The American Legacy
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"Theatrical archaeologist extraordinaire" - - Back Stage
TALK TO STRANGERS
How trenchant a fear is fear of strangers. Behind their mysterious countenances, within their opaque customs, beneath their unknown languages they remain repositories for our deepest suspicions. And so we are at our most manipulable to those who would excite that fear: the fear of the Other.
In his hugely popular 1862 melodrama, Leah, the Forsaken, Augustin Daly tells a tale of love between a citizen and an outsider, of betrayal provoked by deception, of the wrath of the betrayed, and of wholly unexpected redemption. From the middle of the 19th century comes a story of alarming familiarity.
In the early 1700’s, Jewish refugee Leah, fleeing persecution in Hungary, falls in love with Rudolf, a villager in Austria, where Jews are forbidden to pass a single night. Vowing eternal devotion, they plan to flee to America, a free land where they “shall teach love and brotherhood to all men.”
When the affair is discovered, their fiercest opponent is schoolmaster Nathan, who harbors a secret of his own that Leah’s presence may reveal. To keep that secret, Nathan inflames the villagers’ fears of the itinerant Jews and tricks Rudolf into believing Leah has broken faith. (In passing, he also murders a blind old man!) Rudolf casts Leah off and returns to the embrace of his still devoted childhood love, Madalena.
When Leah discovers him outside the church on his wedding day, she flings his betrayal in his face and, summoning the wrath of her ever-wronged people, utters a devastating curse on her ex-lover, his land, and his progeny.
But five years later….
INTERNATIONAL SENSATION †
Leah is an adaptation of the hugely popular Deborah, by German author Salomon Hermann Mosenthal, that inspired scores of translations and adaptations on both continents, as well as three silent films in the 1900’s. Deborah premiered in Hamburg in 1849 and was translated into 15 different languages to play throughout Europe, and turned into numerous adaptations and spin-offs that excited audiences throughout the English-speaking world, with titles such as Deborah, D’vorah, Leah, Miriam, Naomi, Rebecca, Ruth, Lysiah, Clysbia, and The Jewess. The play, in whichever incarnation, also became a star vehicle for leading ladies of the age including Kate Bateman (daughter to Sidney Bateman, author of Self, which played at Metropolitan in 2013), Sarah Bernhardt, Adelaide Ristori and Fanny Janauschek.
Daly’s exciting version thrilled a popular audience with the flare for dialogue and dramatic incident that made him the leading impresario of his age. The play is a spirited roller coaster, with surprising turns of plot, excruciating misunderstandings, breathtaking “near miss” timing, comical interludes and characters, and a lavish indulgence of the pathetic fallacy as the heavens constantly weigh in on the major plot points. And, at its heart is a romance, whose star-crossed love, destroyed by a craven villain, is heartbreaking, and whose tragic heroine was famous, even parodied, for reliably drawing floods of tears.
Surely that heroine was also so beguiling because she was “exotic” to American audiences. A wanderer from Hungary, famously played in “orientalist” costume, she engaged the uneasy fascination with/anxiety over Jewishness in the mainstream audience of the mid-19th century. The young beautiful innocent Jewish woman—an object of desire, sympathy, and suspicion—was part of European stage repertoire dating back to the Renaissance. That same tradition includes villainous old male Jewish characters (such as Shakespeare's Shylock and Marlowe's Barabas), as well as stock figures of exaggerated stereotypes in satires. She appears frequently in 19th century narratives, and inevitably her portrayal may be seen as both philo-Semitic, as she invites sympathy, and anti-Semitic, insofar as she is objectified and stereotyped.
In Leah, this tension makes for fascinating depth of contradictions. Selfless protector of her fellow refugees she is an unjustly persecuted innocent, subject to abuse by parochial and ridiculous villagers. Victimized from the outset, she is undone by animation of stereotypical prejudices in the hearts of the Christians, most notably her love, who dismisses her as an enchantress when he spurns her. Here, the play obliges an audience to renounce prejudice in its disgust with the stereotypes and empathy for her.
Yet, when she is betrayed, her curse draws on that people's history and Old Testament vengeance, emphatically insisting on her Jewishness as the root of her difference from her faithless lover and the village. Then, more complicated still, as the play progresses, her suffering for the sins of the village and her near-beatification by some of her former persecutors plainly turns her into a Christ-like martyr.
If a character written for a 19th century audience, then, must be acknowledged to be that of the "exotic Jewess," a contemporary audience may best accept that the play is concerned with a sensational, rather than truthful portrayal of Judaism on its stage, and to endeavor not to judge aspects that can read as philo- or anti-Semitic. Instead we recognize that character as the incarnation of the more meaningful and central concern of the drama: its heroine is “other.”
The status of the other is doubly painful. At once, she suffers the abuse of the hostile tribe and the torments of abandoning her own. In fact, those perils frame both Leah’s and Rudolf’s stories: they are each subject to the village’s censure for their love, troubled by their fears of each other, and tormented by their guilt for abandoning their own people. But equally, the villain Nathan is beset by the same fears. He is motivated by his dread of exclusion and a need to conceal a past betrayal. Perversely, even the generous Madalena is subject to the cruelty of prejudice: the village condemns her for showing compassion for the refugees. In an insular community, compassion is transgression. One citizen’s empathetic embrace of any outsider’s humanity poses an existential threat to the community.
Leah is emphatic in underscoring this notion of insider and outsider opposition. In the village, to be inside is to be good. Virtue is equated with participation in quotidian life and civic ritual, underpinned by ritual devotions of church. Belonging is paramount, while independent action or thought are suspicious. Rudolf’s first transgression, for example, is to grow reticent, thoughtful, and to spend time alone (it is assumed). Mischievous behavior would be tolerated, so long as it affirms customary norms of a ‘boys will be boys’ variety; solitary retreat is suspicious. Later, when his father attempts to turn Rudolf from his lover, his most feeling argument is that his son's children will not share the town’s Christian traditions.
(On this theme, Daly shares close kinship with Nathaniel Hawthorne, writing in the two decades prior, and frequently exploring the independent yearnings and blessedness of the human heart that put earned his characters ostracism in their societies.)
Meanwhile, simply to be outside is to be condemned. Though the villagers do level a handful of stereotypical charges at the Jewish refugees, Nathan's fiercest condemnation of them does not describe intrinsic qualities of the travelers. Rather, it is a long description of what is done to them across Europe. In a most vicious cycle, that they are persecuted makes them deserving of persecution.
The play, then, highlights the cruelty inherent in tribal allegiance. But does it leave room for hope?
In its extraordinary and surprising final act, Leah, the Forsaken points to the possibility of redemption, even grace, and that possibility comes through unforeseen defiance. In fact, defiance is encouraged throughout Leah, which is one of the reasons its melodramatic form is so satisfying.
In the world of melodrama, humans struggle and aspire within a cosmos whose rules govern the characters’ actions absolutely. It is the theater suited to the age of metaphysical inquiry—the theater of the age of the Transcendentalists that asserts interconnection between the mundane and the invisible. Melodrama has transcendence as its aim, showing characters who triumph in this interconnected world and allowing the audience a transcendent experience as they come along for the journey.
The familiar rules of the form, though, are those of a populist genre, an art form for those who lived Thoreau's "lives of quiet desperation" outside places of worship and scholarship. In this sensational, theatrical world, the innocent suffer, villainy lurks in every shadow, implausible coincidence asserts more force over events than mundane probability. Ultimately virtue triumphs, charity is rewarded, sundered families rejoin, and evil is punished, but only after tortuous brushes with disaster. And the entire affair is underscored by a soundtrack of music and effects that alternately comments and controls--persistent reminder that the events of our lives resonate within an interconnected world that observes and guides our fate, rewarding good deeds and hearts, but never ceding authority.
In the temple of the theater, the ritual of melodrama pays obeisance to a capricious, even sadistic force in a cosmic order that connects the lowly to the mighty to the universe, and that demands chaos and entropy be endured for the reward of peace and unity at the conclusion of the ceremony. It is for this reason that what we think of as a theater of extremes is such a rewarding and articulate expression of our emotional lives, and of social movements, too—illogical, implausible, unregulated, but deeply known in the heart and gut.
In Leah, the Forsaken, that world is fully formed in the first four acts, coming to glorious fruition with the haphazard deaths of the old man and an infant, the sundering of the lovers by misunderstanding, the concealment of the villain in a cloak of righteousness, and the capstone: Leah’s curse, which summons the wrath and power of Biblical order.
And yet, in the final act, while the promise of cataclysmic retribution predicted by the preceding is met, it is met in a wholly surprising fashion. Seeming to subvert its own rules, the very world of the play affirms that daring transgressions will lead to unexpected grace.
MOTHER OF EXILES
The creation of an inclusive community, rather than one defined by fear and rejection, is the good promised by Leah, the Forsaken. Is it any wonder that Leah’s destination, though now without Rudolf, remains the promised land, America?
In 1862, at the birth of the Civil War, defiance of communal prejudice for a greater communal good held a strong appeal to a liberal audience. (President Lincoln saw the play in 1865.) Later revivals of the play enjoyed signal success at times when questions of refugee status were prominent in public discussion, as in 1890, when Sarah Bernhardt toured her version of the play in the US, and in Vienna just after WWI. As they are today.
As America and its government grapple, too, with immigration policy, discrimination, religious intolerance, and the value of inclusion, Metropolitan revives a play about defying entrenched fears in the name of compassion en route to Prosperity, the theme of our 25th Season.
- Alex Roe
† We are indebted to Dr. Jonathan M. Hess, author of Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage, (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming, 2017) for information and perspective on the history and import of the play.
1) Scene from Leah, the Forsaken first published in The New York Clipper. Harvard Theatre Collection, THE TS 2378, Houghton Library, Harvard University
2) Sarah Bernhardt as Leah, Jonathan M. Hess private collection
3) Kate Bateman carte de visite, Jonathan M. Hess private collection
4) A scene from the Adelphi Theater Production, property of the Billy Rose Collection of the NYPL for the Performing Arts
JOHN AUGUSTIN DALY (1838-1899)
was one of the grandest theatrical impresarios of the late 19th
Century and is considered by many as the first modern
American director. While his exceptional success
as a producer chiefly owes to the smash success of Under
the Gaslight (1867, and revived by Metropolitan
in 2009), he began his career in 1859 as a drama
critic for several New York papers. Already writing
and producing adaptations and new plays, he assured
some favorable press by writing his own reviews.|
Daly went on to manage successful venues such as the Fifth Avenue Theatre, in two locations, and then a Daly’s Theatre in New York and a second in London. In New York, he gathered his own company of actors, including luminaries such as Ada Rehan, Clara Morris, Maurice Barrymore, Fanny Davenport, Tyrone Power, Sr., Isadora Duncan, and many more.
Known for both the authenticity of his settings and his sensational effects, insistence on justified behavior on stage, and a propensity for extensive alteration of even the most sacred theatrical works (such as Shakespeare), Daly was a driving force in American theater for nearly half a century.