Nathan the Wise: The Director’s Misconception – Part II

As I suggested in Part I, Duarte misconceived the play. Duarte interprets tolerance as an ability to empathize with the other. In her play notes, significantly entitled, “Engaging with the ‘Other’: Nathan the Wise in the Twenty-First Century,” she asks, “why is it still so hard to talk uninhibitedly about our own personal faith, or lack thereof?” But Nathan spends very little time discussing his Jewish faith, Danny Ghantous has virtually no lines in which Saladin, discusses the core of his Islamic faith. And certainly, on the Christian side, there are a plethora of Christian “false” faiths, most notably in the role of the dogmatic, intolerant and bloodthirsty Athanasios, Patriarch of Jerusalem, and the friar Bonafides. Daya, for Lessing, a true Christian who works for Nathan and helps raise his “daughter,” Rachel, gives witness to her faith, but does not analyze it and only tangentially defends it. The one who wrestles with and exposes the fallacies of his faith is the Knight Templar.

Nathan the Wise is not only about tolerance (and appreciation?) of differences, but about the stupidity and intolerance of the dogmatism of faith, most especially and specifically, of Christians. Further, there is a difference between live and let live and respecting differences, and between respecting differences versus an in-depth understanding of the other. The latter may be a value of the twenty-first century. It was not a value even for Lessing in the eighteenth century. It was enough then to appeal to a common universalism, a value echoing in its own way the belief in universal reason of the Muslim, Jewish and Christian philosophers of the eleventh, twelfth and thirteenth century as Jewish pogroms raged throughout Christendom and Muslims and Christians slaughtered one another’s warriors.

In rarefied circles, such as in the encounters between Maimonides and Averrroes in the eleventh and twelfth centuries and intellectually with St. Thomas Aquinas who followed, all heirs in their own way of the eleventh century Avicenna (Abn Ali Al Hosain Ibn Abdallah Ibn Sina) and, via him, Aristotle, the loftiest virtue was not empathizing with the other and his point of view, but about the universality of reason. These philosophers all adhered to Avicenna’s principle of intellectus in formis agit universalitatem, that is the universality of ideas resulting from the use of reason. Lessing upheld that Enlightenment idea, as did his close friend Moses Mendelssohn, the model for Nathan, but not re-enactment in one’s mind of the very different thoughts and feelings of another.  

But cannot plays be adapted and reinterpreted for the present? Certainly, but not if you do not comprehend the original intent. For otherwise the words of the actors contradict the theme you want to impose. And the dramatic scenes, like the chess game, and Saladin’s loss to his sister, have no meaning except to dramatize Saladin’s anger when he was renowned for being a “cool customer.” Whether this venerable liberal belief in going beyond respect for differences to understanding and appreciating those differences is valid, it is a fallacy when imposed on the play. When you turn a drama into a preachy play about modern liberal ideology, you miss the whole dramatic core. For the play is not even primarily about the universality of reason.

Take some sample scenes. The play opens with Daya, the housekeeper and caregiver for Nathan’s daughter Rachel, welcoming David home from a business trip to Babylon and thanking the Almighty for his return. Nathan responds by teasing Daya about saying “at last” he had returned. “I could not have come back any quicker,” quips Nathan. Then the big news. His mansion had burned to the ground while he was away. But Nathan with his excellent sources already knew of this calamity. “Houses can be rebuilt.” Nathan, though a merchant, was not a possessive individualist. Further, he was a religious Jew and what mattered was the House of the Lord which continued through time and was not even reliant on the continued material existence of the Temple in Jerusalem.

Then the mood shifts dramatically to one of panic. For Nathan had not heard that his daughter had almost died in the flames.  “On the point of perishing!” Did she? Don’t torment me. [My paraphrase.] Daya replies that if Rachel had died, she would not have stayed to tell him. If she lives, why scare the shit out of me? Nathan replies. “Rachel, oh my Rachel!” “Your Rachel? Yours?” And we learn at the very beginning of the play that Rachel is not his daughter. Is she their daughter? Did Nathan have a secret affair with Daya that resulted in Rachel and Nathan hiring Daya as his housekeeper to raise Rachel? We do not know. But there is a plot puzzle set up at the very beginning. Rachel is both Nathan’s daughter and not his daughter.

These exchanges are quick. One page of dialogue is loaded. When the dialogue is crowded out with unnecessary stage activity, members of the audience are distracted and it becomes hard to grasp the subtleties of the language used and the quick shifts in mood. Besides, a scene takes three times as long as it should. The accumulation of time, and failure to entrap the audience while one can in the subtleties of what is taking place, results in a very long and very boring play in spite of many reviewers lauding the production for its scintillating excitement. My friend who also saw the play emailed me that she had fallen asleep and blamed herself for being tired.

What follows is a fundamental quibble between Daya and her “conscience” before God and Nathan with his behaviour, specifically, his honour and generosity. And then the introduction of the Knight Templar who saved Rachel’s life from the fire and who now occupies Rachel’s heart and mind. But a Templar in Jerusalem! Nathan would have thought that the Sultan had killed them all. But Daya hints that by a miracle, he alone was saved by Saladin. We hear this hint, but Nathan obviously does not, caught up as he must be in Daya’s recounting of the dramatic rescue and his own concern with giving the brave fellow an enormous reward. But the knight disdains Daya’s repeated entreaties to him that he must visit Rachel.

Nathan then conceptualizes what Rachel is feeling and why when,

“Disdained by one whom she must feel compelled

To venerate and to esteem so highly.”

Nathan’s deep compassion emerges as he imagines her torn between her heart, which is drawn to her rescuer, and her head regretting and resenting him for remaining aloof and remote. We in the audience, or as readers, will soon learn that this is not the case. But in this production, we never get a chance to do even that. For the shuffling, the jerkiness of the hand mannerisms, the smile that is almost a leer and generally inappropriate to the words, all a caricature of a shtetl Jew – which Mendelssohn was certainly not – distract one for the plain meaning of those words.

Daya is drawn towards the romance of it all. Nathan is dismayed by his daughter’s “dazzled spirit” and its wild enthusiasms wherein her passion is garbed in the cloth of reason that insists that Rachel only wants to thank her saviour. For Lessing, this is Nathan’s wisdom, the ability to distinguish between reason used as a romantic cover that constructs the other as a “guardian angel” and reason used to analyze the source of that cover. Nathan conspires to bring the Templar close, not to bond with his daughter as the action seems to imply, but to better destroy the illusion by bringing it close at hand, another point clearly and unequivocally intended by the words of the drama but the meaning missed by the mannerisms of the production.

And that is just the opening scene between Daya and Nathan that ends with Daya questioning the marriage of his goodness with his sly cleverness as Nathan sets out to excise his daughter’s romantic attachment. His words to his daughter when she appears are often ironic, but one does not expect to hear, and does not hear, even if the very words suggest it, that subtle and sardonic wit. For the actions are as much at war with the words as Rachel’s passions are at war with her reason, distorting that reason into a rationalization.

It certainly helps to know that Moses Mendelssohn, and thus Nathan, disparaged miracles when he questions characterizing the knight’s actions as such. For true and real wonders occur daily and everywhere. The world itself is a universal miracle. So why would a “thinking man” attach that term to the Templar’s action? Rachel might in a false hunt for novelty. But Nathan is not allowed to complete the thought for Daya upbraids him for using “vain subtleties” on a girl who has so recently been traumatized. This is no time for intellectual excision, she asserts.

However, Nathan does not back off. Was it a miracle that Saladin slaughtered all those others but saved this one and only knight and asked no ransom in return? Then the unknown as yet dramatic irony of Rachel’s response – then he could be no real knight, for Rachel had presumably been taught to dread the actions of these rapacious fellows. Daya re-enters the fray. What’s the matter with illusions? What is wrong with seeing the Templar as a saving angel? For, in the end, the world cannot be comprehended by reason.

I would swear that if you did a survey of the audience who watched the opening dramatic exchanges of Daya, Nathan and Rachel, and if they were otherwise unfamiliar with the play, the different intellectual positions and the subtleties of the exchanges would be lost upon them. They would comment on actors’ artifices rather than the meaning of the words, and the visuals borrowed from blockbuster movies. They might perhaps be entranced but left unenlightened by Lessing’s meaning.

The next scene is a lighthearted romp as Nathan reunites with his dear friend and chess partner, the dervish al-Hafi, and their interchange on beggars, whether rulers or fellows like himself, and lenders, whether skinflints who squeeze the most and give the least or generous money-lenders like Nathan himself. Then a new scene opens up in the dialogue between the friar who is following the knight. The former would solicit the knight to serve as a messenger between him and King Philip to whom he would disclose the weaknesses in the defense of Jerusalem, how warriors of the Lord could capture it and even the strategies of Saladin. The Patriarch aspires to be a spy on behalf of the crusaders as Eli Cohen became on behalf of the Israelis in Damascus, but not to defend their own land, but to make Jerusalem once again a satrap of Christendom. However, the Templar is a warrior of honour and not a spy, let alone messenger for a spy. So be a kidnapper, the friar replies. But Saladin spared him, saved his life because his voice, his manner and his features reminded him of his long dead brother. Why would he, the Templar, a man of honour, betray his saviour?

By now we know that Rachel is not whom she appears to be. Neither is the Templar. Like the two young lovers in Birds of a Kind, will these two also be star-crossed? What is the real character of each? Will the play end as a tragedy or a comedy?

Then Daya confronts and beseeches the Templar to visit Nathan whom she presents as rich and wise and, most of all, good. But the Templar refuses to be rewarded by a reviled Jew for saving a reviled Jewess. “A Jew’s a Jew.” But Daya knows that men (and women) are not always what they seem to be and somehow recognizes that antisemitism is the Templar’s shtick rather than a deeply ingrained feature of his character.

Act II opens in the Sultan’s palace with Saladin and his sister, Sittah, playing chess. The knight as a chess piece in the game becomes a marker for the Templar and a language for discussing the “castling of the king.” It is also a sign that Sittah is the brains behind his throne who often loses to her brother on purpose. And so she takes his queen and checkmates him. But in the Stratford production, Saladin is enraged by his loss and overturns the chessboard, whereas in the script he remarks that he could plead that he was preoccupied but acknowledges her superior dexterity. He is not riled up, but a very gracious loser (and ruler) who can acknowledge superiority even as a woman and, as we will learn, even a Jew. But the Saladin as presented on stage is not a valiant and superior warrior and a man of generous thought, but one presented as almost an adolescent with a petty disposition who, in an act of mercy, saves a Knight Templar, when the text is unequivocal that it is not an act of mercy at all, but compelled because the knight looked so much like his brother. There is no bond, tentative or otherwise, but a deeper bond that puzzles rather than being misunderstood. The reality is in the skin and not even beneath it; the unfolding revelations, not the misbegotten mushiness of Saladin, is the core of the drama.

One cries out and screams at the misdirection. But enough of productions over-concerned with cleaver staging and “original” (mis)interpretations that result in far too long and boring dramatic exchanges distracted by staging, explosions and the artifices of actors. The production is an extended bore, lengthened, I estimate, by at least a half by unnecessary stagecraft and, most of all, misinterpreted so that the intended meaning is lost and the stated interpretation becomes an imposed ideology, betraying at one and the same time Lessing, Moses Mendelssohn and liberal beliefs.

And then to reread Birgit Schreyer Duarte’s words: “Working on this production of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s Nathan the Wise made me look at the make-up of my own identity, along with my beliefs, presumptions, and fears, with greater honesty.” Well you would never guess that from watching the play. The production was indeed disorienting, but not in the way intended.

With the help of Alex Zisman.

One comment on “Nathan the Wise: The Director’s Misconception – Part II

  1. sandra herlick says:

    We are going to see the play tonight. I had heard it was amazing. You clearly didn’t think so.

    Sent from my iPhone


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