My Life with the Germans

As we "go to press," the situation in the world seems sadder than it really ought to be. Reading about hostage-taking, outright murder, beheadings, car bombs, suicide bombers, and mortal chaos becomes almost mind-numbing.  Thousands wounded.  Thousands dead.

How long ago was it that the overwhelming tide seemed to be toward peace? The Cold War ended with very little heat.  A Palestinian and an Israeli shook hands on the beginnings of a peace agreement on the White House lawn.  The British and the Irish sat down at a table together and actually talked.  The Pope met with Greek Orthodox clergy and (beyond belief) Protestants.  Will we ever look at the period as the post-World War I generation gazed longingly at the first decade of the 20th century when war seemed the craziest idea anyone could possibly have.

My boyhood was spent in the Church of the Brethren a Protestant denomination of German heritage.  A group of Germans believed war and violence is not pleasing in God's sight particularly war and violence about God.  So they emigrated en masse to a New World, a place where they could start fresh and live in peace before God and man.  Not surprisingly they found their way to the Penn colony, as many other Germans had.  And, not surprisingly, the "mother" congregation was just outside Philadelphia.  And as America went west, so did the Brethren.

In the dim recesses of memory allotted to my undergraduate education, I remembered something from Theatre History about a German playwright named Lessing who was influential sometime before the Romantic era.  Much more than that, I couldn't say with any assurance.   

Likewise, my college required foreign language study.  I chose German so that I could learn more about English English being essentially a Germanic language.   My German teacher, Frau Doctor Schneider, lived an amazing life.  She would give use brief glimpses of her past of being in a Russian prisoner camp during WWII, of being a teacher in occupied Berlin after the war. She would look at this writer and say, "Nathan like 'Nathan der Weise' but you're not 'der Weise'," and then giggle as I tried feebly to conjugate verbs correctly.   

So, I did know something about the play, though, I couldn't say much about it.

As summer ended, the time came to find a play to do.  The task of selecting a play for performance involves numerous considerations regardless of the theatre.   Any director and/or producer probably has any number of plays in the "To Do" list ready for the right moment to do the play.  Do we have the people to cast it?  The money to appropriately produce it?  The right space?  More and more questions.  Particularly with the plays we love, we want to do them right.

This was my plague as summer ended.  What to do?  I hit the shelves and read and read and read.  Luckily, unlike Alonso Quiada, my brains didn't dry up.  But I still didn't have a play to do.

Then, there it was.  Some years ago, I had picked up a copy of "Nathan the Wise" by Gotthold Lessing at a used book store at the urging of a friend who'd pointed out the title as a lark.  My name doesn't usually show up in book titles.  It was a paperback and cost a buck.  Why not?   

And thereafter it sat on my shelf.  For whatever reason, I never read the play that has my name.

In casting about for a play, I looked at "Nathan" and picked it up.  And I found a play we need right now.

Lessing doesn't appear in John Gassner's classic study Masters of the Drama.  Brockett includes a few paragraphs in his History of the Theatre.  Lessing lived in the same period as America's colonial era.  Nathan the Wise was written in 1779.

The play takes place in Jerusalem during the Crusades. Saladin, Richard the Lionheart's foe (if you remember the Robin Hood stories or Ivanhoe), is the Muslim Sultan of Jerusalem.   Nathan is a wealthy Jewish merchant.  Immediately prior to the action of the play, Saladin mysteriously pardons the life of a captured Christian Knight Templar.  The pardoned Knight rescues Nathan's daughter, Rachel, from a house fire while Nathan is away on a business voyage. This mix of Muslim, Jew, and Christian is potentially explosive.  Yet the ultimate message of the play is one of religious toleration.

Our world is so troubled with strife.  Human beings destroy other human beings in a cruel mixture of tribe, land, and (more than ever it seems) religion.  Some look at this situation and choose to "blame" some god or religion as if someone who advocates peace is responsible for another person's commission of murder.   

Instead I look at the troubled people who use their faith as just another blunt instrument something used to hurt and destroy rather than help.  Violence about our beliefs in God can not be pleasing in God's eyes.

Therefore, in Reading, Pennsylvania not far from where my ancestors first set up shop in this New World I'm going to direct a play about tolerance and peace.  I don't grasp for any false hope that our little play in this little corner of the world will change that world any measurable degree. But we'll light our single candle, and trust the rest to Providence.

©2004 Nathan Thomas

For more commentary and articles by Nathan Thomas, check the Archives.


Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director
stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist
He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of
the theatre faculty of Alvernia College


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