“I’D RATHER SLING HASH THAN WRITE THE SAME KIND OF PLAY TWICE”
All right. So you saw Constellation do David Ives’ witty adaptation of George Feydeau’s farce A Flea in Her Ear last October. And in April, you went to the Shakespeare to see how Ives reinvented the 1643 Pierre Corneille’s comedy The Liar. And now you’ve noticed that Theater J will be staging Ives’ The New Jerusalem, a play which recreates Baruch Spinoza’s defense of his ideas before the leaders of the Jewish community of Amsterdam in 1656. What do you think it will be like?
Try this, from the pen of Village Voice reviewer Michael Feingold: “The full-evening length and entire seriousness of David Ives’s Spinoza play, The New Jerusalem, may surprise people…(with) the depth and gravity of the debate.” Though Ives’ “puckish sense of humor supplies metaphors that nail the high abstractions firmly down to earth” the play nonetheless possesses “a strong awareness of the human cost that ideas can exact.” Feingold notes that Ives is “[s]ecure in his intellectual grasp of this material” and celebrates “the sheer brainy delight of Ives’s script.”
So is this play fundamentally a debate about ideas? In an interview with DC Theatre Scene, Ives, who New York Magazine once named one of the 100 smartest New Yorkers, argued that “all plays are about debates, and debates about fundamental values. The Liar for all its frothiness is a debate about truth and lies.” The New Jerusalem is about ideas, but this is nothing new to Ives. “I can’t think of a play I’ve written that wasn’t a play about ideas. A Flea in her Ear is a play about determinism. All farces are a plays about determinism. We see the wheels that make things go and the characters don’t, and this is as deterministic as Spinoza.”
That would be deterministic indeed. Baruch Spinoza (1632-77) was a revolutionary Jewish philosopher (“You are either a Spinozist or not a philosopher at all.” Georg Hegel once said) who believed God was an impersonal force found in nature, that all events happen because they must, and in consequence humans have no free will. His beliefs had a terrific impact on the Jewish community in Amsterdam, and not a happy one for Spinoza. He was called to account for his theories before the community’s leaders.
“Up to that point he had been an unexceptional citizen of Amsterdam and the Jewish community – it was thought he would follow the Chief Rabbi of Amsterdam, who was his mentor, to become a Jewish theologian,” Ives says. At the time, the 23-year-old Spinoza was known as a brilliant student, but his radical speculations were only rumors. If he played his cards right at the hearing, he might have been absolved. “The outcome was not foreordained. In this hearing before the board members of the synagogue, he was free to say and do whatever he wanted. They did not know what his beliefs were. They could have welcomed him back to the community and there were a number of possible outcomes.”
He apparently chose to express his views honestly. “There is no record of what was said at that time, but we have the order of excommunication.” Ives says. “It was the harshest excommunication in the records of the Sephardic Jews of Amsterdam.”
[The Order read: The chiefs of the council make known to you that having long known of evil opinions and acts of Baruch de Spinoza, they have endeavored by various means and promises to turn him from evil ways. Not being able to find any remedy, but on the contrary receiving every day more information about the abominable heresies practiced and taught by him, and about the monstrous acts committed by him, having this from many trustworthy witnesses who have deposed and borne witness on all this in the presence of said Spinoza, who has been convicted; all this having been examined in the presence of the Rabbis, the council decided, with the advice of the Rabbi, that the said Spinoza should be excommunicated and cut off from the Nation of Israel.]
There is a subtext to this hearing and excommunication: it may have not been motivated by the desires of the Jewish community at all, but rather the demands of Amsterdam Christians. Although the Dutch – almost uniquely among European nations at the time – tolerated the presence of Jews, any hint of unconventional theology of a Jewish origin could result in an expulsion of the entire community. They were “faced with a very difficult question,” Ives points out. “They had made a deal with the Dutch authorities that in order to retain their freedom to practice their religion, they would police their own community. This was a Faustian bargain that they had to fulfill.”
Seventeenth-century Dutch liberalism, Ives observes, did not extend to any act which might threaten the political order. “Despite the fact that Amsterdam was the freest place in the world in 1656 any sort of atheism or religious unorthodoxy was considered to be prelude to political unorthodoxy, so Amsterdam was hard on anyone who could present a religious unorthodoxy.”
The consequences of the excommunication were devastating: “The Jewish community lost a prized member, his family could not communicate with him, his business associates were cut off from them, he was an outcast, and his great mentor, the Chief Rabbi, lost his prize pupil.” He changed his name to Benedictus de Spinoza (Benedictus, like Baruch, means “blessed”) and became a lens-grinder. This had consequences, too. “This hearing changed Western civilization because he was turned out not only of the community but out of Amsterdam – so he was free to develop his radical philosophy.” He wrote his great books, including his seminal Ethics, during this period of exile.
From all evidence, Spinoza appeared to be – well, philosophical about the excommunication and the events leading up to it. His belief in determinism made his fate both inevitable and impersonal. “I would say from what I understand of Spinoza [he was] a man at peace with this concept [of determinism],” Ives says. “Even though the universe and everything was determined, there’s a kind of freedom in that, meaning that everything is taken care of…[he was] very much a loved and easy-going character, and undoctrinaire. Except for his writings.”
Spinoza’s dispassionate nature, Ives said, was not an impediment to the development of the play’s dramatic elements – because the play is really not about Spinoza. “For my money the main character is not Spinoza but Amsterdam and the Jewish community.” Ives says. “They’re the ones with the problem. He’s the still point of their turning world – the drama is what they’re going to do with him.”
Ives first encountered Spinoza as a student. “I read Spinoza maybe 30 years ago, when I was at Yale Drama School, because I heard he was important. I read the Ethics. I can’t say I understood everything. I heard a quote from Einstein. When he was asked whether he believed in God, he said ‘I believe in Spinoza’s God.’”
Ives grew to appreciate Spinoza as he wrote the play. “I admired him more and more as a thinker and a human being. I found him endlessly fascinating as a man and a philosopher. There is no bottom to him – his philosophy is still being debated, within the Jewish community and outside of it. Some say his philosophy is Jewish and some not. He is a Rorschach blot – a genial one – which is good for a character. Hamlet is a genial Rorschach blot as well. I had a great time writing this play.”
Like many good times, this one passed quickly. “I wrote the first draft of the play in 10 days or so,” Ives said. Many new plays go through a lengthy workshop process before they debut. This one didn’t. He showed The New Jerusalem to his wife Martha and to director Walter Bobbe, and after they endorsed the writing, to Classic Stage, a New York company which has brought out many of Ives’ works. They put this one on promptly. “I don’t workshop plays – I think it murders plays to workshop them,” Ives says. “This caution of theaters is not helping Theater – focus groups have their say, and audiences tell the playwright what they think. And this murders the play. It should be done as Shakespeare did – you write the play, you give it to the company, and they put it up.” Once his plays are staged, Ives won’t revise. “I never change a play after the day it opens. It belongs to the audience at that point, and they can like it or not like it.”
Ives has applied these same bold principals to his own professional life. Prior to entering the Yale Drama School, he was an editor of the magazine Foreign Affairs who occasionally wrote plays. “I went to Yale because I thought it was time to hunker down and write for three years,” he says. He’s been writing ever since.
“If you work in words, all avenues are open to you if you want to go down them,” says Ives, who has written children’s novels, adaptations, translations, comedies, dramas, a book for a musical and adapted a magic show for Broadway. “Whatever ideas you have need to find the correct form. You have to let the ideas guide you to the correct medium and form.”
The New Jerusalem, in previews now, officially opens June 30, and runs through Sunday, July 25 at Theater J, 1529 Sixteenth Street NW in Washington. Call the box office at 202.777.3210.