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.
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.
Not long ago, I went to The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center to examine some old Yiddish theater photographs. Historic photos must be viewed in the inner sanctum of the library — a separate space where you can’t bring in personal paraphernalia, can’t use pens, can’t even whisper. When the requested materials are brought over, you’re required to wear white cotton gloves, as if handling sacred objects, and your compliance to the rules are punctiliously supervised by the great priest/ess of scholarly conduct seated at the room’s main desk. Waiting for my file to arrive, I looked at the person at the desk — a beautiful black woman of a certain age. Her voice was musical; her figure tall, trim, projecting such elegance that there was no doubt this octogenarian was a former actress or dancer. When the file was delivered and she summoned me to the desk, she looked down at the photos and her face lit up. “This is Maurice Schwartz, isn’t it?” she exclaimed. “He was wonderful. We used to go see him all the time. What a great actor!” Before I could ask who “we” were and what she remembered, someone else came to the desk with his request, her attention shifting.
Mel Gibson’s film is certainly not the first dramatic adaptation of the Passion to provoke a public furor in America.A hundred and twenty-five years ago, the first American stage version of the Passion ignited one of the most explosive controversies in this country’s theatrical history — with a Jew at the epicenter of the