“Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon?” Friedrich Nietzsche asks, following up on his oft-misunderstood claim in The Gay Science that “God is dead.” The infamous German philosopher repeats the question again in a new one-act play, “Friedrich Dies,” written and directed by David Daniel Phillips ’12, which went up this weekend at the Directors’ Studio in the ’62 Center as a part of the theater department’s Studio Series. A short musing on the notorious philosopher/theorist as he succumbs to insanity and pneumonia, the play begins to sort through the dilemmas and opportunities that his death occasions for two young women who look on in his last moments.
The half hour one-act was modest in its dramatic conceit: Nietzsche (Nicholas Neumann-Chun ’12) is bedridden after 11 years of insanity and advanced pneumonia. His nurse, Brenda (Christina Martin ’12), allows her friend, a university philosophy student, Edie (Vashti Emigh ’12), to come see the delirious philosopher in his last hours of life. Although the two women spar verbally a few times, the only real action of the play is the death of the man himself, as anticipated by the play’s title.
The play intersperses exchanges between Brenda and Edie while Nietzsche lies prostrate in his bed with scenes in which the women freeze as Nietzsche rises and delivers bits of his philosophy from his seminal works. A minimal but effective lighting design by Jake Levinson ’11 assisted in alternating between these two modes. The real-time scenes were lit in an antiseptic white wash, while Nietzsche’s philosophical interludes were bathed in a shadowy sepia. The crisp switch between the two was like a light bulb popping on and off: Now Nietzsche is functional; now he’s not.
Before the show began, Phillips explained to his audience that he had been inspired to pen the play because of the drama he sensed in Nietzsche’s Aphorism 125 in The Gay Science about a madman who reveals that “we are all” the murderers of God. Besides the clips of philosophy, the play had a few successful moments of Nietzschean livelihood: When the women briefly mention Schopenhauer, the supine Nietzsche appropriately emits a groan; a German philosopher, Schopenhaur had originally influenced Nietzsche before Nietzsche began repudiating the former’s pessimistic theories.
Martin and Emigh did what they could with their thinly written roles, but mostly they resorted to infusing false drama into their parts: Brenda accused Edie of being a voyeur and questioned why she even wanted to see a dying philosopher at all; Edie retorted that Brenda couldn’t understand her connection to Nietzsche as the embodiment of struggle against the universe. Brenda and Edie became angry with each other, but only, presumably, because the only other option was to retreat into their respective flat roles of Nietzsche’s caretaker and fawner. As Brenda explains, her life as a nurse is fairly circumscribed: After Nietzsche dies, she’ll go take care of the next patient she’s assigned. As for Edie, she becomes a Nietzsche renegade and will forever be remembered as the first person to append the out-of-context maxim, “‘God is dead’ – Nietzsche” with the additional graffiti of “‘Nietzsche is dead’ – God” on the night of his death. Other than those brief glimpses at their characters, and the fact that Nietzsche is the first person that either woman have ever seen die, the dynamic between the Brenda, Edie and Nietzsche is yet undeveloped. I waited for one or both of them to confess her love for Nietzsche, or for the other woman, or something, but was wrong to assume that the play was going to engage dramatically with the lives of the people it had placed on stage.
As for the portrayal of the title character himself, Neumann-Chun’s low, mellifluous voice filtered a spectacular haunting through the philosopher’s words. Still, the entire part called for such affected recitation that Neumann-Chun had little room actually to act. As a whole, Phillips gave Nietzsche’s philosophy too much stage-time, so that only flickers of the director’s and actors’ interpretive talents were ever able to come through. The idea of staging Nietzsche’s philosophies is rich with potential, but “Friedrich Dies” only begins to imagine itself into its own world. With further revision, I have no doubt that Phillips will be able to balance the drama of his characters with the theatricality of philosophy.