Nathan the Wise, a fascinating old play that recalls an era when Jews, Muslims and Christians got along, begins at Classic Stage with an acknowledgement of the present: All the actors are arguing (in Arabic, Hebrew, Latin, German) — until F. Murray Abraham quiets everybody (in English): “We have a story to tell.”
The story, written by the German playwright Gotthold Ephraim Lessing in 1779, takes place in Jerusalem in 1192. Abraham plays Nathan, a Jewish merchant, who is summoned by Saladin, the sultan of Jerusalem (Austin Durant), to answer a question: Which among Christianity, Islam and Judaism is the true religion?
Nathan realizes the question poses a dilemma for him and he asks for time to consider: “If I say the Jewish way is the only way, I risk his wrath,” he says in soliloquy. “If I deny my race he’ll ask me, ‘why aren’t you a Muslim?’ There must be another path.”
The path that Nathan finds is thought provoking, then and now. Lessing’s play was his way of airing his unusual views on religious freedom and tolerance at a time when the authorities censored his other forms of writing, such as his polemical pamphlets. Lesser’s optimism is all the more remarkable given the anti-Semitism of his time and place.
But Nathan The Wise is not mere polemics put on stage. The question the sultan poses comes at the very end of Act I, right before the intermission; Nathan’s answer to it comes shortly after the beginning of Act II. Lessing, an early German champion of Shakespeare, fashioned around his political messages a Bard-like entertainment laced with improbable surprises, absurd coincidences and a happy resolution.
As the story begins, Nathan has returned to Jerusalem from a business trip to Babylon to learn that his house has burned down, but that his daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) was saved from the burning building by a Knight Templar – a soldier in the (Christian) Crusades. This particular Templar, Conrad Von Stauffen from Germany (Stark Sands), was one of 20 whom the Sultan had captured – and the only one he didn’t execute, because the Christian reminded the Muslim of his own long-lost brother. Templar and Rachel, naturally, fall in love – but Nathan is wary of Templar, and the Sultan and Templar are wary of Nathan.
All of this wariness makes sense; nearly all of Lessing’s characters are the victims or the perpetrators of atrocities, sometimes both. We learn late in the play that Christians had murdered Nathan’s wife and seven sons. Yet each of the characters, even those who seem initially bigoted and scheming, wind up able to transcend the parochialism of their co-religionists.
Lessing never saw his play performed; he died two years after writing it. The original version is said to last four and a half hours, before Friedrich Schiller revised it two decades after Lesser’s death. Translator Edward Kemp has “compressed” it even further, to two hours, and changed it from the German verse in which it was written to an American prose, accessible without being overly colloquial. An uniformly able cast pulls it off at the Classic Stage Company’s first-rate production. F. Murray Abraham, who was last on Broadway playing an obnoxious drama critic in It’s Only A Play, is better known for his Oscar-winning performance as Salieri in the film Amadeus, and for his classical roles, including Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Nathan the Wise is a Jewish character, far less problematic for modern times.
Director Brian Kulick, CSC’s artistic director, has added touches that emphasize the play’s relevance. The multilingual argument among the performers is underscored by Anita Yavich’s costumes, the robes and tunics stamped with the language of the wearer, words that are foreign to outsiders. The most prominent feature of the set by Tony Straiges is a backdrop of a bombed-out street; although the rubble-strewn ruins look old, it is clear from the satellite dish on a roof that it could have been photographed this year.
Nathan The Wise comes accompanied by a hand-out that provides some useful context. Kemp quotes Lessing as having said that given the choice between the truth and the quest for the truth, he would prefer the quest. “Why? Because when we believe we have the truth we tend to do terrible things to other humans.”
Nathan the Wise is on stage at the Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street, New York, NY 10003) through May 1, 2016.
Tickets and details
Nathan the Wise. Written by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing. Adapted by Edward Kemp. Directed by Brian Kulick. Featuring F. Murray Abraham, George Abud, Austin Durant, John Christopher Jones, Shiva Kalaiselvan, Caroline Lagerfelt, Erin Neufer, Stark Sands. Set Design by Tony Straiges, costume design by Anita Yavich, lighting design by Joe Novak, sound design by Matt Stine. Reviewed by Jonathan Mandell.