London — He is one of the most infamous antisemitic caricatures of all time, a devious hook-nosed villain rivaled in stereotypical notoriety by only Shakespeare’s Shylock.
Fagin, the Jewish street thief immortalized in print by Charles Dickens, has once again made a triumphant return to the stage in a new production of “Oliver!” the musical version of Dickens’s mid-19th-century novel, “Oliver Twist.” The show is already breaking box office records in London’s theater district.
But for the first time since the conception of the musical, a loud debate has erupted about whether it remains acceptable to revive the Jewish shyster with a nasal whine, who sings of having to “pick a pocket or two.”
Critics have also raised eyebrows at publicity posters on London’s subway, in which the “L” from the show’s “Oliver!” logo has been refashioned into a long, protruding nose.
“You might as well chuck in a black character who goes round eating watermelon, stealing chickens and grinning his head off,” theater reviewer Sam Leith wrote in The Sunday Times.
The musical opened on January 14 at London’s Theatre Royal Drury Lane, with television and film actor Rowan Atkinson playing Fagin. It’s the latest incarnation of the novel’s stage-musical adaptation, which has also played on Broadway.
The fact that Dickens’s book was adapted by a Jewish composer has been used as a defense against the belief that the musical has antisemitic overtones.
This time, however, that argument did not wash with Julia Pascal, a respected Jewish playwright and theater director who says that this ignores the fact that minorities have often enforced negative stereotypes to please their host society.
“British Jews don’t want to make trouble,” Pascal said. “We were all brought up in a certain climate.”
Pascal stoked further debate by arguing that it is now regressive to revive the musical at all. “Could it be that the stock character of the filthy, malevolent Jew is seamed so tightly into the British psyche that producers never ask if it might be dangerous?” she asked in a recent opinion piece in the Guardian.
A deluge of hostile correspondence came in response to Pascal, who told the Forward, “A lot of the comments were very personal, so I obviously hit some sort of nerve.”
Pascal, known for producing controversial and hard-hitting plays of her own, including a Holocaust trilogy, adds that Fagin’s famous song from the musical comes at an apposite moment, “as Bernie Madoff, a Jew, is photographed outside the New York courthouse, accused of a fraud whose victims are predominantly Jewish charities and investors.”
“Amid this scandal, it’s a mistake to think that American Jews feel immune to the threat of anti-Semitism,” Pascal wrote in her piece. “But U.S. Jews are not exposed to the constant low-level anti-Semitism that filters through British society. They aren’t confronted with hook-nosed Jewish stereotypes on the subway posters.”
Those involved in the show have largely avoided engaging in the debate. But when Atkinson was interviewed by BBC Television shortly before the musical’s opening, he said that he had always “fancied the part,” which he described as being “the right degree of exotic, eccentric, characterful and unusual.”
“He is a Jewish character,” Atkinson said, “one of the most famous Jewish characters in fiction as created by Charles Dickens, and as we created and redefined [him], very importantly, by Lionel Bart in his musical.
“Lionel Bart himself, of course, was Jewish, and when he wrote for Fagin, he wrote in songs which are in a Jewish rhythm and Jewish orchestration, so there is no doubt you are being given a lot of hints of what kind of character he is and how he should be played. So, my only hope is that I have played him convincingly.”
Another person who has expressed a viewpoint is British actor, comedian and Yiddish expert David Schneider. Though Schneider found the Dickens novel, in which Fagin is frequently referred to as simply “the Jew,” a difficult read, he saw Fagin in the musical as “a complex character” who was not “the baddie.”
“I still think the show has merits,” he said, while suggesting that Fagin should, perhaps, always be played by a Jewish actor, just as today, black actors always portray Shakespeare’s Othello. “It does tap into that Jewishness. There is a Jewishness that is true about Fagin. We are embarrassed to take that outside of our little Jewish homes.”
Nevertheless, others have echoed Pascal’s argument.
In his Sunday Times review, Leith wondered: “Is it prissy, however, to find Fagin just a bit iffy in this day and age?
“In addition to giving the world a handful of stupendous show tunes, ‘Oliver!’ did domesticate an anti-Semitic stereotype that was already old and ugly in Dickens’s day.”
Debate about the extent of Charles Dickens’s antisemitism has long been a fixture in academia, while a 1948 film version of “Oliver Twist” in which Fagin was played by Alec Guiness was considered so antisemitic that it was banned in Israel and faced protests from Jewish groups in the United States and elsewhere.
But until now, stage productions of the musical have largely escaped charges of antisemitism. During the last major production of “Oliver!” in London’s West End in 1994, actor Jonathan Pryce deliberately downplayed Fagin’s Jewishness and says he was even criticized for not portraying a stereotype.
The debate about Dickens’s own views is almost as old as “Oliver Twist” itself.
Some writers have pointed to evidence that Dickens received letters accusing him of antisemitism, thus making him alter his depiction of Fagin.
Eliza Davies, the wife of a Jewish banker who bought a house from the author, wrote to Dickens in 1863, complaining of the “vile prejudice against the despised Hebrew” after “Oliver Twist” was first serialized.
Experts believe that the book’s last chapter was revised in 1867 to show Fagin in a better light.
Scholars of Dickens also suggest that the reaction to Fagin may have weighed on his mind: Dickens had based the character on a real-life London underworld figure, Isaac “Ikey” Solomon, who was thought to have recruited children to act as pickpockets.
John Drew, a lecturer in English at the University of Buckingham who in 2004 wrote the book “Dickens the Journalist,” said there is no evidence that Dickens had a gripe about Judaism as a religion.
“There is Fagin in ‘Oliver Twist,’ which is a work of the 1830s, and then there is a character in ‘Our Mutual Friend,’ a minor character called Mr. Riah, but one who is very much on the side of the angels,” Drew said. “He can clearly be thought of as Dickens’s attempt to atone for the character of Fagin and any offense he may have caused to readers.”