- Deborah and her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage by Jonathan Hess
Jonathan Hess’s Deborah and her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage tells the amazing story of the block-buster 1849 verse drama Deborah, written by Salomon Hermann Mosenthal. Translated from German into at least fifteen languages, the play was rewritten with major changes by Augustin Daly, the prominent American playwright perhaps best known for Under the Gaslight (1867), which invented the trope of the last-minute rescue of the hero tied to the railroad tracks when the heroine plucks him from the terror of an oncoming train. Daly’s prose melodrama adaptation of Deborah, renamed Leah, the Forsaken, premiered in Boston in 1862, opened in New York in 1863, played for three years in London, and remained wildly popular in several versions internationally for over sixty years. Kate Bateman originated the role of Leah, which became her signature part and made her a transatlantic star. Besides Daly’s hit, Mosenthal’s creation spawned many other offspring, including operas, films, burlesques, epic poems, popular songs published for home performance, and at least two anonymous novels: Leah, the Jewish Maiden (1864) in London and its American knockoff. Hess proves that these iterations of Mosenthal’s tragic drama constitute an important cultural phenomenon with wide-ranging influence. He also argues persuasively that the heroine’s unmerited pain, her justified vengeance, and her ultimate reconciliation generate a heightened emotion that enables Jews and non-Jews to enjoy together, in wildly divergent venues, a transformative “tearful sympathy” for the heroine, a young, virtuous Jewish woman cast off by her gentile lover (27). For Hess this shared [End Page 665] experience provides a vehicle for social and political change. He makes the case not only for the drama’s significance as a literary, cultural, and historical sensation but also for its promoting a “new, secular ethos of liberal compassion able to acknowledge and accommodate Jewish difference” (38).
Hess amply documents the drama’s extensive sway, producing firsthand anecdotes describing both “affluent ladies” who pulled out their lace hankies and a “crowded house of sailors” who sat spellbound and in tears (34). These mixed audiences attended repeatedly: George Augustus Sala recorded seeing Bateman at the Adelphi “at least three times a week . . . for the express purpose of weeping bitterly over the woes of the persecuted Hebrew maiden, and of being thrilled by the terrific curse which she uttered” when she realizes she has been cruelly and unjustly abandoned (Sala qtd. in Hess 34). Melodrama rewritings and copies multiplied in the 1860s. Hess discusses Deborah of Steinmark; or Curse and Blessing (1863) in New York; in Baltimore, Miriam, the Deserted (1863); and, in Boston, Clysbia, the Deserted (1864). By 1869, versions of the play were mounted in at least fourteen theaters in New York City alone. So many varieties were performed in the United States that Daly had to print an ad in the New York Herald threatening to prosecute pirated plays like Clysbia and Miriam, including Naomi, the Deserted (1864) and Esther, the Jewish Maiden (1864). In London, a similar explosion followed Bateman’s performance, along with one by the Italian tragedienne Adelaide Ristori in a different adaptation. Shortly thereafter appeared Deborah; or, the Jewish Outcast (1864); Deborah, or the Jewish Maiden’s Wrong! (1864); Rebecca, the Jewish Wanderer (1864); and Ruth, the Jewess (1868). Hess presses home the vast proliferation of Deborah with an abundance of scrupulously documented and entertaining detail.
The book is organized into four body chapters. The first focuses on Mosenthal’s play and its initial reception, looking at its effects on audiences through Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s theories of tragedy, the historical context of the European revolutions of 1848, and the theatrical precursors that present Jewish characters sympathetically. Some of this material will be familiar...