Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project
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Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz (1999)

Tibor Egervari
Tibor Egervari

Tibor Egervari (translated by Annick Léger)

 

Download Playscript
Link to Database

Download program of The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz (1993) (In English)
Download program of Le Marchand de Venise de Shakespeare à Auschwitz (1993) (In French)

 

Heavily influenced by the writings of Primo Levi (1919-1987), the Jewish-Italian writer and chemist whose work struggles to comprehend Nazi barbarity via depictions of concentration camps (his first work was Se questo è un Uomo / If This Is A Man, 1947), Tibor Egervari's play Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz, reflects on Egervari's own roots as a Hungarian-Jew and a theatre person. As Egervari makes clear in his introduction to the play, his is an imaginative reconstruction of what it might have meant to stage Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz with Shylock performed as "a Richard III: a 'truly evil' Shylock."

As Egervari has stated in a French-language interview: the play is "une représentation de la pièce de Shakespeare dans le camp d'Auschwitz, organisée par un officier allemand qui veut 'apporter une contribution de plus à la solution finale hitlérienne'" [a representation of the Shakespeare play in Auschwitz organized by a German officer who wants "to make an extra contribution to Hitler's final solution"] (Robert Lévesque. "La semaine des deux Shylock." Le Devoir [Sept. 28, 1993]: B8). The play thus stages the spectacle of an SS officer forcing the concentration camp internees at Auschwitz to perform an interpretation of Merchant that is radically anti-Semitic. Egervari's introduction notes that unlike the "orchestral organizations in Theresienstadt or elsewhere" no theatrical activities took place in Auschwitz. The resultant play foregrounds the Shoah in relation to the Shakespearean play and produces a profoundly disturbing meditation on anti-Semitism and (in)human cruelty and savagery.

Originally written in French, then translated into both English and Hungarian, the play has undergone multiple reworkings from 1977 to 1999: in 1977 it was performed by La Comédie des Deux Rives, the production company of the University of Ottawa. A similar version to that of the 1977 version was then performed in 1993 by Théâtre Distinct, also associated with the University of Ottawa, only this time the same cast played it in both French and English. Finally, in 1998, a third version of the play was read by HISTRIONS, a company founded by Egervari with Shakespeare's text being performed in English and Egervari's and Elie Wiesel's texts read in French. The play makes use of a story by Elie Wiesel (b. 1928), another major literary figure associated with writings on the Holocaust and a winner of the 1986 Nobel Peace Prize, from his book Célébrations hassidiques (1972). The version of the play published on the CASP site represents the most up-to-date version of the play as translated by Annick Léger.

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz production
Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz production.

Wiesel's family was deported to Auschwitz from Sighet, Transylvania now a part of Romania, when he was fifteen. His mother and younger sister died there and his two older sisters survived. Wiesel also spent time in Buchenwald with his father, who died there shortly before liberation in 1945. Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz is anchored in these and Egervari's own experiences, when as a six-year old living in Hungary, both his brother and father were taken by the Nazis (they did not survive). It is important to remember the horrific toll taken on Hungarian Jews at Auschwitz: the gas chambers were at maximum production in the period from April to July 1944 during which time the influx of Hungarian Jews was at its greatest (some 475,000 Hungarian Jews were deported to Auschwitz during this period, at the rate of approximately 12,000 a day). Egervari's work fuses his own experience as a Hungarian Jew with the unthinkable evil of

Auschwitz filtered through Shakespearean theatrical contexts.

A further important context for understanding the play is that in 1933, the Nazis staged the Merchant of Venice 20 times.  "In the next five years, it would be put on more than 30 times. ... In a 1942 production in Berlin, the director planted extras in the audiences to shout and whistle when Shylock appeared, thus cuing the audinece to do the same" (Madigan "Shylock Re-Shot."). (For a fascinating documentary on the Shylock figure see the National Film Board of Canada's (NFB) film Shylock, directed by Pierre Lasry). Moreover, the issue of the play's anti-Semitism has long been a feature of discussions of the play within a Canadian context. As early as 1899, J. Clark Murray of the Philosophy Department at McGill University had published a paper in the April 1899 issue of the International Journal of Ethics entitled "The Merchant of Venice: as an Exponent of Industrial Ethics" (click here to see a full copy of the article archived in CASP's Essays and Documents section). And more recently, Canadian playwright Mark Leiren-Young has produced another version of Merchant entitled simply Shylock (1996) in which a Jewish actor finds himself attacked by his own community for portraying Shylock (click here for an extract from Leiren-Young's Shylock).

When Egervari's play was staged in Montreal in 1993, it opened on the same night (at the Salle Gésu, a church basement theatre in a building owned by Jesuits) as Théâtre du Nouveau Monde's French version of Le marchand de Venise directed by Daniel Roussel. The simultaneous opening of a radical criticism of the play post-Auschwitz and of a more traditional translation of the play sparked a significant debate in Montreal among the Jewish community and in the local press. Egervari's work takes on Nazism, anti-Semitism, and the production contexts of The Merchant of Venice, and used explicit materials and documents from the Nazi era to thicken the cultural critique of anti-Semitism it presents (including in one notable instance a negative image of the Jew as frightening, hook-nosed caricature with the caption "Jews are Messiah murderers").

As a theatrical adaptation, then, Egervari's work compounds and collides multiple texts and influences with Shakespeare's ur -work within the multilinguistic and multicultural context of Canada, whose own legacy vis-à-vis anti-Semitism is far from enlightened. Canadian academics Irving Abella and Harold Troper's important work None is Too Many provides sobering reminders of Canada's long-standing restrictionist immigration policies towards Jews in the 20s and 30s. The book notes how Vincent Massey, the Canadian High Commissioner in London and a person later to play a crucial role in the establishment of the Shakespeare Stratford Festival of Canada, "had become a fringe member of the aristocratic, largely pro-German and anti-Semitic Cliveden set, centered around Lord and Lady Astor" and that he worked actively to keep Jews out of Canada (www.cdn-friends-icej.ca/antiholo/non2many.html).

Parenthetically, and with such a historical context in mind, if such a connection does exist between the founding of Shakespeare Stratford Festival of Canada and the kinds of ideologies at work in those working to turn it into a reality, the Festival (at least at its inception) may well have been a way of reinforcing perceived values (ethnic and otherwise) associated with Canadian Anglo-Saxon culture.

Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz production
Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz production.

Canadian anti-Semiticism, as documented by Abella and Troper, was particularly virulent in Quebec and Ontario. Shockingly, of major nations that permitted Jewish immigration during the Nazis' twelve-year reign, Canada had the smallest number of immigrants (5000) after the United States (200,000), Palestine, Britain, Argentina, Brazil, China, and Bolivia and Chile. Abella and Troper further document how Jewish quotas existed in various professions, universities, medical schools and industries. Jews were restricted from buying property in some areas, from holidaying at some resorts, from joining many private clubs or using their recreational facilities and even from sitting on boards of various charitable, educational, financial and business organizations. Anti-Jewish sentiments were being voiced regularly––and with impunity––by many respectable newspapers, politicians, businessmen and clergymen . . . There was even some violence as Jew and anti-Semite confronted one another on the streets of Toronto, Winnipeg and other Canadian cities . Anti-Semitism, he [the American Chargé d'affaires] added was increasingly "finding expression in private conversations. (Irving Abella and Harold Troper, None Is Too Many [Toronto: Lester and Orpen Dennys 1983], 50-51) .

Even the University of Toronto, then the bastion of Canadian ivory-tower intellectualism was not excluded from this racial bias and bigotry. Abella and Troper quote from Mackenzie King's diary dated February 20, 1946:

I recall Goldwin Smith [University of Toronto philosopher] feeling so strongly about the Jews. He expressed it at one time as follows: that they are a poison in the veins of a community. Tom Eakin [past-principal of Knox College, University of Toronto], from whom I had a letter this morning has a similar feeling about them. I myself have never allowed that thought to be entertained for a moment or to have any feeling which would permit prejudice to develop, but I must say that the evidence is very strong, not against all Jews, which is quite wrong, as one cannot indict a race any more than one can a nation, but that in a large percentage of the race there are tendencies and trends which are dangerous indeed. (ibid. 228)

In such racist contexts, Egervari's play makes an important contribution to assimilating issues of national and international importance into a local Canadian theatrical context. As a Shakespearean adaptation, the play engages with a genre flexible enough to reflect on the unspeakable horrors of Auschwitz from within a local cultural context. That the play has to this date only received local (and very limited) attention perhaps speaks to its overtly political content in a cultural context still struggling to deal with its own legacy of anti-Semitism.

Daniel Fischlin

 

Links:

Download Playscript
Link to Database
Link to An Interview with Tibor Egervari
Link to Shylock, the National Film Board documentary

Download program of The Merchant of Venice in Auschwitz (1993) (In English)
Download program of Le Marchand de Venise de Shakespeare à Auschwitz (1993) (In French)

Madigan, Kevin.  "Shylock Re-Shot." Harvard Divinity Bulletin. 33.1 (Spring 2005): n.pag.

CASP gratefully acknowledges Tibor Egervari's and Annick Léger's permission to publish this play/translation to its website.


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Fischlin, Daniel. Canadian Adaptations of Shakespeare Project. University of Guelph. 2004.

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