To Hell in a Handcart

Author’s Preface
Given both his titanic status in the temple of Western literature and the protean, complex nature of the man himself, to write a play about Nietzsche – indeed, to put words in Nietzsche’s mouth – must itself surely rate as an act of aesthetic hubris of reckless proportions –  how dare one assert one’s suitability for such a task? The short answer is sheer Nietzschean effrontery; indeed, a poetic insolence for accepted values of literary humility the like of which we would fain think Nietzsche himself might have applauded!
That said, in a certain sheepish sense (that is, with mock humility aforethought) where To Hell in a Handcart is concerned, one almost had no say in the matter. In the middle of 2013’s long hot summer, sudden encouragement by circumstance, and two or three beloved individuals who ought to have known better, conspired with one’s own healthy egotism to seat one over the unforgiving keyboard to tap out the first exchanges of a drama one had always presumed was destined to remain nothing more than a pleasant literary daydream. Of course, once begun, it was too late….
To the extent that one writes about the people and psychological types who fascinate one, I number myself in the cohorts of moderns who have loved Nietzsche. Certainly, I have not always had the courage and/or stupidity unconditionally to agree with him, but I have always been inspired and provoked by him. Indeed, like all great cultural innovators, Nietzsche preys on one’s mind, he is a plague on one’s conscience; once read, he does not leave you alone. Indeed, to pick up one of Nietzsche’s books is to be conscious of the spiritual dynamite in one’s hands. (‘I am not a man. I am dynamite’ Ecce Homo.) The question then follows: to what use will one put this spiritual explosive in one’s own life?
In this regard, artists respond to each other almost involuntarily. Moreover, if one is inspired by the life and work of one’s fellow men and women one has no choice but to absorb the spirit of their works – indeed, one opens wide one’s arms to embrace their influence. This may or may not lead to the critic Harold Bloom’s famous ’anxiety’, as each new generation of poets struggles to avoid mere idolatrous replication, and insodoing find its own voice; but the fact remains that the spirit of emulation is essential to the cultural evolution of our species. We need heroes and heroines to prove to us that heroic acts of feeling, thought and action are indeed possible and realisable.
Ironically, Nietzsche himself was distinctly suspicious of the spirit of emulation. No doubt he saw much in it that was actually an unconscious subservience masquerading as aspiration. In this context he was famously averse to the adoption of a rigid (and therefore, in his opinion, false) code of emulation in something like Kempis’s ‘Imitation of Christ’, which he contemned as an emotionally enfeebling act of conformity. However, it will not be sensibly denied that the whole actual and spiritual thrust of the artist is to inspire in the audience the very values and experience contained in, and communicated by, the work of art.
In this way – and to put it bluntly, even coarsely – a repeated study of (the phenomenon that was) Nietzsche rubs off on one; returning to his books again and again over the years, meditating on the details of his relatively short (where sanity is concerned), intensely painful and beautiful life, one cannot but be influenced – ‘infected’ is perhaps a more honest, if ambiguous, verb – by his intellectual independence, his spiritual sang-froid and his poetic gaiety and melancholy. For Nietzsche was also a great poet, a frequently overlooked fact which has predictably gained him the opprobrium of a veritable host of lesser philosophers who cannot see the advantage poetic expression sometimes holds over reasoned argument unleavened and unilluminated – indeed, unenlivened – by great imagery and lyrical expression.
But a play about Nietzsche? Certainly there are so many ways to go wrong in the endeavour, so many false steps to tread and notes to hit, perhaps prime amongst which must be the inclination clumsily to ‘speechify’ Nietzsche’s thoughts; to insert them in the mouths of various protagonists, erect some vaguely dramatic construction around them and rashly assume the result will cut it as a play.
Fortunately, however, Nietzsche himself comes to the rescue. For his life was not without dramatic incident. Indeed, at several points it was fraught with drama. His father died from a riding accident when Nietzsche was four, the fatherless son then being sent away to undergo many years’ rigorous training at the severe but enriching Pforta college. Later graduating in Philology, he became Basle University’s youngest ever professor in that subject, swiftly also becoming (as you do) an intimate of Wagner’s inner circle at the same time. When military conflict then threatened to break out between France and Germany, Nietzsche trained as a cavalryman, got invalided out by dint of his own serious riding accident, eventually serving as a medical orderly in the Franco-Prussian war of 1870/1. Thereafter, pensioned off prematurely from his professorship as a result of recurrent illness, Nietzsche travelled in France (somehow avoiding Paris!) and Italy and experienced the travails of intense solitude and, latterly, romantic involvement, falling in love in 1882 with a young woman half his age, the eventually renowned Lou Andreas Salome, with whom he is photographed on the front of this play-script.
Indeed, in the context of the above photo it is perhaps no exaggeration to suggest that one of the unsung traits of Nietzsche’s personality is his showmanship. Thankfully there exist several decent photos of Nietzsche at various stages in his life, and in group portraits of him with young friends and acquaintances Nietzsche is frequently the one posed in a more or less contrived Bohemian meditation, manifesting a vaguely ‘Young Werter-ish’ profile, looking dramatically away from the camera across to some heroic middle-distance as if to say, “I am the one who stands out here; it is I who sense a more profound calling these good fellows do not, cannot hear…’

Then there is the celebrated photograph that, as aforementioned,  adorns this cover: say what you will about it, it is clearly not the photograph of a man unused to the spotlight shone by communal good humour. On the contrary, it depicts a man revelling in the theatrical possibilities of social and psycho-sexual absurdity! It is the photograph of a showman – intellectual if not, at times, actual.
If conflict is still the essence of drama (however abstract such discord may occasionally have become in the Modernist canon – one thinks in this context of certain one-man or woman plays, indeed, the whole Beckettian genre in general), then as a playwright I have sought to verbalise Nietzsche’s thinking in dialogue only insofar as it directly affects the development of the individuals in the course of the play. In this specific regard, ‘show don’t tell’ has long been paramount amongst Modernist theatrical axioms.  Indeed, it is fine as far as it goes – nothing seems more dramatically dated to us now, for example, than a George Bernard Shaw play in which the protagonists exchange long-winded, not to say prolix speeches which seem pompously contrived solely to give vent to the playwright’s opinions rather than to reveal the nature and development of the characters themselves. That said, there is a danger in applying our favourite modernist axiom too rigidly. Indeed, we might ask where the great Shakespearian soliloquies would now be had such a ‘show, don’t tell’ principle been unconditionally asserted in his day! The vital point is that certain monologues (or ‘soliloquies’ or ‘speeches’ to give them their old-fashioned names) show the evolution of their characters’ minds precisely in the telling. To this extent, then, the telling is the showing.
Lastly, in the process of writing THHC I ought to state my constant fear of reducing Nietzsche to the status of a mere foil for yet another tedious romance. Nietzsche was, of course, infinitely more than a mere romantic. That said, his proverbially doomed love for Lou Salome did mark a pivotal point in his artistic, philosophical and spiritual career. Indeed, he was to observe afterwards in a letter ‘if I cannot turn even this muck to gold then I am lost…’. To this extent, then, it seemed to me valid to depict Nietzsche as these formidable forces confronted him and impinged both on his common humanity and his uncommon philosophical aspirations. In THHC, Nietzsche’s obsession with Salome thus becomes the fulcrum upon which he determines the veracity and depth of his own philosophical insights: if they are true and real, then they must prove so at all times, especially, where THHC is concerned, under the tumultuous stress of his relationship with Salome. Add to this fact the consideration that it is always fascinating to see how great hearts and minds react under pressure, then you have my motivation for depicting Nietzsche in this way and at this precise time in his life.
Of course, my depiction of Nietzsche is precisely that: a personal one. With a view to creating a dynamic, coherent plot for the play I have, for example, indulged in certain chronological eccentricities and historical distortions. Nietzsche’s aristocratic, young disciple Heinrich Von Holstein never actually met Lou Salome, whose lover he is in the drama; additionally, it was Paul Rée who ultimately ran off with her. However, I trust that in riding rough-shod over certain (minor) facts in my attempt to bring Nietzsche’s personality to life, the play ultimately arrives at a much greater poetic verisimilitude.
Here, it must be added that in the space of a play one can only hope to cover a small proportion of the major philosophical issues Nietzsche raises. Instead, then, of any foredoomed, compendious ambition, I have instinctively opted for an impressionistic characterization of Nietzsche that seeks to portray his mind in the act of conceiving and discussing a few of the subjects which (I consider) constitute his main areas of intellectual and spiritual concern. In the crime of confidence I have committed in daring to re-create his character in this way, I have been aided and abetted to a large extent by having visited at least some of the emotional staging posts the great thinker stopped at on his philosophical pilgrimage. Blessed and cursed with the poet’s sensibility, with all its incumbent yearnings, its exhilarating moments of vision and painful periods of blindness, I have experienced what it is like to leave one’s own country to live abroad (in my case in Italy and France), and to endure the predictable but still nonetheless overpoweringly strange solitude and loneliness of the émigré.

In such a context, to say goodbye to one’s old self is to greet one’s new self. I mark the beginning of my own evolution as a man on the day – and moment – I turned and looked at Dover’s White Cliffs receding in the distance as the channel ferry drew me towards my first long stay in Italy way back in the summer of 1984. That personal pilgrimage would not have been possible without the love and companionship of Joanna Jones (as she then was, before the later bout of insanity under whose influence she was to consent to become my wife). Such, indeed, is the power and purpose of spiritual friendship: its participants cooperate in sun and rain over the years to raise the architecture of each other’s aspirations, confronting problems as they arise, from the minutest details to the large logistical problems; from the hopeful drawing board to the happy grand design, so to speak. To Joanna, then, this play is dedicated with delight and gratitude.



Price: £7.75