“Reason is, and ought only to be, the slave of the passions.” Reason and passion were driving forces in the life of Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume. His reason got him labeled a genius, while his passion manifested as a stubbornness that had him labeled an atheist. That same passion is what connected him with the sole character in
A showcase of the power of reason in service to passion.
In classic dramatic monologue style, Burke’s Nancy is recounting events from several years earlier. The past tense nature of this type of play tends to lead to problems with tension and arc within the play. Though he cannot eliminate the problem, Black alleviates the issue by having a clear idea about when the monologue is happening, and to whom, which is hinted out, but not explicated until the end.
Where the script truly shines is in the way it progresses. The vocabulary used is substantial, and appropriate to the period. The language Nancy uses clearly communicates her intelligence and social status. That wit is backed with substance, borne from Black’s thorough knowledge of the subject. Anecdotes about Ben Franklin or Rousseau give a sense of the world outside Edinburgh, and Hume’s connection to it, and the sections inspired from reality lend the ring of truth to conversations that must be imagined. Though Nancy’s journey isn’t the most dramatic, its presentation is masterful.
The same term could be applied to Burke. She doesn’t do anything exceptional as Nancy; the role doesn’t call for it. But she navigates the torrent of words that is the script like a veteran oarsman. Even her occasional stumbles are handled as a convincing part of the character. In a lesser performer’s hands the production could easily have been 20 minutes longer, and 50% less interesting. Her grace, love and pain are not extreme, but they ring of the same truth the script is made of. Black and Burke are an excellent pair.
If, as Hume argued, we can only know what we experience, I now know more about the life and love of that famous philosopher. Though looking back always divides us from the intensity of a moment, Nancy’s Philosopher is a showcase of the power of reason in service to passion.