Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Banality of Love

Last week I went to see the play "The Banality of Love" presented by the Beit Lessin Theatre.

Playwright Savion Liebrecht's parents were Holocaust survivors who brought her to Israel as a toddler in 1950 from their native Germany. In her latest play she grapples with the relationship of the "Yekkes" with their love of German culture and their betrayal by their fellow Germans.

The play about the love affair between Hannah Arendt and her professor Martin Heidigger is a forceful dramatization of this conflict and Liebrecht exploits it brilliantly. The story begins with the adoring young Hannah entering into an illicit relationship with the charismatic philosopher to the dismay and chagrin of her Jewish fellow student and suitor. That was 1929. By 1933 Heidigger was a member of the Nazi party and as newly appointed rector of his university at Frieberg banned all Jews from campus - including his own mentor. Heidigger was tried at Nuremberg where he refused to express regret and was not allowed to return to teaching. Arendt kept in touch with Heidigger after the war and refused to condemn him. Indeed her attitude of forgiveness toward Germany as a whole was met with resentment and enmity by the Jewish world and in Israel in particular.

Liebrecht's play sets an old sick Hannah on one side of the stage and a young vibrant Hannah on the other. The part of the older Hannah is played by Leora Rivlin who is one of my favorite actresses and the young Hannah is well played by Michal Shtamler who really looks like a young Leora Rivlin. Heidigger played by Oded Kotler also moves between the past and present but the Hannah characters interact with each other across the years. The movement between present and past is done very skillfully by interweaving a fictional set of circumstances that emphasize the incongruity that leads so many Israelis to resent Arendt's position.

Many German Jews who came to Palestine (Eretz Israel) in the 30's and 40's never really gave up the German culture. Even when they did learn Hebrew and used it in their daily lives German remained their idea of culture. After the war some, even some survivors of the Holocaust were able to make the distinction between German culture and the nightmare of the Nazi era, But their children for the most part didn't make this distinction and the atmosphere in Israel in the early sixties was one of zero tolerance toward German Nazis. 

It was against this backdrop that Hannah Arendt came to Jerusalem to report about the Eichmann trial for "The New Yorker" magazine. She later published a book about the experience called " Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil ". Her idea was that evil was just a function of thoughtlessness—the tendency of ordinary people to obey orders and conform to mass opinion and not thinking critically about the results of their action or inaction. (Sort of 'it could happen to anyone'.) A Jewish woman, one who had even suffered at the hands of the Nazis, who advocated forgiving or overlooking the Nazi connection in favor of continuing German academic and cultural traditions was not a popular figure on our landscape. The play presents an Arendt who is bothered by the attitude of Israelis towards her. Arendt's attitude was couched in philosophical terms but Liebrecht's play leaves us wondering if this ardor wasn't really coming from a more emotional place.


Leora said...

Great review. Heavy stuff, anything about Hannah Arendt.

And wish there was more to read of Savion Liebrecht here.

mother in israel said...

That was an excellent review. Thank you.

Batya said...

Important issues here. I see political parallels to today.

Risa said...

Leora, I have seen other plays of hers. I am going to get her short stories to read.
Hannah, I am truly honored and flattered by your comment!
Batya, It is a heavy subject but the play puts in very human terms almost as if politics is more influenced by personal relationships (and affairs of the heart) than by ideology. I'm not really convinced but I did enjoy the play. This is definitely a play worth seeing!

Frugal Dougal said...

That was, indeed, a really powerful review; I hope the play comes over to Cambridge or gets televised.

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