Greetings from New York THEATREWORKS Fans!
I just had the pleasure of having coffee with Daniel Sullivan and Oskar Eustis. You all know Oskar. Dan, you may not have heard of. But you should know him. He is fantastic. He is one of the great directors in this country. He is the Tony nominated director of Merchant of Venice on Broadway, Tony winner for Proof, director of All’s Well that Ends Well in Central Park and a whole bunch of other stuff. His buddy, a guy named Al Pacino, played Shylock in Merchant.
We met up at Java Girl on the Upper East Side to discuss portrayals of Shylock on American stages in 2011. Last year, in addition to Dan’s Tony-nominated Merchant there was a production at Theatre for a New Audience starring F. Murray Abraham. Abraham, Pacino, Olivier, Irving, Booth, Macklin. It is a show that seems to attract quite a list of top shelf actors.
I wanted to know more about how Shylock can be portrayed post-Holocaust. It is a tough character, as you can tell from Chris Lowell’s rich descriptions. But consider directing this partially anti-Semitic piece in the middle of New York, the most Jewish city outside of Tel Aviv. I put several questions to Dan and Oskar:
KL: Why did it take so long to do Merchant in the Park again?
OSKAR EUSTIS: I think it is a difficult play to do. It’s a difficult play to do in New York. The history… the anti-Semitic aura around the play is intense enough and the sensitivity to anti-Semitism in New York is powerful enough that it makes for a tough combination.
I am sure you have heard the story. The first time we did it, it was the opening show at the Delacorte in 1962 with George C. Scott as Shylock and there was an uproar about opening a huge public theater with this anti-Semitic work. And as part of that discussion, Joe (Papp, founder of the Public) actually revealed the he was Jewish for the first time.
We knew that when we did it again that there would be some response but the response turned out to be two letters. It was really nothing. I think times have changed.
KL: Why do you think that is? There is still anti-Semitism in the work.
EUSTIS: I think for the most part, both the Jewish community in the United States and the American cultural dialogue overall has just got more sophisticated. I think we are therefore able to see Merchant in a much more complicated way. Remember, 1962 is, what, 16 years after the end of the Second World War… 17 years after the Holocaust. That was really close historically and I think we are now able to see it in a little less knee jerk way.
KL: Do you think we are seeing it now, with that distance, the way it should be seen? More as an ambivalent play?
EUSTIS: Yeah, but I wouldn’t use the word "should," Kevin, because one of the great things about Shakespeare, and its true of other great stories/narratives, is that they inevitably change with time. Different time periods see them in different ways, see them through different lenses. And for a period of time, the horrific history of 20th century anti-Semitism colored this play sort of irredeemably.
KL: Daniel, as a director coming in , you must have some apprehensions about doing one of Shakespeare’s most controversial plays
DANIEL SULLIVAN: I didn’t really have apprehensions. I know that there was almost an institutional apprehension given the way that the Public Theater started… given that Merchant hadn’t been done here for 50 years… It wasn’t so much my fear but the theater having the gumption to go back to it.
KL: You must have had a vision of the character of Shylock. Was that in collaboration with Al Pacino? How did that develop?
SULLIVAN: I had seen Al in the movie of Merchant of Venice which I thought he was quite good in. It was a much more becalmed, dignified portrayal. Though we never had a conversation about that, it was clear that one of the things he wanted to do was go back and find the dangerous life of this character. That, I liked very much… the fact that he was willing to discard his initial approach to the character and find something new.
KL: What do you mean by the dangerous aspect of the character?
SULLIVAN: This is a man who is going to cut another man’s heart out in public. The image of the bloodthirsty Jew with a knife is one of the reasons that people stay away from the play… Having the bravery to go into that and to investigate the murderousness in his heart, is a large step.
KL: That is some of the criticism I have read about Shylocks in the last 200 years. They have to be portrayed as heroic, certainly since the Holocaust. Is some of that dangerousness about losing the heroicness in the character and reverting back to some stereotypes?
SULLIVAN: I don’t see heroism in Shylock. I don’t see that. I think it is the dignified victim, I think is how he has been portrayed for many years now… Here is a man whose entire history and the history of his tribe is persecution. That has built up in him a wariness and the sense of himself as victim. In the play, Shylock also trades that. And actually has fun with it. That playfulness is something that Pacino got to that we really hadn’t seen in other Shylocks.
KL: Is he a villain?
SULLIVAN: I believe that it was Shakespeare’s intention to write Shylock as a villain. But I also believe that his genius wouldn’t allow him to actually do that?
KL: What do you mean by that?
SULLIVAN: I think as he began to work on the character, he began to add real flesh and blood to him and began to see him from all different kinds of angles. He began to identify with him in some way and that prevented him from going in that direction…
KL: Shakespeare’s Shylock is a character that “got away from him…” It may have been created as a comical stereotype but then the author got invested somehow.
SULLIVAN: Yeah I think that may be true even in characters like Falstaff. There are great characters that got away from him… that started to lead him…
EUSTIS: Hamlet doesn’t make sense as a play… its…
SULLIVAN: Yeah, exactly. What he may have intended with Hamlet was like a good 2-hour yarn and suddenly it became something very, very different.
KL: What you are saying is that Shakespeare didn’t necessarily write an anti-Semitic play…
Ok, that’s all I am giving now. Sullivan and Eustis went on to dive more deeply into the character of Shylock and their view that the play is really about a poisonous society… a society of buying and selling. A play of the “zeitgeist” really. Something that was necessary after the fall of the American financial system. But I will save that for later.
Hope this is of interest to all of you. Stay tuned for more from Chris and Murray… and Dan and Oskar… and perhaps a few other star guests on this blog.