Director defends Nazi-era production of The Merchant of Venice after Toronto principal fired over anti-Semitic content

Thoughtful explanation, unfortunately drowned out by parental and other pressure, and the BSS board fired the head of school:

The controversial Nazi-era production of The Merchant of Venice that led a Toronto private school to fire its principal included a “game,” styled like a Baptist sermon, in which the audience shouted “Hallelujah” in response to slogans about persecuting Jews.

But contrary to complaints from parents at Toronto’s Bishop Strachan School, there was no chanting of “Burn the Jews,” according to Iqbal Khan of Box Clever Theatre, who directed the play at this and many other high schools in Britain.

Rather, the anti-Semitic slogans were explicitly presented as quotations from On the Jews and their Lies, a notorious ant-Semitic sermon by the German early Protestant reformer Martin Luther.

Early in this adapted version of Shakespeare’s morality tale, the narrator is making a point about how dangerous it can be for an audience to get riled up at the thought of someone else being “brought down a peg or two,” Khan said. He talks about the role of stereotypes and caricatures, and as an example uses the actual words of Luther’s sermon, calling them out like a Baptist preacher, inviting the gleeful Hallelujah response.

Khan said the purpose of this audience participation is just as it was in Elizabethan theatre, “to enlist an active response from the audience to what is shared, to invest them fully in the issues explored.”

“The audience join in the game, but as it becomes very clear what Luther is spouting, such as the destruction of synagogues and rabbis being forbidden to teach, they are quickly silenced,” he said in response to emailed questions. “It is very important here that the narrator turns nasty and chills the room.”

The narrator aims to make the young audience “understand viscerally” the power of this hate speech and the dehumanizing effect of “pack adrenaline.” He says this dynamic is similar to what happens in Lord of the Flies, as social morals break down, or when soccer fans chant racist slogans. The scene ends with a Jewish shopkeeper’s store being vandalized in Venice — not the late medieval ghetto of the original, but rather fascist Italy in 1942.

“The audience is not blamed,” Khan said. “But their innocent involvement in the game, set up by the narrator, gives them an understanding beyond statistics of the lived experience of these dynamics. This is what theatre can do beyond rhetoric.”

He said the emotional register of the play was developed carefully with hundreds of young people to make sure it was “measured and age appropriate.”

“We always recover and take care of audiences, but we also confront them and involve them in uncomfortable, visceral truths,” he said.

Judith Carlisle, former Head of School for The Bishop Strachan School. Carlisle said on Twitter that the production of The Merchant of Venice got a standing ovation from students.

On Monday, after receiving complaints from parents, BSS fired its head, Judith Carlisle, who joined the school from England last August. The school apologized for showing the “deliberately provocative” play without proper warning, context and debriefing, and said Carlisle was leaving because of “an inability to align on a strategy for moving forward for the future.”

Carlisle was until last year a trustee of Box Clever Theatre, a registered charity, and has hosted this same performance at her last school, in Oxford.

She also apologized for not having a good plan in place to discuss the play, its toxic themes, and the provocations of this production.

“I am committed to helping young women grow into reflective and informed members of society,” she said. “As an educator, I believe that it has never been more important for us as to equip our daughters to deal with uncomfortable social issues and learn how to participate effectively in the often contentious debates that surround them. If our shared goal is to nurture a generation of strong, independent female leaders, we must stick to these core principles even in the face of occasional controversy.”

Source: Director defends Nazi-era production of The Merchant of Venice after Toronto principal fired over anti-Semitic content

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

2 Responses to Director defends Nazi-era production of The Merchant of Venice after Toronto principal fired over anti-Semitic content

  1. gjreid says:

    Shoot first, ask questions after – if ever. People seem to be in a great hurry to fire people these days. Perhaps the firing of the head of the school demonstrates precisely what the play – it seems – was trying to demonstrate, the dangers of riling up the people, or the public, or the parents. Exploring the roots and psychology of anti-Semitism & of mob hysteria seems more important than ever these days. Very unfortunate that a bold effort – which had been seen in many other places apparently – was shot down so quickly and it seems without appeal.

  2. Andrew says:

    Fully agree

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