Fans of old time British music hall know that UK audiences have long been amused by Jewish caricatures, as presented onstage by 1930s comedians like Julian Rose, Issy Bonn, and Abe and Mawruss. Yet even a century earlier, Jews were also represented regularly in theaters, at a time of great social upheaval and waves of antisemitism, a phenomenon that will be familiar to readers of Anthony Julius’s “Trials of the Diaspora,” recently reviewed in the Forward.
Now “Theatrical Nation: Jews and Other Outlandish Englishmen in Georgian Britain,” (University of Pennsylvania Press) by Michael Ragussis, an English professor at Georgetown University, offers added historical detail about England’s late Georgian era (which ended in 1830), a time when “ethnic identity was theatricalized, even as it moved from stage to print.”
Backlash against the Jewish Naturalization Act of 1753, repealed the next year, was worsened by a lurid 1771 murder, described in “The Newgate Calendar” as a “daring violation of the law, which long roused the public indignation against the whole Jewish people.” Such indignation was expressed onstage, “Theatrical Nation” explains, in songs like “The Jew Beauties,” sung in a buffoonish foreign accent about a certain bellicose Miss Moses.
Yet culture-hungry Jews flocked to the theater too, as one observer noted in Brighton in 1819: “Hook Noses, Mosaical Whiskers, and the whole tribe of Benjamin occupy… every seat in Box, Pit, and Gallery.” When one London theater chose to stage Christopher Marlowe’s hate-ridden “The Jew of Malta” in 1818, a group of Jewish theatergoers boycotted the establishment for the whole season.
Earlier, in a 1790s comic interlude, “Mordecai’s Beard,” an Irishman smears a Jew’s beard with bacon, saying: “If I can’t convert your whole body, I will at least Christen your beard.” As the audience guffaws, the Jew “secretly licks the bacon off his beard with relish.” This kind of rude jape eventually gave way, at least in part, to more sympathetic depictions.
“Theatrical Nation” details how plays imported from other countries which poignantly showed the sufferings of foreign Jews reminded British theatergoers that theirs was supposed to be a more tolerant, superior society. “Deborah,” a play by German Jewish author Salomon Hermann Mosenthal, adapted by the American playwright Augustin Daly as “Leah the Forsaken,” was staged in London in 1864 and reportedly inspired George Eliot to write “Daniel Deronda.” Thus does grotesque imagery transmute into high-mindedness, onstage or in society.