Jack Charles v the Crown: a theatre review

Jack Charles v the Crown: a theatre review


Howard Adelman

Currently, a series of Australian plays is being performed at the Berkeley Theatre by Canadian Stage called, “Spotlight Australia.” We saw the first in that series entitled “Jack Charles v the Crown.” It is rare, for it is an autobiographical play with Jack Charles as the sole performer and co-writer (the other co-writer is John Romeril). The play is directed by Rachael Maza who, in real life, is Jack’s niece. She grew up in the shadow of this talented Australian actor and performer. [Jack along with Rachael’s father established Australia’s first Aboriginal Theatre Company in Melbourne in 1972.] Rachael was the director of that marvellous Australian film, Rabbit Proof Fence. Jack Charles is an older aboriginal Australian who hails from Boon Wurrung, the territory in East Victoria stretching from the Werribee River to Wilson Promontory. The Boon Wurrung people make up one of the five Kulin nations.

“Nation,” not tribe, as I shall elaborate in a future blog, is the proper term for that people. As the governments and civil society entities of Western settler states came to realize and finally acknowledge, those states have been constructed on land once owned and governed by aboriginal peoples. At Massey College, where I am currently a Senior Fellow, events open with a tribute paid to the aboriginal people on whose lands Massey College was built. This ritual is becoming widespread. For example, after students stand for “O Canada” in Etobicoke schools in Toronto, a statement is read as follows:

“In keeping with Indigenous protocol, I would like to acknowledge this school is situated upon traditional territories. The territories include the Wendat, Anishinabek Nation, the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, the Mississaugas of the New Credit First Nations, and the Métis Nation.”

“The treaty was signed for the particular parcel of land that is collectively referred to as The First Purchase and applies to lands west of Brown’s Line to Burlington Bay and north to Eglinton Avenue.

“I also recognize the enduring presence of Aboriginal Peoples on this land.”

I first encountered this ritual in New Zealand. There, for example, at Massey University (35,000 students) in Palmerston in North New Zealand, the university is even given a Māori name, Te Kunenga ki Pūrehuroa. For years, all events have been introduced with a tribute to the Māori people, the previous owners of the land on which the university was built. The ritual is now becoming more widespread in Canada. I will have more to say about this ritual in tomorrow’s blog, but suffice it for now to state simply that ritual is not about any action that changes the world, but about acknowledging and recognizing the world we live in and offering a path to negotiate our existence in the world through a process of creating community. Rituals establish a shared community.

The play at the Berkeley Theatre also opened with such a tribute, the same one that is read at the opening of events at Massey College in Toronto.  In this case, the relevance cannot be missed. For the drama is a story told by an older victim of state-sponsored political abuse of aboriginal peoples. In this case, Jack Charles was snatched from his parents at the age of only three months to be “civilized” as an Australian in a residential school.

The results were otherwise. Jack was sexually and physically abused and the results of his isolation from his family and the abuse to which he was subjected wreaked havoc on his life. This part of his life is told as backdrop drawn from his documentary, Bastardy, in which pictures of his heroin habit and self-injection as an addict (toy-yon – it) and voiceovers of his criminal record of thieving (nyeelam-but pinbullally – bul) taken from court records are read as the court documents are projected onto the screen. Jack spent years in prison, (Baambuth – al), one time serving a five year stretch. Though that is the backstory, it is not what the play is primarily about.

Jack is a talented actor (djilak-djirri – dha Jack) and singer (yinga-dha koolin Jack) and the performance is accompanied by a three-piece trio as backup to Jack when he sings and plays his guitar. There is also a potter’s wheel on stage. For a good part of the drama, Jack is sitting at the potter’s wheel molding clay bowls (marnang-bul Jack) as he tells his story to the audience. Clay and its molding are openly symbolic as well as true to his life, for Jack taught pottery when he was in prison. And the play is about clay and how we are molded like clay by social institutions and our own will to survive and thrive. The play is primarily about Jack as a proud Kulin man (dullally koolin) ready not only to tell his story, but to confront the criminals who abused and jailed him.

This is done with such humour and irony that the juxtaposition of the entertainment and the horrific nature of the tale make the autobiographical account all the more powerful as Jack sings and tells his life story (dhumba – dha ba yinga-dha weegan-dha Jack). The play, if it is a play, for it is as much performance as a drama put on stage, reaches what I would characterize as its climax when Jack stands confronting his judges and asks, not for his redemption from his crimes and misdemeanours, but for the redemption of the people who did what they did to a young aboriginal child. This is all done in a speech that is without bitterness, a speech that in fact has all the formality and politeness of the culture of English courts, but said with both irony and playfulness, “warm of heart” and “sharp of wit” as Rachael notes in her catalogue notes.

Jack owns up to the fact that he was a heroin addict and a thief to service his addiction and is willing to take responsibility for the crimes he committed. He stole jewels and money. He is fully aware that, through his acts, he created a sense of intrusion among his victims. But the white system of laws and government stole much more people and lives. Our state trafficked in cultural genocide. Jack asks the judges whether they are willing to acknowledge and account for their sins. In the process, he compares black and white systems of justice.

When an aboriginal in his own community commits an offence, he is either banished from his people for a specific time or metaphorically wounded in the heel by a spear. But then, after being punished, he returns to the community with his dignity intact as a full-fledged member of the nation. In contrast, in white justice, the person is given a record that follows him for the rest of his life and affects whether he can be employed. In America, as documented in 13th, a person convicted is deprived of his right to vote as a citizen. Further, as Jack wryly notes, when he was about to travel to Britain to receive an award, the British immigration department, five days before he was scheduled to depart, turned his request for a visa down because he had a criminal record.

As Jack “tickles” the consciences and consciousness of the members of the audience, and avoids self-righteous ranting and berating, the very performance becomes an act of redemption so appropriate for the Passover/Easter period. The result is not only the strengthening of the aboriginal community, but through empathy, strengthening the community of aboriginal and non-aboriginal community members as well as “the ties that bind” all of humanity as the play is given a world audience.

It is hard to convey how powerful the play is with a total absence of self-pity. Self-pity is the dark side of sincerity and this drama avoids that pitfall totally. Instead of self-righteousness, the drama offers a source for us to reflect upon and determine how we ought to act as Jack asks the judges, not so much to pardon and set aside his sentences, but to acknowledge their own part in a criminal activity and to themselves seek redemption.

The play is more than a dramatization of a personal life, for it is a parable about the backs upon which modernity was developed and the absences from cognition, from acknowledgement, from recognition, to the presence of ever larger senses of community which at the apex recognize that we are all part of the same humanity. This is not simply a story about extreme abuse and suffering, but it tells a story about the costs of modernity that both stresses and facilitates redemption.

How appropriate to stress the performative, not as a sound bite or a thoughtless tweet, but as a repetitive act each evening to allow us all to become batter and part of a much-improved world more conscious of our common humanity. For our aboriginal peoples may have been among the groups most negatively affected by the process of modernity, but to a lesser degree victimization goes much further. We have transformed our world into a hyper-technical system without any grounding in redemption. Entertainment and performance have, in good part, become part of a system for abusing respect for sincerity, for truth and for others. Sea levels may be rising but see-levels have been declining precipitously. The liberal imagination may have delivered us a powerful foundation for individual freedom, but it has also come at a great cost that has left individuals increasingly isolated without sovereignty over themselves and the ability to determine their own destinies. Humans around the world, increasingly left to fend for themselves, provide a terrific opportunity for slippery soap salesmen to sell a fraudulent bill of political goods.

Thus, although Jack committed crimes, he was the greatest victim by far of his felonies, even as he openly acknowledged the discomfort, the sense of personal invasion, that robbery and theft of personal belongings instill. Though Jack’s survival never seemed to be in danger, his sanity was. Nothing came easy. He suffered from PTSD in the worst way. One song he performed was “No Son of Mine” that begins:

Well the key to my survival
was never in much doubt
the question was how I could keep sane
trying to find a way out.

Things were never easy for me
peace of mind was hard to find
and I needed a place where I could hide
somewhere I could call mine

I didn’t think much about it
til it started happening all the time
soon I was living with the fear everyday
of what might happen that night.

Though he once hid in booze and heroin, the play ends with a degree of recognition about society. Jack Charles sings, “Love Letters in the Sand.”

On a day like today
We passed the time away
Writing love letters in the sand

How you laughed when I cried
Each time I saw the tide
Take our love letters from the sand

You made a vow that you would ever be true
But somehow that vow meant nothing to you

Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand

Now my broken heart aches
With every wave that breaks
Over love letters in the sand.

Jack Charles lived a life of promises that had as much sincerity, depth and permanence as letters written in the sand. He grew up with a broken heart and a shattered soul. Yet he redeemed himself through performance and theatre making it possible for us to be redeemed as well.


With the help of Alex Zisman


The Greek Versus the Modern World of Art: The Bacchae and Venus in Fur

The Greek Versus the Modern World of Art: The Bacchae and Venus in Fur


Howard Adelman

In David Ives’ play, Venus in Fur, there is a running joke about the confusion between ambiguity and ambivalence. In Euripedes’ play, The Bacchae, the sexuality is very ambiguous; we are uncertain about how to interpret the performances. In Ives’ play, the interpretation is not ambiguous  – as Tom makes clear to Vanda over and over again – but the choices are ambivalent. With all his clarity of intention, Tom constantly reveals himself to be uncertain about which choices to make. Ambiguity is about interpretation; ambivalence is about choice and action. The Bacchae is a play about ambiguity; Venus in Fur is a play about ambivalence. Ambivalence makes you prone to surrendering your will to another and becoming the other’s bondsperson. In contrast, the actions in the Bacchae are direct, savage, erotic, bestial and absolutely ruthless. Venus in Fur has as its lead player a dithering playwright pretending to know what he is doing, where he is going and how to get there and the raw artistry of a true thespian, Vanda, who takes him there.

Compare Vanda of the play and Dionysus of The Bacchae, a play which came to the stage almost exactly twenty-five hundred years ago. Dionysus is a god in a human shape rather than a person who takes on the pretence of a god or an actress who transforms herself into a deity on stage. Dionysus is both male and female as well as both god and man even though Dionysus is referred to in the masculine form. So while Venus in Fur is about the human realm (as is Venus in Furs), The Bacchae is about the realm of the divine. In that Greek tragedy, the direction is never anything but un-ambivalent, a characteristic of the Greek divine realm; however, the messages delivered to humans are always ambivalent and full of double meanings. The Greeks did not produce nineteenth century moral fables with clear and dogmatic lessons that one could take away from a performance.

However, all three works of art have one common thread. There is no justice meted out at the end. Did Tom deserve to have his relationship with his fiancé shattered just because a tempestuous and highly skilled actress came late to his audition and took him off guard, or because he seemed so self-certain and proved he was not, or because he lost his way? Did Severin deserve to be so mistreated and cast off because he desired to be a total slave to a woman of beauty?  Did Pentheus, Cadmus and Agave deserve their horrible fates in The Bacchae?

We cannot answer these questions because they are the wrong questions to ask. In Greek drama, the punishment is not commensurate with the acts but, rather, is fated.

Watchers are there in the skies,

That can see man’s life, and prize

Deeds well done by things of clay.

But the world’s Wise are not wise,

Claiming more than mortal may.

Life is such a little thing;

Lo, their present is departed,

And the dreams to which they cling

Come not. Mad imagining

Theirs, I ween, and empty-hearted!

[Gilbert Murray translation of The Bacchae]

The same point is true of both Venus in Furs and Venus in Fur. Both are works of fiction in the Greek mould. In The Bacchae that fate is both majestic and horrific; in Venus in Furs, the complete degradation of Severin belongs to a purgatory of his own making. In Venus in Fur, the total reversal of the roles of the director/playwright/casting director and the auditioning actress is both magical and human-all-too-human. In the modern era, humans are supposed to be masters of their own fate. In the Greek world, they are simply playthings of the gods and inherently can never be masters. Only in the Hebrew world and the legacy it left can men aspire to be divine yet be fully human and responsible for all their actions even when men become idolatrous and are prone to worship at the feet of their vision of the divine feminine while, in reality, they continually make the same mistake and believe that power is equivalent to force. Woe it is when women are seduced into the same folly as in The Bacchae.

What if the women were actually divine or, under the spell of a divine god such as Dionysus? Would they abandon men as superfluous? Would they engage in bacchanalian revels? Would brave men take on the gods and declare war as King Pentheus does to rescue their women folk from a cult of absolute ecstasy? The twist in Euripides is that, as in Venus in Furs and Venus in Fur, an unarmed woman can defeat an army of men and make them submit. Further, in The Bacchae, man, in the role of King Perseus, is torn limb from limb by the savage bacchae when they are seduced by the wonders of sexual ecstasy. Perseus attempts to join the women by disguising himself as one of them and becomes their victim. But that is not the worst. His main butcher is his own mother under an ecstatic spell. Her fate is even worse than her son’s for she is brought back to “her senses” and comes to recognize that it was she who danced around with her son’s severed head.


Thou bearest in thine arms an head—what head?

AGAVE ( beginning to tremble, and not looking at what

she carries).

A lion’s—so they all said in the chase.


Turn to it now—’tis no long toil—and gaze.


Ah! But what is it? What am I carrying here?


Look once upon it full, till all be clear!


I see … most deadly pain! Oh, woe is me!


Wears it the likeness of a lion to thee?


No; ’tis the head—O God!—of Pentheus, this!

Thus, Cadmus, the old king, his daughter, Agave, her son and the grandson of Cadmus, the current King of Thebes, Pentheus, and his aunt, Semelé, Cadmus’ other daughter, become the twisted lengths of the same serpent fatalistically turning on itself. The play begins with a son of god, the only child of a divine being in human form, Dionysus, coming down to earth. Dionysus, was the love child of Zeus’ affair with Semelé. Dionysus is, in fact. the divine or half-divine half-human cousin of Pentheus swearing to wrack revenge before his mother’s tombstone for the slaying of his mother at the hands of the divine Hera and her fury at and jealousy of Semelé.

Behold, God’s Son is come unto this land

Of heaven’s hot splendour lit to life, when she

Of Thebes, even I, Dionysus, whom the brand

Who bore me, Cadmus’ daughter Semelê,

Died here. So, changed in shape from God to man,

I walk again by Dirce’s streams and scan

Ismenus’ shore. There by the castle side

I see her place, the Tomb of the Lightning’s Bride,

The wreck of smouldering chambers, and the great

Faint wreaths of fire undying—as the hate

Dies not, that Hera held for Semelê.

And you think modern drama can be complicated! But why pick on Thebes? The answer is presented at the beginning of the play. The people of Thebes thought that their King, Cadmus, had made up the story when his daughter became pregnant and said that the father of her child was Zeus. They believed their ill fate was a result of their king and his daughter’s lie when the real reason was their own lack of faith and their failure to recognize the divine origins of Dionysus. Pentheus himself refuses to worship with his people in accordance with the rites and ecstatic mysteries of Dionysus. As Dionysus says:

I cry this Thebes to waken; set her hands

To clasp my wand, mine ivied javelin,

And round her shoulders hang my wild fawn-skin.

For they have scorned me whom it least beseemed,

Semelê’s sisters; mocked by birth, nor deemed

That Dionysus sprang from Dian seed.

Only the old king Cadmus and his prophet, Teiresias, see and recognize the truth.

A little family history is helpful. Cadmus had four daughters. One, Autonoe, who taught the arts of prophecy and the healing skills of Asklepios, married Aktaion, the great hunter and grandson of the greatest female hunter in all of Hellas, Kyrene, a tomboy par excellence who won the kingdom of Libya by hunting down and killing a lion who had turned to making human beings its prey. Aktaion by chance on a hunt saw the goddess Artemis naked bathing in the company of her nymphs. In revenge for espying her naked, Artemis turned Aktaion into a deer and his own dogs tore him to pieces.

Behind this murderous act may have been the tale that Aktaion was really in love with his own aunt, Semelé, or because Artemis was acting at Zeus’ behest, or because Aktaion dared to compete for hunting perfection with Artemis herself, or in revenge for Aktaion’s attempted rape of his own aunt, or a long list of other possible motives depending on whose account of the story you take up. One of the many ironies is that Aktaion’s own sister, Makris, had been the nurse for the god-man Dionysus. Further, his own father, Aristaios, after being initiated into the Dionysian cult became a wanderer after Aktaion’s  death until he was lost forever – the same fate that lay in store for Cadmus, the old king..

Semelé was Cadmus’ second daughter. The greatest and mightiest god of all, Zeus, who fell head over heels in love with her and seduced her, then promised, like Severin, that he would do anything for her that she wished. What did she ask of him when she was pregnant? To test his love, she asked him to make love to her as he did with his own wife Hera, a request Hera herself had suggested when she visited Semelé in the guise of a Thebean nurse. Zeus was dumfounded on hearing the request but was bound to fulfill it. He returned on his chariot and threw a thunderbolt at Semelé, who, because she was human and not divine like Hera, was reduced to ashes. Thus, when Vanda in Venus in Fur enters the rehearsal hall to thunder and we hear her rail and swear at the gods for her misfortune, and later there is a reference to The Bacchae, the association of Semelé’s fate comes to mind, or, at least, the reversal of the fate, or even possibly Semelé’s rebirth as a Jersey fugitive with a potty mouth who would reverse the process and exercise her revenge on man.

Semelé’s six month old foetus was saved when Semelé was reduced to ashes; the foetus, “he babe-god hidden in the torn flesh of his sire,” was brought to full maturity by being sewn up for another few months in the thigh of Zeus. Thus was the one son of god born of both a woman and a man as well as being a child of both a human and a divine being. Perseus rejects the tale as a lie in spite of what his old grandfather, Cadmus, and his prophet Teiresias tell him.

This tale of Dionysus; how that same

Babe that was blasted by the lightning flame

With his dead mother, for that mother’s lie,

Was re-conceived, born perfect from the thigh

Of Zeus, and now is God! What call ye these?

Dreams? Gibes of the unknown wanderer? Blasphemies

That crave the very gibbet?

The third sister was Ino who, at the request of Zeus, adopted Dionysus. But Hera drove both Ino and her husband mad. Zeus intervened once again to save Dionysus from Hera’s jealous wrath and turned him into a goat to be raised by some nymphs. (Before this happened to Ino, there is a side story, a Greek version of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, a story of Ino tricking her husband into sacrificing her stepson on an altar as a sacrifice to god who at the last minute is saved by the substitution of a ram.).

The fourth daughter of Cadmus was Agave who plays a very important part in The Bacchae for she is the only one left of the bloodline whom Hera is determined to destroy. To be sure, all of Thebes must be destroyed. It is Hera, using Dionysus unbeknownst to himself, who lures the women, including Agave, into a cult of ecstasy.

For his kingdom, it is there,

In the dancing and the prayer,

In the music and the laughter,

In the vanishing of care.

Perseus is convinced by Dionysus (in disguise) to spy on the ecstatic rites in which the women are engaged. He thinks they are caught up in the worship of Aphrodite – that the dramatic frenzy is all about love and eros and he is determined to erase the cult of this false God, Dionysus. Behind the impression of Aphrodite is the work of Dionysus and behind that the vengeful, manipulative power of the scorned god, Hera. However, Perseus is discovered, torn to pieces by the women, after his own mother, Agave, cuts off his head and carries that severed head around in a dance of ecstasy. In irony, Dionysus becomes Hera’s tool for the destruction of Thebes.

And up they sprang; but with bewildered eye,

Agaze and listening, scarce yet hearing true.

Then came the Voice again. And when they knew

Their God’s clear call, old Cadmus’ royal brood,

Up, like wild pigeons startled in a wood,

On flying feet they came, his mother blind,

Agâvê, and her sisters, and behind

All the wild crowd, more deeply maddened then,

Through the angry rocks and torrent-tossing glen,

Until they spied him in the dark pine-tree:

Then climbed a crag hard by and furiously

The Bacchae of Euripides

Some sought to stone him, some their wands would fling

Lance-wise aloft, in cruel targeting.

But none could strike. The height o’ertopped their rage,

And there he clung, unscathed, as in a cage

Caught. And of all their strife no end was found.

Then, “Hither,” cried Agâvê; “stand we round

And grip the stem, my Wild Ones, till we take

This climbing cat-o’-the-mount! He shall not make

A tale of God’s high dances!” Out then shone

Arm upon arm, past count, and closed upon

The pine, and gripped; and the ground gave, and down

It reeled. And that high sitter from the crown

Of the green pine-top, with a shrieking cry

Fell, as his mind grew clear, and there hard by

Was horror visible. ’Twas his mother stood

O’er him, first priestess of those rites of blood.

He tore the coif, and from his head away

Flung it, that she might know him, and not slay

To her own misery. He touched the wild

Cheek, crying: “Mother, it is I, thy child,

Thy Pentheus, born thee in Echion’s hall!

Have mercy, Mother! Let it not befall

Through sin of mine, that thou shouldst slay thy son!”

But she, with lips a-foam and eyes that run

Like leaping fire, with thoughts that ne’er should be

On earth, possessed by Bacchios utterly,

Stays not nor hears. Round his left arm she put

Both hands, set hard against his side her foot,

Drew … and the shoulder severed!—not by might

Of arm, but easily, as the God made light

Her hand’s essay. And at the other side

Was Ino rending; and the torn flesh cried,

And on Autonoë pressed, and all the crowd

Of ravening arms. ‘Yea, all the air was loud

With groans that faded into sobbing breath,

Dim shrieks, and joy, and triumph-cries of death.

And here was borne a severed arm, and there

A hunter’s booted foot; white bones lay bare

With rending; and swift hands ensanguinèd

Tossed as in sport the flesh of Pentheus dead.

His body lies afar. The precipice

Hath part, and parts in many an interstice

Lurk of the tangled woodland—no light quest

To find. And, ah, the head! Of all the rest,

His mother hath it, pierced upon a wand,

As one might pierce a lion’s, and through the land,

Leaving her sisters in their dancing place,

Bears it on high!

In comparison to The Bacchae and even Venus in Furs, we can see how tame Venus in Fur is. It is not ecstatic. It is not an orgy of denigration and death. It is human-all-too-human and the better a contemporary play for it because it is self-conscious of its own history and weaves that history as the foil for the story of the theatre itself. The play portrays a tale which is the essence of theatre itself – and perhaps politics – seduction and role playing. The director/playwright at the very beginning of the drama when still alone describes the ecstasy, the moment of epiphany, when he comes across the correct actor for the part. For the audition itself is more than anything about a master and slave relationship and the moment when the right slave is selected to become master of the role and, in effect, turns the playwright into his or her servant.

I experienced it myself when my play Root Out of Dry Ground was put on the stage over fifty years ago. But it was only when it was played before an audience that I could tell that the actress playing one part was inadequate and also when some of my own written lines were false. Like Ives’ character, Tom, who only recognizes the true voice when it is performed – what Tom in the play called “the moment” – even though it does not match the one in his head, one feels both humbled and enthused for one has written a play that becomes its own thing and no longer belongs to you alone. Ives’ play is, in the end, a paeon of gratitude to actors and not his own skills as a playwright and/or director. For the actor is the physician to the gods who, like the Hebrew forefathers, comes before the divine in an audition, lays his or herself bare and simply says, “Here am I!”

One can only weep tears of joy and enthusiasm when the director and the actors pull off such a tremendous coup in an outstanding production of a superb script. For David Ives worships at the feet of Dionysus and recognizes that thought and reason and wisdom have their limits. What counts is comedy and joy. And true respect for the power of women. That is the message of the Chorus of the The Bacchae and of the true cult of Dionysus.

A God of Heaven is he,

And born in majesty;

Yet hath he mirth

In the joy of the Earth,

And he loveth constantly

Her who brings increase,

The Feeder of Children, Peace

No grudge hath he of the great;

No scorn of the mean estate;

But to all that liveth His wine he giveth,

Griefless, immaculate;

Only on them that spurn

Joy, may his anger burn.

Thus does David Ives undercut and critique the fantasy of the femme fatal and the worship of Aphrodite as a frozen, cold alabaster or statuaria marble statue.

Review: The Whipping Man

The Whipping Man


Howard Adelman

For a while, particularly at the end of the eighties, one of the scourges of anti-Semitism was the big lie that Jews were prominent in America and the Caribbean as slave traders and sellers or, at the very least as financiers of that trade and exchange. (Cf. The Nation of Islam (1991) The Secret relationship between Blacks and Jews) During the nineties, research and a series of academic books and articles demolished this canard. (For one of the earliest, cf. Henry Louis Gates Jr. (1992) "Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars," The New York Times, 20 July, A15) Jews were involved in all aspects of the slave trade, but their role was relatively miniscule.

The same is true of slave ownership. Only 15,000 Jews, though some estimates go as high as 25,000 (Robert N. Rosen (2000) The Jewish Confederates), lived in the confederate states when the American Civil War erupted. Of those, Jews who owned slaves were overwhelmingly urban; they held slaves as domestic servants. However, 90% of the American slave population worked on plantations. Among plantation owners, of 11,000 significant slave holders, only four or less than 0.04% were recorded as Jews. Thus, of almost 4,000,000 slaves, 3,600,000 of whom lived on plantations, Jews may have owned relatively few slaves, but those numbers on the four plantations numbered possibly as high as fifteen hundred altogether. The Whipping Man, a play by Matthew Lopez directed by Philip Akin and a joint venture of two theatre companies, the Harold Green Jewish Theatre Company and Obsidian, a Black theatre company, is set on a fictional version of one of these four Jewish plantations. The play is currently on stage at the Toronto Centre for the Arts.

Further, in the play, the slaves, though not converted to Judaism, were raised as Jews, a practice totally consistent with Jewish teaching. Deuteronomy 16:14 reads: "And thou shalt rejoice in thy feast, thou, and thy son, and thy daughter, and thy man-servant, and thy maid-servant, and the Levite, and the stranger, and the fatherless, and the widow, that are within thy gates." Servants or slaves (ebed) were expected to participate in all festivals and especially expected to honour shabat, an instruction many Jews in Toronto with nannies might find surprising. Further, there were specific rules laid down about their treatment. Slaves could not be overworked. On the other hand, they could be legally held as property and sold and bought. That in itself presents a conundrum for Jews celebrating Passover and their own escape from slavery.

Lopez` play is not the first work of fiction to take up this setting. Alan Cheuse used it in his novel, Songs of Slaves in the Desert: A Novel of Slavery and the Southern Wild dealing with a slave girl growing up on a rice plantation and her involvement with a slave-owning Jewish family. Cheuse in interviews said that he got his idea from a period when he went to Lafayette College in Pennsylvania, joined a Jewish fraternity and met the President who was Black, Len Jeffries, who afterwards went onto a distinguished academic career. Cheuse set his novel in pre-Civil War South; Lopez set his play in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War. There are no notes in the theatre program to indicate where Lopez got his very clever idea to juxtapose a Passover seder held by observant slaves on a Jewish plantation after the end of the Civil War.

The first day of Passover in 1865 was 11 April. It was a Tuesday. The Civil War had started four years earlier on 12 April 1861. After the decisive victory of Union forces at the Battle of Five Forks on 1 April, after desertions and casualties from the Confederate Army became massive after being attacked by Major General Philip Sutherland leading a Union army of 50,000, five times the size of his decimated and demoralized force, General Robert E. Lee was forced to abandon Petersburg and Richmond. Lee surrendered in Northern Virginia on Sunday, 9 April at McLean House in the village of Appomattox Court to General Ulysses S. Grant, 36 hours before the first seder was scheduled to be held. Abraham Lincoln was shot and killed on Good Friday, 14 April of that week. In the play, the Passover seder is held on the Friday evening when the shabat meal is also scheduled to accommodate the news that Father Abraham, as Simon calls him in the play, was shot.

One of those deserters from Richmond is fictionalized as Captain Caleb DeLeon, the son of a Jewish plantation owner who arrives at the destroyed plantation house at the opening of the play. 10,000 Jews served on both sides of the Civil War and they suffered casualties in the same enormous ratios as the rest of the population. Caleb has arrived home over a week after he was wounded. The bullet is still in his leg which has become gangrenous. In the opening of the second act, Caleb stands unwounded, an apparition of his previous existence as a soldier, to read one of his love letters sent home to his lover describing the horrors of the war in general and of Petersburg in particular probably drawn either from J. Tracy Power’s 1998 collection of Confederate soldiers` letters and diaries, Lee’s Miserables: Life in the Army of Northern Virginia from the Wilderness to Appomattox or Robert Alexander`s more recent 2003 collection, Five Forks: Waterloo of the Confederacy which intersperses diary and letter entries with the author`s own impressions.The Petersburg National Battlefield Memorial site which has diary entries and letters on display is well worth a visit to get a sense of the enormous horrors of that battle.

The opening battle scene of Stephen Spielberg`s movie is set at the Battle of Jenkin`s Ferry, one year earlier, to fit the timeline of the movie. Instead of the realism of Spielberg`s Saving Private Ryan depicting Omaha Beach on D-Day, this famous director offered a far more surrealistic and evocative portrayal of close-quarter fighting in the deep mud of battle, a vision that could only be hinted at in the play when Caleb read from the letter he sent. But it was the same vision and would helped us in the audience identify with Caleb`s suffering if the scene had come earlier in the play.

After all, the play is a juxtaposition of two sides of the Civil War, Black slaves who identified with the Union versus their former masters, in this case, the Jewish son of a Jewish plantation owner. The slaves are celebrating Passover and this year in Jerusalem for they have been emancipated by Father Abraham who was assassinated two weeks after the end of the Civil War near the end of the play. Caleb, on the other hand, has lost his faith after the horrors of the war as well as his status as the owner and commander of the behaviour of his former slaves.

The play is totally plot driven so one cannot review the production adequately without giving away that plot. From the audience reaction at the end – they gave the performers a standing ovation – and the personal comments of friends whom we met coincidentally after the play, the audience loved the play and its production. I found Sterling Jarvis who plays Simon, the older Black Plantation quasi-manager, who saves Caleb`s life and initiates the seder, to have offered a stellar performance, though one individual after the play complained that it was difficult for her to follow all his dialogue because he tended to mumble into his chest rather than project. I myself had no such difficulty.

Robert Crew in his Toronto Star review of 20 March, after noting the oft-repeated notes of the publicity that Lopez`play has been one of the most frequently produced plays since it was first staged in 2006, comments that Lopez skillfully unveils "revelation after revelation. And director Philip Akin keeps the audience engaged to the very end, when a final skeleton exits the closet." That is indeed how the play works, not by character development or thematic exploration, but by plot revelation of hidden secrets around the central theme of remembering as a way of rediscovering and recovering freedom. Crew concludes, "It’s a solid piece of theatre, fast-moving and entertaining yet offering some knotty little questions to ponder." Though I did agree with his criticisms of the credibility of Brett Donahue`s performance of Caleb, I came away as a tiny dissenting minority about both the general quality of the play with a few criticisms of the production itself.

However, mine is clearly a very minority view. Gregory Bunker in his review, "Spinning Slavery" thought the play explored "the notion that a religion with the history and pride of escaping slavery could be kosher with imposing such chains on others," whereas I saw this as merely the clever occasion of the play while it tried to probe deeper into a notion of bondage tied to memory that both frees and ties one down. In Bunker`s view, the three players, "With the help of innumerable bottles of whisky…begin to open up and clean the festering wound of slavery." Instead, I saw the author as celebrating Judaism as a questioning religion and using that to probe deeper and raise even more questions about the after effects of slavery on the psyche as well as the body politic. Bunker concluded, "The Whipping Man is a thoroughly entertaining and thought-provoking play about overlapping identities, their complexities, paradoxes, incompatibilities, and their resolutions. For its polish and novel, well-written story, The Whipping Man is a drama to be seen." I would agree that the play is worth seeing, but not for the same reasons.

The director, Philip Atkin, from his remarks on line clearly understood that the play was not about resolutions. "I love plays that focus us inexorably on those crucial moments in time. That dive deep and open up big questions. I love that both of our plays this season do not dwell in the cult of the answer but reside firmly in the cult of the question. And it is with those questions that we bring who we are into the theatre and are forced to engage one on one with what is being asked." (The Charlebois Post, http://www.charpo-canada.com/2013/03/first-person-director-philip-akin-on.html) Atkin was clearly surprised by the reaction of a Jewish audience – which last night seemed to be overwhelmingly Jewish – that was so discomfited by part of their history that they did not seem to know when Blacks were enslaved by Jews. So how did they reconcile their discomfort with their enthusiasm for the play? Was that enthusiasm in part a liberal reaction to that discomfort?

In my own view, the play, as I said above, was plot-driven. The need to uncover revelation after revelation to drive the plot prevented the deeper exploration of the questions and themes raised – whether of lords and bondsmen, mastery and slavery, memory used to recall slavery and celebrate freedom and memory used to reinforce bondage and inhibit freedom, Judaism as a religion of questioning and Jews as a group who have the opposite propensity of denial and not coming face to face with their own past and even the injustices written into the Haggadah read at Passover.

Lynn Slotkin in her review on the radio on CIUT`s morning show on 23 March described the joint effort of two production companies "as a very fine production directed with tremendous style, energy and intelligence by Philip Akin…that echoes the plight of two peoples—Jews and blacks—and shows how they are so similar. The play is gripping in its story-telling; full-bodied in its characters; and compelling in what it has to say about freedom, choice, moral fibre and responsibility. Simon often asks John is he a slave or a Jew? I love that distinction and it reverberates in this play." I myself found the story telling to be predictable, the plot devices contrived, arbitrary and generally unnecessary, the characters left undeveloped and unaltered, and the themes pronounced but unexplored.

Sonia Borkar in her review may have grasped the source of enchantment of the play. As she wrote, "The show is so intense and sucks you in from the moment the lights go down.

I found this show interesting on so many levels because I don’t know much about American History or the Jewish culture and to watch something where they both intersect was fascinating to me." Gentile and non-Jewish audiences are evidently most fascinated by the makeshift seder in the second act. As Borkar wrote, "For me it was ironic to see an enslaved Jewish black man singing about the struggles of freedom the Jews had endured when they fled Egypt and the parallels to his own life. Simon’s faith now made complete sense to me. All these centuries later he was still a Jewish man fighting for his freedom. It’s also an interesting commentary on human nature to see a culture that survives slavery then enslaves another."


Borkar encouraged everyone to see the show. "The script is great, the acting and direction are fantastic, the set couldn’t be more fitting and the trek is more than worth it. And if you don’t know much about the subject matter you will still be moved to tears and definitely learn a little bit about an important slice of history." I found the script contrived and the set a representation of the interior of a Toronto home, except for one small Doric column, rather than of an impressive huge plantation home. However, the direction is indeed excellent. The acting of Sterling Jarvis is outstanding. Thomas Olajide tried mightily and with great skill to reconcile the scholarly and studious side of John with his scallywag character and huge repressed rage, but here I found the inadequacy lay in the play for, given the material, I could not imagine how to make these tensions into a coherent character – the studious John is sacrificed to the scoundrel with the memory of Caleb`s betrayal and John`s whipping as the explanation for an unstoppable rage serving as a cover to bottle up and then explode the perilous contradictions.

Finally, I do not expect plays or movies to teach us history, but they can induce one to look into history. The play certainly succeeds on that level. The program notes could have helped if a full page had been devoted to providing some historical background or even if a simple timeline of the two weeks covered by the play could have been included.


Yesterday evening, Nancy and I went to see the play, Arthur Schnitzler’s fin-de-siècle Vienna play, The Amorous Adventures of Anatol, at the Tarragon Theatre. This season we have been delighted and moved to see such wonderful productions as This is WarA Brimful of Asha, and No Great Mischief. But last night was a real disappointment and, given the seats we chose, we were trapped and could not slip out quietly and unobtrusively.


Perhaps the production was doubly disappointing because Morris Panych, a talented playwright and director in his own right, interpreted the play as just a piece of flaky Viennese pastry rather than a fast-paced farce with a dark centre that tells a tale of self-destruction of a vain, self-centred playboy in Freud’s world. (Freud, a friend of the playwright Arthur Schnitzler, would twenty years later publish an important paper on narcissism.) The whole pattern of the play is lost as Panych replicated the repetitive drawers of one of the most marvellous sets by Ken MacDonald (as well as uses of lighting and projection) in my recent theatre-going. The wall of compartmentalization apothecary multi-use drawers is used for doors, shop windows, peak-a-boo holes, and most of all store houses of memories by Anatol for collecting magical moments where each momento helps to recall, not the delightful creature whom he romanced, but just another of his own fanciful projections.


I have been writing about sociopaths and lying; a wonderful opportunity was lost to reveal the pathology of the condition through the lens of humour and wit. First, instead of a pathological specimen, we saw Anatol played by Mike Shara only as an indecisive neurotic romantic twit so self-absorbed that the audience cannot possibly identify with him. But that is the challenge – how to get the playgoer involved in Anatol’s progressive self-destruction. All we get is repetition as if the director is as entranced as the main protagonist.  And Max, as played by Robert Persichini, is only a heavy-footed befuddled friend taking notes The production never allows you to see why. Does Max truly befriend this romantic, self-deluded and lying romantic scoundrel with soulful resigned patience as his proffered advice is rejected? The friendship is then totally incomprehensible. The lines presented as just light banter along the lines of a TV sitcom never emerge as a series of ironic and perceptive takes on the narcissism of Anatol. Max should have been played as a cigar-chomping, witty scientific observer, not a hapless buddy.


Perhaps I am being too hard. The series of seven women were played absolutely wonderfully by Nicole Underhay; she succeeds in bringing out each of the character’s unique resilient properties as we progress from victim to each very different variation who can increasingly turn the tables on the self-absorbed roué. But Panych could have done so much more with Adam Palooza who plays all the silent mime parts of doorman, servant, waiter to valet. As the bondsman to a master of self-conceit and self-deceit he could have provided so much more of the body language to comment on this preening poppycock. 


In the first scene with Hilda where Anatol’s jealousy is revealed as an absorption in his own imagination with his projections on women of himself as an irresponsible serial liar, the projection we see on the much magnified apothecary wall of drawers is the word “Hilda” rather than a translation of the original “Die Frage an das Schicksal” which was an adumbration of the fate of Anatol as the playwright played with the double-sided meaning of shicksa and fate. So another opportunity to unveil the darker meaning of the drama was lost.


One of the issues is of memory. If everything we deal with is merely a projection of our self-love, and the self is just a handsome, boastful uncomprehending dolt, then there is no memory at all. For memory differentiates. Memory teaches, Memory enriches our lives rather than reflecting it back as a series of boring repetitious failures so that all an Anatol wants to do is undercut even the memories of others. When Anatol says at the beginning of the play that everything is hypnosis and magic, then the shameless use of magic and its limits dramatized in the first scene gets lost as just a theatrical trick.


When in Greek myth Narcissus rejected the nymph Echo because he was so entranced and enraptured with his own reflection in a the river that Narcissus turned into a flower, the theme of vanity and self-absorption that requires the other to be reduced to a projection of oneself and oneself to spend one’s time in love with their own imagination of the other that they will not even follow through with a hypnosis of the other to be confronted with the truth, for the only truth is their self-absorption; there is no empathy. There is no understanding. There is no self-conscious awareness. And if the director does not comprehend this, then the combination of flattery and sense of vulnerability, the haughty tone of his words and the fear of being shamed, the thin skin and the use of clothes as a protective body shield, the hyperbolic exaggeration and the absorption in self and minutiae cannot be understood.  


How could Anatol have such contempt for women he professed to be in love with? Because it was a projection of his own self-contempt. How could he spend so much time degrading others with whom he was intimate? He had to as the only way to protect himself from seeing his own degradation. Where was the rage demonstrated of the narcissist when his expectations were thwarted and his will was frustrated? The exploitation of his conquests comes across more as a kitten playing with a ball of wool than an outrageous misuse of an Other. Where is the flitting back and forth and dizzying movement between fantasies of conquest and imaginative humiliations, exaggerated sense of one’s own intelligence and shame at one’s total display of banality? They are in the words and structure of play but we could not find them in that production.