- homepage link


F. Murray Abraham as Barabas in Marlowe's "The Jew of Malta," directed by David Herskovits, Theatre for a New Audience, 2007. Photo credit: Gerry Goodstein
Terrorists and Christian Husbands
By Martin Harries

The Jew of Malta
By Christopher Marlowe
The Merchant of Venice
By William Shakespeare
The Duke on 42nd St.
229 W. 42nd St.
Box office: 212-239-6200


In the trial scene of The Merchant of Venice, Bassanio asserts that he would surrender all the wealth of his rich new wife to save his friend Antonio, who is about to surrender his pound of flesh. A third friend, Gratiano, does Bassanio one better and declares that he would send his beloved wife to heaven "so she could / Entreat some power to change the currish Jew." Portia and Nerissa, their wives, nearby and in disguise, are not amused. Shylock, at once struck by their willingness to surrender what is not their own and full of rage over the loss of his daughter, comments:

These be the Christian husbands. I have a daughter:
Would any of the stock of Barabas
Had been her husband rather than a Christian!

In the Theatre for a New Audience's scintillating pairing of The Jew of Malta and Merchant, these lines jump out. F. Murray Abraham, playing Shylock, also plays Barabas, the compellingly demonic protagonist of The Jew of Malta. This repertory pairing -- an experiment so obvious that it is seldom performed, the last example I can find being the RSC's similar attempt in 1987 -- forces one to hear that name, Barabas, anew.

I happened to see the plays in the order in which they were written (Malta, c. 1589-90; Merchant, c. 1596-97), and this chance resonated. Abraham's brilliant Barabas haunts Merchant, and this is perhaps how it should be: Malta had been a great success, and the Elizabethan audience, who knew how to listen, might have heard more echoes than we normally do in the dialogue of Merchant. But what do we hear?

F. Murray Abraham as Shylock in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," directed by Darko Tresnjak, Theatre for a New Audience, 2007. Photo credit: Gerry GoodsteinShylock's "stock of Barabas" implies that even the worst Jew would be a more worthy husband for his daughter than any Christian -- better, that is, not only than the intentionally vacuous Lorenzo, portrayed here by Vince Nappo, but better than any Christian. But this backhanded condemnation of Barabas comes from the actor who has portrayed Barabas, and the context makes one wonder whether this Shylock might also harbor a certain admiration for that Barabas, who all but brings down Malta in his grandiloquent fury. And doesn't Shylock have a point? Why are those "Christian husbands" so eager to sacrifice the wives they have just married the day before?

Another story haunts this reiteration of a name that is not a name from Marlowe only. Luke 23 (18-21):

Then all the multitude cried at once, saying, Away with him, and deliver unto us Barabbas;
Which for a certain insurrection made in the city, and murder, was cast in prison.
Then Pilate spake again to them, willing to let Jesus loose.
But they cried, saying, Crucify, crucify him.

Too much surrounds this scene so privileged in the history of anti-Semitism. What makes it so powerful a context for these performances is its suggestion of a logic of substitution at the heart of the paired plays. Marlowe's anti-hero takes his name from the terrorist who should not have been saved at Christ's expense. And yet, sometimes sacrifice is necessary, or so the "Christian husbands" believe: in order not to be like the Jew, they volunteer their wives as imitators of Christ, offering up their money and their lives. Shylock, on the other hand, has no interest in sacrifice, and asks for revenge, not some substitute for it. This makes him at once the "Jew," the villain who cannot understand the eloquent if hypocritical calls for mercy made by Portia (the winningly anxious Kate Forbes), and something else, something less easily caricatured.

One of the highlights of Darko Tresnjak's lucid and moving production resonates with special force. The set and props include a whole array of the gadgetry of twenty-first century communications. Tresnjak brings down the curtain for intermission with the scene in which Tubal (Marc Vietor, in one of three roles) tells Shylock about his daughter Jessica's extravagance in Genoa, while also telling him that Antonio's plans as a merchant have gone awry. Here, Tubal communicates with Shylock over a wireless device, and informs Shylock of a ring that Jessica has exchanged for a monkey. The anguished Shylock replies:

Thou torturest me, Tubal. It was my turquoise. I had it of Leah when I was a bachelor. I would not have given it for a wilderness of monkeys.

Shylock's response usually looks like a rush to judgment. Tubal has not described the ring, and unless Jessica made off with only one, it seems that Shylock is too ready to believe the very worst. But technology does make a difference: Tubal transmits a digital photo of the "turquoise," which Shylock displays to the audience. There is no question, here, about which ring Jessica has traded for the monkey, and Abraham conveys Shylock's grief with a moving power. And this power has been made possible in part through the anachronism of the wireless device: this Shylock has the ocular proof usually lacking. He knows what ring he has lost for a monkey.

F. Murray Abraham (Barabas) and Arnie Burton (Ithamore) in Marlowe's "Jew of Malta," directed by David Herskovits, Theatre for a New Audience, 2007. Photo credit: Gerry GoodsteinSuch anachronisms are the done thing, but rarely do directors put anachronism to work with the deliberate, but never self-satisfied, intelligence Tresnjak and David Herskovits, director of The Jew of Malta, have supplied in these two complementary but very different productions. The example of the ring seems to me typical of the way the carefully used electronic devices distance and yet enrich Merchant. The free conversion of things into information, of a singular and precious "turquoise" into an image on a hand-held screen, captures the uneasy spirit of finance that hovers over Merchant. If, in John Lee Beatty's crisp set, a Mac can be a merchant's trading desk one moment and the casket concealing a lover's fate the next, what thing or passion cannot be changed or exchanged?

This near-universal convertibility suggests why Shylock's distress over the lost ring is so important. That ring, a gift from his dead wife, is not exchangeable, not convertible. It contrasts with the speed with which those Christian husbands, Bassanio (Saxon Palmer) and Gratiano (John Lavelle), part with those rings their wives asked them never under any circumstances to part with. In Merchant, the Jew, condemned for his association with usury, with converting money into more money without doing any productive work, is also the chief figure of resistance to the very logic of finance that he supposedly represents: no "wilderness of monkeys" could equal the value of the ring. And with every raised eyebrow Abraham registers the cupidity of those who condemn Shylock for his love of interest.

In a curious way, it is here that Abraham's comically titanic Barabas strikes me as especially relevant. To an even greater degree than the Venetians in Merchant, the Christian Maltese depend on Barabas's wealth for their own survival. They scorn and need him in equal measure. The unapologetically wicked intelligence that Abraham brings to his performance as Barabas is simply stunning. He recognizes their hypocrisy, and feasts on it.

Herskovits has taken the play at its word, and the result is a production that is at once campy and true. Here, another set by Beatty -- a flexible and emphatically flat collage of medieval images of cities -- provides a shallow gilt space where we first spy Barabas, bathing in his gold. Too much? Here is Marlowe's stage direction: Barabas is "in his counting-house, with heaps of gold [and bags] before him." Herskovits lets the vicious and comic extremes of the play remain both comic and extreme. Robbed near the start of the play of most of his wealth by decree of the pompous governor of Malta, Ferneze (Marc Vietor, again), Barabas spends the rest of the action pursuing his revenge. Vietor, who luxuriates in his portrayals of aristocratic arrogance across the two plays, perfectly embodies the puffed-up "Christian" city-state. And Barabas's revenge and his joyful destruction of this puffery are at the heart of Malta.

Nicole Lowrance (Jessica) and F. Murray Abraham (Shylock)  in Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice," directed by Darko Tresnjak, Theatre for a New Audience, 2007. Photo credit: Gerry GoodsteinHe wants his revenge, and gets some of it, killing off his daughter's tweedledum and tweedledee suitors, Lodowick (John Lavelle) and Mathias (Vince Nappo,who also seduces Jessica in Merchant) and his daughter Abigail (Nicole Lowrance, who also plays Jessica) and the other nuns with whom she has taken refuge. Caught in the end in his own trap -- a fiery pit that occupies the same spot as the cache of gold with which the play begins -- Abraham's Barabas descends to his death giving the world the finger. What this production captures is Barabas's refusal to exchange his revenge for anything. He'll take no substitute, but hopes until the end to be revenged on all: "Damn'd Christians, dogs, and Turkish infidels!" And it is this proud refusal to exchange his desire for what others offer as just substitutes that makes Barabas the grandiose ancestor of Shylock. How delectable that this heritage is so richly on view among the sanitized flesh pots of 42nd Street, in a wonderfully intimate black box, where this pair of thought-provoking productions deserves a longer run.

And flipping the bird? Exit Barabas, flaunting anachronism? Maybe, but probably not. There's good evidence that that gesture is one of the treasures of digital expression we have inherited from the ancients. Tresnjak, Herskovits, and Abraham accept no substitutes.


©2003-10 All rights reserved. Do not duplicate or distribute in any form without express permission. Hunter Department of Theater . 695 Park Avenue . New York, NY 10065 .