Navigate to Arts & Letters section

Venetian Bind

Four rarely-seen plays echo

Nina Shen Rastogi
February 26, 2007

New Yorkers have been packing the intimate Duke on 42nd Street to see Theater for a New Audience‘s current double-header, a sleek, contemporary staging of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice performed in rotating repertory with Christopher Marlowe’s Jew of Malta, both starring Oscar winner F. Murray Abraham as the charismatic villain—or anti-hero, depending who you ask. But far fewer people have discovered the company’s extra-credit “Literary Supplement,” four plays that respond to the season’s main theme—the Jew as cultural outsider—presented as a series of free, one-night-only readings.

“We were looking for a variety of approaches to the idea, a variety of styles that could represent more than one period and more than one nation’s theatrical culture,” says the series’ curator, longtime Village Voice drama critic Michael Feingold. The series began in early February with two plays based directly on Merchant of Venice—Arnold Wesker’s 1976 Shylock and A.R. Gurney’s 1996 Overtime—and ends in a few weeks with two early 20th-century plays—Henry Bernstein’s 1908 Among Gentlemen, newly translated from the French by Feingold, and John Galsworthy’s 1921 Loyalties.

Merchant of Venice has always inspired sharply divided opinions, particularly as regards the play’s ambiguous stance on Jews, their character, and the hostilities they face in a Christian society. For many people, the question of whether The Merchant of Venice is anti-Semitic is the central issue in understanding the play. The two plays that opened the reading series are distinguished from one another not so much by their answers, but by the relative importance they assign to the question itself.

Wesker, who gained prominence in the 1950s as one of England’s “angry young men,” along with fellow Royal Court Theatre playwrights John Osborne and Harold Pinter, has never been shy about his opinions of The Merchant of Venice. In his eyes, Shakespeare’s play is inherently and dangerously anti-Semitic, a “soiled play” that does no more than confirm “the Jew as bloodsucker.” Watching Laurence Olivier as Shylock in 1973, Wesker realized that he “recognized no Jew [he] knew” in the vengeful man, and wrote his own play in response. (TFANA artistic director Jeffrey Horowitz appeared in the first American production of Shylock, which was also notable for including Zero Mostel’s last performance: he died after the first night of previews.)

In Wesker’s version, Shylock is a generous, learned man who loves the merchant Antonio like a brother and gladly offers to lend him 3,000 ducats for Bassanio’s sake. The infamous “pound of flesh” wager begins as a joke, a mocking response to the Venetian law forbidding Christians from engaging in business transactions with Jews without a contract. When Antonio loses his fortune and can’t repay Shylock, however, the old friends find themselves caught in a terrible dilemma.

In Gurney’s comedy, the anti-Semitic question barely registers, despite the fact that it is a play obsessed, in however shallow a fashion, with issues of cultural difference. The play begins with Portia gathering the motley crew of Merchant to her estate at Belmont for a grand celebration, but the fragile peace established at the end of Shakespeare’s play quickly falls apart as characters reveal their true colors—Lorenzo, for one, realizes that he only loves Shylock’s daughter, Jessica, because he’s a self-hating WASP who desperately wants to be Jewish himself. As Shakespeare’s characters dissolve into self-conscious 20th-century cultural stereotypes (Antonio becomes an opera-loving homosexual; Graziano an angry, disenfranchised black man; Jessica—you guessed it—a JAP.), Shylock himself arrives on the scene, an oy-ing, cuddly old Jew given to such punch lines as “If the shoe fits, I can get it for you wholesale.”

An affectionate familiarity—with Shakespeare and with our own political correctness—governs Overtime, and for the most part the play doesn’t squander that good will by asking too many tough questions. Gurney, a playwright best known for his Cheever-country comedies, doesn’t muster much passion over Shylock’s ill-treatment and neither do his characters; even Shylock blithely waves its memory away. Wesker, for his part, locks anti-Semitism in his crosshairs and fires away. But single-minded fury makes you blind, as The Merchant of Venice itself makes abundantly clear. Wesker’s extreme distaste for the original material—like that of the Victorian bowdlerizers who primly excised all of Shakespeare’s naughty bits—results in a work that feels flat and dry: Shylock becomes loving and lovable, the young Christians of Venice venal and close-minded.

Shylock and Overtime played to less than full houses, and at the first reading I must have been, at 27, the youngest person in the audience by about 30 years. The subdued vibe at the readings was in marked contrast to the lively atmosphere of the main stage’s shows, whose intermissions buzzed with debate—most noticeably among a group of teenage boys in kippot who were heatedly discussing F. Murray Abraham’s interpretation of Shylock. (It was even a night of charming cross-cultural encounters: I overheard a young boy explaining to two older women, “It’s called a tzitzit. T…Z…I…“)

Associate artistic director Arin Arbus, the series’ producer, told me that the reading series is being advertised mostly to the theater’s subscribers, and she guesses most of the audience to be “subscribers and friends of the theater.” But New Yorkers who skip this Monday’s reading of Among Gentlemen—last seen in America in 1909—will be missing a real gem.

Both Galsworthy’s Loyalties and Bernstein’s Among Gentlemen are firmly embedded in specific times and places—England in the 1920s and turn-of-the-century France, respectively—and take altercations between a lone Jew and Christian society as an opportunity to explore the nature of social identities and relationships.

Galsworthy, the Nobel Prize-winning author best known for his critical yet sympathetic depictions of the Edwardian upper class, offers a classic, country-house mystery with a political edge. During a visit to an aristocratic friend’s estate, a wealthy young Jewish man discovers a fistful of cash missing from his room and immediately accuses a well-liked fellow guest of the crime. The significance of the title becomes clear as the upper-crust guests close ranks around the accused man, defending him even as evidence begins to mount against him.

In Loyalties, the Christian characters’ prejudices are apparent, but they see the issue at hand as more a question of protecting their own than attacking another. In Among Gentlemen, however, the aristocratic Christians practically explode off the page with their hatred. Bernstein’s play (titled Israel in the original French) premiered during a particularly shaky time for the French republic, two years after Alfred Dreyfus, the Jewish soldier accused of selling military secrets to the Germans, was finally exonerated after years of wrongful imprisonment. It begins in a Parisian country club, where Thibault, a charismatic young conservative flush from a recent political victory, challenges a prominent older Jew to a duel when the latter refuses to relinquish his longstanding membership in the club. But the duel becomes downright Oedipal in the second act, when the right-wing firebrand learns the secret that his mother has been hiding his entire life: his hated enemy is, in fact, his father.

The explosive drama of the characters’ private lives is what’s likely to hit contemporary playgoers the hardest. Bernstein was known for his tight, well-built melodramas and his passionate theatricality. (Liane de Pougy, the celebrated courtesan, noted in her diaries that his taste for melodrama extended to his personal life as well. “Oh the splendors and miseries he invented for me!” she writes. “‘I shall kill you!’—or ‘If you won’t say you’ll marry me I’ll throw you down and grind my heel into your pretty face!’”)

Yet amidst all the breathless action, Among Gentlemen also raises some of the knottiest theological discussions of the series. When Thibault decides to kill himself rather than live with the Jewishness he finds so shameful, his priestly confessor urges him to wrestle with his split self, and to reaffirm his commitment to the Christian ideals of mercy and suffering by wearing his Jewish identity as a kind of hair shirt. Bernstein, who continued to be seen—and to see himself—as an outsider despite decades of success, may have been offering France a symbol of itself in the multicultural Thibault, using Christian rhetoric to make a plea for tolerance—if not quite acceptance—of his people.

Modern audiences may have trouble relating to the France of a hundred years ago, with its gentlemen’s clubs and its duels and its monarchists. Yet the timeless questions Among Gentlemen raises about minority cultures and majority intolerance resonate still. As the 300-year span of Theater for a New Audience’s season demonstrates, these issues are not bound to a particular time or place. Today, with reports of anti-Semitism on the rise in Europe—particularly in France—and communities around the world reacting to the notion of sinister Muslims in their midst, these plays, however historically distant, still offer a telling mirror for our times.