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), too 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?

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