A great philosopher is dying. Immanuel Kant, whose seminal works on reason and judgement influenced generations, is no longer capable of either. In The Last Days of Immanuel Kant Sastre paints a picture of a frail human being, suffering the undignified, yet often humorous, effects of old age.
E. T. A. Hoffmann, one of the greats of German literature, has had an idea for a play. He fixes himself a strong drink and settles down to write a drama about the philosopher Immanuel Kant. But rather than dramatise Kant’s illustrious life, Hoffmann – and Sastre – show us this infamous philosopher at his most human, during the painful last seventeen days before his death.
The action begins at the end of January 1804. A very frail Kant is being looked after by his close friend, Professor Wasianski, and the drunken but loyal servant Lampe. Kant is getting weaker and more confused. Wasianski seeks to hire a new carer, Teresa Kaufmann, to help during Kant’s last days. Teresa is a woman with a dark past. She spent years in an insane asylum after murdering her husband, believing him to be the Devil. Nevertheless, her references are excellent and Wasianski decides to hire her. And so, Teresa joins Kant’s household. It is a household filled with shadows, in which its inhabitants live out a strange existence while tending to Kant. Teresa plays her violin. Lampe, the spectral-looking servant, drinks himself into oblivion every night. Professor Wasianski, meanwhile, occupies himself with his latest mechanical doll, Olimpia. Kant’s niece Hanna comes to visit her uncle before he slips away. She is a dancer, who moves with a strange, mechanical gait that reminds Teresa of Wasianski’s doll, Olimpia.
Kant himself is a pathetic figure on stage. He is confused, and often does not recognise those around him. At night, he is plagued by nightmares. On one undignified occasion, Kant gets up from his bed to try and write, only to be ‘helped’ by a drunken Lampe, with both of them ending up on a heap on the floor. After this incident, Lampe is dismissed,on Teresa’s instructions. But while Kant is frequently incontinent and incoherent, at times his former self shows through, as he remembers a face or says something sensible. This is not enough for poor Wasianski, though, who watches with great sorrow as his former friend and mentor declines. While Teresa tends Kant with an efficient aloofness, Wasianski longs for the happy times of the past. He grieves the fact that Kant will probably not live to see his eightieth birthday in April. At this point, Teresa not only complains about Wasianski’s excessive melodrama, but also about the playwright’s, in whose play she and the other characters find themselves. This is one of several points when characters remark and complain about the script. In fact, at one stage Hanna and a new visitor, Peter Schneider, refuse to say their lines and escape outside to the garden.
Peter visits on the premise that he is a theology student, and wishes to talk with the great philosopher before his death. He soon reveals himself to be a doctor who simply wanted to see the famous Immanuel Kant during his lifetime. Peter becomes Kant’s personal physician and strikes up a flirtatious relationship with Hanna. And so, while Kant approaches death, life is still abundant in the form of young love between Peter and Hanna. Teresa, too, has a new-found feeling in her heart. Clinical detachment has given way to tenderness as she watches the once-great philosopher become as helpless as a newborn.
Kant may be in decline, but he is nonetheless still well regarded in Königsberg. A number of dignitaries come to pay their respects. One of them, a young poet, has the decency to ask the frail man how he is. Very bad, replies Kant, very bad. In fact, with great effort Kant asks the household to celebrate his birthday early. He knows he is dying, and so a day before his death a party is held in his honour. But Kant is confused by the presence of his party guests, only becoming aware of his surroundings when each guest politely insists that he is looking better than ever. At this Kant laughs, knowing well that his end is near.
Kant does not die quietly. The night before he dies, he dreams that he is with his old companion Lampe in front of a huge dragon’s mouth. He and Lampe must pay to enter. The price, grotesquely, is to give away their hands and their eyes. Blind and bloodied, the men enter the dragon and Kant plays a game of chess with a mechanical chess player. Kant loses, and wakes up back in bed. Terrified, the old man makes sure that his hands and his eyes are still intact. For the rest of the night and the next morning he slips in and out of consciousness. Eventually, he dies. His friends and family dress his body – now represented by a life-sized doll. The mood is solemn, until Lampe bursts in. He has heard of Kant’s death, and has brought a brass band with him to honour his old master. To the annoyance and disgust of the other characters, the brass band pays its ‘respects’ cacophonously outside Kant’s house.
Hoffmann’s play, written under the influence of heavy alcohol, is finished. He puts down his drink and his pen, while the characters pay their last respects to Kant. To the music of Offenbach’s Barcarolle, Peter and Wasianski place the head on a large statue of Kant and respectfully file past. Hanna dances and Teresa plays her violin. Now, both women move like mechanical dolls.
Kant and Köningsberg
Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a professor of philosophy in Königsberg, Prussia (now known as the Russian city of Kaliningrad). Here, he taught and wrote books on philosophy, including his Critique of Pure Reason (1781) which is probably his most well-known work. Kant died on 12 February 1804, after his health took a drastic turn for the worst. Sastre’s play The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is based on an extended essay of the same title by the English author Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), written in 1827. Quincey’s work itself was based on an account of Kant’s last days written in 1804 by his friend, Ehregott Andreas Wasianski (1755-1831). During Kant’s last years, Wasianski did indeed manage his household and served as executor of his will.
E. T. A. Hoffmann
The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is a play-within-a-play, casting the German writer E. T. A. Hoffmann as the author of the piece. Hoffmann (1776-1822) never actually met Immanuel Kant, although he did attend a number of his lectures. Hoffmann wrote a short story called The Sandman (1816). In this story, a young man called Nathanael confesses to his fiancée and her brother his childhood fear of the Sandman. The Sandman figure was said to steal the eyes of children who would not sleep. Hoffmann’s tale features a sinister lawyer called Coppelius. Coppelius appears in scene 8 of Sastre’s play as the man who chops off Lampe’s and Kant’s hands and removes their eyes. In The Sandman Nathanael becomes fixated on a young woman, Olimpia, who dances in a strange mechanical manner. At the end of the story, it turns out that Olimpia, like the Olimpia in this play, is a doll.
The other mechanical figure that appears in The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is the mechanical chess player, with whom Kant plays chess in scene 8. This figure, often called the Turk, appears in Hoffmann’s tale Automata.
The Divine Comedy (Inferno) by Dante
In scene 8 Kant has a delirious hallucination that he and Lampe enter a dragon’s mouth during a carnival. Sastre notes how this House of Horrors is reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, and that in fact the dragon’s mouth displays the first three lines written above the Gate of Hell in Canto III of The Divine Comedy:
Through me you go to the grief-wracked city
Through me you go to everlasting pain
Through me you go to pass among lost souls.
The Strulbrugs, Gulliver’s Travels
In scene 5 Kant asks to be read to from Gulliver’s Travels. He wants to hear about Gulliver’s visit to the Struldbrugs, a race of immortals. The Struldbrugs can never die, but they nonetheless continue aging, so that they suffer all the terrible symptoms of old age.
The Last Days of Immanuel Kant is considered to be one of Alfonso Sastre’s most affecting ‘complex tragedies’, in which the playwright mixes humour and tragedy. In his introduction to the text, Andrés Sorel discusses the effects of this mix, as the audience is challenged to consider Kant as a man – with all his tragically humorous failings – rather than just a totemic figure of history. Sorel singles out scene 2 as being particularly affecting, in which a frail and delusional Kant struggles to get out of bed to write, not recognising his servant Lampe (Sorel 2006: 312). Andrés Sorel also notes a similarity between Sastre’s play and the work of Samuel Beckett. Just as many of Beckett’s characters call into question the very tale or drama they find themselves in, so too, in The Last Days of Immanuel Kant, characters express their doubts about Sastre’s/Hoffmann’s script (Sorel 2006: 310).
Sorel, Andrés. 2006. ‘Introducción: Los últimos días de Emmanuel Kant’. In Teatro escogido, vol. II, pp. 309-14 (in Spanish)
Sastre, Alfonso. 1989. Los últimos días de Emmanuel Kant. Madrid, El Público Teatro
Sastre, Alfonso. 1996. ‘Los últimos días de Emmanuel Kant’, CELCIT: Dramática latinoamericana, 6, http://www.celcit.org.ar/publicaciones/dla.php?cat=numero [accessed May 2011] (Online Publication)
Sastre, Alfonso. 2006. ‘Los últimos días de Emmanuel Kant’. In Teatro escogido, vol. II, pp. 315-82. Madrid, Asociación de Autores de Teatro
Entry written by Gwynneth Dowling. Last updated on 24 May 2011.