Mrs. Stern Wanders The Prussian State Library
By Jenny Lyn Bader
Through Nov. 10
555 Valley Road, West Orange
By GWEN OREL
The banality of evil.
The phrase is so common, so widely used, that it has itself become a cliché, normal.
But once it was original.
The phrase was coined by Hannah Arendt (1906-1975), in her 1963 book “Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.”
She observed at his trial that Eichmann did not seem particularly evil or even like a sociopath. Instead, he was an unoriginal middle manager, motivated by unexceptional stupidity.
But while nearly everyone has encountered that phrase, the history of the woman who conceived of it is not so well known.
Jenny Lyn Bader’s play “Mrs. Stern Wanders the Prussian State Library” introduces us to a young Hannah Arendt, who is far from famous.
The play is making its world premiere at Luna Stage, and runs through Nov. 10.
It’s late spring 1933, and Hannah has been picked up by the police for suspicious activity in the library. Still in her twenties then, she seems far from the kind of criminal the young officer, who has just been promoted, normally arrests. Hitler is chancellor of Germany, but not yet dictator; the Nazis have not consolidated their power. The Holocaust has not happened yet. Jews like Hannah are losing their rights, but the society is in flux.
Over the course of the play, in the jail cell, the two connect.
It may seem unlikely, but the play is based on truth.
Bader, speaking during a break from the Hannah Arendt conference at Bard College a few weeks ago, said she got the idea from her husband Roger Berkowitz, who founded the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
Bader was looking for a topic about a famous Jewish woman for an evening of short plays. She asked him, “What’s the most dramatic thing that hasn’t been told?”
On a train to Boston, her husband described Arendt’s work on cultural reconstruction after the war, deciding where the Judaica would go.
“Just as the train was pulling in, he said, ‘There was that one time she was arrested,’” Bader said with a laugh. “I knew she was in a concentration camp. I knew she escaped. I didn’t know she had been arrested,” she continued. In a book, Arendt describes being arrested by a man with a sweet face, who had just been promoted from criminal to political police. It’s his first week on the job.
“At the time, mimeographing anti-Semitic materials and sending them to other countries was a capital crime. She was doing it, working for Zionists, though not a member of the Zionist party. She had issues with different parties but she did believe that if you are attacked as a Jew, you should defend yourself as a Jew,” Bader continued. “It was a frightening time, and every week the law changed.”
As in the play, the Zionists did send a lawyer to defend her. In an interview, Arendt admitted that she told the officer “some tall stories” and that she made friends with him.
The story of two people who share a genuine affection even though she’s in the wrong place at the wrong time is a powerful idea today, Bader said. “It’s gotten timelier and timelier as I’ve been writing it.” She first wrote the one-act, that she expanded later, in 2013.
“The play is set at a time when there were a lot of questions about assimilation and immigration. There’s a moment in the beginning where it comes out that Hannah Arendt’s family has lived in Germany for over 200 years, and then she is asked, ‘Is there anyone of German blood in your family?’”
Director Ari Laura Kreith, artistic director of Luna Stage, agrees. “I was just really struck by how resonant it was with the world of today,” she said, after a rehearsal two weeks ago. “I think the most powerful thing was the importance of this question of what happens when the law becomes slippery and when there’s this idea of activism being criminalized. And so then people aren’t allowed to speak about what’s happening in their world.”
She and Bader have worked together before, at Kreith’s Queens-based company Theatre 167. All of the cast, however, are new to Kreith.
Brett Temple, who plays the guard, Karl, finds some of the resonances in the play uncanny. “Even some of the words we use within our play, like this idea of ‘protective custody,’ and taking someone in to protect them, but also to get them to give you everything… It’s such an interesting phrase.”
Temple’s father is a retired law enforcement officer from New Jersey, and his father’s stance forms his portrayal, he said. “At the end of the day, he’s keeping the peace. In his way, he follows rules. My character also follows rules. Things are set up so things can stay in order. But when the standard for what is good and right starts to change, it’s hard to have a standard rulebook for everyone, especially in the time when this play is set.”
A law enforcement officer likes to think someone is innocent or guilty.
But Kenzler’s encounter with Hannah shows him a more nuanced view. The prisoner and the guard connect over music, “songs his parents would have sung to him as a child,” and stories.
Like Karl, Hannah changes through her encounter. “In this moment, I would imagine, she comes to some understanding that it’s not so simple as ‘bad people do bad things, good people do good things,’” she said. This idea that it’s ignorance that causes evil would be a key one that Arendt developed throughout her life.
As an actress, it’s not always easy to go to a place where she inhabits a character who’s afraid. “But it helps me, and the audience, to have a better understanding and have slight sliver of that experience,” she said.
Karl Kenzler, who plays Erich, the Zionist lawyer, said the rapid changes the society was going through are especially interesting. “It’s a bit like the frog in the boiling water,” he said. “It’s hard to suss out how far things are going and how far is too far when you’re actually going through it. And the people with great clarity, someone like Hannah, is able to see it more so than than someone like my character Erich.” Most people, Kenzler said, have a filter that keeps us from seeing the car going over the cliff. “We all think, ‘Surely, somebody is going to turn the wheel.’” And while we know where Germany will go, the characters do not: that’s important to remember, said Kenzler.
So when Erich the lawyer says, “you’re in bigger danger than you realize,” warning her that she could get a long sentence or even the death penalty for treason, that’s perfectly logical, he said. “It’s living in a state where the laws are changing rapidly, but all of these people are still human.”
And because they are human, the philosophy is coupled with humor. That’s a challenge, said Kreith. “How to let all of these things coexist.”
“It’s a balancing act,” Carr agreed. ”Balancing, the legacy of a time period and a woman along with this moment in history that we don’t know much about, yet we all feel familiar with in a very strange way.”