“We have nothing against a good holiday show, but we'd rather focus on finding the boldest and bravest living playwrights who tell important new stories and ask important new questions about today's world. For 21 seasons we have proudly and defiantly eschewed the strategy of relying on an annual ‘cash cow.’ This is what distinguishes InterAct Theatre Company. It is also what distinguishes our audiences and supporters.”
Thus begins the annual fundraising letter of Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre, a direct challenge to theatres who rely on money-making holiday shows. Given the disastrous economic times of the past few years, which have led to the pending closures of theatres worldwide, it is not surprising that artistic institutions go all out to attract audiences with spectacular, heart warming productions. Like many of the glamorous shows that followed the Great Depression, a number of theatres today aim to help audiences forget their preoccupation with dwindling wallets and fading hopes, as witnessed by two highly successful productions of OLIVER!, the musical by Lionel Bart, in London and Philadelphia.
It is no surprise that theatre critics oink with delight when faced with succulent productions—like London’s DAILY TELEGRAPH critic Charles Spencer, who revels in the pork-barrel of money-making super-shows: “As most of us get poorer in coming months, this production is going to make producer Cameron Mackintosh [of Drury Lane Theatre’s OLIVER!] even richer. It's so enjoyable, however, that I find it impossible to grudge him a penny.” Not surprisingly, Spencer called his review, “Resistance is futile of course,” admitting defeat in the face of the onslaught of feel-good musical melodrama.
DICKENS’ STINGING SOCIAL CRITIQUE TURNED INTO SACCHARINE SONGS
Simultaneously, however, Spencer is fully aware of the transformation of Dickens’ stinging social critique into a sequence of saccharine songs: “There is a strong case to be made against Lionel Bart's OLIVER! It takes one of Dickens's greatest and most gripping novels, an indignant howl of protest against man's inhumanity to man, and turns it into a cracking night of tuneful entertainment.”
Two theatre power houses clearly know how to draw audiences to their theatres—even in economically depressed times. In the United Kingdom, Sir Cameron Mackintosh, the London impresario and "the most successful, influential and powerful theatrical producer in the world," according to the NEW YORK TIMES, hired multi-millionaire comedian Rowan Atkinson—of MR. BEAN and BLACKADDER fame—for the role of Fagin. In the United States, Bernard Havard, Philadelphia’s ruler of musicals, successful Producing Artistic Director of the Walnut Street Theatre, and Lord of the most subscribed-to theatre company in the world with 57,000 paying courtiers, hired Hugh Panaro, the hugely popular Broadway actor, bringing in audiences by buses, BMWs, and Cadillacs.
Howard Shapiro of the PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER, reviewing OLIVER! at the Walnut Street Theatre, asked, “Who will buy this wonderful feeling?” and then answered: “Just about everyone, I suspect.” The many sold-out performances at America’s oldest theatre proved him right.
In short, the productions in England and the U.S. had it all in terms of pleasing the audience and letting us go home, preparing for the holiday season, safe and comfortable, without theatre goers feeling offended by the social ills of Victorian England because of the santized, music and dance-enhanced production.
VICTORIAN PRUDERY AND BRUTAL EXPLOITATION
According to recent research by John Waller, “Dickens took his story from the memoirs of a poorhouse boy, Robert Blincoe, published in 1832, five years before Oliver.” The resulting 19th century novel about child abuse and exploitation at an English orphanage was a far cry from the heart warming, if campy, production of OLIVER! John Nathan of THE JEWISH CHRONICLE, acknowledged that “Bart created this country’s best loved musical.” He also made it quite clear that “even though the workhouse here is gothic horrible and the adults gorgeously grotesque, this is a lite version of Dickens, passing as a series of expertly-staged set-pieces that amount to little more than theme-park storytelling.”
This verdict contrasts sharply with Dickens’ OLIVER TWIST, which presented some of the horrid realities that children and young people had to endure during the Victorian era. I vividly recall the Dickens course that I took as an undergraduate at the University of Kent at Canterbury. To understand his subtexts, the social erasures and psychological traumas integral to his novels, we had to read uncensored Victorian pornographic diaries. A picture emerged of young women being raped and repeatedly used as objects, forced into degrading encounters. Their children, born out of wedlock, often ended up in orphanages and workplaces exposing them to a system that brutally exploited the children and their economically helpless mothers. Many of those working class women were driven into prostitution while their offspring became indentured child laborers or were put up for adoption—often leading to physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.
Given the double standards of Victorian morals, Dickens struggled with what he could and could not share with his readers who bought his novels in installments every two weeks. Families often read those little serials together, being left to draw their own conclusions after each cliff hanger. His works, while wildly popular, also served as important outlets for frustration with the social ills of Imperial Britain. Dickens’ awareness of the misery of economic and sexual exploitation during the Victorian era did not allow for open discussion, unlike today’s revealing print and television documentaries.
For example, while reviewing OLIVER!, Michael Billington of THE GUARDIAN points out Fagin’s behavior in reference to young Oliver: “’I hope I shall have the honour of your intimate acquaintance’ with lisping intensity.” Billington goes even further when he notes, “there is even a mixture of paternalism and faint paedophilia in the way [Fagin] gazes fondly at the sleeping boy.” In Victorian times, only allusions like these were made to a wide range of social ills and individual shortcomings. Talking about sexual abuse of women and children would have violated social taboos.
I had invited my friend Stefanie Seltzer—fellow Board member of Theatre Ariel, the Jewish Theatre of Philadelphia, and the multilingual president of the World Federation of Jewish Child Survivors of the Holocaust to see this sold-out holiday production of OLIVER! with me. On the way to the theatre, I asked about her experiences during World War II and learned not only about the terrible wartime abuses, which many children suffered, but also, to my dismay, that “no one wanted to hear these stories. The psychiatric establishment thought it best not to talk about these things.”
Much like the young Roman Polanski who escaped the Krakow ghetto, little Stefanie managed to escape the Radomsko ghetto because her mother paid a prostitute to smuggle her out. In 2005, Polanski filmed a version of OLIVER TWIST which reflected his own harrowing story, imbued with a positive message “about a little boy who survives,” according to playwright and novelist Ronald Harwood, who adapted Dickens’ work into the film script for Polanski. Just as Polanski’s OLIVER TWIST “is addressed at a target audience of children,” so Stefanie Seltzer works with survivors and their traumatic childhood experiences—albeit protected from the public eye in Europe and North America.
On the way to the theatre, aware that we were going to see the story about another child survivor in OLIVER!, I asked Stefanie about her life as a child in the Polish ghetto. While hiding during the German occupation, she witnessed horrendous scenes such as a mother who dressed her little Jewish boy like a girl, hoping to maintain the secrecy of his circumcision. Such camouflage, however, did not help: both mother and child were shot.
Early on in the Walnut production of OLIVER!, when the American kids who played London urchins on stage, dirty and worn out, searched for food to quell their hunger, singing “Food, Glorious Food,” their antics made the audience laugh, getting us into the holiday spirit. I looked at my friend Stefanie. She was not laughing.
At that moment, I remembered her account of the thundering boots coming up the stairs and the fear it instilled in her young mind. The boots belonged to two Gestapo officers who were going house by house looking for Jews. Tucked away in a hidden, cramped crawl space behind a toilet were 5-year-old Stefanie, a young boy, and a group of adult refugees. With their fate all but sealed, the adults started sobbing and screaming, forcing Stefanie and the little boy to crawl across their bodies—begging for silence and putting their small hands over the mouths of the adults. "Please be quiet. You've always told us to be quiet," Seltzer remembered saying. "Please, we want to live. Don't give us away." After a long silence, the German officers left—"choosing not to hear.”
For three months, little Stefanie remained in hiding under the kitchen table of a non-Jewish Polish woman who had taken her in. The girl became increasingly weakened from malnutrition and from her state of solitary confinement. Bed bugs ate away at her arms, and the muscles in her legs had deteriorated until she could no longer walk. The woman who was hiding the little Jewish girl had a brother who was a Jew hunter for the Gestapo, and he would come to eat and sleep in the same room where Stefanie crouched under the table—trying to remain silent and invisible. Dickens would have related to this scene of horror in Poland. Envisioning that experience while watching those young kids on stage at the Walnut—my laughter froze.
LITTLE BOYS AND GIRLS RUN OVER BY WAVES OF HATE AND IGNORANCE
In spite of the many beautiful song and dance routines, I found myself sitting in a time machine, traveling back and forth between Victorian England and contemporary Philadelphia. There, I sat next to two Stefanies: my adult friend, and also the young girl from Poland, and all the many thousands of little boys and girls who were run over by waves of hate and ignorance. I know that many children become so severley traumatized that they often spend great chunks of their adult lives trying to repress past invasions into their young bodies and their vulnerable minds.
Stefanie, after many years, remains the regular leading contact with Holocaust child survivors from around the world. She has shared with me shards of the horrendous experiences many Jewish child survivors faced, as not all were lucky enough to find shelter with responsible adults.
Some of the youngsters became victims of various forms of exploitation by family members or neighbors who initially had come to their rescue. These experiences traumatized many boys and girls during World War II to such an extent that it took decades before the victims—reticent to trust those who were supposed to look after them in hiding—were willing to come forward and become true survivors of the double inhumanity they had suffered. These agonizing ordeals strangely clashed with what we saw on stage in Bart’s OLIVER!.
“THE MOST GROTESQUE AND VILLAINOUS JEW IN ALL OF ENGLISH LITERATURE”
Painful subjects that mar, upset, and disturb one’s equilibrium, particularly if they deal with taboos, are difficult for anyone to handle, especially in contemporary America, a country that, in many ways, still writhes in the grip of modern Puritanism. For example, I could not imagine an American undergraduate course focused on Dickens’ novels where original Victorian pornography would be required reading to understand the social ills of the time. Dickens himself would probably value discussions on the corruption of Imperial England. However, whether he would appreciate a critical study of his apparent anti-Semitism in OLIVER TWIST remains doubtful.
Controversial since the very beginning of its serialization in 1837, OLIVER TWIST, portrayed the lives of children living among prostitutes and thieves. Fagin, the crafty old Jew who trained the young to steal, riled many a Victorian. Still, within a short period of time, the book became a huge success worldwide. Given the negative association with Jews, it’s puzzling that “Dickens knew no Jews when he conceived the character” who was “based on newspaper reports of a real-life Jewish fence, named Ikey Solomons,” according to John Walsh, prolific London critic of THE INDEPENDENT.
As Walsh proposes, “Fagin stands on the shoulders of a long line of literary Jewish villains, the mystery-play portrayal of Barrabas, the cut-throats of Chaucer's The Prioress's Tale; Marlowe's monstrous Jew of Malta and Shakespeare's Shylock.” The London critic determines, “None of these were drawn from reality—there were no Jews in England after their expulsion in 1290 until they were unofficially invited back by Oliver Cromwell in 1664.” Unfortunately, as Walsh points out, “the Jew was a vilified abstraction in medieval legend and folklore. Fagin grew fully formed from this tradition.” He concludes that “there is almost no other character to compete with Fagin for the title of the most grotesque and villainous Jew in all of English literature. Of all the 989 characters who sprang from the pen of Charles Dickens, the evil old gang-master is one of his most vivid caricatures.”
BBC commentator Norman Lebrecht minces no words when revealing how Dickens constructed “Fagin as 'the Jew'—not once by way of identification, but relentlessly, to such an extent that the wicked old receiver of stolen goods is hardly ever mentioned by name. In the first 38 chapters of OLIVER TWIST there are 257 references to 'the Jew' against 42 to 'Fagin' or 'the old man'. A more vicious stigmatisation of an ethnic community could hardly be imagined.” Lebrecht, clearly upset by what his research presents, comes to the conclusion that “with each fresh reading or dramatisation, the spectre of racial hatred hovers in the margins, gnawing at the unconscious.”
“THAT CLASS OF CRIMINAL” AND HISTORICAL REALITY
Referring to Fagin, Dickens claimed, “that class of criminal was almost invariably a Jew.” However, thorough research of the London crime statistics of the 1830s provides no evidence that Jews controlled gangs of child pickpockets. The archetypal image of Fagin, the Jew one cannot trust, seems to have been so deeply embedded in the minds of many people, that it cannot be seen as the aberration of an individual author.
However, while Dickens was still writing the second part of his novel, during the “winter of despair,” the “spring of hope” was in sight: The Jewish community in both Britain and the U.S. openly criticized Dickens’ vilification and stereotyping of “Fagin the Jew.” Subsequently, Dickens changed the parts which had not yet been published. As a result, according to Walsh, Fagin to this day remains labeled as “‘the Jew’ 257 times in the first 38 chapters but in only a small percentage of the 179 references in the rest of the book.”
With all his justified criticism of the portrayal of Fagin “the Jew” in OLIVER TWIST, Lebrecht points out that Dickens, “allowed the villain a certain endearing avuncularity. One feels Fagin's sorrow as he gives up Oliver to the custody of Sikes.”
During a time when melodrama ruled and Dickens toured the English-speaking world with his one-man show, presenting dramatized readings of OLIVER TWIST and other novels, he eventually created an important change, as Lebrecht reports, “In one of his last public readings in 1869, a year before his death, Dickens cleansed Fagin of stereotypical caricature. 'There is no nasal intonation; a bent back but no shoulder-shrug: the conventional attributes are omitted,' or so the reports have it.”
Many of today’s artistic directors of musicals continue where Dickens left off by remaking OLIVER! in the image of Dickens’ defanged Fagin. I found it significant that both the director and Panaro, who played Fagin, told me, independently of each other, that they did not want to offend anyone with the role of Fagin the Jew and criminal. In theatre after theatre, whether in England or the U.S., we are treated to a sanitized holiday version which brings in more money than either Fagin, or his predecessor, Ikey Solomon, ever did.
“GRINDING POVERTY BECOMES A MINOR INCONVENIENCE”
Since OLIVER!’s first appearance on Broadway in 1963, critics from around the world have exhibited a myriad of reactions to the musical, ranging from a zenith of praise to deep scorn. Not erring on the side of the angels, Dan Rottenberg, editor and independent critic of Philadelphia’s BROAD STREET REVIEW, mocked “the colorful characters and songs [which] damn near overwhelm Dickens’s message: Here on the musical stage, grinding poverty becomes merely a minor inconvenience.”
By contrast, Howard Shapiro, prominent PHILADELPHIA INQUIRER critic, primarily focused on the magic of the musical: Fagin “plays the greedy Pied Piper of Pilfering with a wink-wink here and a bark-bark there.” Shapiro’s words, though seemingly playful on the alliterative surface, could be seen as a reference to child abduction in the story of “The Pied Piper of Hamelin” where, according to some historians, boys and teenagers were lured away from their homes to fight in the Children’s Crusade and never returned to their parents. Fagin, like the legendary Pied Piper, became the unofficial leader of the stolen children.
Shapiro marveled at those lost children and adults, as well as their director and choreographer, Mark Clements, the Barrymore winner whose work has been performed in over 100 theatres worldwide: “On opening night, Brandon O'Rourke was the peppy Artful Dodger, Fagin's chief of staff. Anthony Lawton was superbad Bill Sikes, and John Peakes played the man who comes to the rescue in this colorful picture of London's bleak, bustling Victorian streets.”
We saw young Gregory Smith as Oliver—“the picture of cute,” according to Shapiro—a boy who perfectly fit the role. He was neither the regular rascal, nor did he look like an angelic poster boy for “Second Helpings.” Rather, an unusually bright and thoughtful fellow, both on and off stage, he fit the role of Oliver to a T.
Handsome Hugh Panaro, who toured with Barbara Streisand only a few years before, transformed himself into an ugly, decrepit, black-toothed Fagin, chief of thieves. In spite of his appearance, Panaro charmed the audience as easily as Fagin enchanted the orphans to comply with his conniving ways.
Reviewing OLIVER! reminds me of riding a rollercoaster in Disneyland: great “oohs and ahhs,” but also a deep fall from historical realities. Some critics vomit from the drop, like Rottenberg, who threw up his contempt for “Broadway’s continuing musical infatuation with the lower classes,” arguing that, in OLIVER!, as elsewhere, the “underdog ennoblement schtick . . . becomes formulaic.”
Rottenberg went on to lambast America’s oldest theatre and their production of OLIVER!, which, for him, illustrated the way that “In the hands of a commercial repackager like the Walnut, the formula inevitably includes rotating props, characters whose costumes are more colorful than they are, and choreography that substitutes athletic energy and noise for artistic finesse . . . It’s kind of like a restaurant that turns up the background music to distract attention from its pedestrian dishes.”
“DEODORISED MUSICAL DICKENS”
Rottenberg seemed to be much more in sync with his London colleagues in his opinions of Lionel Bart’s OLIVER! Those critics considered the lavish production on their side of the Atlantic “average”—at best. As THE INDEPENDENT’s Michael Coveny put it, “A masterpiece is restored, but not in its fullest glory.” Some, like Charles Spencer, mistrust the annual claims of a true-to-Dickens OLIVER!: “those involved are once again insisting that this will be a dark OLIVER!, a dramatic OLIVER! an OLIVER! when you feel the dirt under the characters fingernails.” Unfortunately, those good intentions did not materialize, with few exceptions, as Michael Billington allowed: “Only once did I feel an authentic whiff of Dickens — the creepy dual performances of Julian Bleach as a spindly, necrophiliac undertaker, and then a toothfully grinning, incompetent Dr. Grimwig.”
Spencer lays into the way Victorian urchins are being portrayed in modern England: “supposedly half-starved workhouse children are superbly choreographed, look so sweet and are singing Bart's witty and splendidly catchy ‘Food, Glorious Food’. It's a travesty of Dickens. It's absolutely fantastic showbiz.”
Benedict Nightingale of THE TIMES OF LONDON reciprocates Spencer and Coveny’s sentiment in his critique of OLIVER!: “Bart’s Fagin isn’t quite Dickens’s Fagin. Indeed, he lands up, not on the public gallows, but scuttling away into the London sunset, punished only by the loss of the jewels he has [. . .] regarded as a sound alternative to an old-age pension.” Fagin, in the London production, escapes his ghastly fate—much like he has escaped the formulaic Jewish stereotype —in practically all renditions of the Bart musical.
To add tackiness to sentimentality in the London production, a huge picture of the late Lionel Bart descended from the theatre heavens. Both actors and audience broke out in enthusiastic applause. Billington brazenly exposes this multi-million dollar production as an essentially thin “piece of deodorised musical Dickens. Bart may have been a great tunesmith, but he was a maladroit storyteller; what his version misses is Dickens's social anger and Gothic strangeness.”
Just as hard times call for hard measures, it seems that hard times, these days, call for easy musicals about the poor and downtrodden, or as Spencer put it, “once you have bought into Bart's shameless sentimentality, you remember that Dickens could be shamelessly sentimental too on occasion, and settle down to wallow in a superbly melodic musical that presses all the emotional buttons while seeming especially apt and uplifting in hard times.”
Dickens was the type of writer who told “important new stories and asked important new questions about today's world”—the way Philadelphia’s InterAct Theatre continues to present contemporary plays in our time. Dickens would have liked an InterAct production of his novel. However, the questions remain: Would audiences, especially during these economically problematic times, fill theatres where they expose themselves to brutal shards of hidden realities, like the plight of abused childen—whether in Victorian England or during the Holocaust? Or will contemporary audiences continue to feed the festively dressed cash cows at large theatres up and down the English-speaking world in return for feeling good about themselves—at least for two hours?