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Hannah Arendt Strasse

From: Renaissance Drama
New Series 40, 2012
pp. 209-217 | 10.1353/rnd.2012.0007

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Took this photo in Berlin in May 2006. My twin sister, Ellen, and I were touring Peter Eisenman’s Holocaust memorial, which had been erected near the Brandenburg Gate the year before. As our jet-lagged feet marked the perimeter of Eisenman’s city of stela, Ellen suddenly asked me, “Isn’t that the woman that you’re working on?” I looked around, expecting to see an illustrious female colleague (Victoria Kahn? Nancy Struever? our mother?). “No—over there—the street sign,” she continued, pointing. And there hovered a signpost labeled hannah-arendt-strasse, announcing a two-block-long street that borders one edge of Eisenman’s installation. I took this photo, which I went on to feature on my desktop, business cards, and fridge door, as a way of flagging my intellectual habitation at the intersections between drama and political theory, between German and German Jewish thought and Renaissance studies, and between religion and secularization. More recently, Arendt’s writings have come to pose for me the exchanges between the oikos or household and the polis or city in Renaissance drama: by the forms of appearing that occur when the domestic world of objects and bodily care comes into contact with or takes on the character of the political world of significant speech and human action.

The publication of Paul Kottman’s A Politics of the Scene has helped put Arendt’s writings on the map of Renaissance drama studies, especially for those of us working in its more theoretical sectors.1 Kottman’s book takes up key Arendtian categories—especially action in relation to speech, publicity, freedom, and the plurality of human beings—to demonstrate their originary relevance to drama. In The Human Condition Arendt declares the link between acting and action:

The specific revelatory quality of action and speech, the implicit manifestation of the agent and speaker, is so indissolubly tied to the living flux of acting and speaking that it can be represented and “reified” only through a kind of repetition, the imitation or mimēsis, which, according to Aristotle prevails in all arts but is actually appropriate only to the drama, whose very name (from the Greek verb dran, “to act”) indicates that playacting actually is an imitation of acting.2

In both political action and acting upon the stage, the one who risks public speech discloses and even gives birth to an involuntary image of self (“the implicit manifestation of the agent and speaker”) in relation to interlocutors and witnesses endowed with the unpredictable capacity to react, respond, acknowledge, or disavow what or who appears before them. The self-disclosure that occurs when one actor speaks to another convenes what Kottman calls “a politics of the scene”: a contingent configuration of persons, speech, and bodies in a public space whose parameters and consequences neither the agents, nor their dramatic author, nor the audience can fully script in advance. Acting in the political sense flows seamlessly into acting in the dramatic sense, zoning theater as that distinctive scene of appearing, that special form of publicity, or Öffentlichkeit, established above all by the assembly of an audience in the present time of performance in response to an ensemble of human beings enacting a story with their voices and bodies. “Scene,” writes Kottman, refers to both “the location and the action that unfolds there,” moving from “a valence dominated by technical fabrication to a valence that privileges the unpredictable here-and-now interactions of human beings.”3 The simultaneous irreducibility and mutual dependence of these two scenes, as visited by Arendt and captured anew by Kottman, can help us approach the study of drama as a congeries of technical, literary, political, and philosophical concerns.4

In addition to Kottman’s comprehensive work, Arendt continues to make substantial local appearances in our field. Taking a more critical tack, Richard Halpern has analyzed the cult of dramatic action from Aristotle through Arendt, with Renaissance drama as a clearinghouse for what he calls political economy, the contamination of “the space of action with the space of production.”5 (I’ll return to this contamination later in these remarks.) In Shylock Is Shakespeare, Kenneth Gross considers...

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