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Home :: Archive :: 2000 :: May ::
Re: Marlowe & Anti-Semitism
The Shakespeare Conference: SHK 11.1013  Wednesday, 10 May 2000.

From:           Stevie Simkin <
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Date:           Wednesday, 10 May 2000 08:32:06 -0400
Subject:        Re: Marlowe & Anti-Semitism

Stuart Manger wrote:

> Idle question: why would you feel the need to produce a version of 'Jew'
> by Marlowe which 'subverted its anti-semitism'?   Isn't that a bit like
> staging Lear without his dividing of the kingdom to avoid denigrating the
> irrationalities of the elderly?
> I am just curious about the philosophy behind what sounds suspiciously
> like a 'bowdlerisation'?

This went round the houses a couple of years ago on the list, so I hope
Hardy will feel free to suggest an archive search and encourage this
debate to continue off-list if appropriate.

To clarify, the production we staged was not a bowdlerisation, since we
did not expurgate the text, prudishly or otherwise.  The intention was
to lay open the anti-Semitism rather than efface it (as I think the few
recent productions I am aware of have tended to do).

Briefly, we established a framing device for the production, activating
a familiar early modern theatrical convention: the 'play within a play'
motif.  The production of the actual Marlowe text became a performance
staged in Warsaw at the time the Jewish ghetto was being established in
1939.  The staging of Marlowe's play was a performance initiated by the
Nazi authorities, with roles of the Christians - Ferneze and his
knights, and the friars -  performed by German soldiers and the Jewish
roles by Jewish interns. The German officer took the role of Ferneze for
himself and allocated the role of Barabas to the leader of the Judenrat,
the Jewish council.  The performance was played out as a struggle
between the officer's aim (to humiliate the Jews) and the Barabas
Actor's counter-aim (to turn the tables on the Ferneze Actor).  The
creation of two contexts opened up a performative space between the two
sets of roles in the two plays - the 'outer' 1939 play, and the 'inner'
play, Marlowe's _The Jew of Malta_.  Furthermore, the ways in which the
two plot-lines (1939 and 1590) separated and converged were intended to
illuminate the issue of ethnic oppression.  (Cuts were limited to edits
made for time's sake, two short speeches were composed as a prologue,
and nothing else was changed, though lines were frequently read "against
the grain").
Alan Sinfield, in _Cultural Politics - Queer Reading_(Routledge, 1994),
suggests that it is not a matter merely of what a play meant in its
original context; what is important is the "question of what the play
tends to do, and may be made to do, in our cultures" (p.2).  In a glib
phrase, we tried to make the play speak about oppression, rather than
simply speak it out.  It's more complex than this, I know, and the sense
in which Marlowe's Barabas "performs" his ethnic identity gave us the
key which unlocked many doors.

Passionate debate at a colloquium following one performance of the
production (with a panel including representatives of the local Jewish
and Christian communities) proved how the play can still touch on very
raw nerves. I think the Lear parallel doesn't really do justice to the
issues involved in staging a play like _The Jew_, or, for that matter,
_The Merchant of Venice_ today.

If anyone would like to take this up with me off list I would be happy
to.  Otherwise, I have written about the production in detail in a
couple of places: '"The Artificial Jew of Malta's Nose":  Performed
Ethnicity in Marlowe's _The Jew of Malta_'  in _Studies in Theatre
Production_, Number 19, July 1999, pp.67-92; and '"A Scattered Nation":
The Jew of Malta in the Warsaw Ghetto' in _On-Stage Studies_ 1998,
pp.31-51, while  _Cahiers Elizabethains_, No.55, April 1999 contains a
review of the production and an interview.

Stevie Simkin
 

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