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Being and Time – The Musical!

Grant Bartley sees the funny side of Martin Heidegger.

Who could have imagined a musical about Heidegger? This show was put on in Regent’s College, a complex in the middle of beautiful surroundings in Regent’s Park, just north of the centre of London, by its existentialist psychotherapy department. It was staged to help the charity Child Action Nepal raise funds to support an orphanage, and aim towards opening a second. Despite my initial disappointment at this not being a musical per se, for the sake of the orphans in Nepal I’ll let them off redefining ‘musical’ as ‘sketch show with music in it’.

I found it a good way to communicate ideas, illustrating Heidegger’s deep and tangled themes in Being and Time with plays and sandwich puppets for example. Heidegger’s Nazi past was suitably ridiculed, but his philosophy was explored for its own merits. We see a woman having fiancé and mother troubles and consumer issues, until she gets a phone call from herself as Death. The finality of mortality slows her down, almost to a stop. In the story, ‘Little Dasein’, the young ‘Being’ learns to be true to herself and open up to her limitless possibilities. (Dasein was Heidegger’s jargon for human being. It means ‘being there’.) A Kafkaesque play about a woman arrested for no revealed charge then explores the idea of an unaccountably but chronically guilty conscience as an interminable problem of human being/Dasein. The woman’s guilt is presumed by the policeman, and there is no hope for resolution or explanation. But, being guilty is itself a form of inauthenticity, because it is a distraction from the fact that all your experience is hastening towards the End. If you can communicate that in a short play, you’re achieving something.

Phenomenology is the study of the contents of experience. Existentialists want to know what they can know about existence from phenomenology. Authenticity is an existentialist jargon term I understand as ‘diligently living in an awareness of The Truth at every moment’. What the fundamental Truth is depends of course on the phenomenologist or existentialist at hand. Sartre’s idée fixe was human freedom, so to him, to be inauthentic is to deny your essential freedom [see here]. Heidegger’s Ultimate Truth, as I understand it, is that existence is limited by death.

I can think of lots of other things I’d rather be diligently authentic about than death. Are there any happy existentialists? The answer may indicate how useful ‘phenomenological ontology’ can be to human being. (Ontology is the consideration of the nature of being – that is, it’s trying to work out what it actually means when you say that something exists. This is a trickier question than it might sound. What does it mean? One of ontology’s aims is to understand the ultimate categories of the types of things that exist, and also to say what it typically means for those things to exist. You can’t get much deeper than that. ‘Phenomenological Ontology’ was Sartre’s definition of existentialism at the start of Being and Nothingness, incidentally.)

My impression of Heidegger from the show was that he must have been a generally depressed man. But don’t get me wrong, this was comedy with shade. For example, as dubiously related by Culinary Puppet-Master Professor Ernesto Spinelli, phenomenal sandwiches were served to him by an elf in lederhosen in the Black Forest. Among other existentialist principles, I learnt from Professor Spinelli’s re-enactment of the elf’s demonstration that if a tuna sandwich were to compare itself to a ham sandwich, or even think of itself as merely a tuna sandwich, it’s being inauthentic. That’s what I like: ‘free sandwiches’. I’ll have to make a placard.

Prof. Heidegger’s chosen subject in the opening ‘Mastermind’ sketch, is his Phenomenological Ontology in Being and Time. This is Heidegger’s own study of the nature of being through his analysis of the contents of his experience, but alas, he scores only two points, with two passes. “Being and Time is a very big book” asks the quizmaster, “How much does it weigh?” Naturally Heidegger gets this wrong, and is perturbed by this frivolous question, which detracts from serious matters of grave philosophy. Does this man have no sense of humour? You’d have to be there to make that judgement.

Later, existential psychotherapist Mike Harding did a standup routine of Heideggerian jokes: “Heidegger is dead now. This is ‘Doing the practical’.” “In his pre-school years, Heidegger wrote Being in the Play-Pen. Later he wrote the famous song He’s not heavy, he’s the Other.” “Heidegger’s very sincere chat-up line was ‘My wife doesn’t understand me...’”

People did sing songs, including a mother and daughter psycho-existentialist team. They started off separately, one on stage, one coming down the aisle, maybe symbolising the Heideggerian equivalent of eternal alienation. The evening ended with a tango version of Heidegger’s love affair with Hannah Arendt.

The show conveyed interesting ideas in a variety of entertaining ways, and for a good cause. If the project grows maybe they’ll find some way to integrate these different elements, perhaps into a full musical. This sort of popularisation of difficult ideas should definitely happen more often, whatever the form. Sketch shows could conceivably tackle anybody from Einstein through to Kant. If only these Regent’s College Psychotherapists had the time, they could grow an endless series of theatrical events. The possibilities are as limitless as imagination. More please, anybody, in whatever direction you can imagine.

© Grant Bartley 2007

Grant Bartley is Assistant Editor of Philosophy Now. Anybody who wants to learn more about the work of Child Action Nepal should go to childactionnepal.org.uk, or contact them at info@childactionnepal.org.uk. A video of the evening has just gone on sale to benefit Child Action Nepal, for £10 plus p+p.

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