Terrorists and Christian Husbands
By Martin Harries
The Jew of Malta
By Christopher Marlowe
The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
The Duke on 42nd St.
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In the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice,
Bassanio asserts that he would surrender all the wealth of his rich
new wife to save his friend Antonio, who is about to surrender his pound
of flesh. A third friend, Gratiano, does Bassanio one better and declares
that he would send his beloved wife to heaven "so she could / Entreat
some power to change the currish Jew." Portia and Nerissa, their wives,
nearby and in disguise, are not amused. Shylock, at once struck by their
willingness to surrender what is not their own and full of rage over
the loss of his daughter, comments:
These be the Christian husbands. I have a daughter:
Would any of the stock of Barabas
Had been her husband rather than a Christian!
In the Theatre for a New Audience's scintillating
pairing of The Jew of Malta and Merchant, these lines
jump out. F. Murray Abraham, playing Shylock, also plays Barabas, the
compellingly demonic protagonist of The Jew of Malta. This
repertory pairing -- an experiment so obvious that it is seldom performed,
the last example I can find being the RSC's similar attempt in 1987
-- forces one to hear that name, Barabas, anew.
I happened to see the plays in the order in which
they were written (Malta, c. 1589-90; Merchant, c.
1596-97), and this chance resonated. Abraham's brilliant Barabas haunts
Merchant, and this is perhaps how it should be: Malta
had been a great success, and the Elizabethan audience, who knew how
to listen, might have heard more echoes than we normally do in the dialogue
of Merchant. But what do we hear?
Shylock's "stock of Barabas" implies that even
the worst Jew would be a more worthy husband for his daughter than any
Christian -- better, that is, not only than the intentionally vacuous
Lorenzo, portrayed here by Vince Nappo, but better than any
Christian. But this backhanded condemnation of Barabas comes from the
actor who has portrayed Barabas, and the context makes one wonder whether
this Shylock might also harbor a certain admiration for that Barabas,
who all but brings down Malta in his grandiloquent fury. And doesn't
Shylock have a point? Why are those "Christian husbands" so eager to
sacrifice the wives they have just married the day before?
Another story haunts this reiteration of a name
that is not a name from Marlowe only. Luke 23 (18-21):
Then all the multitude cried at once, saying,
Away with him, and deliver unto us Barabbas;
Which for a certain insurrection made in the city, and murder, was
cast in prison.
Then Pilate spake again to them, willing to let Jesus loose.
But they cried, saying, Crucify, crucify him.
Too much surrounds this scene so privileged in
the history of anti-Semitism. What makes it so powerful a context for
these performances is its suggestion of a logic of substitution at the
heart of the paired plays. Marlowe's anti-hero takes his name from the
terrorist who should not have been saved at Christ's expense. And yet,
sometimes sacrifice is necessary, or so the "Christian husbands" believe:
in order not to be like the Jew, they volunteer their wives as imitators
of Christ, offering up their money and their lives. Shylock, on the
other hand, has no interest in sacrifice, and asks for revenge, not
some substitute for it. This makes him at once the "Jew," the villain
who cannot understand the eloquent if hypocritical calls for mercy made
by Portia (the winningly anxious Kate Forbes), and something else, something
less easily caricatured.
One of the highlights of Darko Tresnjak's lucid
and moving production resonates with special force. The set and props
include a whole array of the gadgetry of twenty-first century communications.
Tresnjak brings down the curtain for intermission with the scene in
which Tubal (Marc Vietor, in one of three roles) tells Shylock about
his daughter Jessica's extravagance in Genoa, while also telling him
that Antonio's plans as a merchant have gone awry. Here, Tubal communicates
with Shylock over a wireless device, and informs Shylock of a ring that
Jessica has exchanged for a monkey. The anguished Shylock replies:
Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise.
I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it
for a wilderness of monkeys.
Shylock's response usually looks like a rush
to judgment. Tubal has not described the ring, and unless Jessica made
off with only one, it seems that Shylock is too ready to believe the
very worst. But technology does make a difference: Tubal transmits a
digital photo of the "turquoise," which Shylock displays to the audience.
There is no question, here, about which ring Jessica has traded for
the monkey, and Abraham conveys Shylock's grief with a moving power.
And this power has been made possible in part through the anachronism
of the wireless device: this Shylock has the ocular proof usually lacking.
He knows what ring he has lost for a monkey.
Such anachronisms are the done thing, but rarely
do directors put anachronism to work with the deliberate, but never
self-satisfied, intelligence Tresnjak and David Herskovits, director
of The Jew of Malta, have supplied in these two complementary
but very different productions. The example of the ring seems to me
typical of the way the carefully used electronic devices distance and
yet enrich Merchant. The free conversion of things into information,
of a singular and precious "turquoise" into an image on a hand-held
screen, captures the uneasy spirit of finance that hovers over Merchant.
If, in John Lee Beatty's crisp set, a Mac can be a merchant's trading
desk one moment and the casket concealing a lover's fate the next, what
thing or passion cannot be changed or exchanged?
This near-universal convertibility suggests why
Shylock's distress over the lost ring is so important. That ring, a
gift from his dead wife, is not exchangeable, not
convertible. It contrasts with the speed with which those Christian
husbands, Bassanio (Saxon Palmer) and Gratiano (John Lavelle), part
with those rings their wives asked them never under any circumstances
to part with. In Merchant, the Jew, condemned for his association
with usury, with converting money into more money without doing any
productive work, is also the chief figure of resistance to the very
logic of finance that he supposedly represents: no "wilderness of monkeys"
could equal the value of the ring. And with every raised eyebrow Abraham
registers the cupidity of those who condemn Shylock for his love of
In a curious way, it is here that Abraham's comically
titanic Barabas strikes me as especially relevant. To an even greater
degree than the Venetians in Merchant, the Christian Maltese
depend on Barabas's wealth for their own survival. They scorn and need
him in equal measure. The unapologetically wicked intelligence that
Abraham brings to his performance as Barabas is simply stunning. He
recognizes their hypocrisy, and feasts on it.
Herskovits has taken the play at its word, and
the result is a production that is at once campy and true. Here, another
set by Beatty -- a flexible and emphatically flat collage of medieval
images of cities -- provides a shallow gilt space where we first spy
Barabas, bathing in his gold. Too much? Here is Marlowe's stage direction:
Barabas is "in his counting-house, with heaps of gold [and bags] before
him." Herskovits lets the vicious and comic extremes of the play remain
both comic and extreme. Robbed near the start of the play of most of
his wealth by decree of the pompous governor of Malta, Ferneze (Marc
Vietor, again), Barabas spends the rest of the action pursuing his revenge.
Vietor, who luxuriates in his portrayals of aristocratic arrogance across
the two plays, perfectly embodies the puffed-up "Christian" city-state.
And Barabas's revenge and his joyful destruction of this puffery are
at the heart of Malta.
He wants his revenge, and gets some of it, killing
off his daughter's tweedledum and tweedledee suitors, Lodowick (John
Lavelle) and Mathias (Vince Nappo,who also seduces Jessica in Merchant)
and his daughter Abigail (Nicole Lowrance, who also plays Jessica) and
the other nuns with whom she has taken refuge. Caught in the end in
his own trap -- a fiery pit that occupies the same spot as the cache
of gold with which the play begins -- Abraham's Barabas descends to
his death giving the world the finger. What this production captures
is Barabas's refusal to exchange his revenge for anything. He'll take
no substitute, but hopes until the end to be revenged on all: "Damn'd
Christians, dogs, and Turkish infidels!" And it is this proud refusal
to exchange his desire for what others offer as just substitutes that
makes Barabas the grandiose ancestor of Shylock. How delectable that
this heritage is so richly on view among the sanitized flesh pots of
42nd Street, in a wonderfully intimate black box, where this pair of
thought-provoking productions deserves a longer run.
And flipping the bird? Exit Barabas, flaunting
anachronism? Maybe, but probably not. There's good evidence that that
gesture is one of the treasures of digital expression we have inherited
from the ancients. Tresnjak, Herskovits, and Abraham accept no substitutes.