Our Dueling Playwright


By Edna Nahshon

Published February 23, 2007, issue of February 23, 2007.
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This month, Theater for a New Audience, a New York City-based theater that is committed to the canon of world dramatic literature, offers a series of free staged readings of four plays concerned with the issue of Jewish otherness in western society. Three of the plays are by well-known English-language writers: Arnold Wesker (“Shylock”), A.R. Gurney Jr. (“Overtime”) and John Galsworthy (“Loyalties”). The fourth, Henry Bernstein’s “Israel,” retitled “Among Gentlemen” in a new adaptation by Michael Feingold, is not just the oldest of the lot but also the only one originally written in French. When “Israel” was staged in New York in 1909 it caused enormous Jewish anxiety. Well before it opened, Dr. Joseph Jacobs, notable literateur and at the time professor of English at the Jewish Theological Seminary, sent a public letter to producer Charles Frohman, his cousin, urging him to drop his plans to stage this “powerful but degenerate play.” The request was politely rejected. When the play opened on October 25 at New York’s Criterion Theatre, the venerable American Hebrew, the newspaper of the city’s upper-crust Jewish community denounced it in no uncertain terms. It termed the play’s title an insult to every self-respecting Jew,and its subject matter, an insult to every self-respecting American.

The play had premiered in Paris in 1908 at the Theatre Réjane, in the context of the still broiling Dreyfus affair that divided French society and was continuing to fan antisemitic sentiments. Its Jewish theme and the play’s allusions to the Dreyfus affair aroused extraordinary interest, and Bernstein became the most talked-about author in Paris, soon gaining international renown.

“Israel” told the story of Thibault de Croucy, Prince de Clar, an intensely antisemitic young aristocrat who charms crowds with his anti-Jewish rhetoric. He demands that his exclusive Parisian club oust its one Jewish member, financier Justin Guttlieb. Thibault becomes aggressive, deliberately insulting Guttlieb in public, and, with cane in hand, knocks the older man’s hat to the floor. Guttlieb refuses to respond to the insult, and Thibault challenges him to a duel. Guttlieb accepts. Meanwhile, we learn that, though he is not aware of it, Thibault is in fact the love child of Guttlieb and Thibault’s mother, Agnes, Douchess de Croucy. She pleads with Guttlieb to prevent the duel, telling him Thibault will fight to kill, but he refuses, explaining that he must fight to defend his right to exist. Thibault arrives suddenly and in superbly constructed scene manages to extract a confession from his mother in which the identity of his biological father is finally revealed. He is completely shaken by the revelation of his “mongrel” identity, and finally kills himself.

Although the play was seen as one dealing with the so-called Jewish problem, Bernstein explained otherwise in an interview in with the paper La Temps. “My play ‘Israel’ is neither an attempt to revenge nor is it an apology for the Jew,” he said. “I do not intend to place the Jewish problem on stage for a solution. It would be naïve to pretend that this immense problem can be solved in a few acts. I simply wanted to have a Jew on the stage — that’s all. A Jew is a part of life. I want to portray life. Why should I deprive myself of one of its most stimulating ingredients?”

Bernstein’s Jewish identity was essentially racial, not religious — almost an accident of birth (although at one point, he did suggest that his artistic temperament might be largely due to his Jewish ancestry). His Jewishness may not have defined him in his own eyes, yet as a gentleman he was contemptuous of anyone who would disown his origins.

“There is only one thing I have in common with antisemites: I despise, even more than they do, the Jew who apologizes for the fact that he is a Jew,” Bernstein said. “The frightful humiliations which would make a self-respecting person die of shame, but which this variety of snob accepts on a bended knee, crawling before his insulters, have always seemed to me sufficient punishment.”

Henry-Léon-Gustave-Charles Bernstein (1876-1953) could well maintain such aristocratic hauteur, for, unlike most Jews of the period, he had been born into privilege and money. His father, Marcel, a French Jew of Polish ancestry, was a wealthy financier and art connoisseur. His mother, an American, was the daughter of William Seligman, the New York banker.

Bernstein began writing professionally when he completed his education in Paris and Cambridge. He began his playwriting career at 24, when his play “Le Marche” was produced by the Theatre Antoine, a foremost art theater whose founder had introduced Paris to Ibsen and other major contemporary playwrights, and would direct “Israel” as a silent black-and-white film in 1919.

What followed was a spectacular career in the theater, with Bernstein becoming a force in the life of the city, so much so that it was noted that, for 10 years and four months — from February 1904 through June 1914 — there was not a single night on which the Paris stage did not offer at least one performance of a Bernstein play. Success was international. In 1904 his work was introduced to Broadway, and in 1907 his play “The Thief” proved a great hit in New York. It was soon followed by “Samson,” which also included a Jewish theme, and in 1909 by “Israel.” More American productions would follow, as would cinematic adaptations of his plays, most of which were plotted around a romantic triangle where love triumphed over conventions.

But those were the days of the Third Republic, and it was not all champagne and roses. Even in Bernstein’s theatrical Shangri-La world.

In 1911, his anti-war play “Après Moi” was accepted by the state-owned Comédie Française, a recognized mark of distinction. The virulently antisemitic youth group Camelots du Roi did their utmost to sabotage the production. And rock the theater they did. On February 25, a group of Camelots du Roi barricaded themselves in one of the house boxes and raised a deafening noise that forced the suspension of the performance. The police intervened, a revolver was discharged and five attackers were arrested. The performance resumed, and then suddenly, during the second act, a flock of pigeons was released over the heads of the audience, the frightened birds creating mayhem in the auditorium. Shortly after the birds were finally caught and removed, and the sentence “What is the most irreparable thing that can happen to a human being?” was delivered onstage, a tall man stood up, roaring an antisemitic diatribe. When he was forced out of the theater, his removal was accompanied with cries of “Down with the Jews!” Though the Comédie Française stood behind Bernstein, the nightly riots forced it to close the play.

The feud with the extreme right, which accused Bernstein of being an army deserter (a not-altogether-false allegation), culminated in a duel between the playwright and Léon Daudet, editor of the periodical Action Française, who led the frenzied anti-Bernstein campaign. The duel began with pistols, then shifted to swords. Bernstein and Daudet fought ferociously. It finally ended when Daudet received a serious wound on his right wrist. Defying gentlemanly custom, the two left the ground without shaking hands.

This was neither Bernstein’s first nor last duel. In fact, he had quite a reputation for engaging in duels for matters of personal and professional honor, and it was reported that all in all he had engaged in some 12 of them. Though he regarded himself first and foremost as French, his Jewishness was rekindled on occasion — as in 1926, when he engaged in a heated exchange with George Bernard Shaw on the subject of antisemitism. In the 1920s, Bernstein expressed his admiration for Mussolini. But in 1936 when the dictator joined forces with Hitler’s Germany, Bernstein returned in protest the decorations Italy had bestowed on him. Bernstein remained in Paris after the war broke out, and in February 1940 presented his anti-Nazi play “Elvire,” creating passionate controversies over its tale of an Austrian refugee whose husband had been killed in a concentration camp.

A few months later, on June 17 — the very day that Marshal Pétain came to power — Bernstein had become a refugee himself. He fled Bordeaux for England, aboard a cargo ship originally designed for no more than 180 passengers and now packing in 1,300, including Baron Robert de Rothschild and other luminaries. The Vichy government stripped Bernstein of his French citizenship, and his decoration as a commander of the Legion of Honor was revoked. He spent the war years in the United States. A wealthy exile, he lived at the Waldorf Astoria, and devoted himself to working on behalf of Charles de Gaulle. He returned to France in 1946 with all his previous honors reinstated. “Evangeline,” his final play, opened in Paris in 1952, starring Danielle Darrieux in the title role. It was his 30th play on the Paris stage. He died a year later, at age 77. Though largely forgotten in this country, he is still remembered in France, where some of the country’s greatest postwar stars, among them Michele Morgan and Charles Boyer, had their greatest successes in Bernstein’s plays. And yes, his plays are still produced. His “Melo” served as basis for Alan Resnais’s 1986 award-winning film by that name, and was revived only last year in Lausanne, Switzerland. Those who will attend the February 26 reading of Israel at TFANA may be pleasantly surprised by the vitality and vigor of his work.

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