Rembrandt and Spinoza
A play by Garry Kennard
This play was given a public reading by The Hampstead Players at The Parish Church St. John-at-Hampstead, in March 2016.
There are two versions of this play available on this page. One is for the stage, the other for radio. They may be downloaded from the PDF files at the foot of this preface. If you intend to perform either version, it is essential you contact me via the contact page on this website.
This play is a fiction. It works around the idea of contact between the painter (and collector) Rembrandt van Rijn and the philosopher Baruch Spinoza. I say a fiction because there is no evidence whatsoever that they ever met. However, they did live around the corner from one another in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam during the 1650’s. Rembrandt, the older by 26 years, knew many of the Jews in the area and indeed, painted and etched several portraits of them. These included Menassah Ben Israel, who was Spinoza’s Rabbi and teacher. Many of the scenes in the play, however, are based on real life episodes. Someone did try to murder Spinoza; Rembrandt’s financial collapse and Spinoza’s excommunication did happen within a couple of days of each other; Leibniz did visit Spinoza (only much later than shown here). Hendricke and Titus died, and so on.
In this play Rembrandt and Spinoza have only two scenes together – in the first and in the last act. It is the journey they both make from the first to the second meeting which is the meat of the play. There is no real narrative, just a series of overlapping scenes from both their lives. I am hoping that the characters will emerge both from what is said and what is not.
Whatever drama there might be in this is in the contrast of the two men’s lives. Spinoza is almost black and white, monk like, with no relationships apart from some friends and no sexual involvements. Rembrandt lived life in full colour – red, gold and black – with several long sexual relationships, fame and riches, social stigma, financial ruin and was also well acquainted with death (of children and wives). It is an archetypal situation – as in Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, Cain and Abel, Henry II and Becket, Prince Hal and Falstaff, etc., etc.
The connection I see is not simply their physical proximity but in the very nature of their perceived (by me) attitudes to life. For both it was a matter of telling the truth. Both of them explored this (with diminishing ego) in their own spheres of activity to its utmost and, in this play, truly disturbing end. Both saw ‘god’ in everything without judgement. Spinoza’s ideas embrace the tiniest parts of nature to the grandest with equal attention. Rembrandt’s images, especially the etchings, show every aspect of life from highly dramatic religious scenes to monks fucking and dogs shitting – without judgement. Both seem to regard the whole of life as aspects of ‘god’. I have taken both of their ‘philosophies’ much further than they would have done themselves, hoping to approach and confront the serious existential dilemma that modern humans find themselves in. It ends with a diminuendo but which results in what I hope is a moving final scene.
I suppose this play is in the tradition of a philosophical conversation – perhaps like Frayn’s ‘Copenhagen’ – only with more jokes. I have used everything that came to hand to enliven the piece. Characters talk to the audience for example. It involves some extended soliloquies and philosophical discussions. I think these are lively enough to keep an audience awake but one can never tell.