blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit

blending an assortment of thoughts and experiences for my friends, relations and kindred spirit
By Alison Hobbs, blending a mixture of thoughts and experiences for friends, relations and kindred spirits.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Wisdom and tolerance

Image may contain: textAt the end of February Chris and I went to see a play by G. E. Lessing, performed in German in a basement theatre on the Ottawa University premises by a group of people known as die Deutschsprachige Theatergruppe, under the auspices of Kirche und Kultur, an initiative of the Martin-Luther Church on Preston Street. The pastor himself took part as one of the minor characters, a comic friar! Each of the actors was a native German speaker, so pronouncing and memorising the lines wasn't such a challenge as it might have been, although the elderly gentleman playing Nathan held a book in his hands throughout, reading his part from it. The director, Jörg Esleben, played the part of Saladin. One young man came on stage between scenes as narrator, speaking to the audience in English, filling in the content of the missing scenes, explaining who was who, and giving us a hint of what was to come next. Furthermore, subtitles in English were projected onto a screen at the back of the stage, although at times these got out-of-sync with what we were actually hearing, so that it was easier to listen to the German and guess the meaning of any unfamiliar vocabulary, rather than follow the translation. Lessing's German, old as it is, is not difficult to follow.

The scenery and costumes for this production seemed very basic—especially the rather floppy palm tree erected for outdoor scenes!—but it was for good reasons that the production team gave priority to putting the words across. Supported by the Austrian, Swiss and German embassies as well as the university, I gather they had been rehearsing the play for months.
Nathan der Weise (Nathan the Wise) was first performed in 1779, in the era of the European Enlightenment, a decade before the French revolution. Mozart and Goethe were alive at that time; Voltaire had died a year previously.

Saladin, ca. 1185
Set in Jerusalem during the time of the 3rd Crusade in the 12th century, it is a play about religious tolerance and a shared humanity. Jerusalem at that period in history was ruled by Saladin, a Muslim Sultan, while the Christian Knights Templar were hoping to capture the Holy Land for themselves. The Jewish community of Jerusalem was caught between their clashes. All three religions are represented by the main characters in Lessing's play: the Sultan Saladin, a young Knight Templar who is a prisoner of war, and the Jewish merchant Nathan. In the course of the action, the dramatis personae argue about which is the "true" religion, and which should predominate:
Nathan: Sultan, Ich bin ein Jud'.  
Saladin: Und ich ein Muselmann. Der Christ ist zwischen uns. – Von diesen drei Religionen kann doch eine nur die wahre sein. 
Entwined into the plot are complications: the Christian Knight looks remarkably like the Sultan's lost brother and has also rescued the Jew's daughter from a fire. In fact the last scene reveals how they are all interlinked more than they had realised, are all, indeed, one family. That contrived conclusion is perhaps incidental to the chief message of the play, emphasised in Act 3, Scene 7, in which Nathan tells the Sultan a symbolic story, the parable of the three rings.

A loving father, following a tradition of many generations, wishes to bequeath his ring to the son he loves the most. However, in his case, the father loves each of his three sons equally and has to reconsider what to do. He decides to have three replicas of his ancient ring made, so that each son may inherit something equally precious. In the process, the original ring is lost. The sons, fighting for ascendancy after their father's death, are eventually told of the deception:
Jeder liebt sich selber nur am meisten? – Oh, so seid ihr alle drei Betrogene Betrüger! Eure Ringe sind alle drei nicht echt. Der echte Ring vermutlich ging verloren. Den Verlust zu bergen, zu ersetzen, ließ der Vater die drei für einen machen.
The significance of the bequest is spelled out:
Hat von euch jeder seinen Ring von seinem Vater: so glaube jeder sicher seinen Ring den echten. – Möglich; dass der Vater nun die Tyrannei des einen Rings nicht länger in seinem Hause dulden wollen! – Und gewiss; dass er euch alle drei geliebt, und gleich geliebt...
The "rings" of course represent the three monotheistic religions, the father standing for God, the "sons" being his worshippers. In other words, none of the three religions is meant to predominate or become tyrannical. Each religion is equally valid, equally loved by God, but each an imperfect copy of the original. In Lessing's day this was a revolutionary message. It has some relevance to the world of today, besides.

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