Nathan [the Jew] He was. I’ve much to thank him for. He shielded me on more than one occasion.
Brother: Then you must have been very happy to be able to take care of his daughter.
Nathan: More than you can imagine. [. . .]
Brother: When they are small, children need love, even the love of a wild animal, more than they need Christianity. So what could be wrong with the love of a Jew? Wasn’t our Lord Jesus a Jew?
Nathan: Brother, if hypocrisy and hatred are stirred up against me, I hope you’ll speak on my behalf. I do trust you, and I will tell you what no one has ever heard.
Berlin 1933-1945: Nathan the Wise in Nazi Germany
Nazi Germany, 1933. The Vatican rushes to become the first state to sign a pact with Adolf Hitler who promises to leave Catholics alone in return for the Vatican not interfering in German affairs. Rome sees the destruction of Jewish culture and the lives of millions as a German issue: The Pope does not intervene. The entire Jewish population in the Third Reich loses its rights that same year and is forced out of all professions, but the new rulers in Germany make a few cultural exceptions by creating a strictly enforced apartheid:
Joseph Goebbels, minister of Propaganda, allows the formation of the Jüdische Kulturbund (Jewish Cultural Federation) under Kurt Singer. On October 1, 1933, Nathan the Wise by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing opens the Kulturbund’s season at the Berliner Theater an der Charlottenstrasse, but no “Aryan” actors are allowed to perform—not even the role of the Christians in the famous German classic.
Goebbels gives strict instructions that, in addition, nobody is allowed to see Lessing’s master work, except for Jews, and even that only under the watchful eye of Nazi guards whom Goebbels sends to the theatre to make sure that “Aryans” are shielded from any work that dares to portray Jews as real human beings. Shortly thereafter, copies of Nathan the Wise end up on the heaps of books that are publicly burned. In the years to come, those Jewish theatre people, musicians, and artists who cannot flee Germany, Austria, and German occupied territories are forced to wear the star of David and eventually end up in concentration camps.
The German population is regularly warned about contacts with “Minderwertige” (subhumans) as it would lead to a “jüdische Infektion” (Jewish infection”) and expressions like “Jews are as useful as moths in one’s clothing, that’s why they’re not welcome” become widespread. Nationwide, Jews are portrayed as “Diebe und Lügner” (thieves and liars), as “Ungeziefer” (vermin) and as “Volksfeinde” (enemy of the people). More and more Germans begin to believe the blatant lies and distortions and eventually reject and ostracize fellow students, former colleagues, friends, and neighbors.
The Nazi propaganda machinery juxtaposes those nasty images with “healthy” Germans: “Aryans,” the true rulers of the world. Christianity, “German Christianity,” is portrayed as the only true religion. German theatres have little chance but to reconsider their repertoire: Nathan the Wise becomes Nathan the Muffled, Nathan the Invisible—in spite of various protests by intellectuals and theatre people here and there. German theatres are told in no uncertain terms that Nathan the Wise, one of Germany’s greatest classics, is forbidden from being performed in the Reich.
Nazis, in their endless stupidity, their triumph of arrogance, simply do not want to get challenged by Nathan, the Jewish Job of the Enlightenment. They refuse to recognize him as a fellow human being who suffered the loss of his wife and his seven sons, killed by Christians, and who had his house burned down and almost lost his daughter—after all, those events may be too close for comfort during the Third Reich, too close to what is to come during the infamous Kristallnacht on Nov. 9, 1938, the pogrom night of shattered glass and lives, and the Holocaust which follows.
And yet, in spite of it all, both then and now, Nathan is the same man who not only forgives but who adopts and brings up Rachel, a little Christian orphan girl, with a Weltanschauung, a world view, that gives her a chance to think for herself and to make her own decisions. His famous parable of the three rings shows Nathan as a visionary of the highest order, a wise philosopher, and a caring Mensch.
Lessing’s work was and is dangerous to ideologues around the world with statements like, “Habe Mut, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen" (Have courage to do your own thinking). This classic play must make anti-Semites cringe when they hear the Christian Templar beg Nathan, the Jew, “Wir müssen, müssen Freunde sein!" (We must, we will be friends). Similarly, the parable of the three rings, presented by Nathan to Saladin, the mighty Muslim ruler, in which all religions are presented as equal—are anathema to Nazi ideologues who rule, not only over politics, but over culture, religion, and people’s lives, and eventually bring more destruction and murder to Europe than ever before in its grave-heavy history.
Jerusalem 1192: The historical events around Nathan the Wise
The history of mankind is filled with discrimination, violence, and endless killings. 1192, the year Lessing’s play takes place in Jerusalem, is no exception in its chain of events:
• Conrad of Montferrat, King of Jersualem, is assassinated by a group of Muslim Hashshashin, who also nearly succeed in assassinating Saladin, the ruler over Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Hejaz (now part of Saudi Arabia), and Yemen. He leads the Muslim world against the Crusaders and recaptures Palestine from the Kingdom of Jerusalem. His chivalrous behavior wins him the respect of many crusaders.
• Richard I, known as Cœur de Lion, or Richard the Lionheart: Preparing for his coronation as King of England, he bars all women and Jews from the ceremony. When a rumor spreads that Richard had ordered all Jews to be killed, Londoners begin a massacre: “Many Jews were beaten to death, robbed, and burned alive, Jewish homes were burned down, and several Jews were forcibly baptized.” In 1192, following his campaign to the Holy Land (the Third Crusade), Richard stops short of an assault on Jerusalem and withdraws from the Crusade. On his return to England through Austria he is taken hostage by Leopold V.
• The Third Crusade fails to regain Jerusalem from Saladin; four more Crusades follow with varying results, until, by 1289-1301, Crusader forces are finally driven out of Palestine at the cost of thousands of lives, including many pilgrims.
• Having confirmed the dominant position of the Roman church over the kings of Europe, the Crusading movement, still drawing upon the central idea that crusading is an act of “penitence” that earns its soldiers the remission of sins from the Church, turns upon Europe itself (the Albigensian Crusade, Teutonic knights assault against non-Christian “pagans” in Northern Europe) and reinvigorates the “Reconquista” (reconquest) of Spain from its long-standing Moslem Kingdoms, which had contributed vital intellectual and cultural stimulus to the flowering of the Middle Ages in Europe.
• Saladin dies in Damascus in 1193, having established the Ayyubite dynasty, but with so little personal wealth that his estate cannot pay for an appropriate tomb. However, the Ayyubids usher in an era of economic prosperity in the lands they ruled and the facilities and patronage they provide leads to a resurgence in intellectual activity in the Islamic world.
Hamburg 1778: Lessing completes the first draft of Nathan the Wise
Into this historical background of unexpected demonstrations of chivalry amidst betrayal, ruthless executions and battles that would damage all sides, Lessing adapts Boccacio’s Tale of the Three Rings, to introduce his wise Jew, Nathan, who through reason, personal example, and deep humanity, shows how Jews, Christians and Moslems can learn to live with their differences. This resolution, however, is deeply challenging to those who believe that their religion or their ethnicity is more authentic and superior to that of all the others.
Lessing completes the first draft of his play in 1778 during the time of the American Revolutionary War, a year where Louis XVI declares war on Britain, a year that sees both Rousseau and Voltaire pass away, leaving behind a great legacy of the Enlightenment—a period that is crowned by Nathan the Wise, a play so challenging that even today it could cause a furor among those whose ideological orthodoxy does not allow them to look at other belief systems, let alone respect those who hold different views.
Way ahead of his time, Lessing, son of a Lutheran clergyman, models Nathan, the wise and generous, on his friend Moses Mendelssohn, “a creative and eclectic thinker whose writings [. . .] placed him at the focal point of the German Enlightenment [. . .] Dubbed ‘the Jewish Luther,’ Mendelssohn also contributed significantly to the life of the Jewish community and letters in Germany, campaigning for Jews' civil rights and translating the Pentateuch and the Psalms into German. Not surprisingly, as a Jew with an unwavering belief in the harmonizing effects of rational analysis and discourse, Mendelssohn rankled both institutional and self-appointed advocates of Christianity as well as Judaism” (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2006).
The murderously dogmatic Patriarch of Jerusalem is modeled on Lessing’s public arch enemy, Johann Melchior Goetze, one of the leading pastors in Hamburg, who “took up the cudgels of outraged orthodoxy and wielded them against Lessing [. . .], backed by the vast weight of orthodox opinion throughout Germany” (Farrar, 1894).
Even though Lessing dies before the first production of Nathan the Wise at the Berliner Theater in Berlin on April 14, 1783, his play gets attacked from the very beginning. However, thanks to the new wind of Enlightenment, soon his play becomes a major staple of German theatre and is studied in schools and universities. It leads to a renewed awakening of Jewish awareness and empowerment and helps “Taufjuden” (Jews forced to get baptized and convert to Christianity) to identify with the contributions of the Jewish community to culture and life in Germany and all over Europe. However, that renaissance of openness and enlightened ideas also fans old flames of Anti-Semitism in those who rejected new or diverse perspectives.
Hundreds of different productions follow over the course of time in theatres all over Germany. In 1922-23, a silent film of Nathan der Weise is produced in Germany, subtitled Erstürmung Jerusalems (Storming of Jerusalem), directed by Manfed Noa, with Werner Krauss as Nathan, a character actor who had been discovered by Max Reinhardt (born Maximilian Goldmann), celebrated stage and film director at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin and the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna.
Krauss had become world famous for his portrayal of the main character in The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Krauss’ portrayal of Nathan popularizes Lessing’s play even further. However, the film is lost during World War II, but a print is recovered in Russia in the 1990s and restored by the Film Museum of Munich. An excerpt is now accessible on the Net: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6J1rJyD4O1c
When Hitler comes to power in 1933, anything that even vaguely could be understood as being pro-Jewish is forbidden. However, the Führer supports productions of Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, particularly because of Shylock—a Jew who could easily be portrayed as a nasty, mean, and vengeful caricature, out to exploit others. The Nazi propaganda machinery uses Shylock as a warning to the population to stay away from Jews by getting theatres to perform The Merchant of Venice. However, theatres have to leave out any reference to the wedding between Lorenzo, a Christian, and Shylock’s daughter Jessica, as any alliance between Jews and Christians is seen by the Nazis as a dangerous, illegal, and perverse aberration.
Once the Third Reich is in full swing, Krauss, the famous film and stage star, touts Nazi ideology. Goebbels makes him an official “Actor of the State” and hires him to play the roles of two stereotypical Jewish characters – Rabbi Loew and Sekretär Levy – in Veit Harlan'snotoriously anti-Semitic Jud Süß (1940). Krauss also plays Shylock in a production of The Merchant of Venice, staged at Vienna's Burgtheaterin 1943, a portrayal so vicious that it has been called “extreme.”
Nathan the Wise, the literary Phoenix, rising from the ashes of the Holocaust
When the nightmare of the Third Reich came to an abrupt end after twelve years (although its architects had designed it for a thousand years), with millions of people dead and cities all over Europe in ruins, and when photos and films of the concentration camps were being shown around the globe—the world wanted to see a dramatic change in Germany, and no play symbolized that change better than Nathan der Weise.
Theatre after theatre in the ruined cities of Germany, from Berlin and Hamburg to Cologne, Frankfurt, and Munich, performed the old classic where a real Mensch, a modern Solomon, teaches some of the greatest lessons in life—a shocking experience, especially for young Germans who had been fed nothing but a strict Nazi diet of racial superiority and a hatred of anything Jewish.
After World War II, Germans had a great need for intellectual and spiritual renewal, for a national “Wiedergutmachung” (making amends for what had happened during the Third Reich). And no play did that better than the old German classic: Nathan was resurrected as a symbol of all that is good about the human spirit. As a result, the play was taught in the evolving new German educational system, was read in practically every school and university, and was performed on almost every stage. Nathan der Weise became one of the most popular plays performed on German stages and was recognized again as one of the masterpieces of German drama, as a symbol of the Enlightenment, celebrating acceptance of difference, maturity, and wisdom.
Our own time: Nathan the Wise traveling to America
In the United States, a country with different historical experiences and perspectives, famous works such as Nathan the Wise do not seem to have become as much part of the cultural scene as the works of Kafka or Brecht. Even the experienced and highly respected artistic director of the People’s Light and Theatre Company openly admits in her introduction to the program: “Hardly anyone has heard of it”—a shocking statement for this reviewer.
However, the theatre does a great job in introducing the play to its audience via a new program, called “The Scoop”: An hour before each show, a cast member gives a highly informative and yet non-bookish introduction to the play which contextualizes the events, based on the excellent work of Graham Graves, the international guest dramaturg at the People’s Light and Theatre.
I hope that Nathan the Wise will see many more performances in the US as an antidote to the violence and the disrespect for others. As one of the finest examples of the Enlightenment, this play gives audiences a chance to reflect on our own turbulent times: We recently witnessed the historical inauguration of the first African-American president in the US, only to see it followed by well-organized and publicized demonstrations of economic and religious fundamentalists who are rallying loudly against long-overdue reforms and changes in the United States.
2009 also saw the growing global awareness of life threatening climate changes and the plight of millions of unemployed people worldwide, a situation which is leading to insecurities that can easily turn into violence against minorities and individuals who are perceived as different, especially Jewish and Muslim communities. Similarly, violence against small countries like Israel and Palestine can quickly escalate the tension in the Middle East with consequences for everyone.
It’s against this background of ceaseless hostility that this production of Nathan the Wise in its contemporary translation by Edward Kemp (Artistic Director of the Royal Accademy of Dramatic Art in London) serves as a thought provoking marker, especially with the loving and thoughtful performance of Nathan by one of America’s popular film stars and stage actors, David Strathairn, at the People’s Light and Theater, in Malvern, near Philadelphia.
The artistic director, Abigail Adams, could have presented a Walt Disney-fied production with lots of sand on the stage, with Nathan riding in on a real camel, transporting this play into the world of 1001 Nights, and entertaining the audience the way the director of the Klosterfestspiele in Weingarten, Germany, did in 2007: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p0CN83jzd5A .
Adams could also have gone in the opposite direction and presented Nathan the Wise in a modern production where Saladin, dressed in a contemporary outfit, holds a revolver in Nathan’s face, as in the 2006 production of the Hans Otto Theater in Potsdam near Berlin: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LenOm4JSYaY .
Instead, we are treated to a quiet, a thought provoking, and a very human production where we see people of all backgrounds and social standing walk in circles, trying to find a resting place from all the external and internal turmoil of those days and, I dare say, of the turmoil in our own time, not only in Jerusalem but everywhere. The People’s Light and Theatre production stays true to its mission and searches for that light in this play which gives everyone an intellectual and emotional breathing space.
This production actually gives us pause to think and relate to the upheavals then and now, including the foibles of people who are running on dogmatism, like the mercurial young Knight Templar (Luigi Sottile), or the dangerously autocratic and high handed Patriarch of Jerusalem (Peter DeLaurier, actor, director, and co-founder of the Delaware Theatre Company, and one of the nicest people one could meet) whose religious ideology makes him utter the spine chilling line, “The Jew must burn“ (Tut nichts, der Jude wird verbrannt!), and the famous Saladin himself (played with great restraint by Stephen Novelli) who brought out a tortured humanity in a ruler that sometimes seems to get overlooked in other productions.
Brian Anthony Wilson, often seen in movies and on TV, played Al-Hafi as an Arabic Everyman who is poor one day, makes it big the next, only to be back to square one a little while later, leading to several humorous scenes. Similarly, the three women in the play show a humanity in which illusions mingle with a sense of reality, frailty and strength, fantasy and manipulation, all creating complex characters portrayed beautifully by Saige Thompson as Rachel, Nathan’s adopted daughter; Kathryn Petersen as Daya who watches over her like a mother; and Roslyn Ruffas Sittah, Saladin’s sister, both Machiavellian and emancipated-wise.
Graham Smith as the Lay Brother, the lowest on the social totem pole, reveals the secrets that lead to a happy, if unlikely, ending. He brings warmth, fear, and a quiet power to the role as if he were a reflection of all the players in Jerusalem in 1192.
From the Philadelphia area to the Middle East
Stage designed by Wilson Chin, with costumes by Marla Jurglanis and illuminated, literally, by Dennis Parichy, Nathan the Wise is so thoughtfully translated, directed and performed, that I would like it to travel to Jerusalem, where it could be performed for Israeli and Palestinian audiences and do what some organizations very successfully are doing in the United States, namely bringing together Jews, Arabs, Christians, Muslims, and secular audiences, to listen to each other and to find common ground.
Perhaps this play can travel from Philadelphia to the Middle East - After all, the famous parable of the three rings shows that nobody has a copyright on “the truth”; rather, each individual, each society, has to look for ways to grow and mature without attacking and killing others. And so, if this Nathan the Wise in its new translation could make it to Jerusalem, the Holy City, and contribute to an ongoing dialogue, a discourse that would continue after the actors have returned to the US, this production by the People’s Light and Theater company could have a greater impact than any of its many extraordinary productions during the last 35 years.
Jürgen Todenhöfer, author of Why Do You Kill, Zaid?, quotes Alexis de Tocqueville, the famous French historian, author of Democracy in America, and passionate champion of the freedom of the individual, who, in 1835 chastised his contemporaries whom he described in less than flattering terms: "If we reasoned from what passes in the world, we should almost say that the European is to the other races of mankind, what man is to the lower animals; he makes them subservient to his use; and when he cannot subdue, he destroys them."
Todenhöfer then points out: “For the liberal thinker there was ‘consequently no reason to treat Muslim subjects as if they were equal to us’." And he concludes: “And that is precisely how the West has treated the Muslim world for the past 200 years [. . .] The West is much more violent than the Muslim world. Millions of Arab civilians have been killed since colonialism began.” http://www.whydoyoukillzaid.com/en/mainmenu/10-theses/all-of-the-ten-theses/theses-1.html#c34
Aware of the often deadly consequences of the neglect of cultures whom we may not understand, and aware of the not too subtle contempt for Muslims and Arabs in the Western world, the Carnegie Mellon University’s School of Drama made theatre history when it presented Nathan the Wise as a live broadcast, via satellite, to an audience in the Arab world, made up of students, faculty and invited guests, including the Doha Players, the Qatari National Theatre, and the National Council for Culture, Arts, and Heritage of Qatar in Doha, Qatar, on March 11, 2006:
“We believe that staging this powerful and highly topical play, with its tremendous relevance to modern problems at home and abroad, within our communities and between them, is one way that theatre artists can connect to one another, forging cultural bonds that will help make ours a more peaceful world.”
If Germany, the country that is responsible for the Holocaust, can become one of the greatest supporters of Israel—within one generation—and if the United States, a country that imported more Africans as slaves than any other country, has managed to elect its first African-American president, then there is hope that eventually Muslims, Jews, Christians, and the secular—the people of the Middle East, the people of Jerusalem, the people of the Arab world—can sit together, and not only talk, but hear each other and work together and share that special ring in the spirit of Nathan the Wise: “Have courage to do your own thinking,“ working toward new ways of respecting each other—here and abroad.
Lessing would be delighted. And so would the world—or would it?
Nathan and Saladin’s joint testament: “You may go, but forever be my friend”
The verdict is still out, even though the answer could be found in Nathan and Saladin’s testament—in the conversation between Nathan the Jew and the all powerful Muslim ruler Saladin:
NATHAN: ‘And so,’ the judge went on, ‘if what you want’s a verdict, you must go elsewhere. But if you’ll take advice, I’ll tell you this: Accept the situation as it is.
[. . .] Maybe this was your father’s plan, to end the tyranny of the single ring. It’s clear he loved you all, and loved you equally. [. . .] Vie with each other to prove the power of your ring, through gentleness, tolerance, charity, and a deep humility before the love of God. And if after a thousand thousand years the power of the ring still shines amongst your children’s children’s children, then I’ll summon you again before this judgment seat. A wiser man than I shall then preside and he will give his verdict.’
NATHAN: These were the words of the modest judge.
SALADIN: God is merciful.
NATHAN: If you believe yourself to be this promised wiser judge
SALADIN: I am dust. I am nothing.
SALADIN takes NATHAN’s hand and holds it for a long time.
NATHAN: What is it, Sultan?
SALADIN: Nathan, my friend. Your judge’s thousand thousand years are not yet past. His judgment seat is not mine. You may go, but forever be my friend.
Nathan the Wise at the People’s Light and Theatre in Malvern near Philadelphia, PA, can be seen till Oct. 11, 2009. Contact: http://www.peopleslight.org/