Monday, May 08, 2006

Royal Shakespeare Company Stages The Anti-Semitism Of One Canterbury Tale Exactly As Chaucer Wrote It

"The most disturbing moment in the Royal Shakespeare Company's six-hour, two-part survey of Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales," which finishes its three-week run this afternoon, is in Part 1, when a sentimental old nun, known as the Prioress, lets loose a sweetly delivered stream of the most horrid anti-Semitism. This comes after several of the most ribald tales in the whole collection, yet in terms of obscenity -- the sense that you're watching something forbidden -- it tops any of the sexual antics that precede it.

Suddenly, from a world that feels familiar, the audience is plunged into a primitive fantasy of the murderous Jew. The story feels like a cartoon: A little Christian boy who loves the Virgin Mary is killed by Jews stirred up to violence by Satan. Animated by a holy miracle, the boy's body keeps singing until it is discovered by the Christians -- who then kill all the Jews. Finally, the boy is laid to rest. The story rehearses the ancient blood libel against the Jews.

Contemporary readers can find stories equally repellent throughout the literary classics. But seeing it onstage raises the stakes. It is not just an ugly tale lying inert between the pages of a book. Onstage, its characters live and breathe, and their hatred is rendered newly fresh and disquieting.

In an act that is bold in our politically sensitive age, the Royal Shakespeare Company lets the Prioress have her say. There's no attempt to bracket the tale, or subvert it with winks and nods that demonstrate the higher political sensitivity of the director or of the modern audience. There's evidence in Chaucer's text that the old nun (brilliantly played by Paola Dionisotti) is a little batty, but the staging doesn't overly emphasize that -- which is impressive. The temptation to play up her character flaws so as to neuter the ugly sentiments of her story must have been strong.

But the company avoids the easy out and, if anything, stages the tale with exquisite theatrical care and visual beauty. The music is simple and pure, such as a child who knew a little Latin chant might sing. The suffering of the boy's mother is poignant. The ominous and threatening presence of the Jews is rendered with masks that emphasize long, hooked noses. And the final scene is a gorgeous tableau that reproduces the classic "Pieta" of Michelangelo, the mother holding her dead child. What the Nun intends to be beautiful -- images of childhood, innocence and sacrifice -- are beautiful. What she intends to be ugly -- the supposed Jewish perfidy -- is ugly as well.

It's rare, today, to hear this kind of hatred speaking on its own terms, at least in public spaces such as the theater. Hatred thrives, no doubt. In this country, it is still permissible, in varying degrees, to exercise it in public against marginal groups: homosexuals, immigrants, Muslims. And even bigotries that have been discredited in public, such as racism and anti-Semitism, still flourish underground, on the Internet and in public, if carefully coded. But most of the entertainment industry, and especially the arts world, is particularly sensitive to anything that smacks of bigotry. In narrative today -- in fiction, television, theater and movies -- characters who deal in discredited forms of hate are either caricatures, or so clearly marked as mentally ill or morally bankrupt that they wear their hatred with all the subtlety of a black cloak on a silent-film villain.

But it's a very different matter for arts that must grapple with yesterday's narratives -- opera, theater, literature -- where old hatreds live on. When staging Mozart's "Magic Flute," directors are frequently embarrassed by an aria, sung by a villainous character, that begins: "Everyone feels the joys of love, billing and cooing, hugging and kissing; but I am to forswear love because a black man is ugly." It can't be cut without cutting the whole aria. In this country, the solution is simply to leave it untranslated in the supertitles. The Royal Shakespeare Company might have opted for a similar strategy with the Prioress's Tale -- simply cut it. But it was far more daring to keep it." ...

Philip Kennicott "Chaucer's Slurring Words: RSC Offers Blunt Talk About Voicing Now-Taboo Hatreds" Washington Post May 7, 2006

 With thanks.


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