Guest Entry: Writing a Play About Thinking, by Mike Levin
Last summer, sixteen educators joined me at Bard College to participate in the sixth seminar I directed on the political theory of Hannah Arendt. So many different perspectives and responses to Arendt’s work were evident in our conversations that summer. And they resulted in a variety of projects developed from engagement with Arendt’s writing.
One of the summer scholars, Mike Levin, teaches drama at a high school in Flagstaff and gave himself the challenge of writing a play about thinking. During the last week of the seminar, Mike shared his play-in-progress with us, inviting members of the seminar to enact various roles. We were all impressed with Mike’s ability to translate “thinking” into a play and I invited Mike to write this blog entry, including an excerpt from the play, which follows below.
Kathleen B. Jones
On Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Collection website, there’s a recording of Arendt engaging in a question and answer period with the audience, following a lecture on “Power and Violence.” Early on, she takes a question and then there is a long period of silence; she is thinking about how she will respond. It is that highly charged prolonged moment that inspired me to write a play about thinking.
What could a play about thought look like? How could a theatrical experience get an audience to wonder about what the mind does? How do our thoughts float to the surface?
Last summer I attended an NEH seminar on Hannah Arendt at Bard College, and it was among the more profound experiences in my career as an educator. Every session, every conversation, every member sitting around that table contributed to what it means to be in this human condition. It has had a deep impact on both how I approach the classroom and how I want students to think artistically and academically.
In writing the play, I wanted a highly subjective transaction for the audience. Rather than the standard play we commonly associate with theatergoing, I wanted to bring to the stage a stream-of-consciousness approach, with each moment distilled to something more akin to poetry.
The following are excerpts from this work-in-progress, which I will continue to develop and, I hope, produce at my school in the coming years.
By Mike Levin
Where do we begin?
Here. Now. Another beginning.
Here. Now. A third beginning.
Natality and the journey through mortality.
Reckless optimism and reckless despair.
and the sun will rise.
In solitude there is silence.
In silence there is thoughtfulness.
In thoughtfulness there is freedom.
I adore my friends
and this humanity has never survived
the hour of liberation for so much
as a minute.
To watch the Reichstag burn and do nothing?
I have a responsibility.
Three minutes before death
I will laugh.
The beginning of beginning.
The beginning of beginning.
There are three basic mental activities:
thinking, willing, and judging.
Tonight, I wish to discuss thinking.
And Hannah sits. Thinks.
There is a dripping noise.
A huge structure is built out of chairs.
And a Rothko.
What if the Rothko stays there for too long?
With Hannah thinking as the audience goes
into the infinite?
An ironing board is placed in front of the chair structure.
With an iron, the cord hanging down
And a chair from the 1950s in front of that.
And objects get placed in formation toward the audience, into the audience.
1” x 4” blocks lined up like dominoes.
& a Rabbi.
This and that and this and this and that and this and that and you and me and here and there and forever her under there yes and no and perhaps now and this and that and that and always and now right now ad never again and perhaps not always and then and again always something never the right thing and again and again and then now and always and again and again and again and all that is ever was ever will be always at once all things going in and out and remembering and forgetting and into everything every bit of everything and here right here this moment right now nothing and all and always now. Forever and always now.
A woman from an internment camp comes out and stares at Rabbi.
As we hear, in voice over, Hannah’s thoughts:
Fear no more the heat o’ the sun
Nor the furious winter’s rages.
I wish I met you for the first time every day.
It is natural for me and myself to talk – once we discover that we can.
“Storytelling reveals meaning without committing the error of defining it.”
It thing self
This mirror nobody
Now more never
Here for example me-myself
Coming forward turn around
Dialogue all these thoughts
The Athenians told Socrates that thinking was subversive, that the wind of thought was a hurricane sweeping away all the established signs by which men orient themselves, bringing disorder into the cities and confusing the citizens.
He’s every one of us potentially.
The lonely stand in the darkness of the clouds in their hearts. I remember when I was a child. Grandfather. And our walks. While father was dying. For five years father was dying.
We’re entertaining Gray this weekend. I must plan some meals.
Thinking is always out of order.
Could the activity of thinking make men abstain from evil-doing or actually condition them against it?
That thought that hasn’t been thought.
What makes us think?
Rabbi leads the woman from the Internment off or does she lead him off?
There is silence. YOUNG HANNAH drops the puppets. She stands next to the theater. She has been overwhelmed by performance. She looks terrified. She bursts into tears. And she cries and cries.
A person wearing a large paper mask made from a shopping bag, and then another, and then another. One is left, as the other two go off hand in hand.
A soldier walking a bicycle crosses the stage. Stops. Pours a glass of milk and drinks it.
A straw-filled sleeping sack is placed downstage.
The internment camp woman comes out and stands, contemplating suicide.
You remain empty in a way after thinking.
FDR comes out, swiveling his torso while supporting himself with a cane and stands. Leaves with paper bag headed person.
Exits. The Internment Camp woman is left on her own. She dances at once, optimism, and then despair. She intermittently does chores in this play of time and space, she will not sit, she will not sit.
Scene 2: Heinrich died Saturday of a heart attack.
Largo from Piano Concerto No. 5. J. GLENN GRAY is having lunch at the Blucher’s. HEINRICH is drinking schnapps and speaking with gusto.
J. GLENN GRAY
How can I come to the end of this experience, which is unsatisfactory, with no end in sight, and yet make that very fact an end, and an end that is satisfactory as an end– fulfilling in it’s very experience of being not-fulfilling?
Whenever I develop an idea, it changes. The impulse– matures: which means everything else in the world, into which the impulse is planted by speech, corrupts it.
But this must happen.
The alternative is that nothing manifests; and to be here to discuss this obligation to manifest, and the purity of such self-manifestation– toward which we have an obligation thanks to an equally unavoidable rigor, to be launched here in that very pure way that must necessarily fall corrupted by that very self same necessarily corrupted stuff –out of which the entire world is constituted.
Suppose you didn’t believe that you really did exist.
Suppose you believed that you didn’t really exist.
Stay open to hallucinating plentitude of impulses.
Here Heinrich stiffens. He knows.
J. GLENN GRAY
Contemplate with terror and delight, own endlessly ramifying contradictions
We hear “Vorrei spiegarvi, oh Dio! (K. 418)”.
Revelation of impersonal energies experienced in the intense activity of apparently nothing.
J. GLENN GRAY
Affinity for the debased in imagery, materials, procedures
Nothing is either quite subjective or objective.
Darling, what’s the matter?
I feel ill. I’m going to go sit down.
What is it? Is it in your chest again?
It is. You must excuse me.
There is a sequence where HEINRICH, with difficulty, walks to the couch. HANNAH and J. GLENN GRAY stand, paralyzed with fear. When HEINRICH makes it to the couch, the heart attack comes. HANNAH, terrified, goes to the phone, dials.
I need an ambulance immediately. My name is Hannah Arendt Blucher. My husband. His heart. 370 Riverside Drive. Hurry. Please.
Hangs up and goes to HEINRICH, sits next to him.
Heinrich, my darling they are coming. They will be here shortly.
He takes her hand. There is silence. As she longingly looks at him, he stares out into space. Then turns to her.
This is it.