Episode 25: Jews on Stage


Jews in space? No, Jews on stage. What was the world like for Jewish actors during the Middle Ages? Well, it was a bit of a mixed bag, honestly. Yes, there were times and places where Jewish life was severely proscribed, but there were also places where Jewish actors and playwrights were celebrated for their skills and performed at the highest echelons. Join Em and Jesse as they discuss the world of Jewish theater from the Middle Ages up to the mid-twentieth century. Also we talk about The Merchant of Venice some more, because of course we do.

Annotations and Corrections

1/ Outside of Israel, a number of holidays are celebrated for two nights so that people can be sure of celebrating them during the time when they’re celebrated in Israel.

2/ Re the revolution: I think we won?

Hopefully, you still have power and an RSS feed to be able to listen to this podcast.

3/ If you’re interested in Yiddish theater, check this out.

4/ Yiddish is mostly spoken by Haredi and Hasidic Jews. I don’t have a great source for how many Yiddish speakers there are worldwide right now. One source says at least 150,000 in the US and Canada. I assume 90% of them live in Brooklyn and the rest in Montreal.

5/ Indecent on PBS.

Indecent by Paula Vogel: https://www.amazon.com/Indecent-TCG-Paula-Vogel/dp/1559365471

Indecent is available on broadwayhd.com:
https://www.broadwayhd.com/categories/plays and sometime available via PBS https://www.pbs.org/video/indecent-zvm9ct/

Info on Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance here: https://web.uwm.edu/yiddish-stage/10-things-you-need-to-know-about-god-of-vengeance and here (includes an image of the entire cast after their arrest for obscenity): https://www.jewishboston.com/read/sholem-aschs-god-of-vengeance-challenges-modern-theater-audiences/

Info on the obscenity trial here (includes images of the complete pamphlet published in defense of God of Vengeance): https://web.uwm.edu/yiddish-stage/an-open-letter-by-sholom-asch-author-of-got-fun-nekome
and here: https://news.yale.edu/2015/10/15/defending-indecent-play-god-vengeance-yale-university-library-archives-0

5/ Jewish wizards in Harry Potter = Anthony Goldstein (Ravenclaw) https://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/dec/17/jk-rowling-confirms-that-there-were-jewish-wizards-harry-potter

6/ Erith Jaffe-Berg, “Performance as exchange: Taxation and Jewish Theater in Early Modern Italy” in Theatre Survey 54.3 (Sept 2013): 389–417.

7/ Leone de Sommi (c.1527–c.1592) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leone_de%27_Sommi

8/ At least one high profile case of a Jewish child secretly baptized was the Mortara case, which actually happened later on, in the 1850s. The Church held that it had the authority to remove the child based on the papal bull Postremo mense, which was written by Pope Benedict XIV in 1747 and lays out the guidelines under which it is allowable to baptize a Jewish child without its parents’ consent. The Church was still doing this as of WWII.

In Australia: The Stolen Generation. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stolen_Generations

In the US: https://www.vox.com/2019/10/14/20913408/us-stole-thousands-of-native-american-children

In Canada: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/06/decades-after-government-seizure-of-children-indigenous-canadians-will-receive-compensation

In Canada, there used to be laws specifying that once a person had less than a certain percentage of tribal blood (possibly 25%), they could no longer register as part of a tribe. Since a fair number of people marry outside of the tribe, this would have the effect of shrinking the tribal membership relatively quickly. [These are known as “Blood Quantum” laws, and the USA has them as well: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blood_quantum_laws Here’s an interesting discussion of Canada: https://www.cbc.ca/news/indigenous/josiah-wilson-indian-act-hereditary-governance-1.3668636 –Jesse] [I think the Canadian laws are also discussed in Thomas King’s excellent The Truth About Stories.–Em]

9/ Jesse: This specific discussion of sumptuary laws is taken from Jaffe-Ber’s article (especially p. 392). We’ve previously mentioned Sara Lipton’s Dark Mirror, which is a great resource.

10/ It’s good to be the king (NSFW).

11/ Recommending Geraldine Heng’s The Invention of Race in the European Middle Ages https://www.amazon.com/Invention-Race-European-Middle-Ages/dp/1108435092/

12/ Em: When I say my skin is clear, I don’t mean “unblemished,” I mean it’s see-through.

13/ Jesse: Our discussion is based largely on Ötzi, who was discovered in 2012 to be most closely related to modern-day Sardinians but also closely related to prehistoric remains from Bulgaria and Sweden. https://www.livescience.com/24667-iceman-mummy-otzi-closest-relatives.html However in 2013, it was discovered that Ötzi has at least 19 close genetic relatives *still living* in the Austrian Tyrol region (where he might have originated himself). https://www.nbcnews.com/sciencemain/scientists-say-otzi-iceman-has-living-relatives-5-300-years-8C11392771

14/ We talked about the hats in episode 10 note 39.

15/ Sara Lipton “Where Are the Gothic Jewish Women? On the Non-Iconography of the Jewess in the Cantigas de Santa Maria” Jewish History, vol. 22, no. 1/2, The Elka Klein Memorial Volume (2008), pp. 139–177 (quote from p. 142).

16/ The Bechdel (or Bechdel Wallace) test: a test named for but not invented by Alison Bechdel (who popularized it), which states that in order to pass a film must contain 1) two female characters 2) who talk to each other 3) and their discussion can’t be about a man. Here’s the Wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test And here is Bechdel’s comic where she describes it (and shows her friend Liz Wallace inventing it): https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bechdel_test#/media/File:Dykes_to_Watch_Out_For_(Bechdel_test_origin).jpg

The last film I (Em) watched was Inception, and I don’t think it passed the test.

17/ Plessy v Ferguson (1896) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Plessy_v._Ferguson

18/ Caster Semenya https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/08/sports/olympics/caster-semenya-court-ruling.html

David Roche writes about trans* athlete rights: https://trailrunnermag.com/people/transgender-athlete-rights-are-human-rights.html

Jesse asks, somewhat rhetorically, why women can’t play baseball. As far as I can tell, the answer is probably Kennesaw Mountain Landis. [Probably! He was evil.–Jesse]

19/ Lucerne Easter play: http://theaterhistoryonline.blogspot.com/2014/08/lucerne-passion-play.html (some good images of the staging diagrams by Renward Cysat.)

20/ English play–the Croxton Play of the Sacrament https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Croxton_Play_of_the_Sacrament (no one is killed!)

French play: Mistere de la Sainte Hostie See Jody Enders “Theater Makes History: Ritual Murder by Proxy in the ‘Mistere de la Sainte Hostie'” in Speculum Vol. 79, No. 4 (Oct., 2004), pp. 991–1016.

Judenfrage: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jewish_Question
(Na ja, wir haben die Judenfrage, aber was ist die Judenantwort?)

Episode 24: Stages in the Middle Ages


Em and Jesse discuss physical performance spaces, from Greek amphitheaters to pageant carts to prosceniums, and the changes theaters have seen over time. There’s a lot of Renaissance stuff in here, including an interesting discussion of the various theaters Shakespeare would have premiered plays–the Globe and the Rose–with some interesting digressions about the Blues Brothers, American Realism, and also the Bishop of Winchester and the area of Southwark known as the Liberty of the Clink.

Annotations and Corrections

1/ Hrotsvit was indeed episode 22.

2/ They shout at each other on someone’s lawn because doing the histories is less risky than doing the comedies, as I understand it (of which everyone has their specific favorite). The histories generally involve a lot of shouting.

3/ Bob’s Country Roadhouse: we got both types of music–country AND western. I assume the bottles thrown after they start singing “Rawhide” are appreciative bottles.

Jesse: We forgot to mention that animals can also show up at outdoor theatres (Bats! Racoons!). This definitely adds to the participatory “all-in-this-together” feeling and serves as a nice reminder that the environment can’t be controlled.

Also, the most famous medieval theatre fire is probably this one: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bal_des_Ardents

4/ A surprising number of early indoor theatres still exist. The earliest extant indoor theatres of modern Western Europe are in Italy. (“Modern” in this instance means after the fall of Rome, and “indoor theatre” specifies a space built specifically for performance.)

1580–85: Teatro Olimpico, Vicienza
1588–90: Teatro all’Antica, Sabbioneta
1617–18: Theatre Farnese, Parma

Proscenium style: from the Greek “pro skene,” in front of the scenery.

The oldest theatre, Teatro Olimpico, has a permanent skene with perspective scenery visible through the arches: it can be seen here.

Here’s the floor plan, where you can see the paths for the Teatro Olimpico’s perspective scenery. The entire back half of the stage is for the scenery and the skene.

5/ Later Baroque theatres such as Sweden’s Drottningholm Palace Theatre (opened 1754, rebuilt 1764-66) allowed actors to go a little upstage into the scenery without ruining the perspective. Nonetheless, actors tended to remain downstage, particularly on what we would now consider the apron (the small part of the stage that thrusts out in front of the proscenium arch). Here are some floor plans.

Here’s a GREAT video of the scenery changing at the Drottningholm Palace Theatre! You even see how they change it backstage (no computers or mechanization!).

Český Krumlov Castle Theatre (1767) in the Czech Republic is also an excellent example of a Baroque theatre. The video on this page has a lot of fun stills, including some of waves like those promoted by Nicola Sabbatini (1574–1654). See also this page (Sabbatini also used periaktoi, or triangular set pieces that could change scenery quickly. Very brief video here.

This video shows the Český Krumlov Castle Theatre scenery changing at 3:16. If you watch the complete video, you’ll notice that the dancer never goes very far upstage.

Here’s another video from the Český Krumlov Castle Theatre–the scenery changes at 10:45. You’ll notice that the scenery isn’t used to create a perspective, and the actors do make use of the upstage space. A cloud descends at 13:49.

6/ Bertolt Brecht, 1898–1956.

7/ The Theatre, built by James Burbage. Built in 1576, it’s not technically the very first purpose built theatre in England, but it’s the one that lasts. Burbage’s brother-in-law, John Brayne, built the actual first purpose-built theatre (the Red Lion) in 1567, but it was not successful.

8/ A Hark, a Vagrant! Comic about Richard III.

An article about the identification of his body from 2013. His bones were discovered in 2012 and reinterred in 2015. (Richard III was buried in Greyfriars, which was Franciscan and was dissolved in 1538 by Henry VIII.–Jesse)

The Rose.

In Shakespeare in Love, we meet Richard Burbage (played by Martin Clunes) and, as Jesse mentions, Philip Henslowe (played by Geoffrey Rush). We don’t meet Cuthbert Burbage.

9/ I think I thought the stage was taller because whenever a tv show (Good Omens comes to mind) shoots in there, they shoot the actors on stage at an angle that makes them seem very tall.

10/ Bishop of Winchester / Southwark.

The bishopric goes back to the year 634 CE, in case you were curious. Also, the bishop of Winchester gets to sit in the House of Lords and was typically the royal chancellor or treasurer. More on the Liberty of the Clink here. The bishop who got the license for permitting prostitution and brothels was the younger brother of King Stephen (the license, however, was granted by King Henry II, who was his first cousin once removed).

11/ For more on American dance dramas, see episode 12 (note 30) and episode 17 (notes 4 and 6).

For more on maps, see episode 14 (notes 18, 19, 20, 21, and 22), episode 11 (note 21), and episode 19 (note 8).

12/ La bohème: An opera by Puccini. Boy meets girl, they fall in love, girl dies of tuberculosis. Basically the same as the plot of the film Moulin Rouge. [Also the same story as Rent, famously! Because Rent is an adaptation of Bohème.–Jesse]

For more on Figaro, see episode 21 (note 5).

13/ Em: I just rewatched part of Deadpool while hanging out in L&D Triage two weeks ago (and texted Jesse about it while I was there). He breaks the fourth wall very effectively. [My love of Deadpool cannot be overstated.–Jesse]