George Tabori’s production of The Merchant of Venice, set in a Nazi concentration camp
As soon as the Wilder play opened, rehearsals for The Merchant of Venice began. Viveca Lindfors had already been rehearsing The Cretan Woman for two weeks and directors Tabori and Martin Fried would share the actors who were in both plays. Tabori’s task was an immense one, almost impossible. He and his actors dealt in rehearsal with three levels of reality at once. His production was based on legend, on the rumor that Shakespeare’s play had been performed by actors in an internment camp during the second World War. In this “model” camp, created by the Nazis to show the world that they treated their prisoners with kindness and compassion, imprisoned theater artists had approached their warders and proposed a theatrical production. The commanders of the camp had said “All right, but you must perform that anti-semitic play The Merchant of Venice.” George said to us “I don’t to this day know the production was done in the death camp, where, or by whom, or how, or ever. But the legend persists, unconfirmed and haunting as legends are. This spring, a Hungarian magazine carried an item, suggesting that the play had been presented, at the command of the Nazis, in Terezin, already famous for a performance there of Verdi’s Requiem.”
“In 1943,” George continued, “the Nazis came to Budapest. The first sixty people they arrested were mainly writers and actors, including a close friend who happened to be my father. The little group was moved from camp to camp…finally to Auschwitz. Most of them went up in smoke. What matters is the manner of their dying.” After this declaration, it was clear that from now on Shakespeare’s “comedy” would be a vehicle for Tabori as he explored anti-semitism at its worst. During the month of rehearsal that followed, it was “the manner of their dying” that occupied us as much as the story of Shylock and Antonio and Portia and the rest.
Wolfgang Roth was the designer of Merchant. Years before, both he and George had worked with Brecht, and Roth’s design scheme had within it echoes of the work of Brecht’s great scenographer, Casper Neher. The set consisted of a bare platform, steeply raked, made of rough wood planks. Wire was strung across the stage between wooden posts, and old wool blankets were hung with safety pins from the wires. The blankets were curtains that could be
moved by actors to isolate different portions of the playing space. Across the top of the set were the words Arbeit Macht Frei (Work makes you free) wrought in rusted Iron. Coiled barbed wire stretched from top of pole to top of pole at the corners of the stage. The lights cast shadows of the barbed wire on the theater’s back wall.
Tabori’s conceit was that this company of actors, prisoners of the Nazis, performs an anti-semitic play on this makeshift stage, that audience members play the parts, unwittingly, and, in some cases, unwillingly, of the Nazis. This is what happens in Tabori’s prologue: 1) A man, emaciated and nearly naked, crawls over the upstage edge of the platform, laboriously makes his painful way, on hands and knees, to center stage, where he collapses and dies. 2) A Nazi officer in full uniform strides down the theater’s center aisle, a heavy book under one arm: The Complete Plays of William Shakespeare. 3) Two men in concentration camp stripes enter and drag the dead man off, as others of the men enter with galvanized buckets and stiff brushes. Beginning at the top of the platform, they advance in a line toward the audience, noisily washing and scrubbing the platform clean. 4) Women enter from Stage Left dragging heavy laundry baskets, rush baskets with wooden lids. They open the baskets and remove piles of old clothing, looking for pieces that can be turned into costumes. Each piece of clothing has a cardboard tag attached to it and on each tag is written the name of a person who has died in the camp. The actors remove the tags and proceed to rip sleeves off of long coats, turn waistcoats inside out, try on hats and jackets, appraising each other’s appearance. 5) While this is happening a small table is placed center stage. The actor portraying Shylock enters and sits at the table, begins to apply makeup. 6) The other men enter from upstage left, bearing a 4’ by 8’ photograph of Hitler. They hang the photo on the back wall of the stage, facing the audience.
7) The Nazi guard approaches the actor making up as Shylock and whispers to him. The guard removes from his pocket a false nose, large and hooked, the kind of nose seen in racist propaganda. Placing it over the actors nose, he indicates that the actor should affix it well. The nose applied, the guard next hands the actor a yellow skull cap to which are affixed side curls which hang down. The actor looks at the skull cap, the orange peyos, then at the guard, who angrily grabs the skull cap, jamming it onto the actor’s head. Then the guard indicates how he wants the character of Shylock to be portrayed. He hunches over, rubs his hands together as in anti-semitic caricatures, as in Cruikshank’s illustrations of Dickens’ Fagin.
By this time the other members of the company have dressed themselves in makeshift, costumes suiting, as much as possible, the characters they are about to play. 8) A band is heard, warming up, and the actor’s makeup table is removed, the clothing baskets pulled offstage. 9) All of the actors move to the front of the stage, forming a line as the guard moves to the theater wall stage right. The band plays the German National Anthem, “Deutschland, Deutschland, Uber Alles.“ All of the actors sing along, or hum, if they don’t know the words. In the middle of the anthem, the oldest actor in the company, he who will play Old Gobbo, faints, falls over backward with a crash onto the wooden stage. No one gives any indication that they notice this event. The anthem continues until the end. 10) As the lights change, two actors lift the old man to his feet and walk him offstage. The guard takes the big book from under his arm, opens it, and begins to follow along, line by line, word by word, as the first scene of The Merchant of Venice begins.
Producing Tabori’s version of Merchant was fraught with difficulty. The Merchant of Venice presents challenges to any group of actors, and George’s circumstantial overlay complicated the problems. The company had to deal with the demands of Shakespeare’s story and at the same time create a believable world in which the telling of that story occurs. Add to these concerns the fact that as the middle production of five, the strain of working day and night on two different plays, performing one while rehearsing the next, was beginning to wear on the company. The scheduling of the actors’ days became a kind of nightmare for me. Nerves were frayed, tempers were on hair-trigger status. An actress showed up at rehearsal one morning with a black eye. I observed that our company was an incredibly talented group of actors who were also, many of them, hand-picked neurotics, miles away from their psychiatrists for the duration of the summer. I remember Margaret Gibson, Bill’s psychoanalyst wife, being called in for emergency service on more than one occasion. Viveca Lindfors and James Patterson, Phaedra and Theseus in The Cretan Woman, were also playing opposite each other in Merchant. We had a Portia and Bassanio who couldn’t stand each other. Patterson, Jack Waltzer (Lorenzo), Lou Gossett Jr., and Will Lee (Lancelot Gobbo and Old Gobbo), would open in Waiting for Godot in a couple of weeks, and were learning Beckett’s tortuous dialogue while rehearsing the Shakespeare. This is what happens when you have a company.
The wedding of Portia and Bassanio (Act III, sc.2) is celebrated on the bare stage. In Tabori’s scenario, the prisoners who portray the happy couple are allowed by their captors the luxury of one sip of beer and one drag each on the stub of a cigarette. Kris Tabori, George and Viveca’s young son, as Portia’s servant Balthasar, brings these delicacies forward on a tray. After this “wedding feast,” the two lie down on the floor and a large, tattered quilt is spread over them. James Patterson was a magnificent actor of great power. He radiated danger, in his life and in his art. It occurred to me at the time that the word “danger” is the word “anger” with a “d” in front of it. This is just to say that he was volatile, that you didn’t want to cross him. He was also full of love, with the capacity for great tenderness. After the wedding scene’s technical rehearsal, when we had used the actual props for the first time, James, eyes blazing, makes a bee-line toward where I stand offstage. I am scared to death, thinking “What have I done?” He stops in front of me, puts a large hand on my shoulder, says quietly: “Peter, I’m an alcoholic. I can’t drink beer. Please put apple juice in the glass, okay?” Okay.
After the break, we move on to the next part of the scene, where Portia and Bassanio go to bed, get covered by the quilt. James sits up as the quilt billows around them, calls out to George, sitting in the dark theater. “I want to know what Miss Lindfors will be wearing in this scene.” George shouts back “What?,” as Viveca sits up. James repeats his demand: “I want to know what Miss Lindfors will be wearing in this scene! I don’t want her exposing herself again.”
What had happened, I found out later, was that Viveca, during a particular moment in a performance of The Cretan Woman, had exposed her breast to James, playing her husband Theseus, while he was speaking. She was turned away from the audience, they didn’t see the gesture, but James, facing front, did see it and was thrown off by it. George knows about this incident, of course, and, as Viveca’s husband, feels he has to defend her – just as I felt I had to defend my wife when the racist in the improv threw a lit match at her. Viveca tries to calm the situation by saying “I know what I will be wearing, it’s a simple shift…” George, who had been quietly sitting in the middle of the house is now suddenly vitalized, hollers “It’s none of your business what Miss Lindfors wears! She will wear what she will wear! You will see it when you see it!” but it is too late, James is on his feet now and heading offstage, shouting “I won’t see it, whatever it is! I quit!” I’ve never fully understood what happened next, but Estelle Parsons, playing Nerissa, Phaedra’s gentlewoman in waiting, says “Then I’m leaving too!” and follows Patterson offstage. I’ve thought about this off and on for fifty years, and what I think is that Estelle simply felt great sympathy for her fellow actor at that moment. I think that she didn’t want him to be alone in this, the only one to take a stand. That’s all I can figure.
The show is opening in two days, we’ve got two acts and three scenes yet to tech, and two of our leading actors have just walked out. I have to try to save the day. Unsure of what to do, I run after the two actors, follow them down the stairs to the dressing rooms. I go into the room I share with Patterson. James is angrily throwing things into a bag. I decide not to plead or pacify, but to simply be professional, to calmly lay out procedure to be followed. I speak loud enough for Estelle to hear me on the other side of the wall, “Listen, Jim, Estelle. I know you’re quitting the show, there’s a bus schedule posted on the call board. But what I need you to do before you leave is to please write out a brief letter of resignation, citing your reasons for quitting, okay? You don’t have to say much, just address it to me. I’ll go to the office first thing tomorrow morning. Then I’ll contact Equity and see that they get copies of your notes. Okay?” Estelle slams the door to her dressing room, and I hear her footsteps on the damp concrete as she approaches our door. Now she is standing in the doorway. “Listen,” she says, “We can’t let them close the show and blame it on us. That’s what they’ll do, you know. We’ll get the blame, even though we’re in the right. Let’s go back up.”
And they do. This is one of the great moments of my life. They go back up. Not for long, though, because as soon as James and Viveca get back under the quilt and the rehearsal continues Viveca whispers, through her teeth (she loved to hiss, inhaling through beautiful clenched teeth), “Thank you, James Patterson.” At which point Jim, throwing off the quilt, stands up again and, not whispering, very loudly in fact, calls Viveca a “fucking cunt” and leaves the theater. George is really aroused now, suddenly on his feet, shouting after the departing Patterson that he won’t tolerate anyone calling his wife a name that he is embarrassed to have their thirteen-year-old son hear. Kris Tabori stands there in his dirty, concentration-camp grey stripes, like all of us, not knowing what to do. I had come up with one solution, but couldn’t think of another. Thus ended the first tech rehearsal of The Merchant of Venice.
The Actor Playing Shylock
We were about to face an audience and we weren’t ready, the staging wasn’t finished. George, for all his brilliance and months of work, had dug himself into a deep hole and couldn’t figure a way out. He didn’t have an ending to the play he had imagined. He was stuck. He knew, given the dark complexity of the work up to this point, that his original idea for the adaptation was sound, but he also knew that his plan for the end of the play was inadequate. “The Actor Playing Shylock” was, for Tabori, the ultimate Brecht actor. Peter Brook tells us that “Brecht introduced the intelligent actor, capable of judging the value of his contribution,” and George saw the actor playing Shylock as the most intelligent, the most radical of all the actors in this company. He saw the others in the camp as just trying to stay alive, by getting along, by following the rules. (An exception is the actor playing the Prince of Arragon, Jess Osuna), who Tabori saw as “a psychotic seminary student fed up with the timidity of the production and who decides to play Arragon as a ranting and raving Hitler figure with mustache and all. The company is at first paralyzed and they try to adjust variously by being either humble or hostile. Finally they attempt to get him off stage before the Nazis can stop the performance.”) In Shakespeare’s play it is Shylock who bears the weight of Jew-hatred. In Tabori’s concept it is The Actor Playing Shylock who rebels, who stands up instead of groveling and who pays for his defiance.
By now each of us in the company had received in the mail a copy of the pamphlet Shylock and Anti-semitism, inscribed with the “compliments” of the author, Morris U. Schappes, warning us that “this is hardly the time and the atmosphere in which The Merchant of Venice can be safely performed for a general public.” (Schappes had written this essay four years earlier in advance of Joseph Papp’s production of the play in Central Park, in which George C. Scott played Shylock). But Tabori saw Shylock as hero, and in his original notes for the trial scene he has The Actor Playing Shylock defiantly remove the yarmulke and peyos, rip off the grotesque false nose, and stand before the Christians as himself. He stands up for himself and for all Jews. He refuses to be caricatured, and for this he is arrested, dragged offstage. In Tabori’s notes for the curtain call, The Actor Playing Shylock enters having had all of his teeth knocked out. The actors bow as the lights fade to black. When the lights come up the actors are gone. In their places are neat piles of clothes. This was the plan. But the nasty face-off between Lindfors and Patterson ended work for that day. Everyone went out for a drink or home to bed. We were all tired. George was exhausted. Viveca remembered him being sick and unable to continue.
Arriving at the theater the next day, we found what we called “the brain trust” sitting in the theater. Knowing that our production was in trouble, other directors in the company had convened, ready to help. Consultant Barry Hyams was there, along with directors Arthur Penn, Martin Fried and Gene Frankel, and the playwright William Gibson. We were asked to present a run-through of the second act of George’s production as far as it went, and we did so. I don’t remember whether George was there or not, but he must have been. He had to have been there. I don’t like to think he wasn’t there.
We had a serious problem and it had to be solved, quickly. The problem had to do with the character “The Actor Playing Shylock,” and how that character affects the ending of the play. I am not referring to the actor Alvin Epstein here, but to the character he was playing. Herbert Berghof, the director and teacher, often said: “It is the writer’s responsibility to acknowledge the ultimate consequences of the situation he has imagined.” This is what Tabori, as the “author” of this production, had been unable to do. If the conceit of the internment camp had been embraced earlier, If we had had more time in workshop, perhaps he would have been able to realize a satisfying ending to his production. But we had no more time. I was not privy to the conversations of the brain trust. Perhaps George admitted that he was stymied and asked for help. Perhaps he asked Arthur Penn to stage the play’s climactic scene. Whatever was said in the house that day, at the end of their deliberations Arthur Penn took over the direction of this phase of our production.
In Tabori’s notes, written down months earlier by me, he says “At intermission, The Actor Playing Shylock sits down in the middle of the stage, refusing to budge, staring at the audience. Some of the company try to move him. He refuses to move.” This action was performed by Alvin Epstein. And, more important, in Act II (Tabori’s Act II of his two-act adaptation), there is another defiant action by the actor: The Actor Playing Shylock empty-handedly pantomimes the action of whetting his knife. Bassanio asks “Why dost thou whet they knife so earnestly?” Shylock replies “To cut the forfeit from that bankrupt there,” and, suddenly, he has in his hand a real knife. A table knife, yes, but still, a metal blade, capable of being sharpened, capable of doing damage. The other actors, realizing that this rebellious move endangers the entire company, make eye-contact with each other, freeze in place. Shylock continues to whet the knife on his shoe. As Graziano speaks “Not on thy sole, but on thy soul, harsh Jew, Thou mak’st thy knife keen,” the company members slowly advance on their fellow-actor, surround him, take the knife from him. Graziano then walks to the guard, still standing stage-right, hands him the knife, handle-first, backs away. The guard puts the knife in his big book, like a bookmark.
In court, Lindfors as Portia delivers the “Quality of Mercy” speech directly to the audience. She brilliantly allows Shylock his pound of flesh but not one drop of blood. Thus, Shylock loses his case against Antonio. The state then takes half his wealth, Antonio the other half, and he is commanded to convert to Christianity. Portia asks “Art thou contented, Jew?” Shylock replies “I am content.” Four lines later, Shakespeare writes: “Exit [Shylock]” and proceeds to Belmont and the playing out of a light and happy ending to this “comedy.” (5.1)
For Tabori, the main action in the courtroom scene (Shakespeare’s 4.1) was to be The Actor Playing Shylock’s violent removal and throwing to the floor of the yellow yarmulke, the red peyos and the hooked nose. The guard’s action was to then to arrest the actor, dragging him offstage. The play would then continue as the action shifts to Belmont and the romantic
business of disguises, of rings lost and found, and who lay with whom, a scene meant to make the audience forget about Shylock. A scene in which the acting company, in the playing of it, try to forget about Shylock, his fate, and their own.
Arthur Penn’s ending of the play (and it must be said that it was Arthur’s ending, not George’s) was, it seems to me, pragmatic and, at the same time, an acknowledgment of the ultimate consequences of the situation George had imagined. It also reflected Penn’s still-developing aesthetic: his use of random and not-so-random acts of violence to dramatic purpose. Arthur felt that the action of The Actor Playing Shylock, divesting himself of the anti-semitic caricature by removing the skullcap and false nose was not the strongest protest possible. Nor was being dragged off stage and having his teeth knocked out a fitting punishment, whatever his transgression.This is how Arthur staged the ending: Portia, in disguise as Balthasar, the learned judge, asks Shylock: “Art thou contented, Jew?” Shylock replies “I am content,” and, already on his knees, lowers himself even further and kisses Antonio’s boot. The Actor Playing Shylock now repeats the line “I am content,” as he crosses, on hands and knees to stage right and the Nazi guard, now and then kissing the floor as he proceeds. He kisses the guard’s boot, saying “I am content.” Suddenly, he throws his arms around the guard’s legs and pulls him down to the floor. The Complete Works of Shakespeare falls heavily to the stage. The yellow skullcap with the red side curls falls from Shylock’s head, the hooked nose falls from his face. The guard struggles to get out of the actor’s grip, but the actor hangs on as the two men wrestle on the floor, grunting, breathing heavily. Suddenly: a cry from The Actor Playing Shylock and the guard starts to rise and the actor reaches up to pull the guard back down but then the actor’s arms drop to the floor. The actor stops moving. Now the guard does rise, in his hand the bloody knife. He has killed The Actor Playing Shylock. He adjusts his uniform, picks up the Complete Works and returns to his post stage right. Long pause. The guard finds his place in the book, expecting the performance to continue. The actors are in shock. Their friend is dead, killed in front of them. They don’t know how their jailers, the audience, will react to what has happened. After some moments, several of the actors come down, lift the actor’s body, carry it upstage. Portia, Antonio, Graziano, Bassanio and the others embrace their dead friend. Tableau. The oldest of the actors begins to recite the Mourners’ Kaddish: “Yitgadal v’yitkadash sh’mei raba b’alma di-v’ra chirutei…” What begins as scattered muttering becomes unified grief over the body of The Actor Who Plays Shylock as the lights fade. No one goes to Belmont. There is no happy ending.
The new ending was staged without difficulty, Arthur directing. Adjustments were made in the lighting and sound plots. Deborah White and Jack Waltzer, who played Jessica and Lorenzo, were consoled as they mourned the loss of Act V. All of this was accomplished in a day as tech rehearsals continued. James Patterson had returned to the company. The Merchant of Venice opened without having had a dress rehearsal of the full play in order. On opening night, as the actors hung the 4’x 8’ photograph of Hitler on the back wall, Eric Leinsdorf, Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra at Tanglewood, rose from his seat in the front row and left the theater, never to return. This despite the fact that his daughter Hester was making her theatrical debut that night, playing a maid to Portia. Both the Berkshire Eagle and The New York Times praised the production. George was gracious to all, calling us “heroic.” And I think we were.
To be continued.
Click here to read Part I: Beginnings and Arthur Penn’s Production of The Skin of Our Teeth, with Anne Bancroft.
Click here to read Part III: Martin Fried’s production of Murray Schisgal’s Fragments, Conclusion.