"Ludwig and Bertie” by Douglas Lackey examines the relationship of two leading twentieth century philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein and Bertrand Russell. The piece is a successor to TNC's hit production last season of "Arendt-Heidegger: A Love Story," which was also written by Lackey and directed by Harrington. That play dramatized the troubling, lifelong affair between Zionist Hannah Arendt and Nazi sympathizing philosopher Martin Heidegger.

Is it possible that an act of child abuse perpetrated by an Austrian schoolteacher in 1926 could have created the post-truth world of Donald Trump? The answer is “yes” if the teacher was Ludwig Wittgenstein, a man otherwise recognized as one of the great philosophers of the twentieth century. That is the premise of this wildly plausible new play, which charts the forty-year love/hate relationship between the philosopher Bertrand Russell (“Bertie” to his friends) and his most famous student, Wittgenstein.

"Ludwig and Bertie" traces the entwined lives and philosophies of these two avatars of modernism from their first meeting at Cambridge in 1911, when Russell was nearly 40 and Wittgenstein was 21, to Wittgenstein's death in 1951. A play on such characters might seem to be a play of philosophical ideas, but this one is rooted in a pointedly personal drama that plays out at many levels. Russell is heterosexual, hedonistic and agnostic; Wittgenstein is puritanical, gay and Jewish. Russell is an imprisoned pacifist; Wittgenstein a decorated combat soldier. Wittgenstein is intensely religious; Russell mocks religion from first to last.

Academically, they start out together as proponents of a modernism rooted in logic, mathematics and science. Wittgenstein creates a modernist book, and then designs a modernist house, each with as many sharp angles as a painting by Mondrian. But it all goes wrong in 1926, when Wittgenstein wakes up to a post-modern, post-truth world. Russell tries desperately to hold on to modernism, but Wittgenstein supplants him at Oxford, Cambridge and around the world.

We ride along as their ideas evolve, including Wittgenstein's notion that the meaning of a proposition varies with its use. Meanings, you see, are only rules--and when you get down to it, there are no rules for rules. With this logic Wittgenstein drives Russell nearly mad.

Ludwig regards Bertie as his "mental father," but their relationship has elements of rivalry. At one point, Russel declares, "Damn it, I will never catch up with him." Their clashes take many comic turns, as when Russell is unable to prove to Wittgenstein that there is no rhinoceros in the room.

(L-R) Russell, Wittgenstein (with fireplace poker), and the rhinoceros that Russell is unable to prove is not in the room. Cutout illustration by Laura Layton.

It's unsettling to think that Wittgenstein's theorems may be related to the notion of "alternative facts" that vexes us these days. But it's also possible that Russell had the last word. At the end of the play, he explains the conflict between politics and science, declaring "When politicians pass a law, the purpose is to keep the holders of power happy. When a scientist conducts an experiment, the purpose is not to make anyone happy, but to discover the truth. There is no other source of truth; the alternative to science… is fiction."


September 26 to October 13, 2019
Theater for the New City
155 First Ave (between 9th and 10th Sts.)
Thurs - Sat at 8:00 PM, Sun at 3:00 PM
$15 general admission
Box office: (212) 254-1109