Set in 1192, during the Third Crusade, Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise chronicles a brief moment of cooperation between three major world religions. The noble Sultan Saladin controls Jerusalem, but he's having a cashflow problem that the wealthy Jewish merchant Nathan might be able to help him fix. Nathan has just returned from a business trip to find that his daughter Rachel was rescued from a house fire by a mysterious young Templar whom Saladin has pardoned. The play's characters Muslim, Jew, and Christian must find common ground, which they do through a surprising series of revelations both philosophical and romantic, intellectual and lightly comic.
Lessing is a tremendous figure in the history of German theater, helping it break away from its French and English antecedents and championing the lower classes. He also focused on character over stereotype, making his characters virtuous and fair-minded, regardless of social status. Yet he had a hard time convincing his family that pursuing his art was a good idea. He spent much of his youth poor because he sent all his money home to support eleven younger siblings, and when his parents learned he was hanging out with actors they called him home for a lecture.
Lessing wanted to be the German Molière, but his parents wanted him to be a doctor. He extricated himself by promising to study medicine back in Leipzig, and doing so. Thus freed, he went back to his writing and theater friends. Eventually his kindness drove him from Leipzig, where he'd stood surety for Caroline Neuber's struggling theater company; he fled its creditors for Berlin, where in 1754 something happened that would change both his life and the course of German philosophy.
In Berlin, Lessig met Moses Mendelssohn, and in the young tutor the playwright found the proof of his then-radical theory that a Jew could be possessed of noble spirit. Mendelssohn lent Lessing his unpublished manuscript, Philosophical Conversations, which called Germany to task for ignoring its native thinkers. Lessing published it without asking, thereby exposing the work of his friend, who would become known as a leading philosopher and proponent of the Jewish Enlightenment. Mendelssohn won the admiration of King Frederick, who granted him the status of Schutzjude, or "Protected Jew," the right to live unmolested in Berlin no small thing at a time German Jews were restricted to a ghetto.
So one of the really special things about this play is the representation of a Jew as something other than scheming and miserly. Lessing based Nathan on his chess buddy Mendelssohn, and has Nathan win Saladin's friendship with a philosophical argument that all faiths are valid.
Will Huddleston's Nathan is warm and jovial, with a sweetly mobile face. From the first moment he bounces onstage we want to like him, and he doesn't let us down indeed, Nathan is virtually the only character who isn't morally compromised in some way. Jessica Powell, such a powerhouse as Mrs. Roswell in the Aurora's recent Ice Glen, seems a little lost here as Rachel's nurse and companion; while Daya is similarly strident, she's not tempered with as much humor, which is a loss considering how funny Powell can be.
It's also a little weird and anachronistic that Saladin's sister crochets to pass the time it's much more interesting to watch Sitta scheme and beat her brother at chess than do needlework. As Sitta, Sandra Shlechter looks ready to chew some scenery, especially when she meets Rachel and insists the younger woman treat her as a sister. Christopher Maikish starts out full of anger and one-note bluster without it being clear why, but in his quieter sections his young Knight Templar Conrad opens up into a very engaging character. Clive Worsley has fun with the dervish Hafi, dashing around and mauling his fancy costume.
Nathan the Wise is billed as a play for our time, and from the faith angle that's certainly true. But this nicely streamlined Edward Kemp translation William Taylor's is clunky and high-falutin', full of "twixts" and the like retains the texture of its own time, especially in the revelations of who is related to whom, which are downright Shakespearean in their complexity. On opening night the actors were having difficulty expressing these tricky relationships, but that should ease with the run.
Full of the kind of thing we take for granted now but would have been scandalous to the original audiences, with lines such as "What sort of God is it that needs people to fight for him?" and "Must we be Jews and Christians first and only men thereafter?," this is a guardedly optimistic view of what is possible between people who acknowledge the importance of family, both in the personal and global senses.
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