Nathan the Wise: Background – Part I

Nathan the Wise: Background – Part I

In the 2019th season of the Stratford Festival, Nathan the Wise (in the original German, Nathan der Weise) was paired with Birds of a Kind. The latter, as I tried to demonstrate in my review, is focused on identity politics and agents who are not what they seem to be. This is also true of each of the characters in Nathan the Wise. Both plays are also about ethnic, religious and political identity and the conflicts between and among them. There is a dramatic dialectic between the two spheres, identity arising from the struggle to reconcile the different parts of the self engaged in an internal civil war and the external identity markers imposed by one’s family and society. However, in Nathan the Wise, the difficulty is not primarily about knowing your cultural, ethnic and religious identity, but how identities clash and interact with others who carry different social markers. In Lessing, the drama of the play is to be found in the intimate, clever and very funny interactions.

Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, the son of a Christian pastor and himself originally educated and intended to serve as a Christian minister, wrote his final play in 1779 before the French Revolution against royal and Roman Catholic authoritarianism. The play was never staged during his lifetime. Birgit Schreyer Duarte, who directed Nathan the Wise at Stratford, according to her stage notes, evidently believes that we construct walls of prejudice and define our differences to give ourselves stability. In other words, Nathan’s Jewishness is an oversized and ill-fitting cover for the small, and perhaps in reality large, true human beneath. As I will try to show, this is precisely the opposite message of Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing’s good friend and the acknowledged model for Nathan in the play.

Presumably, that is why Nathan is played by Diane Flacks in an overcoat three sizes too large. That is why he (she) enters the stage with the lighting projecting the character as a black silhouette of an outsized figure. The real Nathan is hidden beneath that coat and the real Nathan will be a larger-than-life shadow figure. To repeat, Duarte believes that we construct walls of prejudice and define our differences to give ourselves stability. As a result, we become isolated, ignorant and walled in. Religion – Judaism, Islam and Christianity – are but superficial and weighty overlays to the true spirituality beneath. The wall, very specifically, the Western Wall in Jerusalem that forms the stage backdrop, is the signal and single large negative metaphor on stage of a play that Duarte interprets to be about false divisions among peoples who need to and should respect and appreciate one another for their differences.

“Perhaps it’s an instinctual act of self-preservation: erecting and maintaining walls, be they material or ideological, protects us from the threats of the outside world and helps us define ourselves in contrast to others. Walls give us stability, remind us of who we want to be [and presumably the reason Jews in the play stuff their notes in the crevices between the stones], who we don’t want to be. They are meant to keep our ideas of who we are intact and untainted. Of course, the same impulse is also what threatens to make us isolated, closed off, ignorant of what the world looks like beyond such borders, Ultimately, walls can make us more fearful of the unknown and foreign, rather than less.”

As Robert Frost wrote in “Mending Wall,” “Something there is that doesn’t love a wall.” Unequivocally, Birgit Schreyer Duarte does not love walls, especially the Western Wall in Jerusalem, for it is a symbol of oppression, of separation, of self-repression.

This, of course, is but a variation, a milder one mind you, of Karl Marx’s claim that religion “is the sign of an oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions…the opium of the people.” The function of critique was to allow people to overthrow these false covers, to throw off these false chains, to discard illusions and allow humans to move around freely in their own human skins. Then the true spirit beneath this heartless world will emerge. Duarte attempts to use Lessing’s play to unveil the true humanity that lies beneath Nathan’s oversized coat.

When Nathan first appears on stage in the Stratford production, anyone familiar with Nikolay Gogol’s magnificent short story, “The Overcoat,” a biting satire of the banality of bureaucracy, will almost certainly recall that tale now applied to religion rather than state administrative structures. Stratford’s production of Nathan the Wise is an interpretation of Lessing’s play in terms of the banality of institutionalized religion and, perhaps too strong a term for the occasion, its resultant evil. Religious differences are but arbitrary historical artifacts beneath which can be found the true source of the spirit of humankind, not reason but a common humanity.  

The play is set in Jerusalem during the Third Crusade at the end of the twelfth century. England’s King Henry II, France’s King Phillip II and the Holy Roman Empire’s German Emperor, Frederick Barbarossa, united to reconquer the Holy Land, oust Saladin (Salah ad-Din Yusuf), the Ayyubid sultan and nephew of General Shirkuh who had served the Syrian ruler, Nur ad-Din Zengi, so well. Saladin had first succeeded his uncle as vizier of Egypt when he died suddenly in 1169. The Muslims emerged victorious to rule Jerusalem in 1187, and once again occupy the Holy City. Christian forces made a beachhead in Jaffa and Acre, but otherwise failed to recapture the city. The failure reputedly killed Pope Urban III who died of shock on hearing the news.

Thus, the play is set at the crosshairs of two centuries of warfare between Christians and Muslims, with the Crusaders in general and the Knights Templar in particular, infamous for their pogroms against Jews to expropriate their wealth, even when very meagre, to benefit their crusades. The Muslims, in contrast, were renowned for their art and architecture, the depth of their learning and their tolerance then towards Jews. However, the historical context is ignored both in the program play notes and in the production.

The play makes much of the current Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a backgrounder, but nothing about the historical context in which the play was actually set, presumably between 1187 and 1192 when a peace agreement was forged between Richard I, who succeeded Henry II upon his death in 1189, that permitted Christians to visit the city, but only if they came unarmed. Jews were already, and had been there for centuries, peaceful residents of the city. What are we then to make of the soldiers in what looks like Israeli army uniforms carrying Kalashnikovs lurking menacingly throughout the play?

Nathan the Wise is a play about identity, about mistaken identities, in the strong tradition of dramatic farce, but, unlike those farces, Lessing’s play does indeed have a serious message about respecting diversity, about honestly acknowledging differences, but not necessarily cutting through them. As Moses Mendelssohn, Lessing’s model for Nathan, wrote: “Brothers, if you care for true piety, let us not feign agreement, where diversity is evidently the plan and purpose of Providence. [My italics.] None of us thinks and feels exactly like his fellow man: why do we wish to deceive each other with delusive words?” (from his 1783 volume, Jerusalem) Plurality of truths, not a universal humanity, was his message.

Nathan’s wisdom does not lie, as Duarte claims, “in his capacity to see beyond the façade (and the soldiers’ armour [sic!]), to recognize the religious and cultural identities as constructs under which the personal, the common humanity can be found if put in the effort to do so.” Moses Mendelssohn was an orthodox Jew. So was Nathan. The point of the parable on tolerance (see the next paragraph) is NOT to stress a common humanity, but to recognize and respect differences because no human is in a position to discern the ultimate truth. Nathan is not a man with a finely tuned emotional and intellectual intelligence, but is himself flawed in how he understands Daya, his daughter and the knight. But he does learn, as does Saladin, as does the Knight Templar.

The key to the play is Nathan’s parable of the three rings. A father has three sons each equally accomplished, each equally loving and each equally loved. To whom should he pass the ring as a symbol of his “favourite son” – itself a Jewish theme challenging the primacy of rights of the first born. He promises each son the ring and makes two copies that cannot be recognized as imitations and gives one to each son. The quarrel that emerges is over which son has inherited the authentic original when there is no empirical way to determine the difference. (Incidentally, a scientific fallacy, but take it as poetic license and a reference to the Kantian theme that answers to such questions reside outside the realm of reason.)

The authentic ring will emerge in who is guided by the best conduct, not on the historical origins of the ring. There is no authentic religion – neither Judaism, Christianity or Islam. For Nathan held that our behaviour, not our origins, determined our personalities. And one should not, as the Christian knights did, look down upon Jews engaged in trade and banking. For the Christian nobility in the twelfth century viewed reading and writing as an effeminate activity beneath the worth of courage and valour in battle. Jews were people of the book. Nathan was a merchant, but also a very learned man. The Christians knights were robbers not traders, fighters, not men of learning.

Moses Mendelssohn, the son of an impoverished Torah scribe originally intended for the rabbinate, became one of the most celebrated philosophers of the eighteenth century. Largely self-taught, he mastered Greek, Latin, French and English to be able to read his favourite philosophers in the original (e.g. John Locke’s essay in English on tolerance). In Lessing’s view, nobility belonged to character, not to physiognomy or inheritance. Moses was the epitome. Physically, he was the opposite in appearance to a noble, somewhat hunchbacked with a very far from attractive face, but he carried himself with nobility without the mannerisms and picaresque stereotype of the shtetl Jew. He was, as described by a Christian believer who wanted to convert him as a man of “keen insight, exquisite taste and wide erudition, frank and open-hearted,” but also thoroughly rabbinic.

Moses expressed that nobility, not only through his elevated thoughts, but through the elegance, beauty and lucidity of his writing and discourse. Lessing and Moses were famous and friendly chess competitors, just as Nathan and the unkempt dervish (and supposedly ecstatic), Al-Hafi, just as Saladin and his sister, Sittah, and Saladin and Nathan in the play are. But you would never know the importance of the metaphor of chess about intellectual competition under universal rules rather than conflicts of power and financial interests by watching the Stratford production of the play. For Lessing, as it was for both Immanuel Kant and Moses Mendelssohn, universality is in the rules of the game, in reason, in the principles guiding conduct, and not in human nature. Lessing was not a prototype of Jűrgen Habermas who esteemed discourse and empathizing with the other.

Like the three rings, the importance is not to find out whether Christianity, Judaism or Islam is the true religion, but to live a life worthy in the eyes of God. Muslims (Saladin) and Jews (Nathan) can play chess, Muslims and Muslims can play chess. A Dervish can play chess with a Jew. Even the Christian friar can play chess with a Jew, but would he do so as a betrayal of the Patriarch or as simply a convenient mode of spying on Nathan? Christians are conflicted, either disillusioned warriors after confronting the hypocrisies of Christianity, such as the Knight Templar played by Jakob Ehman (Eitan Zimmerman in Birds of a Kind), or men of the cloth which disguised their bloodthirsty propensities hidden beneath their religious garb, the Patriarch of Palestine played by Harry Nelken (Etgar in Birds of a Kind) – “The Jew must burn” – or Bonafides (Ron Kennell), the friar serving as the Patriarch’s messenger and spy on Nathan, or, finally, women, like Daya (Sarah Orenstein who played Norah in Birds of a Kind), a “true” Christian because she honestly serves and respects Nathan while retaining her Christian beliefs.

Duarte did not seem to understand this. Hence her interpretation – or should I write, misinterpretation – of the main character Nathan and the direction she gave to Diane Flacks who performs the role. The choice of using a female to portray Nathan is but part of the misinterpretation of the play to see it as an echo of Shylock’s speech in The Merchant of Venice, that is, after all, underneath our skin, are we not, male and female, Jew, Christian or Muslim, all humans? The answer, of course, is yes, but that is NOT the point of the play, but rather, that we respect difference, that we respect diversity, that we treasure distinctiveness and dissimilarity. We must applaud heterogeneity rather than homogeneity. And, most of all, we must applaud reason and wisdom from whomever it originates.

One final historical note. Why does Lessing name his main character Nathan? I think the answer is self-evident. In the Old Testament, as Christians call it, Nathan was the wise and diplomatic friend of King David. He served as David’s mentor and conscience. Nathan served as God’s messenger to David, not as David’s plenipotentiary to those he ruled or to other rulers. Most particularly, he articulated Judaism at its core as a religion to be guided into the future by God who made a covenant with His people.

But Nathan in the Bible is best known for his role as David’s superego. As everyone knows, King David, smitten by Bathsheba, arranges for her husband, Uriah, a loyal soldier in David’s army, to be sent to the front where he is killed in battle. This was clearly and unequivocally a sinful act. If Nathan confronted David directly, it might have meant his own execution. Like Nathan in Lessing’s play, the biblical Nathan offers a parable to King David. A very rich man, true to tradition, takes in and is host to a stranger. But he was also a skinflint. So instead of sacrificing the best of his flock, he took the plump and succulent lamb of a poor neighbour, in fact, a lamb who was a family pet, and sacrificed it for the festive meal for the stranger.

King David, outraged at the injustice, opined that the rich man ought to die for his sin. Then Nathan informs David that he is the rich man. He committed adultery and killed an innocent loyal Israelite. Nathan prophesied that the sins of the father will fall on the child and that David would be sinned against as he had sinned against Uriah. Nathan in the Lessing play, as I will try to show in Part II of this review, is the wise diplomat, not with a message about the universal nature of humans, but of the specific responsibilities of a Jew as well as respect for the differential characteristics of various religions.

To be continued.

With the help of Alex Zisman.


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