“It is enough to be a man,” says the medieval Jewish merchant Nathan, and that humanistic sentiment is at the heart of “Nathan the Wise,” an eighteenth-century German play that’s being revived at the Classic Stage Company on E. 13th Street. Using Edward Kemp’s 2003 condensed translation of the four-hour work by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing, CSC has stripped the play to its essence — a fierce plea for religious tolerance in a Jerusalem temporarily quiet between Crusades, as well as in our own contentious times.
Eliminating scenery except for some rugs, and cleverly indicating the religious identity of the characters by the script on their white robes, the CSC production focuses on the play’s message of brotherhood among Abraham’s children. As embodied by theater stalwart F. Murray Abraham, Nathan is a warm-hearted but cautious man, happy to befriend everyone, as much for potential business gain as for genuine friendship. Returning home from a successful trading trip to Babylon, he learns that a young Knight Templar (Stark Sands) has rescued his daughter Rachel (Erin Neufer) from a fire. The knight, one of the last in the city, has been unexpectedly pardoned by the sultan because he resembles a relative. Nathan determines to thank the knight in person, and although the Templar spews vicious anti-Semitic jibes, Nathan remains gracious and patient. The young man, after all, did save the life of his beloved Rachel.
The Christian patriarch, on the other hand, tries to convince the Templar to assassinate the sultan so the Christians might regain control of the city. Meanwhile, the sultan Saladin (Austin Durant) is broke, and his sister Sittah (Shiva Kalaiselvan), who has been supporting him, suggests a scheme to trick Nathan out of his riches. Invite him to the palace, she counsels, and challenge him to tell you which of the three monotheistic faiths is favored by God. He won’t be able to answer without insulting you or condemning himself, and his riches will be yours.
These goings on, which take up the first act, bring us to the high point of the play, a complicated fable about three rings that Nathan tells the Sultan. Lessing probably drew this story from a variety of German folktales, but it is a perfect parable to make the point that our behavior is the most effective advertisement for our faith. Lessing also was a proponent of reason; when Rachel insists that the knight is really an angel who has come to rescue her, Nathan reminds her that “God rewards the good we do on earth,” dismissing the notion of miracles.
There is a distinct shift in tone in the second act, and the pace picks up significantly. The plot goes into overdrive, with surprise revelations, almost comic misunderstandings, and a happy ending, like many of the comedies by Shakespeare, whom Lessing admired. Although some of the plot twists verge on melodrama, they undergird the theme that we all are connected. An excellent performance by George Abud as Al-Hafi, the sultan’s dervish and treasurer, adds to the play’s humane tone, and Caroline Lagerfelt alternately brings comic energy to Rachel’s nurse Daya and icy fanaticism as the patriarch.
Lessing seemed to have been less interested in mining the tragic history of Europe’s Jews during the Crusades — a litany of butchery and horror almost unrivaled in Jewish chronicles — than in arguing for the possibility of understanding and mutual respect. Of course, most Germans in the first half of the twentieth century did not share that belief, and the play was performed only once during the Nazi regime in 1933 by a cultural association of German Jews who had lost their jobs as artists. It was the first play to be performed in Germany after World War II, according to Wikipedia.
It is sad to say that the play feels as relevant today as it was in 1779. Hundreds of years have made some of us more tolerant and understanding of each other’s faith, but many view Christianity, Judaism, and Islam as eternal competitors and threats. Despite Lessing’s optimism, the idea that it is enough to be a human being still hasn’t caught on.