New York Jews, wringing their hands about the rise of anti-Semitism abroad, need look no further than Broadway, where a couple of money-grubbing, blood-lusting members of the tribe are currently hogging the spotlights. At the Duke Theater, Academy Award-winning actor F. Murray Abraham, in collaboration with Theater for a New Audience, is starring as Shylock, the immortal usurer of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice; and on alternate nights, as Barabas, the outrageously villainous lead in Christopher Marlowe’s The Jew of Malta.
Both plays trade in stereotypes with a long history of murderous consequences. Consider one recent example. Last year, Ilan Halimi, a French Jew, was kidnapped and tortured to death in a Parisian suburb; his abductors, members of a multi-ethnic immigrant gang, said they assumed his family would pay a handsome ransom, because “all Jews have money.” As Marlowe’s play opens, with the merchant Barabas “discovered in his counting house, with heaps of gold before him,” it’s clear we are entering an imaginary territory fraught with violent and conflicting emotions.
Theater for a New Audience’s artistic director, Jeffrey Horowitz, started planning this season of works exploring images of Jews as outsiders two years ago. (The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a 19th-century forgery “documenting” a worldwide Jewish conspiracy, had already appeared as a soap opera on Egyptian television, but Iran’s president had not yet publicly denied the Holocaust or called for Israel’s destruction.) Later this month, the company will perform readings of four 20th-century dramas, chosen by its literary adviser, Village Voice theater critic Michael Feingold. And in April, it will perform British director Neil Bartlett’s stage adaptation of Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, whose Fagin was based upon a notorious 19th-century Jewish criminal.
“I didn’t set out to make my version of Rachel Corrie,” Horowitz told me recently, referring to the one-woman show about the American activist killed by an Israeli army bulldozer in Gaza, which arrived in New York following months of controversy. “But I suspected there would be sensitivities to the plays,” he continued. “Are they anti-Semitic or are they about anti-Semitism? We wanted to open up that discussion.”
It’s unlikely that Shakespeare or Marlowe had ever met a Jew. The majority of medieval British Jews, some 2,000 souls, had been expelled from England in 1290; by 1592, when Marlowe wrote
The Jew of Malta, disloyalty to the Church of England was punishable by death.
The notoriously shady Marlowe, whom historians suspect of both spying upon and fomenting Catholic dissidence, was drawn to the Jew as a figure of shifting allegiances and sheer defiance. At first, his Barabas merely glories in his wealth. Yet when the Catholic Knights of Malta unjustly seize his goods to pay a debt owed to the Ottoman Turks, he vows revenge; bodies (fruit of his machinations) begin piling up, and soon a convent full of nuns lies dead.
F. Murray Abraham (son of a Syrian Christian and an Italian Catholic) has acted plenty of Jewish roles before, though this may be the first time he’s entered a scene bowing and scraping with a Yiddish accent. His Barabas repeatedly “plays the Jew,” feigning submission to further his aims.
“The play is funny, offensive, horrible, shocking in parts, and then funny again,” says its director, David Herskovitz, whose manic Malta fairly bursts with competing claims of bigotry, greed, and corruption. “Is it an ugly comedy or a comic nightmare? I could never pick one or the other.”
So too, The Merchant of Venice ranks among Shakespeare’s comedies, but in this dark and disturbing play, characters speak of Christian mercy while a man is stripped of his family, possessions, religion, and dignity. When Shylock, a figure much spit upon in Venetian society, extends a loan to his enemy, the wealthy (if temporarily strapped) Christian merchant Antonio, he demands as guarantee just this: a pound of the merchant’s flesh. Surprise: Antonio defaults, and suddenly Shylock wants what is owed him.
“What they do to this Jew, and what he threatens to do in return, are both horrifying acts,” says James Shapiro, author of Shakespeare and the Jews. “Productions that don’t work tend to downplay one or the other.”
In fact, Shakespeare’s own father had been tried for usury, and his portrayal of Shylock is profoundly ambivalent: a cruel stereotype infused with a deep humanity. The Nazis staged The Merchant of Venice some 50 times but had to make substantial cuts, leaving out both Shylock’s daughter’s elopement with a Christian (which ran contrary to Nuremberg laws against intermarriage), and her father’s desperate grief at this turn of events, which elicits our sympathy. Still, it’s hard to imagine it as effective propaganda.
Glimpsed in previews, director Darko Tresnjak’s emotionally precise production sets the play sometime in the near future, in an unnamed financial capital. But its truths are timeless. “It’s not a play that celebrates diversity,” the director said over coffee in Soho recently, referencing the casual racism of a figure like Portia, the play’s romantic heroine and its closest exemplar of Christian virtue. “I think it’s about how a certain population finds a way to hold onto its power and its money,” he added.
And for Herskovitz, Marlowe’s Malta remains uncannily resonant. “Here we have this marginal trade center in the Levant, which vividly dramatizes the overlapping, bumping up, and conflict– complete with military power, racism, and religious righteousness–between European Christians, Ottoman Turks who are Muslims, and this other Jewish culture,” the director says. “In that regard, though the play is set in the 16th century, its Malta is very contemporary.”