Discussion of “Strauss at Midnight” (6/29/09)

In association with Theater Oobleck’s production of Strauss at Midnight, DCA Theater hosted a panel discussion on some topics of the play. The evening centered around comments from playwright Jeff Dorchen and University of Chicago/Loyola University Professor George Anastaplo and was moderated by University of Chicago Professor Joel Rich. Several “Strauss” cast members including David Isaascson (Saul Bellow) and Troy Martin (Allan Bloom) contributed to discussion, as did other Oobleck company members and the general audience of about thirty.

Mr. Dorchen began with an overview of the play, and touched on some of his inspiration for the script. Mr. Anastaplo followed with a prepared review of the show which included personal insights on the real-life characters of Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow and Leo Strauss. Mr. Anastaplo received his doctorate as a student of Leo Strauss in The Committee on Social Thought at The University of Chicago (1964) where one of his fellow students was Allan Bloom who was also a teaching colleague of Mr. Anastaplo’s in The University’s adult education Basic Program in the Liberal Arts. Among many other topics, Mr. Anastaplo has written extensively on Leo Strauss and Allan Bloom and the topic of “Straussianism” for nearly half a century.

The lively discussion that continued for almost two hours covered many different aspects of the production including: how vulgarity contributed to or detracted from the success of the script; the historical Leo Strauss vs. Dorchen’s Strauss; the beast-like depiction of Allan Bloom; the role of Jews in the play; the inspiration for Scott Hermes’ Niccolo Machiavelli character; the perceived connections between Straussianism and the controversial policies of the Bush administration; the canon of pop culture; and more.

(from “Dorchen and Anastaplo Square Off on ‘Strauss'”)

LEO STRAUSS AND THE “NEO-CONS”

by George Anastaplo

I.

It can feel odd to see used, in fiction (such as the Jeffrey Dorchen play, Strauss at Midnight), three men one has known (mostly at the University of Chicago)—Saul Bellow, Allan Bloom, and Leo Strauss.  Such names are hardly likely to have been picked by the playwright at ramdom.  It must make some difference who these men were or what they are believed to have stood for.

I, for one, probably would not have seen this play but for these associations.  That is, I do not see many plays, nor am I much of a television watcher.  My inexperience here may be a serious limitation in me, especially for such an occasion as this.

Particularly compelling for me on this occasion was the Strauss name, especially since that name had become somewhat notorious because of supposed “Neo-Con” associations and dubious military adventures abroad, matters evidently alluded to in Internet and other accounts of this play.  We have seen what political turmoil may do to the general understanding of thinkers and their ideas, especially as life-and-death issues are dramatized when a nation goes to war, especially to a “war on terror.”  Among the matters about which we can be instructed in these circumstances is what poetic license means and how it is to be assessed.

II.

Of the three men I am particularly interested in, the fairest game for a playwright was Saul Bellow.  After all, he has had done to him in this play what he did (across decades) to one intimate acquaintance after another, including women he had been closest to.  And yet he comes off best amongst these three men, perhaps partly because one gifted artist could appreciate another.

The Bellow use of his personal experience was dramatized for me, one day, as I sat at my study window (facing on a Hyde Park street where Mr. Bellow had spent time).  I was sorry I could not hear the accounts given with his gestures, as he pointed out to his then-most-recently-acquired wife this and that house, all of which (I was sure) had been mined for various of his stories.  It was such mining that could be seen in the Ravelstein novel which has been generally recognized to have been inspired by the Bellow-Bloom friendship.

I myself have expressed in print serious reservations about what was done to Allan Bloom in Ravelstein, as in the following observations (Anastaplo, The Christian Heritage, Chapter 25, Section VI):

One can see magnified in Ravelstein almost a glorification of personal gratification.  The philosophical (especially that taught by Plato and Aristotle) is usually transformed into the self-indulgent, even as an attempt is made to moderate this by an almost instinctive deference to Judaism.  One can see in the Bellow “novel” (which is interesting in much of what it purports to disclose about Allan Bloom)—one can see there that obsession with death which influences much of contemporary “fiction.”  One can also see a self-centered individualism thoughtlessly carried to extremes.  Monumental personal gratification is presented as essential to the Allan Bloom character in Ravelstein, with very little reliable indication of what made our old schoolmate truly attractive.  Certainly, no one grounded in the thought of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle [as Leo Strauss’s students were encouraged to be grounded] could make as much of mortality as is done in this Bellow novel.  How much mortality dominates the story may be seen in what is depicted not only of its hero’s dying and death but also of its narrator’s own [then-recent] near-death experience.  Much is made in the “novel” of art and self-expression, with a peculiar emphasis upon dress and food.  This means that Allan Bloom’s genuine talents and worthwhile thoughts (which were shaped by Leo Strauss’s influence and work) are lost sight of.  Indeed, there may be seen, in the closing decades of Allan Bloom’s life, a contest for the soul of this gifted man between Leo Strauss (as remembered) and Saul Bellow (as constantly present).

I should immediately add that quite competent political scientists have been much more favorably impressed than I have been by this Bellow “novel” (as may be seen, for example, in the 2003 volume of Perspectives of Political Science).  It might also be noted that Strauss at Midnight, which has Allan Bloom on Leo Strauss’s leash, suggests that Mr. Strauss had won the contest I have referred to.

III.

Of the three men caricatured in Strauss at Midnight, I “personally” knew best Allan Bloom.  We had been graduate students together—and had taught together in the University of Chicago Great Books adult-education program.  His admirable scholarship included his quite reliable translations of Plato’s Republic and Rousseau’s Emile.

Then there came, in 1987, The Closing of the American Mind, which made him an international celebrity and thereby trapped him.  This book, for which Saul Bellow provided a remarkably influential Foreword, is not very reliable in what it suggests about various authors of note and about contemporary student movements (especially in response to American foreign policy).  But however questionable Mr. Bloom’s dogmas may have been, he simply did not deserve what was done to him either by Saul Bellow or in our play (where he is degraded into an apish dog on Leo Strauss’s leash).

If I had not been asked by Mortimer Adler to review the Closing book (for the Great Ideas Today series) I probably would never have said much, if anything, about it in print.  My review of the book led to my isolation from Allan Bloom and some of his champions, even though various of his associates indicated to me privately that they tended to agree with my assessment of Closing, but thought it imprudent to say publicly what I had said.  Even so, I was, thereafter, in large part responsible both for initiating an instructive collection of reviews of the Closing book and for finding a publisher, reviews which are mostly favorable in their assessments of the book.

IV.

Leo Strauss poses the greatest challenge among the characters depicted in our play which helps to explain why his depiction there is little more than an irresponsible caricature.  That is, it is difficult to get him right without serious study, which the typical artist may not have either the opportunity or the training to engage in.  It is not generally appreciated, for instance, how determined Mr. Strauss always was to be accurate and fair in depicting his opponents, even as he lamented the political degradations of the Twentieth Century and even as he insisted upon seeking guidance for himself and his students in the greatest thinkers of antiquity.

Anyone who knew Leo Strauss, even superficially would know that the character depicted in this play is not the man they remember.  Thus, a St. John’s College scholar, who was not drawn to Mr. Strauss intellectually, could observe, “He was absolutely the most exquisitely courteous man imaginable…” This scholar has also observed,

[O]ne point of difference [between Leo Strauss and Jacob Klein, an old friend of his], and maybe the most important, was that Mr. Strauss thought that political philosophy was fundamental.  I think that [Mr. Klein] thought that ontology, or metaphysics, was fundamental, and that the revolution in science was more telling for modernity than the political revolution.  (I never heard [Mr. Klein] express much interest in Machiavelli.)

The attempt to associate Leo Strauss with our “Neo-Con” adventurers of the past decade must seem foolish to anyone who really knew him, especially whenever attempts are made by the United States to democratize regimes all over the world.  Mr. Strauss was too great an admirer of Winston Churchill to allow himself to endorse such an indulgence.  Certainly, he was always quite grateful for what the United States had done in saving both Western Civilization and the Jewish people from some of the calamities that Nazism (as well as the Stalinists) seemed to be destined to bring about.

V.

These, then, are my capsule assessments of the uses made in our play of three men I knew.  A much more interesting question for us than that of “accuracy in depiction” is how we should understand what artists may do with the historical figures they do make use of.  This is a question that very much bears, for example, on how we understand what Shakespeare does with the personages he takes from Homer, from Plutarch, and from English history.

That is, does what Shakespeare try to “say” include what he expects his “reader” to know about the sources on which Shakespeare drew?  Critical to understanding a serious thinker may include what he chooses to ignore or even to alter in the accounts he takes from his sources.  Does not the most thoughtful artist want to be assessed in this way?

Take, for a recent example, a play about Thomas More, A Man for All Seasons.  What did that playwright want the viewer to understand who knew of the dreadful severity that Thomas More himself, when in power, was capable of (if not even eager for) in dealing with the helpless heretics of his day?  What a playwright is “really thinking of” may be more seriously contemplated when the observer takes into account what, in the historical record, “had” to be suppressed and why.

VI.

In thinking about our play, I have dealt primarily with what has been done to and with three men I knew (in varying degrees).  I have ignored what is said in the play about life-and-death and especially, it seems, about the eternal dispositions of human souls.  One is tempted to wonder how much is intended to be made of what remarkable predecessors, such as Maimonides, Dante, and Bunyan, have suggested about these matters.

It is obvious that other, much more recent, artists are drawn on as well. Our playwright, it is also obvious, is quite skilled.  One might be able, however, to assess his work if one knew, far better that I ever will, the dramas of immediate predecessors evidently drawn on (such as The Odd Couple).

The continuing correspondences between the two (or more) worlds depicted in our play are a challenge for the viewer.  This also seems to be so, from what I have seen of our play’s script, for any reader of the text.  It is again and again obvious that the playwright seems to know much of what he is doing.

VII.

Among the things he knows he is doing is the language he is using.  And it is in that uninhibited language that there emerged for me problems in addition to those related to in my ignorance of theatrical sources and models.  I must confess, that is, to an old-fashioned sensitivity about the determined unseemliness of so much of the language used in public by this play, language anticipated by the notice posted at the box office for this play: “This show is intended for mature audiences and contains offensive language, sexual content, and adult themes.”

I do not believe that it is simply my age that chances to “show” in my reaction to all this.  I recall much the same reservations when I encountered the language of some of my associates in the Air Corps more than a half-century ago.  I have, since childhood, always had the impression that such language reflects poverty (if not even a paralysis) in both thought and spirit, however inventive its uses may sometimes seem.

But even more troubling—even more significant—is the way an audience can lap up such tawdry talk, exposing itself thereby as anything but “mature” and “adult.”  Such receptivity reflects, I am afraid, a degradation in public taste and sensitivity.  Such a decline is evident also in the preference, even among sober constitutional law scholars, for the quite permissive “freedom of expression” term over the more traditional, more disciplined, “freedom of speech” term.

VIII.

The most serious problems we are likely to encounter, either as human beings or as citizens, do require disciplined thinking.  Sometimes, of course, we may seem to be the beneficiaries of truly inspired revelations.  Still, even such revelations are likely to require, over the long-run, sustained disciplined thinking in their interpretation and application.

Our artists can be critical here, at least in disciplining our sensibilities and in suggesting answers to perennial problems.  There are enduring questions with which we can use all the help available from artists and other thinkers.  These include questions, of course, about how killing one another should be regarded and about how life, death, and a possible afterlife might be dealt with in the healthiest way.

We might get from our playwrights help as well in the study of perhaps our greatest comic playwright, Aristophanes, someone else who could be both quite unseemly in his language and interested in life and death, in war and peace, and in a truly virtuous life.  I notice, in passing, that Leo Strauss is rare among modern students of political philosophy, in that he took Aristophanes as seriously as did, say, Plato.  Indeed, there is even a tradition that there was found, under the pillow on Plato’s deathbed, a copy of Aristophanes.

IX.

Partly accounting for what has happened in our political discourse (including, it seems, in our theaters) is the dubious foreign policy we have been subjected to during the past decade.  Particularly unnerving has been the rhetoric of the “War on Terror.” Someone I know, upon being scheduled to meet the President at a White House reception this week, was asked by me to convey to this ex-fellow-Hyde Parker my best wishes along with the belief that “we have been in Afghanistan long enough,” a sentiment developed by me in a June 24, 2009 Letter to the Editor where I argued:

[It is disappointing that] the Administration has signaled that it intends for us to remain in Afghanistan militarily for the next decade or so.  It should have been enough, seven years ago, to punish dramatically (as we obviously did) both the alleged perpetrators and the enabling hosts of the September Eleventh atrocities, without presuming to attempt long-term political restructuring in a “country” such as Afghanistan.  Quick, decisive punishment puts on notice everywhere both governments and gangs tempted to mount unjustified attacks on the United States.

I have already suggested that Leo Strauss (who did vote for Adlai Stevenson before he voted for Barry Goldwater) could be quite sensible in assessing the circumstances of his adopted country.  However concerned he could be about the Stalinist threat, he did put the Cold War in proper perspective when dealing personally with human beings he knew.  Thus he could in response to an adverse ruling by the United States Supreme Court in my Cold War-era Illinois bar admission case (366 U.S. 82 [1961]) —he could say in a two-sentence letter to me of June 28, 1961:

This is only to pay you my respects for your brave and just action.  If the American Bench and Bar have any sense of shame they must come on their knees and apologize to you

One must try to put ideology aside in dealing with the human things one confronts.  It helps, in attempting to do so, to be reliably aware of what has been said by the best thinkers to whom we do have access.  Thus, Mr. Strauss liked to quote what a Dutch grandmother said to her grandson, “You will be surprised, my son, to learn with how little wisdom this world of ours is governed.”

These remarks were prepared for a panel discussion, at the Storefront Theatre, Chicago, Illinois, June 29, 2009.  The discussion was prompted by the run at the theatre, in June/July, 2009, of Jeffrey Dorchen’s play, Strauss at Midnight.  The other members of this panel were Jeffrey Dorchen and Joel Rich (as moderator).  An Internet introduction to this play includes this information:

The play is called Strauss at Midnight, and the Strauss in the title is the classicist and political theorist who taught at the University of Chicago for awhile, Leo Strauss.  There are various reasons why the title character in the play is Leo Strauss, and they most have to do with neo-conservative politics.  The main real-life figures in the play are Strauss, his student Allan Bloom, and Bloom’s friend Saul Bellow.  Also appearing is Niccolo Machiavelli, and fictional characters created by Neil Simon in his play, The Odd Couple, and the character Virgil Tibbs from the 1967 film In the Heat of the Night, starring Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger…. Strauss at Midnight is about the ongoing struggle between two forces: those who condemn us to repeat history, and the rest of us.  The rest of us are represented by the world of The Odd Couple, and those who condemn us to repeat history are represented ultimately by Leo Strauss and his disciple Allan Bloom.  Saul Bellow is the artist caught between the forces of his social environment and the inevitable gravity of the artist’s moral truth.

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