Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
April 16, 2024

Kant's 300th birthday celebrated with an absurdist play presented by Goethe-Institut Washington

By TIMOTHY MCSHEA | March 14, 2024

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COURTESY OF TIMOTHY MCSHEA

After the reading, the event included a panel discussion, which involved Miller Associate Professor of Philosophy Katharina Kraus; Assistant Professor of German Jacob Haubenreich; Douglas Robertson, whose translation of the play was used for the event; and Drew Lichtenberg, an associate director and dramaturg in residence at Shakespeare Company, Washington.

Immanuel Kant, a cardinal and a British millionairess walk onto a steamship headed for America — it sounds like the start of a joke, or, a properly written absurdist play. For the sake of this article, it turns out to be the latter. 

To celebrate Kant’s 300th birthday, Goethe-Institut Washington, in collaboration with Hopkins, organized a reading of Thomas Bernhard’s Immanuel Kant on Friday, March 8 in the John Astin Theatre. 

Written by Bernhard, an Austrian mid-19th century playwright, Immanuel Kant imagines the preeminent Enlightenment philosopher (read and performed by Todd Schofield) on a steamboat traveling to America with his wife (Tonya Beckman Ross), his servant Ernst Ludwig (David Bishins) and most importantly, the philosopher’s pet parrot, Friedrich (Michael Glenn).

From what I could gather from some extraneous details contained within the script, the date of this voyage is sometime after 1937. If you’re working through the timeline in your head, thinking you’ve gone mad, don’t overexert yourself. Kant was not, in fact, alive during a time when steamboats had been invented, much less anywhere near the mid-20th century. This play, from the very first few lines, puts you in a situation which lacks historical accuracy. It is almost Bernhard’s way of saying, “Good luck making sense of this!”

In the first act, we are properly introduced to Kant, his wife, Kant, Ludwig, Kant, his beloved Friedrich (whom he refers to by his scientific name numerous times, Psittacus erithacus) and lastly, Kant. With Ludwig silent from an embarrassed subservience and Friedrich being... a bird, Kant gets the majority of lines. Ironically, most of the exposition comes from Kant’s wife, although it’s always in reference to Kant. The main point is that they’re headed for Columbia University in New York, where the philosopher has been given an honorary doctorate, and where a doctor will treat Kant’s glaucoma. 

Amid all this, Kant engages in multiple monologues, berating Ludwig with unfair accusations (even after we learn the servant’s sister has recently passed), murmuring out loud about celestial bodies and constantly checking the wind with his forefinger to ensure the steamboat is heading “north by northwest.” We also learn the importance of Friedrich, whom Kant uses as a storage device for all of his ideas and theories. Friedrich even repeats Kant’s most important maxim multiple times, “Imperative, imperative, imperative!” (minus the categorical).

In the second act, Kant is gone! Yet we’re introduced to a character just as talkative. Kant’s wife, to pass the time, has gone down to the middle deck, where she talks with a British millionairess (Emily Townley). Kant’s wife couldn’t have had more than eight lines in the whole act, as the millionairess babbles about her deceased husband, the streets of New York and her prosthetic leg.

What happens when an unstoppable Kant meets an immovable millionairess? Well, it turns out that the millionairess wins. When Kant comes down to join his wife, he is uncharacteristically silent and preoccupied with the sleeping Friedrich — undoubtedly ruminating on the existential consequences if Friedrich, “the store of all [Kant’s] knowledge,” were to die. In turn, the millionairess continues her self-absorbed monologues. When the conversation inevitably leads to Kant’s glaucoma — which seems to be getting worse — she takes the opportunity to test out a poorly timed joke, “I’d rather be a leg short than an eye short!” Silence fills the deck. 

In the final act, all of the occupants of the steamship — including a dull admiral (Clint Blakely), a solemnly amused cardinal (Brett Earnest) and a yuppie art collector (Laura Artesi) — are enjoying a Chinese lantern party. To kick off the celebrations, Kant now being beside himself with existential dread, the philosopher goes to a podium to address the crowd. Muttering to himself, all he can muster is more enthusiastic praise for his wonderful Friedrich, and the chilling line, “It is impossible to speak of Reason on the high seas.”

The rest of the party is somewhat uninteresting, the millionairess flirting with both the admiral and the cardinal, dancing and having fun. She also asks Kant to dance and, surprisingly, he does. The whole party exclaims, “Kant is dancing?” Perhaps he has gone mad. 

And indeed he has: When the party comes to a close the steamboat reaches the shore and an administrator from Columbia University comes to escort Kant, it is heavily implied they are headed to a mental facility. We are never told, but are meant to believe that this entire trip was not just about Kant’s glaucoma, but his deteriorating mental faculties. Kant is timid and deferential to the administrator and, as he is gently led offstage, he meekly asks in disbelief, “You recognize me?”

If you don’t know exactly who Kant was, this play is hands down the worst way to get to know him. There are plenty of lines that reference Kant’s philosophy, his career and influence, but Bernhard is an absurdist playwright, meaning his characters are caricatures of caricatures of caricatures of caricatures. The reality of Kant is covered, distorted, warped and shipped under the same name, all for our own “enlightenment.”

As a result, Kant’s lines consist of overly-philosophical descriptions of self-explanatory principles — “everything that is, is, and everything that is not, is not,” or, “the converse of a true thing is false” — which paints a superficial picture of the immensely important work he did when he was actually alive.

After the wonderful performance, there was a panel discussion which included Jacob Haubenreich and Katharina Kraus, both professors at Hopkins, Drew Lichtenberg, director of the reading, and Douglas Robertson, who translated the script that was read at this event along with other Bernhard plays that were published separately. 

In this panel discussion, numerous aspects of the script were pointed out. First of all, the “north by northwest” line, which Kant repeats, alludes to Hamlet’s descent to madness — specifically the line “I am but mad north-northwest.” 

As Haubenreich mentioned, the play also uses the archetype of the “ship of fools” which originated in Plato’s Republic. Even the many references to the Titanic, as well as the ominous image of an iceberg being projected on the back wall, could be working as a symbol of the madness of modern technology. Putting Kant on a steamboat juxtaposes the older ideals of philosophy with the material ignorance of modernity. 

The most important message I took away from the discussion is that Immanuel Kant is not meant to purely commemorate nor purely criticize its titular figure. As Lichtenberg said, “We’re celebrating and we’re denigrating, and that’s what’s wonderful.” 

Thus, while Kant is portrayed as superficial and weak, his madness is our own madness, and his existential dread is ours as well. No matter the three centuries that now distance us from his life, we can sympathize with this uniquely gifted philosopher — if only in his projected reaction to the madness of our own times. 


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