If Roman Polanski’s 2005 cinematic adaptation of “Oliver Twist” and Al Pacino’s performance as Shylock in the recent film “The Merchant of Venice” have not satisfied your cravings for Jewish malefactors, you’ll be delighted to hear that Theater for a New Audience is about to present us with a jam-packed program devoted to the upper echelon of drama’s Jewish villains: Shylock, Barabas and Fagin.
This “Jewish season,” which begins in January 2007 and will last three full months, is the brainchild of Jeffrey Horowitz, the theater’s artistic director. Even for a theater that proclaims itself as “vigorously engaged with the canon of world dramatic literature,” a season that consists of a triad of new productions of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice,” Marlowe’s “The Jew of Malta” and a dramatization of Dickens’s “Oliver Twist” is a daring and unique enterprise. Star power is provided by Oscar-winning actor F. Murray Abraham, who plays both Shylock and Barabas, with “Merchant” and “Malta” presented in rotating repertory. Alongside these major productions, the theater will offer adjacent events, including a series of staged readings of plays that address the theme of antisemitism and Jewish outsiderness: Arnold Wesker’s “Shylock,” A.R. Gurney Jr.’s “Overtime,” Henry Bernstein’s “Israel” and John Galsworthy’s “Loyalties.” Those who attended the December 6 reading and discussion at Manhattan’s 92nd Street Y, “Jews in Shakespeare and Marlowe,” where Abraham read some of his characters’ choice monologues, would confirm that the TFANA initiative is going to be a cultural phenomenon that theater lovers would not want to miss.
Perhaps the most intriguing part of the TFANA program is the decision to play “Merchant” and “Malta” back to back on alternating nights. There is an old tradition of pairing “Merchant” with another play: In Germany, it used to be counterbalanced with a production of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s “Nathan the Wise,” a philosemitic play, creating a bad Jew/good Jew sequel. But the juxtaposition of two Elizabethan Jewish villains is extremely rare and was tried only once before in recent memory — in 1965, when the Royal Shakespeare Company, then under the leadership of Peter Hall, featured actor Eric Porter as both Barabas and Shylock. Needless to say, New York City in 2007 is quite different from Stratford-upon-Avon of 40 years ago — as are current Jewish audiences and sensibilities.
What will the effect of this pairing be? From a rational point of view, one could argue that it would deflate the stereotype of the malevolent rich Jew, exposing him for what he is — a theatrical construct, a figment of gentile imagination. But embodied performances affect us not merely intellectually but also viscerally, and the possibility exists that the cumulative effect of Jewish evil will leave us somewhat disturbed by the sheer excess of it. No doubt the productions will raise old specters, remind us of questions that mostly lie conveniently dormant.
In many ways it is Barabas, the archvillain of the evil trio (he is named for the vicious criminal whose release the Jewish crowd preferred to that of Jesus), who is easiest to stomach. This is partly because “Malta” does not get produced all too often, even in England. Second, though, Barabas’s criminality is so fantastic — he orchestrates and carries out betrayals, blackmails, stabbings, strangulations, poisonings — that you can arguably relax and enjoy this fiendish “holiday from reality” as you would the adventures of an action hero.
The same cannot be said of Shylock, a seminal figure who has transcended the theatrical stage, whose name has served for generations as a common antisemitic slur and has even entered the discourse of the Arab-Israeli conflict. Shylock, deprived of honor and robbed not only by society but also by Jessica, his own daughter, has a tragic depth that does not allow us to disown him as a cartoonish figure. Yet his mixed status of both victim and villain does not alleviate the repulsion at his crazed demand for a pound of Christian flesh, which is associated no doubt with blood libels and accusations of deicide.
Shylock began his stage life shortly after Barabas. Initially he was a buffoon; later he was reincarnated as a bloodthirsty brute, and by the final quarter of the 19th century his transformation into a victim of societal discrimination began. Throughout these metamorphoses he was often the only Jew the English-language world knew. Jews always knew that Shylock was about them — their supposed wealth, separateness, hatred, vindictiveness, excessive legalism, and their ultimate conversion and destruction. Indeed, the Shylock myth was so potent that even philosemitic works maintained the contours of the character as usurer, financier or pawnbroker.
It is not surprising, then, that with their growing integration into their host societies, especially in Germany, England and the United States, Jews have been debating over and dialoguing with “Merchant.” The play proved especially problematic because the zenith of its popularity coincided with the mass Jewish migration to the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. At the time, “Merchant” was the favorite Shakespearean play, since it facilitated discourse regarding both Jews and women, both disenfranchised segments of society. The play was a standard school text, and numerous adaptations and references to its story appeared in children’s books, magazine articles and various forms of popular culture.
Since Shylock could not be avoided, Jews engaged in various strategies in countering the character and the work. In the United States, a vigorous campaign for the elimination of the play from public school curricula began in the early 1900s and finally proved successful by the time of the Second World War.
Still, the belief persisted that “Merchant” was an incitement to antisemitism and ought to be contained. In 1962, when Joseph Papp produced the play in Central Park with George C. Scott as Shylock, many of the city’s top rabbis — Reform, Conservative and Orthodox — protested publicly against the production, with Rabbi Louis I. Newman declaring in his sermon at Congregation Rodeph Sholom that “for the city to give its auspices to a play that has created injury and is hate provoking is obnoxious.” When their efforts failed, the rabbis sought to curtail the telecast of the production and pickets paraded before the offices of CBS, protesting the telecast to a mass audience. Noted playwright Elmer Rice, chairman of the National Council on Freedom From Censorship, rejected calls to suppress the production, but not without also critiquing the decision to produce it: “This play with Shylock presented as the typical Jew amounts to a distortion and defamation of our people and our faith.” In the end, the production was not telecast on CBS at all.
There was another Jewish argument, though: Perhaps Shylock was a complete distortion of a real Jew and his bond went against the very grain of Jewish law and ethics. Indeed, there were no Jews living in England in Shakespeare’s time who might have served as models for the creation of a truthfully Jewish character — so the travesty of this character was more an outcome of ignorance than ill will.
Moreover, the profound humanity of the bard endowed the stereotype of the evil Jew with emotional and psychological gravitas. This opened the door for editorial cuts and performative additions geared to contextualize Shylock’s brutal demand. Even Jewish theater tackled the play. The first important Yiddish production, with Jacob Adler as Shylock, was presented in 1901 at the Peoples Theatre in the Bowery section of Manhattan. In 1911, Rudolph Schildkraut captivated Jewish audiences with his interpretation of the role, originally presented in German under the direction of Max Reinhardt. The play was revived as an inverted challenge to the rise of Hitlerism and the deprivation of Jewish rights. During the 1930s it was produced in Yiddish in Warsaw and in Hebrew in Tel Aviv, in both cases by German Jewish directors who had become refugees from their culture and homeland. Needless to say, the productions raised much controversy.
In the post-World War period, in the face of a nearly decimated Jewish people, there was a certain societal reluctance to tackle the play. An attempt to produce it in Frankfurt in 1947 was vigorously opposed, and the chairman of the municipal theater had to resign. The same year, the Shubert Organization in New York requested that the visiting Donald Wolfit Shakespeare Company, scheduled to appear in a Shubert-controlled house, eliminate the play from its New York repertory because of its offensiveness to Jews.
The Jewish discussion regarding Shylock has always been grounded in current circumstances and perception of self. Israel Zangwill, the most important Jewish writer in the English-speaking world in the early 20th century, was fascinated with Shylock, and wisely summed up the issues the play raised when he commented, “It is not important what Shakespeare meant, as what he might mean to us.”
Edna Nahshon is a professor at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of “Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925-1940”(Greenwood Press, 1998) and of “From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill’s Jewish Plays”(Wayne State University Press, 2005).