New York and Connecticut theater reviews and news

Ethnic Theater - Jewish

"Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Comic Jewish Satire"
Abingdon Theatre Arts Complex

Strange, offbeat shows with a Jewish theme have been coming this way of late. The latest to surface off-Broadway is “Midsummer Night’s Dream: A Comic Jewish Satire”—a show that lingered briefly at the Abingdon Theatre Arts turns out, the message is far stronger than the medium. The production itself is disappointingly amateurish, despite the earnest efforts of its (almost) all-woman cast. Scholar John Hudson (who is billed as the dramaturg for the show) is dedicated to a theme he wants to get across. He believes “Midsummer Night’s Dream” (and other Shakespearean plays as well) were written by a Jewish woman of Sephardic descent—one Amelia Bassano Lanyer. And Hudson has written an 800-page treatise, as yet unpublished, to prove his point.

Challenging authorship for Shakespeare’s plays is not new, and over the years noted playwrights and noblemen have been cited as possibilities. Some scholars have indeed suggested that Bassano was the dark lady of Shakespeare’s sonnets. But Hudson takes it all one step further. Bassano, as the dark lady, is not Shakespeare’s muse, but the very author of the sonnets and the plays, he insists.

It turns out that Amelia Bassano Lanyer had indeed existed. She was of Sephardic background (hence dark), and she was a writer--and a feminist far ahead of her time. The Bassano family, it seems, was brought to England by Henry VIII from Venice. They were Marrano Jews—highly talented musicians and composers who formed the Court recorder troupe. In a country where Jews had been exiled centuries earlier, in 1290, to be exact, this fact alone is startling. Amelia Bassano herself, so the records indicate, was given by the family to be mistress to Lord Henry Hunsdon, Queen Elizabeth’s cousin. She was 13 at the time, 40 years younger than Hunsdon. But this alliance gave her the opportunity to study, to write, to be published, and to make influential connections. She was the first woman in England to have a book of her poetry printed, in 1611.

As to “Midsummer Night’s Dream” itself, Hudson concludes it was in fact a satire on Christianity and the life of Jesus. Citing numerous references within the play’s text, Hudson connects the Bible and the Old Testament to the play. As for the characters, Bottom is not only Pyramus, but Jesus himself. And Flute, who plays Thisbe, is the Church. Titania is also Titus Caesar and Oberon is Yahweh, God of the Jews. This stripped-down version of “MND” focuses on the play within the play, “Pyramus and Thisbe” and on the Titania-Oberon battle. The four Athenian youths are all but ignored. Under Mahayana Landowne’s direction, other gimmicks are employed. Titania, for example, is played by the only male actor in the cast, and his scenes with Oberon (played by a woman) merely adds confusion.

Hudson may have a legitimate claim. It is difficult to say. Like solving a murder, one might see all examples as circumstantial evidence. But, in any event, his arguments would be best confined to a scholarly tome, not a stage production. And “Midsummer Night’s Dream” stands best on its own feet—the original play with its wonderful language intact.

-- Irene Backalenick
Apr. 2, 2007

Sign up for our mailing list