Thursday, April 28, 2016

Nathan the Wise

John Christopher Jones and F. Murray Abraham (photo: Richard Termine)
Last evening I went downtown to the Classic Stage Company to join my friend and fellow 18th-century scholar Vivian Gruder for a performance of Lessing's Nathan the Wise. Truth be told, I would have preferred to see Emilia Galotti, as Nathan had always seemed to me to be dramatically indigestible. But a surprise was in store, what with the new translation by English director Edward Kemp, which complemented the clever staging: the characters' faith identified solely by the script on the robes that they wore, and a spare setting indicated by several large Oriental rugs.

The Parable of the Three Rings, by Boccaccio (in Polish?) (illustrator: Joana Rusinek)
I was impressed anew with the way a new staging can offer profound insights into familiar plays, especially canonical ones. The past two years I have attended all-female productions of Julius Caesar and Henry IV at St. Anne's Warehouse in Brooklyn (presented in conjunction with the English company, Donmar Warehouse). I will never again be able to read Mark Antony's speech without being struck by its self-serving manipulative power, somewhat in the manner of modern politicians and celebrities. Although perhaps I am being unfair to public figures: it concerns the power of oratory generally, which can occur in any setting.

Shakespeare's plays can of course be shortened, but most directors don't fudge on the language, and the St. Anne's productions truly brought home the brilliance of Shakespeare. But Lessing in translation can of course be "updated" and thereby avoid the ponderosities of the play's text. And "the message" comes through very clearly, which is no doubt what Lessing intended: war is terrible, but worse when motivated by religious differences. (The huge backdrop alternated between an Arabic text –– the Koran? –– and a contemporary photo of a bombed Jerusalem street.)

Lessing may have intended to present the common humanity of people of all faiths, but this production presented us not with "Menschen" in the abstract, Enlightenment sense, but with real "Menschen" in the Yiddish sense, especially in the performances of F. Murray Abraham as Nathan and Austin Durant as Saladin. Perhaps this aspect could only be pulled off in New York City. If you find yourself not quite crediting the platitudinous sentiments expressed in the original play, so, too, the characters on the stage at CSC. The translation goes for humor. I wonder if German productions could take similar liberties and work so well.

And while I sat dreading the moment when the Templar discovered his true relationship with Rachel, I found the transformation from lover to brother convincing. But what, I ask myself, was Lessing thinking with this last-moment turn of events? Edward Kemp has a very nice discussion of Lessing on his website.

Picture credits: Richard Termine; Striped Dot Studio

No comments: