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An 18th-Century Plea for Tolerance Resounds Today

October 20, 2002

An 18th-Century Plea for Tolerance Resounds Today


TIMELESSNESS is a good thing in a play, but timeliness is better. The 18th-century drama "Nathan the Wise" wins on both counts. The play, dramatizing tensions between Christians, Muslims and Jews, is unlikely to lose its sense of urgency in today's global political climate. A revival is in order, and one is at hand: by the Pearl Theater Company, an Off Broadway resident group dedicated to the classics of world drama. The play, adapted by Richard Sewell and directed by Barbara Bosch, opens tonight and will be performed in repertory with Oliver Goldsmith's comedy "She Stoops to Conquer."

"Nathan the Wise" is the masterpiece of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81), the forerunner of Goethe and Schiller and the founder of classic German drama. Lessing sets his tale in Jerusalem at the time of the Crusades, among Jews, Christians and Muslims bound together by tangled ties of blood and love. The play poses the question: Which is the true religion? And it goes further to ask: How do we live together when we cannot know?

Some plays — perhaps more than we realize — owe their immortality to a single scene or even a single speech, which, like a spark in a haystack, sets the whole thing ablaze. In "Nathan the Wise," that speech (stolen from the inexhaustible treasure house of story that is Boccaccio's "Decameron") is a parable of three rings.

Well into the 20th century, before the deconstructionists exploded the dead white men's canon, anyone who had a nodding acquaintance with German literature would have known the speech in outline, if not by heart, much as an Anglophile would have known "The quality of mercy."

The passage occurs at the very center of the play, when the sultan Saladin, short of cash, invites Nathan in for a little chat. Nathan is not only a sage but a merchant of fabulous wealth. Saladin's deeper purpose is to find some pretext — perhaps heresy? — for confiscating Nathan's money; the question of true religion is a trap.

"In olden time a man lived in the East," Nathan begins after brief reflection. "He owned a priceless ring, bestowed by a dear hand." In that ring dwells the power to make its wearer gracious to God and man. By decree of the first possessor, the ring passes from father to his best loved son — and with it, recognition as head of the tribe — without regard to seniority. Many generations on, a father, unable to choose among three sons he loves equally, secretly commissions two replicas, indistinguishable from the original, and with his dying blessing secretly gives a ring to each son. Discovering their predicament, the heirs rush to court, each claiming to be the true inheritor.

"You only love yourselves," the grouchy judge observes. "All the rings are false." Yet he has a Solomonic proposition: let each brother strive to live as if his ring were the true one, making himself gracious to God and man by virtue of his own conduct, and so on from generation to generation. As Nathan goes on to say, each faith is rooted in history. Therefore, each "revelation" belongs to its particular time and place. What brings creeds into conflict is the militant conviction that any one of them is universal.

Lessing called "Nathan the Wise" not a play but a "dramatic poem." He wrote at a time when his enlightened theological pamphleteering had so unsettled state authorities that he was forbidden to publish anything further on such matters.

Recognizing "Nathan the Wise" as Lessing's continuation of his campaign by other means, some German jurisdictions prohibited sale of the text while others tried to suppress it altogether. The piece was not performed onstage until after Lessing's death, in an adaptation by Schiller. Goethe hoped that the values of "divine tolerance and forbearance" enshrined in the play would remain "sacred to and cherished by" the German nation. As we know, there have been times when they were abandoned, to a degree Lessing, Goethe and Schiller could never have imagined.

Or could they? A terrifying minor figure in "Nathan the Wise," and an unforgettable one, is the Patriarch of Jerusalem, the embodiment of fanatical Christianity. Late in the play, he gets wind of some ancient history: it seems that in a time of violent upheaval, a baby girl, born and baptized a Christian, was entrusted to a Jew and brought up by him in the Jewish faith. (As the audience knows, though the Patriarch does not, the baby is Nathan's supposed daughter, by now a young woman.) What would be the consequences of the Jew's act? Under papal and imperial law, says the Patriarch, the Jew must burn at the stake for stealing a Christian soul from God.

Extenuating circumstances are introduced, to no avail. Three times, the Patriarch repeats his verdict, like a funeral knell: "The Jew must burn." "The Jew must burn." "The Jew must burn."

Lessing gets Nathan off the hook — he took his Enlightenment positions seriously — but the difference between the playhouse and the world was not lost on him.   

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