A message ahead of its time

'Nathan the Wise' revives an 18th century plea for religious tolerance.

nathan play 88 298 (photo credit: )
nathan play 88 298
(photo credit: )
In French, the verb tol rer "is a strange word: it means both to tolerate and to bear," says Dominique Lurcel, the director and lead actor in Nathan the Wise. He and his Passeurs de Memoires theater company are bringing Gotthold Lessing's 18th century plea for mutual religious tolerance to the Israel Festival. "I decided to revive Nathan the Wise at the beginning of 2002," says Lurcel, "when I heard George Bush speak of a 'crusade against evil'. When the most powerful man on earth decides to mix the two languages of politics and religion in the name of democracy, it is very dangerous and we have to say 'no' to it. "Lessing said 'no' two centuries ago, no to religious intolerance and prejudices, no to everybody killing in the name of God. The most important thing he says, I think, and which is universal in our private and public lives, and in view of our fantastic capacity for destruction which is so much greater than it was 200 years ago, has to do with the way we try to consider the Other; not as an angel, nor a monster, but as an equal." Nathan the Wise is set in 1187 when Saladin ruled in Jerusalem. Nathan is a rich and pious Jewish merchant who rears as his own child a foundling girl whose parentage and religion are a mystery. From this develops a love story whose connecting thread is Judaism, Christianity and Islam, and whose other main characters are Saladin himself and a Templar knight. This is where tol rer's second meaning, "to bear," takes on resonance. Achieving the ability to see the Other as an equal, Lurcel points out, "is not natural according to Lessing. It requires lifelong effort. This fight never stops, but it is the one and only hope for saving humanity." The tools are "doubt about and distance from people's own values, customs, religion or government, to protect them against thinking that they are the universal yet only one." He adds that the 2006 production, Machete Season, set against the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, looks at the same issues from another perspective - that of destruction and regression. LURCEL WAS born Dominique Lazare-Levy in 1943 in a remote mountain village to which his parents had fled to escape the Nazi extermination machine. In 1945 they changed their family name to Lurcel "as did many French Jewish families in those years, [a decision] easy to understand." His family, his childhood experiences, and the tumultuous events of the 1960s helped shape Lurcel's life. The family had moved to Paris in the early 20th century from Strasbourg where it had lived since the 18th century. From his maternal grandfather he got a "passion for history and French literature and my love of music from my maternal grandfather who was a noted musician. If you want to know the real truth, I chose theater because I could no longer be a musician, because I was no longer Lazare-Levy. Music is more vital than theater for me, and I always consider a dramatic text as if it were a musical score." The family name-change and his parents' divorce in 1950 were the driving force behind Lurcel's decision at 10 years old to stop playing piano, and he has never played again to this day. But he also chose theater "for the same reason that I chose teaching: because since I was five years old I've wanted to tell stories, to transmit." In 1960 Lurcel was 17, a student at the Sorbonne and like so many of his generation was "extraordinarily sensitive to events, and trusting in a better world." The sixties, he maintains, "were my foundation in every direction in terms of how to teach, what kind of theater to choose, how to love, how to be a father." Among the rest he taught in a prison, created his own high-school of the arts, worked with the great Jean Louis Barrault and soon started creating and directing plays. Conversations with Primo Levi that he presented at the Avignon Festival in 1995, and that ran for seven years thereafter, was the impetus for the establishment of Passeurs de Memoires (Transferers of Memories) in 1997 to do the kind of theater that Nathan the Wise represents; an unstuffy yet political theater that deals with contemporary social issues, theater that "makes people think about human behavior without plunging them into despair." That's why Lurcel doesn't lean on the material he chooses. He plays the story, not the message "because the message is in the story. I want to be as clear as possible for the largest possible audience. I feel I have to speak because nobody else does." Nathan the Wise plays outdoors at the Henry Crown Plaza on June 6 and 7.