European Jewish Theatre

From 1600 To The 20th Century.

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The Jewish stereotype on the London stage was finally broken in 1914 by three plays that treated Jews in some depth: Israel Zangwill's The Melting Pot, Harold F. Rubinstein's Consequences, and Herman Scheffauer's The New Shylock. In 1922 came Galsworthy's Loyalties, which treated the Jew and the prejudices surrounding him with dignity and objectivity. Leon M. Lion, the actor-producer, played in a revival of the play in 1928.

French Theatre

In most 19th-century French plays Jews were either caricatured or romanticized, the men portrayed as ugly, old, and dirty, and the women as noble, beautiful, and heroic, but there were three important exceptions.

Le Juif by Marc-Antoine-Madelaine Desaugiers (1772-1827) produced in 1823 included the benevolent character Isaac Samuel. The playwright Adolphe Philippe d'Ennery (1811-1899), who had been a public notary and was said to be a Jew named Jacob, criticized the convention that a Jew must be grotesque and repulsive. Catulle Mendes (1841-1909), whose father was a Jew, painted a sympathetic Jewish character in Les Meres Ennemies (1880). But there was no Jewish character in French drama as memorable as the English Shylock or the German Nathan the Wise.

Foremost among France's Jewish actors was Sarah Bernhardt who, though Roman Catholic by upbringing, was proud of her Jewish heritage; and Eliza (Rachel) Felix who died young, having become famous as an interpreter of French classic roles.

Beginning a German Tradition

In no other country in modern times did the theatre play as important a role as in Germany. And in no other country did the Jew figure so prominently in dramatic literature, in acting or directing.

In 1616, Das Endinger Judenspiel, dealing with the trial and burning of Jews for murder after the disappearance of a Christian family, was performed in Endingen (Baden). Following that Andreas Gryphius (1616-1664) presented his Horribilicribrifax (1663; after Plautus' Miles Gloriosus) featuring the boasting Jew Issachar; and, decade after decade from 1634, the Bavarian Oberammergau Passion Play has been staged, in the face of energetic Jewish protests. The 17th and 18th centuries produced a considerable number of villainous or at least reprehensible Jewish figures in dramatic literature.

Nevertheless, Germany, at a relatively early time, provided exceptions to the general attitude. Die Juden (1749), written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, boldly attacked Christian prejudice. Much more important, however, was Lessing's Nathan der Weise (1779) in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim characters present the idea that virtue is not bound to religion and that all religions are equally important.

The play was banned from the stage for a number of years. A considerable number of writers for the stage followed Lessing's example and created sympathetic Jewish figures in their plays.

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Dr. Frederick R. Lachman

Dr. Frederick R. Lachman was a noted Jewish scholar, author and historian. He died in 1998.