“Derrida | Benjamin: Two Plays for the Stage”

Derrida | Benjamin: Two Plays for the Stage
 John Schad and Fred Dalmasso
Palgrave Macmillan

Reviewed by Dana Rufolo

I eagerly accepted the offer to review Derrida/Benjamin: Two Plays for the Stage assuming that this book featured a play by John Schad about Jacques Derrida, the Algerian-French
philosopher whose oeuvre helped found psycholinguistics, and a second play by Fred Dalmasso featuring German-Jewish philosopher and essayist Walter Benjamin. I anticipated learning much about these iconic twentieth-century thinkers. Also, it seemed that the book review would fit in with Plays International & Europe given that the Autumn 2019 issue included a review by Mohammad Reza Aliakbari of the drama The Angel of History which was staged in Tehran by the director Mohammad Rezaei Rad and which featured Walter Benjamin in his last hours when “he took his own life to avoid being handed over to the Gestapo on the French-Spanish border” in 1940.

But these plays do not provide insight for the non-initiate into the lives of these two great philosophers. The best potential audience for these plays, if staged, would be experts in the thought and philosophy of Jacques Derrida and Walter Benjamin, or students of these two philosophers. The plays are intellectual plays-on-words that reference published works by these authors, giving the words and sentences in them a lofty significance that annuls the mundane reality in which these men lived and thought their great thoughts. The men themselves come across as wraiths, with published statements comprising the whole of each of them; each play includes a number of footnotes referring the reader of the lines back to various published works by the authors. In fact, the character Benjamin in Fred Dalmasso’s “play” speaks virtually not a single line that is not footnoted, even banal lines such as “I must be off” or “One is delighted to be alive.” But then Schad reminds his readers that Benjamin “famously dreamt of writing a book made up of nothing but other people’s voices; that is to say, a book of nothing but quotations.”

Clearly, performances of these plays would eschew quotation marks, so I conclude that these plays represent hermeneutic texts that cleverly interpret the heart of these philosophers’ texts — championing Derrida’s preoccupation with the written word and Benjamin’s sensitivity to mechanical reproduction of all kinds: works of art, thoughts, and published works. So, in effect, the playwrights have given these men the lives they idealized – a life that gains its vitality from the written, and not the spoken, word. The plays conform to Alfred de Musset’s idea of un spectacle dans un fauteuil, plays for reading only and not – as I had anticipated – plays about two famous men as personalities along the lines of Michael Frayn’s acclaimed Copenhagen (1998), revived successfully at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre in 2018 and which features the historical figures physicists Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg meeting in Copenhagen in 1941. Or for that matter the never-produced film script The Freud Scenario written by Jean-Paul Sartre at John Huston’s request in 1958 which dramatically shows Sigmund Freud struggling towards his psychoanalytic theory to do with the sexual origins of so-called “hysteria” in women featuring Freud, his wife, Wilhelm Fliess, Josef Breuer, meals, cigars, children, telephone installations, and piles of Wilhelminian furniture.

Derrida and Benjamin are written as enigmas, their central character unknowable. The lead characters aren’t even attributed their proper names. Derrida is called Monsieur D_.  In Benjamin, Fred Dalmasso has converted Walter Benjamin into the anagram of his chosen alias – the name O E Tal, from the Latin word lateo, meaning “I am hidden”. Benjamin throws catharsis out of the dramatic landscape when he is quoted as saying that watching a murder in the theatre prepares us to watch a murder in life. In Derrida, set in Oxford University, the character Quelle impersonates a student who tells Derrida”Why don’t you kill yourself?” to which Derrida tells his companions, “I answered with a pirouette”— meaning that his body had not reached a state of nirvana or immortality. These quotes illustrate that there is no possible storyline in these plays; the characters are sidetracked constantly.

The funny thing is that the two authors constructed these plays intentionally to be tongue in cheek. Dalmasso writes that “it is striking that in each play we have a kind of documentary theatre in which the central philosophical spectre disrupts a verbatim world – a world that is imbued with real-life events and real-life politics. In each case, then, the eruption of the philosopher fractures what there is, or rather what is given as what there is” (185,186). And yet, if they hadn’t been imprisoned within the stark never-never land of their theories, both men of letters may actually have experienced the jouissance of rebirth through dramatic reinvention. One could well wish that the playwrights had shown more kindness.


Derrida/Benjamin: Two Plays for the Stage is published by Palgrave Macmillan, 2021 (Cham, Switzerland) carrying the ISBN 978-3-030- 49806-1.