By Michael Hillyer
Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s dramatic poem, Nathan The Wise, was considered too controversial for production during his own lifetime. Published by the German philosopher, writer, playwright and art critic Gotthold Lessing in 1779, two years before his death, performances of Nathan The Wise were forbidden (by the Catholic Church, naturally) until its belated premiere in Berlin in 1783. While there is no longer anything that could be considered scandalous about the central premise of Lessing’s play, the worldly issue it tackles remains controversial to this very day, and still confounds us. And I mean in a front-page headline kind of way. If there were ever a classic play whose chief message is still timely, still speaking clearly to people in the present day, on a topic of vital importance and over the distance of many years, it is this one.
Though Nathan The Wise is doubtless a child of the Age of Enlightenment, its action is placed many centuries farther back in time, in Jerusalem in 1192. This is just after the Third Crusade, fought between the forces of Richard the Lion-Heart and Saladin, which left Jerusalem and much of Palestine under Muslim control. It was a time when the Jews, Muslims and Christians living together in the Holy Land somehow managed to co-exist in relative harmony, as Nathan tells us at the beginning of the play. Just imagine. To the post-9/11 ear, this will sound suspiciously like a fable of long ago and far away, but we are asked directly at the outset of this production to consider such an improbability. And while he wrote it for the audiences of his own day and age, that is precisely what Lessing still asks us to consider in this updated 2003 translation by Edward Kemp, in a handsome production mounted by the Classic Stage Company: what if the three great religions of the world actually respected each other?
It might well begin like a fable, but Nathan The Wise unfolds in the form of a parable. The director, Brian Kulick, has helped to create a simple story-telling framework, concentrated upon the narrative, as actors slip into and out of parts a vista, and often address the audience directly to advance the story. He has also enlisted his talented company in successfully creating a strong sense of ensemble, and the resulting playing style has the cohesive unity of a family effort. The cast is, on the whole, quite fine, although there is no question that F. Murray Abraham is giving an extraordinary performance in the title role. The sources of Nathan’s wisdom are rooted in both suffering and buoyancy, in addition to intelligence, and Mr. Abraham anchors his character soundly in pain and good humor alike. Nathan has endured terrible losses, yet has held onto his own good nature, and Abraham’s deeply felt characterization is fun to watch, as well as quite moving. Stark Sands (Templar) is exceptional in a role that would have been easy to misplay, walking a fine line between integrity and passion, and George Abud (Al-Hafi) is delightful as an unhappily reformed dervish who has been summoned from his poverty to help embellish the coffers of Saladin. Elsewhere, Erin Neufer (Rachel) and Caroline Lagerfelt (Daya) comprise Nathan’s devoted household, Shiva Kalaiselvan (Sittah) provides an unfinished family for Austin Durant (Saladin), and the veteran John Christopher Jones (Brother) provides the glue that keeps the plot together late in the day.
The production design elements are simple but effective, anchoring the story in the late Twelfth Century while underscoring the play’s connection to today. An emphasis upon the story-telling as well as a constant visual tension between past and present is drawn on many levels, beginning with the cast members in modern dress, over which they don “traditional” garments – to distinguish their characters by which religion they practice, even while the costumes (by the clever Anita Yavich) all seem to be cut from the same cloth. Tony Straides’ smart, stripped-down setting is dominated by an enormous wall-sized blowup of an black and white photograph of a bombed-out Middle Eastern city neighborhood, whose ancient rock structures have been blasted to rubble, while the forestage is simply dressed with rugs to demarcate the playing areas, over which twin rows of elegant mosque lanterns hover. An upstage row of chairs, strewn with some props and costume pieces, creates an area from which the actors can enter downstage into the story, and to which they can then retire, to become spectators to the action as it unfolds before them.
The question that is put to Nathan, a respected Jewish businessman who has been summoned by the powerful Sultan Saladin and commanded to answer, is this: which of the three great religions is the true one? Nathan takes his time to respond, but when he does, it is with a parable about a man with three sons who possesses a great ring, invested with the power to make its wearer pleasing to God. The man leaves the true ring to his favorite son, but careful not to hurt the feelings of his two other sons, he has identical, if powerless, rings made and given to each. The three brothers appear before a judge, insisting upon a ruling as to which is the true ring. The judgment delivered is that it is impossible to tell, except after many generations have possessed it, and so each son is encouraged to live his life as if worthy of such a ring. This parable makes a compelling case for holding on to faith, taught to us by our fathers, while respecting our brothers for holding on to theirs. The play is an impassioned plea for religious tolerance, and its relevance to modern life couldn’t be clearer. It was no accident that this was to be the first play performed in Germany after World War Two.
The central theme of Nathan The Wise seems to have been ripped right out of our daily news broadcasts, with religious intolerance on the rise here at home and atrocities committed in the name of religion almost daily in the Middle East and elsewhere. It is our misfortune to live in an age, far from enlightened, where the great religions seem determined to destroy one other, and in doing so, to bring down the whole world with them. A concept for peaceful co-existence considered revolutionary in 1779 still remains so, to our great chagrin, even to this day.
Nathan The Wise – Written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, Adapted by Edward Kemp, Director Brian Kulick
With F. Murray Abraham (Nathan), Stark Sands (Templar), George Abud (Al-Hafi ), Austin Durant (Saladin), John Christopher Jones (Brother ), Shiva Kalaiselvan (Sittah), Caroline Lagerfelt (Daya), Erin Neufer (Rachel).
Presented by Classic Stage Company, Brian Kulick, Artistic Director, Jeff Griffin, Managing Director, Set Designer Tony Straiges, Costume Designer Anita Tavich, Lighting Designer Joe Novak, Sound Designer Matt Stine. Through May 1 at Classic Stage Company, 136 East 13th Street. For tickets call (212) 352-3101, visit the theatre in person or go to www.classicstage.org.