Jays, David, New Statesman (1996)
DAVID JAYS on the absence of the Jewish context in British drama
Harold Pinter has just turned 70, and theatrical celebrations continue throughout the winter. They include not only Michael Gambon in a revival of The Caretaker, but also an adaptation at the National Theatre of an unfilmed screenplay based on Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Faber & Faber's birthday present gathers together affectionate, wary tributes from friends and colleagues in Harold Pinter: a celebration. They touch on many subjects -- Pinter's place in the European intellectual tradition, his fervent political conviction, his passion for cricket -- but never his Jewishness.
It might seem a puzzling omission, but it's not untypical. Despite the work of Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Deborah Levy, Jewish writing is a neglected presence in British theatre. If you want to see an overtly Jewish character on the British stage, you usually have to wait for the ambivalent hero-villains in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice or Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, both written at a time when Jews were officially banished from the country. Subsequent waves of immigration did not produce a correspondingly heightened profile among the dramatis personae of British drama.
Pinter's relationship with Jewishness is interestingly ambiguous. His monstrous patriarchs -- the retired butcher in The Homecoming, the father spuming on his deathbed in Moonlight--carry uncomfortable resonances of the religion in which he was raised. "God speaks through me," booms the interrogator in One for the Road. "I'm referring to the Old Testament God, by the way, although I'm a long way from being Jewish." His early work struggles against the grip of organised religion. As Michael Billington points out in his biography of the dramatist, The Birthday Party argues against the dead hand of Judaism and Catholicism, as represented by the heavies Goldberg and McCann. Pinter himself has said that the play "showed how the bastards ... how religious forces ruin our lives".
Jewish identity is a slippery subject, because it is both an ethnicity and a religion. Also, there are almost as many forms of British Jewry as there are Jews. There was certainly widespread immigration from eastern Europe, but there is an equally strong tradition of Jews with an Iberian and Mediterranean heritage. None the less, there are connecting experiences, of which the Holocaust was defining. Despite honourable exceptions, such as Kinderstransport by Diane Samuels, it is too rarely addressed by Jewish playwrights in Britain. Audiences here have recently seen two plays examining Albert Speer's delicate games of conscience, but only Julia Pascal, in The Holocaust Trilogy, creates a wide canvas of collusion and exclusion beyond the rotten glamour of evil.
Even in the 1980s and 1990s, years that were dominated by writing about identity politics, few Jewish plays were produced to accompany black, feminist and gay texts (again with exceptions, such as the plays of Deborah Levy, although Judaism is a subdued texture in her work). Instead, the people of the book include vibrant transformers, adapters and re-readers of texts. Jonathan Miller, Mike Alfreds and Steven Berkoff have played, argued with and reconfigured Shakespeare and Kafka, Sophocles and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Michael Meyer, the mighty translator and biographer of Ibsen and Strindberg, who died this summer, was in the same tradition. Jews make good spectators, too, according to the playwright David Hare. When Michael Gambon asked why West End audiences slumped in quality during a long run, Hare told him: "Because there are only enough Jews and gays in London to give you 80 rewarding nights. After that, you have to play to the rest."
Dodgy racial theories about aptitude are best avoided. Daniel Pick collects several in his study Svengali's Web (Yale University Press), noting that the necessarily adaptable wandering. …