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  • Hideous Characters & Beautiful Pagans: Performing Jewish Identity on the Antebellum American Stage by Heather Nathans
  • Renée M. Sentilles (bio)
Hideous Characters & Beautiful Pagans: Performing Jewish Identity on the Antebellum American Stage. By Heather Nathans. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2017. iv +282 pp.

In Hideous Characters & Beautiful Pagans, Heather S. Nathans explores representations of Jews on stage against the context of the larger antebellum American culture. In the process, she notes how often Jewish men and women turned to gender norms as they struggled to perform both American and Jewish identity. Nathans demonstrates that Jewish characters of this early period did not remain bound by simple negative stereotypes because Jewish playwrights and performers deliberately worked within national cultural trends to broaden and deepen depictions of Jewish men and women as complex contributors to America's growing national identity.

Each chapter could have been an article for, as Nathans states at the outset, her book cannot have a progressive narrative arc because her subject matter shifts in layers, rather than in a line from negative to positive. Yet the book holds together because at the beginning of each textual break Nathans clarifies exactly how and why she is about to take the approach that she does and crisply summarizes every chapter.

She begins by exploring masculinity and Jewish identity as represented on and off stage, asserting that "any discussion of negative Jewish stereotypes in theatre must begin" with Shylock of Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (21). Indeed, she notes, Shylock was widely referenced in the colonies long before the play was first staged in Williamsburg, Virginia, in 1752. Early staged depictions of Shylock as "serious and sympathetic" were reflective of Jews' experiences in the colonial world, where they were granted greater rights than their counterparts in Europe yet were still viewed warily by the larger gentile population (21–22). Images of Jews became more complex after rebelling colonists were labeled Jews by the British and threatened with "public circumcision" if they continued to revolt against the Townshend Acts of 1767 (22). In the rush to construct state constitutions, Jewish men were increasingly marginalized and lost basic rights of citizenship. Yet many popular plays, such as Charles Mackilin's Love a La Mode (1759) and Susanna Rowson's Slaves in Algiers (1794), signaled shifting concepts of Jewish masculinity, and Nathan highlights Gotthold Lessing's Nathan the Wise (1779) for promoting a newly sympathetic figure. She notes that by 1820, Jewish American men had legally sought and won many rights initially denied, which was reflected in depictions on stage. [End Page 453]

In her second chapter, Nathans examines the efforts of Jewish play-wrights and performers to establish a viable masculine Jewish American identity. Focusing attention on Jewish public figures, she analyzes the need to "reconcile the robust, almost pugnacious masculinity of the Jacksonian era with classical models of male conduct and their own religious and ethnic identities" that would challenge American Jews for years to come. A burst of Jewish participants in American entertainment culture produced a new Jewish male figure: "a champion of Jewish masculinity and defender of female virtue" (71).

Although Nathans's use of sources is impressive throughout the book, she is especially creative in her examination of The Wandering Jew, as both a play and trope. She begins the third chapter by investigating "runaway Jew ads"—advertisements placed to find runaway servants in the late colonial period. Noting the references to short stature and yellow or dark skin, she shows how closely they align with staged stereotypes. The Wandering Jew, she notes, was a figure of fun in many plays of the period, but also a character that signified larger cultural fears of unknown people "passing" in this loosely-strung new nation.

The next chapter serves as an antebellum Jewish theatrical history, as Nathans discusses the emergence of communities on and off stage. She focuses on actor-manager William Dinneford to investigate how Jewish American artists engaged local gentile audiences. She asserts that Jewish performers, writers, and directors transformed American theatre by the Civil War period and convinced American audiences that Jews were indeed part of the American social fabric. Nathans then turns...


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pp. 453-455
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