- Deborah and Her Sisters: How One Nineteenth-Century Melodrama and a Host of Celebrated Actresses Put Judaism on the World Stage by Jonathan M. Hess
In Deborah and Her Sisters, Jonathan Hess restores the history of an extraordinarily popular nineteenth-century play, first performed in Germany in 1849 and then—in a variety of versions, titles, and languages—throughout the world until the 1920s. Analyzing the various texts of the play as well as its performance and reception history, Hess makes the case that Salomon Hermann Mosenthal’s play Deborah, as well as its English descendant, Augustin Daly’s Leah, the Forsaken (along with French, Italian, and other versions with heroines of other names), gave Jewish and non-Jewish “theatergoers the pleasures and thrills of compassion with female Jewish suffering” (7), promoting a positive philosemitism that contributed to liberal feeling. Although history proved such political sentiment short-lived, Hess’s documentation of the Deborah phenomenon brings to light both the history of a widely performed play and the transnational importance of Jewish themes and Jewish–Christian relations in nineteenth-century theatre.
Deborah and Her Sisters approaches its subject from several directions, in each case buttressed by thorough research and ample visual illustration. Its introduction provides an overview, delineating the thesis and establishing the focus of each chapter. Chapter 1, “Anatomy of a Tearjerker,” analyzes Deborah and the American Leah. Hess underlines the significance of central plot points: the Jewish heroine’s love for a Christian, a misunderstanding that separates them, the heroine’s passionate curse of her erstwhile beloved at the center of the play, and her reconciliation with but departure from the Christian community at its end. In some versions the departure is an actual leave-taking, with the Jewess going off with a group of her people to America or Palestine. In others, it is the heroine’s onstage or impending death. In most versions, however, we see that the reconciliation scene follows incidents of antisemitic speech or violence, thus allowing for an audience’s collective experience of sympathy while leaving the future of Jews in Christian states uncertain at best. Hess points out, however, that by setting his play in the late 1700s, Mosenthal foregrounds it against Emperor Joseph II’s 1782 Edict of Tolerance toward the Jews of Habsburg Europe, a modest but highly symbolic reform. With such a historical referent, Hess argues, audiences could “feel a lasting mode of secular compassion with Jewish suffering” (54), albeit paired with “smugness and complacency” (64).
Chapter 2 examines the international success of Deborah in various incarnations, with an emphasis on British and American productions, although Hess notes that by the end of the nineteenth century the play was translated into at least fifteen languages and performed throughout the world as well as in Europe and North America. While basic elements of the story remained in each version, its time and place settings were often changed for topicality, and it appeared as poem, novel, and opera as well as spoken drama. Illustrations, from carte-de-visite photographs to parodies, show how widely images of actresses performing Deborah or Leah circulated. They emphasize the Orientalism of the protagonist’s costume as well as the broad familiarity of the play. Hess develops the chapter’s titular themes, “Sensationalism, Sympathy, and Laughter,” through extensive archival research in texts of the plays [End Page 115] and in the massive body of memoirs, reviews, and newspaper notices that he makes excellent use of throughout the book. The chapter title itself suggests the responses the play evoked, especially in North America and Britain, as it performed its combination of melodramatic and cultural work.
Chapter 2 also introduces Kate Bateman, who launched her career playing Leah onstage and remained most closely identified with the role. Chapter 3 more extensively develops the play’s importance in her career as well as those of actors such as Avonia Jones and Nance O’Neil (in America...