Music and theater and opera and art and the whole damn thing.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Nathan the Wise vs. Eleazar le Juif

December 28, Feast of the Holy Innocents, patrons of all fictitious victims on whose account we grow sentimental while ignoring those at risk but too familiar.

I felt in the need for jollification but not for spending much money. Looking through the Village Voice theater listings, I found that the Pearl Theater Company, a tiny rep co. on St. Mark’s Place (I’ve seen them do The Rivals and Maria Stuart and Philoctetes), were giving Gotthold Lessing’s Nathan the Wise (1779), and to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the company, were charging $25 a ticket. That seemed very reasonable (there were lots of families speaking foreign tongues in the tiny house), so I biked on over.

I do not know, but I know of the play – though I did not know it was the first play staged in Germany after Nazi surrender (and one of the first banned when they took over). I also knew Lessing, the son of an Evangelical minister, had been a bright light of the Berlin Enlightenment under Frederick the Great (idea for a musical: On the Fritz, the happy-go-lucky adventures of Prussia’s gayest prince …) and that his best friend was Moses Mendelssohn, whose candidacy for the Royal Academy Lessing advanced, only to be vetoed by the king, though he admitted MM “possessed every qualification for membership but a foreskin.” I also heard a lovely story from old Baroness de Popper, of how a friend of her father’s, learning she had never been to the theater (she being then nine or ten), took her to the Burgtheater to see Nathan, and they sat alone in the imperial box (the gentleman being a friend of HM’s), and she was utterly enthralled (it’s a pretty damn well-made play), and sat staring at the stage, not even seeing anyone come into the box, until the lights went on at the interval, and she looked around and there was Franz Josef. (“And was he wearing his crown and everything?” asked her granddaughter, when she told her the tale.) And he said, “They get younger and younger,” shaking his head, and then took her to the buffett, and got her everything she wanted.

I also knew Lessing had put into the play the medieval fable about the sultan (in this case Saladin) who challenged the richest Jew in town to say which of the three great religions was the true one (figuring to get at least a huge contribution if not a conversion out of him) and the Jew responded with the fable of the three identical rings, one genuine, two imitations, that a father gave to his three beloved sons, each of whom believed he possessed the true one, “but as to which was the true one, that would only be revealed by the example of the one who loved his brothers most.” Whereupon Saladin repents his blackmail and offers the Jew his hand and friendship. Nearly everyone turns out (after an explosion of ill temper) to be a nice guy in this play: Jews, Muslims, Christians, and furthermore all the young people turn out to have been born into a group other than the one they believe is theirs. Only the patriarch is bloody minded, and Nathan outfoxes him. The plot is very mathematical, and would not work if the actors did not make the figures threatening and pardoning each other human, and the company were all quite good, and a mix of races to boot (with no great logic to it as far as putative ancestry goes).

At the end, when (contrary to most such plots) the young people who have fallen in love discover they are brother and sister (oh well), and far from being a Jewess and a Prussian Templar are both children of Saladin’s dead brother (and a Christian girlfriend slain by her relations for having an affair with a Muslim), Nathan turns to us and says, “You may think this extraordinary, a fable, a miracle – in fact it is the common tale of our lives: for whenever we meet other humans, we encounter our kin.” (I daresay it says “men,” not “humans” in the German, and in older translations, here and throughout the text. Lessing, like Moses Mendelssohn and Mozart and Beumarchais and most of the Founding Fathers of America, was a Mason.)
The mystery about this, is that at the end – and also several times during the play when such sentiments are invoked by other characters – I found myself close to tears, and this happened again when trying to describe the plot to others that night or the next day. I mean, it’s not like I’ve changed my medication or anything. And I’m not usually so affected by the plots of plays or operas, even when well acted (or sung).

However, the back-story of Nathan and his “daughter” struck me another way: Nathan explains that his wife and their sons were burned alive while hiding in a factory from anti-Jewish Christian riots, that for three days he prayed to be saved from his hatred of the Christians, and on the third day, just as reason reasserted itself, a groom accosted him (as in Sophocles’ Oedipus, the groom turns up of course, 19 years later, as a hermit friar), having been sent from his Christian friend Wulf (who turns out to be the Muslim Assad) who was going to war (to be killed), and wished to entrust his Christian baby daughter to Nathan. Nathan soon loved the child, named her “Rachel,” and raised her in ignorance of her birth (but Nathan’s Christian housekeeper knows the truth). When the Patriarch learns of this, he wants Nathan burned at the stake for distracting a baptized soul from the true faith, and we’re actually worried until Saladin saves the day.

The reason this struck is that, in 1835, 56 years after Nathan was first printed (and long after it had become a classic), Halévy presented his opera, La Juive (to a libretto by, inevitably, Scribe – who surely knew Nathan well). And though set in 1415, not 1190, La Juive is oddly similar/dissimilar to Nathan: Eleazar, a goldsmith, lost his wife and sons during riots in Rome many years ago, but rescued a Christian infant he has raised as his own daughter, “Rachel.” As in Nathan, a Christian has fallen in love with Rachel – but it is the sneaky Prince Leopold, disguised as a Jew, not a hot-tempered Templar who turns out to be Saladin’s nephew (and Rachel’s brother). Again the church demands that the Jews burn (because an interracial love affair is anathema), though Rachel, broken-hearted, agrees to spare Leopold’s life. The emperor does not appear – no Saladin ex machina here. The one voice of reason and tolerance is not Eleazar’s – he hates all Christians – but Cardinal Brogny’s – and he is ignored, except by Eleazar, who taunts him: before he took holy orders, Brogny had a wife and a daughter, who vanished in the fire that killed Eleazar’s family. “I happen to know your daughter lived, and was raised by Jews,” he says. Brogny misses the point we get – he begs for the missing info; Eleazar enjoys refusing. But, alone, sentenced to die, he wonders if he can take his adored Rachel with him to death – thus the opera’s most famous aria, “Rachel, quand du Seigneur.” Usually omitted: An offstage chorus of bloodthirsty Christians, and Eleazar’s cabaletta, resolving to keep Rachel from those awful people. So to the climax: Eleazar asks Rachel if she would live, without him, as a Christian; her heart broken by Leopold, she says she would never abandon her faith, and leaps into the caldron of boiling oil. “With your last breath, tell me where my daughter is!” cries harmless Cardinal Brogny. “She is there!” Eleazar cries, pointing – and then leaping after her, as the Christian crowd exults.

This opera was a major hit until Nazi times – it was the fourth of the great grand operas. Eleazar became, rather than Nathan, the symbol of the Jew, his feelings tender only for his own, hating the rest of the world (howsoeverbeit justified). I feel a great distaste for him when I see the opera – impressed by his heroic perversity, but not admiring, or affected, by him and his predicament. The Cardinal and Rachel are the only likable characters in the opera, and their principles do not triumph. What did people think when they saw Tamberlik and Viardot sing it – or even Caruso and Ponselle? (Tucker begged Bing to revive it for him; Bing flatly refused.) Halévy was a completely secularized Jew, the head of the French Conservatory – he wrote ten other operas, none of them remotely as successful. His daughter married Bizet (who boasted on their wedding eve that neither of them believed in any religion), and later was the first hostess to admit Marcel Proust to her salon (he was at school with her son). When I wrote about La Juive for the Met program, and for Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (another Scribe script), which premiered the next year (Meyerbeer was a Berlin Jew, who continued to practice all his life – he had promised an elderly relation in his youth – but whose daughters married into the Christian nobility), I suggested that these spectacles of religious persecution and massacre were as popular as they undoubtedly were (in Paris, and everywhere else, for a hundred years) in part because they flattered the audiences that such events were of the past, that they could not happen again, people having become so enlightened.

But why did hateful Eleazar and his Rachel supersede lovable Nathan and his Rachel in the popular mind? Is this more of the phenomenon of the rise of the New Anti-Semitism during the nineteenth century, when conspiracy theories began to proliferate, and every wicked tendency in society that could not be traced to the Freemasons or the Communists or the Anarchists or the Nihilists was freely ascribed to the Jews?

And why does it bring tears to my eyes to see actors (even damned good actors) playing the earlier, we’re-all-human-kindred message of the Enlightenment presented 130 years after it was written, and in the one city in the world where the war seems to be going the right way, 9/11 or not?

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Ibsen's Ghosts - His answer to Hamlet?

From the library, got four DVDs of Dame Judi Dench in this, that and the other for the BBC, most notably The Cherry Orchard and Ghosts. Hadn't seen either play in donkey's years.

Ghosts is an all-star treatment: Kenneth Branagh as Oswald, Michael Gambon as Pastor Manders, Natasha Richardson as Regina. The play was a shocker when written because the very word "syphilis" was not uttered in polite society outside a doctor's consulting room, and it is not uttered in the play either -- nor does it come into focus until the very end. (If you watch it waiting for sex to come to the fore, you'll have a long wait.) The play's more pertinent issues are hypocrisy of society, church, state, men, women -- even incest gets a bit of an airing. One has to wonder, because the play is such a well-made machine, each irrelevant bit of dialogue turning out to hint at other themes that grow larger until they engulf the story, what sin Mrs. Alving has committed that she is so very terribly punished by the final curtain. The fact that she is beginning to open her mind, to consider things her society condemns, makes her sympathetic in the early scenes, and she remains more honest than the grown men of the play. But her lies for the husband she had grown to hate, and her lies to the son she worships, evidently lead step by step to the awful end. What has she done? (It is unlike Ibsen to condemn women, except unloving women, as in John Gabriel Borkman.)

But the reason I bring this up on this newsgroup is that it struck me during the scenes where Mrs. Alving is obliged to disillusion her adored Oswald about the personality of his father (and connive with Pastor Manders in concealing that father's vices) that the model for this story is that play all Scandinavians know, Hamlet: the Gertrude-Hamlet relationship (and the relationship of both to the ghostly dead king) that is the crux of the relationships in that play.

And I wondered if anyone has written about this, or noted it: the madness of the son, the necessary killing of the reputation of the dead father, the way his ghost lingers anyway (unseen, unheard) in his house, the mother who has never admitted that she loved, and attempted to run away with, another man, the more-than-brotherly love the son feels for the girl who turns out to be his sister, the cheerful fate she goes to that the older woman tries to save her from, the misbegotten councils of the girl's ridiculous old father, the boy sent abroad to keep him from knowing his father's fate, the fate that follows him anyway, in his corrupt heredity.

Well it renews my respect for Ibsen, though I still can't regard it as ranking among his great plays (Wild Duck for me).

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Witchy Sex Magic at the Movies

A kiss may be just a kiss, but I think it can be sexier than porn. Always thought so. So I had some sighing moments during Were the World Mine, which has been touring the indie film festivals, raking in award after award, especially as an audience favorite. (Obviously, it has been an audience favorite at festivals favoring the young and the queer, but it has also delighted audiences not so young and not so queer.)

What no one seems to have mentioned is that the English teacher is a Witch.

The movie is set in small town America, with its big trees and narrow prejudices. (Somewhat integrated though, which is a modern change for the better.) The focus of this particular town is a prestigious all-boys’ prep school, renowned (for fifty-six years!) for its annual school play and, more recently, a winning rugby team. Are these things compatible? The gym teacher doesn’t think so – his arch-rival, the English teacher with the witchy red hair and the all-too-mischievous sparkle in her eyes wants the boys to give up practice time to read Shakespeare, and perform it, some of them in drag, some of them playing fairies. And she has given the role of Puck to one of the poor scholarship boys from the wrong side of the tracks, who happens to be queer, as everybody knows (no one talked about that when I was in high school, another era). His mom knows, his best friends know, the other kids know (and write “Faggot” on his locker), no doubt the star rugby player he craves knows, though he and his girlfriend pay no attention. It is one of those crises that mean so much to teens and so little a few years later.

The English teacher, who balks at nothing, gets her way: the boys are going to wear tights and wigs and wings, and they are going to perform “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (without understanding a word of the poetry), and Timothy is going to memorize Puck (stealing a few of Oberon’s lines because the screenwriter has no principles). And one magical night, as he stares at the page, the words start fading in and out of sight, and suddenly he finds a strange purple flower in his hand, the very pansy Puck sought out (at Oberon’s command), “love-in-idleness.” And it squirts. And those squirted … misbehave. Usually with those of their own sex.

Merry hell is accordingly wreaked on the straight-laced little town before, at the English teacher’s magical command, an indoor rain obtrudes on the festivities (I told you she was a Witch!) and all may “be as thou wast wont to be.” But now, remembering their strolls on the wild side, they have a much calmer, more amiable view of those across the street. And one person (I saw this coming a reel away) does not switch back….

Those who know the play well, in its many versions and interpretations (my favorites are the Frederick Ashton ballet and the Benjamin Britten opera), will get a kick out of the use of lines of the dialogue (especially the four lovers’ confrontations) for the feelings of the confused rugby players and their friends, and those who like male-male or female-female gooey screen kisses will have their fill (it doesn’t get heavier, but it’s sweet) – calf’s eyes of every conceivable variety are also featured – will enjoy this thing, and there is a rock-flavored score that I had no trouble ignoring (with musical numbers of endearing silliness), and there are messages about tolerance and what’s-so-terrible-about-love-of-any-flavor. And there are very pretty, rather talented young actors. (But the haggard mother and the witchy teacher were my favorites, and they are not so young.)

And once again sex-magic triumphs over hate. On screen if nowhere else.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Ides of March

Obviously a book about Julius Caesar with the title The Ides of March may lack a certain edge of suspense that some readers yearn for. But a brilliant author finds ways to offset that.

Thornton Wilder's The Ides of March was written in 1948. I had never heard it referred to by anyone (though it got excellent reviews in its day), but stumbled on an old paperback copy in the library's discard box. (You never know what will turn up there.) It sat on my shelves then for ages, until I needed something very slim to fit in the pocket of a sports jacket I was wearing to the opera. To my surprise, I found it one of the finest works of fiction,especially historical fiction, that I have encountered in years (well, since Orhan Pamuk's My Name Is Red anyway). And the suspense comes from the exploration this "collection of documents" provides into a dozen fascinating characters, reading their letters, their private notations, historians' commentaries, poesy (from Catullus), secret agents' reports, etc. All the main characters are brilliantly drawn, all are impressively distinct, and each one is so surprising and so delightful that the tension comes from anticipating still more surprises and delights as document succeeds document -- and Wilder never disappoints.

Wilder (one of the most learned American writers of his time, by the way, and the winner of three Pulitzer Prizes) admits he is not trying to reconstruct history; this is a "fantasia on historical themes." Some of the characters in the novel are people who were dead before 45 BCE, when his story begins (Clodia-Lesbia, Catullus, Clodius Pulcher, Caesar's aunt Julia); one or two are inventions; but the others (most magnificently the thoughtful, superhuman Caesar himself, Cleopatra - yes, she was in Rome that year, a celebrated actress, Caesar's silly second wife Pompeia and charming third wife Calpurnia, his ex-lover Servilia, HER son Brutus, his wife Porcia, and the orator Cicero) were alive and kicking, and their words as set down here bring figures to life who might or might not have lived, who represent real human beings as they might have existed, lived their lives, thought about politics and poetry and religion, 2000 years ago. Or so it seems to me, who dislike "modern" types in "historical" novels.

All too short but entirely delicious this taste of a brilliant writer's consideration of certain historical problems, and his elegant solutions to telling such a story from so many viewpoints, allowing us to appreciate them all.