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  • Philosemitism and the mission civilisatrice in Gautier's La Juive de Constantine
  • Maurice Samuels

Théophile Gautier's play La Juive de Constantine was not a success. Co-written with Noël Parfait,1 the play opened at the Porte-Saint-Martin Theater on November 12, 1846 and closed after a mere 20 performances.2 Reviewers seemed to take a perverse pleasure in attacking one of their own, devoting uncharacteristically long articles to skewering the play after lamenting how sorry they were to do so: "Certes j'aurais été heureux de raconter le succès [. . .] de cette soirée," wrote the legendary critic Jules Janin in the Journal des débats:

mais en présence de ces huées, de ces cris, de cet ennui [. . .] en présence de cette action noire, plate, et sans génie [. . .] il faut bien être vrai avec nos deux confrères, si nous voulons conserver le droit d'être justes et sincères avec tout le monde.3

So awful did the critic for Le Constitutionnel find the play that he sarcastically suggests it must have been written not by Gautier at all but rather by the Algerian rebel Abd El-Kader in order to discourage the French from further colonization by boring them to tears.4

It is tempting to follow these critics in dismissing the play as a badly constructed compendium of cultural clichés and threadbare theatrical conventions. In what follows, however, I want to suggest that despite its dramatic shortcomings, La Juive de Constantine merits closer attention for the insights it provides into the ideology of the French colonial endeavor at a key historical moment. For we find here, amid the clichés and conventions, a roadmap to what would become France's strategy in managing the indigenous population of Muslims and Jews in Algeria. Twenty-five years before the Crémieux Decree would enfranchise Algeria's Jews while continuing to consign Muslims to second-class status, the play articulates a rationale for [End Page 19] this hierarchy based on the relative capacity of these groups to assimilate French legal norms. As Joshua Shreier has recently argued, Algeria served as a crucible for the development of France's "civilizing mission," the justification of colonization on moral grounds that would come to dominate French colonial policy during the Third Republic.5 Gautier's play provides a remarkably prescient formulation of this ideology, one that lays bare its political and social stakes, as well as its racializing logic, with instructive clarity.

First, a short summary of the rather complicated action of the play. The curtain opens on the eastern Algerian city of Constantine "dans les deux premières années de l'occupation française."6 At the start of the play, Dominique, a French soldier, is keeping watch on the shop of a Jewish merchant named Nathan for his superior officer, Maurice d'Harvières, who is in love with the Jew's beautiful daughter, Léa. Maurice and Léa plot to run off to France to get married, but their plans are foiled when a Muslim woman, Kadidja, who is in love with Maurice, betrays their intentions to Léa's father, Nathan. When Nathan confronts his daughter about her illicit love for the Frenchman, she reveals that she has already converted to Christianity. A rabbinical scholar in addition to being a merchant, Nathan knows that the Talmud commands him to treat his apostate daughter as if she has died or face the censure of the Jewish community. But the wily Jew concocts a plan: he will give Léa a sleeping draught in order to fake her death, allowing her to escape with Maurice and save his honor.7

At the start of the third act, Maurice has been captured by Ben Aïssa, the brother of Kadidjah, who is also in love with Léa. The jealous Ben Aïssa wants to kill Maurice, but then hears that the "belle juive" they both love is dead. Kadidjah arranges for Maurice to escape. Act Four takes place at the Jewish cemetery as Nathan frees his daughter from her tomb and bids her farewell, refusing her entreaties to join...


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