Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

What's Jewish about a Jew? the Question of (Un-)Recognizability in Two Productions of Henri Nathansen's Play Indenfor Murene (within the Walls)

Academic journal article Scandinavian Studies

What's Jewish about a Jew? the Question of (Un-)Recognizability in Two Productions of Henri Nathansen's Play Indenfor Murene (within the Walls)

Article excerpt

When the Royal Theatre's curtain went up for the 1912 opening night of Henri Nathansen's Indenfor Murene, curiosity amongst the spectators presumably blended with discontent. For the very first time, the audience was offered the chance--with the help of the scenic illusion--to witness life within a Jewish home. Theater Jews, however, were nothing new in Copenhagen at the beginning of the twentieth century. Plenty of them had appeared on the stage at Kongens Nytorv (a public square in Copenhagen) since the national theater was founded there in 1748 (Rathel 2016). But Nathansen's play introduced an unusual inside perspective. Already the first scene--showing the holy Friday evening dinner with the Jewish family Levin gathered around the table--played with the tension between the new and the well-known, and lifted, at least partly, the veil of mystery. (2) Ever since the opening night, this theatrically "undiscovered country" has come to assume a key role in negotiating the state of the Jewish minority's integration into Danish society and has evoked the question of whether the play's Jewish family and the state of their acculturation are portrayed "correctly."

But what is there to discover in this modern Jewish home? How are the Levins depicted? In other words: What's Jewish about those Jews? These issues arise with every new production of this hugely successful play. Up through 2006, Indenfor Murene had been performed more than 500 times at the Royal Theatre alone, thus making it the second most played piece ever. (3) Its status as a theatrical pinnacle was further emphasized by its inclusion into the Danish Culture Canon in 2006.

In this article, I examine how this Jewish-Danish family is portrayed by focusing on two key productions at the Royal Theatre: (4) the first staging in 1912, directed by Henri Nathansen himself, and the last attempt to stage Indenfor Murene as of yet, Kaspar Rostrup's mise-en-scene, which premiered in 2005. I scrutinize how the Jewish characters are (re)presented on stage, which functions they are assigned, and to what extent the image of "the Jew" is altered in the Royal Theatre during that period.

Both directors work their respective mise-en-scenes with highly different aesthetic concepts. Nathansen's naturalistic staging appears to set into motion traditional images of the stage Jew by linking them to semiotic, narrative, and spatial paradoxes. Rostrup's mise-en-scene, however, seizes upon Brecht's epic theater approach. By estranging the Jewish-denoted signs, he locates the Levins in a somewhat historicized setting. I want to argue that these changing representations of the Jews reflect as well as produce social practices and discourses. On the one hand, both productions focus on the state of the Jews' integration as well as their role in society, while on the other hand, more universal questions regarding (pre)conditions of social participation take center stage. Studying these two theater productions thus encourages reflection on the social position of minorities in Denmark throughout the last hundred years more generally.


Before looking at both stagings in greater detail, I want to give a fragmentary summary of the play's central conflicts: Esther Levin--the only daughter of the Jewish family--and her university teacher Jorgen Herming secretly get engaged. At the time of their engagement, it is unknown to them that their respective fathers have known one another since childhood and harbor a deep hatred toward each other. But both Esther and Jorgen are well aware of the fact that a relationship between a Jew and a Christian is far from being conventional. Furthermore, Esther keeps her university studies a secret from her father.

When members of the Levin family learn of the engagement, they show varied reactions to the unexpected news. Father Levin is outraged, while mother Sara takes her daughter's side, and one brother--Jacob-condemns his sister's behavior, while the other--Hugo--argues that the inter-religious relationship might be regarded as a sign of a new era, as proof of an emerging enlightened spirit. …

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