draw analogies between his and Heidegger's culpability. And the set could be simplified by eliminating the wardrobe trunk—needed only for the aforementioned costume change—and replacing the bed with a settee: more compact, and more appropriate when the bed is used just for seating (it's used as a bed in only one brief scene).

Hannah and Martin does offer several well-staged moments of both warmth and conflict. The scenes with Karl Jaspers, Arendt's beloved professor who broke with his colleague Heidegger over Nazism, have a tenderness and nobility to stand in contrast with the asperity in Heidegger's home. Hannah's climactic proclamation in defense of Heidegger—"He taught me how to think!"—reverberates with the anguish and stubborn affection that haunt her. What the drama doesn't fully capture is the romantic ardor between Arendt and Heidegger. Their talky courtship scenes depict the attraction as largely intellectual. Yet their real-life letters, which are excerpted in the program, suggest a sexual passion that's only cursorily evoked.

The cast of Hannah and Martin is headlined by David Strathairn, one of Hollywood's most-employed second leads/ensemble players, though Hannah really is the central role. In that part, the Hilary Swank-ish Melissa Friedman comports herself somewhere between impressionable virgin and intellectual powerhouse; she's too mature as the former (Hannah in the early scenes) and too lightweight as the latter (Hannah in the second half of the play) and therefore never seems quite right for her role. Strathairn, on the other hand, does effect a profound change in Martin's appearance and personality: from confident and upstanding to visibly aged, psychologically battered and fighting for his dignity after the war. George Morfogen gives a sensitive performance as Jaspers, with excellent support also coming from Sandra Shipley as his wife, Laura Hicks as Heidegger's wife and James Waller as Hannah's first husband. All are attired in nicely detailed period clothing, designed by Margaret E. Weedon.





At Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, 55 Mercer Street; call 212-279-4200 for tickets.

Photo by Dixie Sheridan 

Related Articles

From This Author Adrienne Onofri

Before you go...