Sunday, February 12, 2012

Sunday Read: First Person: Dan Bray on The Jew of Malta

Dealing With an Unfortunate Reputation
Vile Passéist brings Marlowe to Winter
by Dan Bray

In many ways, the Jewish community’s eventual acceptance into 19th-century society must have been more terrifying to the predominantly Christian population than the minority’s previous isolation. Jews were suddenly hard to recognize, their integration meaning that they were no longer relegated to the fringe of society (ghettos, for example) or forced into traditional professions: “In the period from 1840 to 1900 the British image of the Jew progressed from a collection of stereotypes the financier, the peddler, the sharp entrepreneur, the rather shady ancillary of the machinery of the law to a more accurate representation of a Victorian bourgeois with distinctive religious practices and traditions”. Furthermore, Jewish involvement in global trade was on the rise, especially when it came to importing foreign goods (such as diamonds, coral, and spices) to Europe, a fact which makes the opening scene of The Jew of Malta more realistic (or if you are a 19th-century, Christian businessman, threatening.)

While Marlowe’s play is centered around one Jewish man, it also involves many covetous people of various religions...

The Jew of Malta has unfortunately earned the reputation of being outrageously anti-Semitic. While Marlowe’s play is centered around one Jewish man, it also involves many covetous people of various religions, all “united by their desire for gold”

Barabas, the titular Jew, bonds with the audience through manifold asides, and as we get to know him, we watch him transform from a sympathetic victim of his hypocritical government to a conflicted, disturbed killing-machine. The Jew of Malta is not a play for the faint of heart, and it demands its viewers to go in with an open mind; it challenges us to question both stereotypes and our expectations. The preconception that The Jew of Malta is primarily an anti-Semitic play is to do the play a great disservice: Marlowe’s disdain for all his characters and their beliefs pushes the play beyond anti-Semitism, especially when one realizes that Judaism hardly factors in to Barabas’ actions. While it acts as a catalyst for the action and although he often refers to himself as a Jew, he never does anything because he is Jewish. This is the largest preconception facing the play, but properly so. Marlowe does not make it easy for us to get past it, especially sinceas Barabas slips further and further into the eddy of revengehe finds himself enacting the role of the evil Jew because it is, in the end, the only sort of Jew his fellow Maltese know. His ultimate inability to separate himself from the role he plays seals his fate, and it allows Marlowe’s play to endure under the otherwise troubling designation as tragedy.

Jesse Robb as Barabas
Since the Renaissance ended, The Jew of Malta’s production history has been sparse and troubled. It was written between 1589 and 1590; it was originally performed at the Rose Theatre with the most popular actor of the times, Edward Alleyn, in the title role. It was performed regularly and most certainly taken in by Shakespeare; in 1632, however, the playhouses were closed due to the rising Puritan movement, and the play was not re-staged until 1818. Edmund Kean, as popular to his audience as Alleyn had been to his, took on the role, adapting the text to make it more palatable to the tastes of the Romantic period. He was unsuccessful. Although his performance as Barabas was unanimously praised, the production was shut down after eleven performances.

It is likely that this short run surprised Kean who had in many ways attempted to downplay the play’s anti-Semitism. He had even gone so far as to arrange an original prologue to the play, gently condemning Elizabethan prejudices, but his endeavours and adaptation proved to be in vain. Although he portrayed Barabas “with a human face, turning the character’s extravagant actions into reactions” and depicted his “murderous actions [… as] the legacy of his ill treatment”, his audience was still struggling with their new stance towards anti-Semitism, and the complicated representation of a central Jewish character proved too much to process. In their attempt to be sensitive, Kean’s audience went into Marlowe’s play expecting to be offended, afraid that to condone such a play would be to revert the anti-Semitism “that remained deeply embedded in the English psyche”.

...this production has presented many challenges that we had not foreseen.

Regardless of how you stage The Jew of Malta, it is forever doomed to be at least a palimpsest of the “savage satire” (as T.S. Eliot called it) that made Marlowe [in]famous. Seeing as modern audiences are even more cognizant of atrocities committed against the Jews than Kean’s audience (some of the most obvious examples taking place between their time and ours), this production has presented many challenges that we had not foreseen. While it would be false to say that the thought of omitting the anti-Semitic passages was not tempting, we have opted to preserve Marlowe’s text as much as possible. This season is dedicated to representing “the Other” in society, and to whitewash our production the way that Kean did his is to seriously handicap both VPT’s mandate as well as Marlowe’s tragedy. We have set our play in the same period that Kean staged his production in order to explore how anti-Semitism evolved in England (and Europe) around that time. Preserving the text also provides essential insight into the early-modern period, where anti-Semitic fervour was fuelled by a complete lack of knowledge about the minority they were disparaging (there had been hardly any Jews in England since they were expelled in the 13th century, which also explains why Marlowe set his play in southern Europe). Therefore, Marlowe’s Jew was built from stereotypes, but Barabas is still able to transcend these stereotypes and become a versatile protagonist worthy of his creator.

Many people assume that The Jew of Malta is not typically staged because it is so anti-Semitic. Rather, the truth (in my opinion) is that it is not staged because it is not Shakespeare. One may argue that Shakespeare’s play, The Merchant of Venice (written about six years after Marlowe’s), outdoes its predecessor in terms of anti-Semitism. Although Shylock is a compelling character, one must be careful of trusting him too much. Like Barabas, he has been unfairly treated by his fellow Venetians, but the bulk of the play’s action is motivated by Shylock’s insistence to persecute the titular merchant according to his religion. His stubbornness seals his fate: “The citizenry of Venice and its political leadership all repeatedly implore Shylock to show forgiveness and be merciful, implicitly as a Christian would […]. Shylock's insistence on […] inflexible and legalistic justice, and on violent revenge as a form of justice are rooted in medieval and Renaissance Christian concepts of Judaism as a legalistic religion that emphasizes unjust forms of ‘justice’ according to an outmoded and indefensible Talmudic law in contrast to the supposed Christian emphasis on mercy and forgiveness.”

(Click to enlarge)
Yet, Barabas’ violence (as opposed to Shylock’s) is not motivated by his religion, but rather as a reaction to his exploitation at the hands of the Christian government. This manipulation, compounded the Christians’ fear that Barabas is just an evil stereotype, is (in our production, at least) the very sort of oversight that fuels his rage. Barabas ultimately plays into the stereotype of the murderous Jew because that is the role into which his society has forced him. Unfortunately, as Barabas’  vengeance spirals out of control, he inevitably becomes the monster that they always imagined him to be. 

Marlowe’s untimely death cut his canon short, and what he left us with is a rich and diverse handful of plays, albeit one rife with complicated characters and themes. VPT’s 2012 winter season is dedicated to depictions of “the Other,” and I believe that there are very few shows from the period that provide us with as many fascinating and controversial figures as The Jew of Malta. Regardless of what Marlowe intended (and in spite of what cursory readers impose on the play), Barabas is a provocative and multi-faceted character and his play is able to adapt to different audiences’ sensitivities: his inherent versatility provides an endless source of possibilities for directors, actors, andof coursethe people who watch his tragedy.

Dan Bray is the Artistic Director and founding member of Vile Passéist Theatre. The company exclusively stages early-modern drama highlighting the works of various playwrights who are typically overshadowed or marginalized by William Shakespeare. VPT’s fourth season includes two works by Christopher Marlowe: The Jew of Malta and Edward II. This summer, VPT is also producing Thomas Middleton’s short play, The Yorkshire Tragedy. Its 2013 season includes two plays by John Fletcher, The Tamer Tamed and The Maid’s Tragedy (with Francis Beaumont). 

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