‘Every time he hears the word ‘Jew’, he’s ready to punch someone,” F. Murray Abraham told The Jewish Week in an interview about the title character he plays in “Nathan the Wise,” now running at the Classic Stage Company. But it is the character’s Jewish faith that keeps his anger in check.
Religion may be getting a bad rap these days, with a rising percentage of Americans who describe themselves as atheists, according to the 2015 Pew Survey, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape.” But ambivalence about organized religion has deep roots in Western culture, beginning in the Enlightenment, when a growing faith in science and rationality replaced, for many, an attachment to religious beliefs and practices, which were seen as too often leading to fanaticism, hatred and violence.
In Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 1779 masterpiece, “Nathan the Wise,” the title character, based on Lessing’s friend, the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, seeks to end religious intolerance by reconciling the followers of the three Abrahamic faiths. A staple of college courses in European history, “Nathan the Wise” is not well known outside the academy. That may change with this new production, starring the redoubtable Abraham as Nathan.
Set in Jerusalem in the 12th century, during the Third Crusade, “Nathan the Wise” centers on a rich Jewish merchant whose wife and seven sons have all been massacred by Christians. Upon his return from a business trip, Nathan learns that his adopted daughter, Recha (Erin Neufer), has almost perished in a fire; she was saved from the flames by a Knight Templar (Stark Sands). Last minute rescues have abounded; the Christian Soldier had himself been spared from death at the last moment by the ruling sultan, Saladin (Austin Durant), because of his resemblance to the sultan’s deceased brother.
But soon it is Nathan himself whose life is in peril, because the powerful Christian Patriarch (Caroline Lagerfelt) accuses him of raising Recha, who was born Christian, as a Jew. Family relationships get increasingly complex as the play goes on, as characters of different religions discover, to their astonishment, that they are actually related to each other by blood.
The play’s highlight is a scene between Nathan and Saladin, in which Nathan tells a parable about a father who, rather than confer his blessing on just one of his three sons, has three identical golden rings made. Each son must endeavor to show that he is the chosen one by the morality of his behavior; in the same way, each of the major monotheistic faiths, rather than seeking superiority or dominance over the other two, must be a shining example of tolerance.
In an interview, Abraham told The Jewish Week that he views his character as a bundle of suppressed rage. “Nathan works very hard at containing himself; the source of his strength and power is his faith. But he also realizes that people of different faiths can coexist and that rationality can get you beyond revenge and ancient battles.”
Abraham has played many major Jewish roles on stage; he starred in “The Jew of Malta” and “The Merchant of Venice” in repertory in 2007. Shylock and Nathan are similar, he pointed out, in their frustration at not being seen as human by the non-Jews around them. But the actor, who hails from a Syrian Christian background, also sees parallels between the play and the contemporary situation in Syria. “Syrian Christians are being murdered these days,” he noted. “The play has personal meaning for me. People are being killed because others cannot accept that someone else’s God can be legitimate.”
Brian Kulick, who is about to step down after a dozen years as the artistic director of the Classic Stage Company, directs the production. He sees Nathan as coming back to life, in a sense, after his family is murdered. “The gift of this new daughter re-enchants his world,” Kulick told The Jewish Week. “He’s willing to fight and argue as ferociously as the next person, but that’s not the zip code that he wants to live in.”
Nathan, as Kulick noted, has work to do in the world. As he tells the Christian lay brother (John Christopher Jones) who has been sent by the Patriarch to spy on him, a voice came to him when he had just lost his family that said, “Get up.” Kulick instructed Abraham to “color this phrase with a certain amount of Old Testament impatience. Nathan isn’t being allowed to put a pause button on his life.” When the actor growled the lines rather than speaking them softly, “the play snapped into focus.”
Working with Abraham, he said, is an extraordinary privilege. “He comes up with an amazing idea but then can discard it and go on to something else. It’s like shopping in an art gallery with someone who doesn’t buy the first painting that he sees but likes to move around the gallery of choices until he comes up with a real treasure.”
But Kulick, who is Jewish, noted that one of the paradoxes of the play is that Nathan does not seem tied in any way (unlike Mendelssohn, who was an observant Jew) to Jewish customs or to a Jewish community. “He doesn’t indoctrinate his daughter in Judaism. His religion is the Enlightenment.” Lessing, Kulick believes, “saw religion as a verb, not a noun — when religion became tied to a specific institutional context, Lessing became allergic. He wanted to keep the religious impulse alive but without any particular doctrine surrounding it.”
This is an idea that continues to resonate today. As philosopher and critic Martha Nussbaum explained in “The New Religious Intolerance: Overcoming the Politics of Fear in an Anxious Age” (Harvard University Press, 2012), Lessing’s moral is that “when we encounter people who differ in religion, we ought to focus on ethical virtues of generosity, kindness, and love, leaving the question of religious truth to one side in our civic interactions.”
For those who are concerned about Jewish continuity, however, universalism can be taken too far. Esther Cameron is the editor of “The Deronda Review,” a literary journal based in Israel that focuses on Jewish issues. (The journal’s name derives from the George Eliot novel, “Daniel Deronda,” about a wealthy Jewish hero and his romantic exploits.) Cameron, who is an expert on the assimilated German Jewish poet Paul Celan, was inspired to write an article about “Nathan the Wise” for her journal after seeing a street named after the title character in Tel Aviv; streets in Israel are usually named after historical personages, not literary characters.
As Cameron told The Jewish Week, the play “legitimized German Jews and helped to create the more secular mentality that led to the creation of Reform Judaism. But they read into it more tolerance than it really expressed.” She compared the play to Helen Hunt Jackson’s classic nineteenth-century novel, “Ramona,” in which the American Indian character, Alessandro, “is very civilized and Westernized; he wears a suit and plays the violin.”
Nathan’s connection to Judaism is totally individualistic, Cameron contended, not unlike his model, Mendelssohn, who practiced Orthodox Judaism but whose six children all converted to Christianity after his death. And like Celan, who explored Jewish themes obliquely without identifying religiously as a Jew, “Lessing ascribed to Jews a certain wisdom without acknowledging,” Cameron said, “that it came from the discipline of a certain tradition.”
“Nathan the Wise” runs through May 1 at the Classic Stage Company, 136 E. 13th St. Performances are Tuesday-Thursday evenings at 7 p.m., Fridays and Saturday evenings at 8 p.m., and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. For tickets, $66, call the box office at (212) 352-3101 or visit classicstage.org.