17th century courtroom drama inspires hit play about Spinoza

A surprising hit of the new theater season is a play about Baruch Spinoza, a philosopher of the Enlightenment era.

The Lantern Theater Company in Center City was selling out performances before the play opened, in spite of a clunky title: “New Jerusalem, The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation: Amsterdam, July 27, 1656.”

If that sounds like a legal document, it should.

The play dramatizes the day Spinoza faced a Jewish court to defend his rationalist ideas from charges of heresy. What in real life might be deathly dull makes for good theater because, here, Spinoza is fighting for his life.

“The assertion that he makes is that, ‘I can prove my ideas about God to you, the rabbi, and to everybody here.’ Meaning the audience of the play,” said director Charles McMahon. “Everything is put in a way that is easy to follow. His life depends on it.”

Spinoza challenged the then-prevailing notion of God as a sentient being who rules over the affairs of mankind. Instead, he took a more scientific approach to theology, positing an impersonal God as a set of ironclad laws–both knowable and unknowable–by which the universe operates.

“The ideas of the Enlightenment, the relationship between man and state, relationship between the state and religion, the role of the state in human affairs–the ideas that [John] Locke articulated very, very clearly that formed the kernel of the thinking of founding fathers of United States,” said McMahon. “Locke was extremely influenced by Spinoza.”

During the run of the play, the Lantern Theater Company is hosting a weekend-long Philosophy Festival Oct. 21, 22 and 23. A panel consisting of playwright Bruce Graham, Assistant Chief District Attorney Vince Regan, and defense lawyer Jordan Barnett will discuss the courtroom drama as a narrative genre.

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