Fine Writing, Fine Acting, Dubious Premise

Alley Cat Players' Underneath the Lintel unwisely rediscovers the "Wandering Jew"

click to enlarge MAGIC BEAN: Bridget Bean's performance as the - ditzy, disheveled, Dutch-accented Librarian is close to - perfect. - JO AVERILL-SNELL/ALLEY CAT PLAYERS
MAGIC BEAN: Bridget Bean's performance as the ditzy, disheveled, Dutch-accented Librarian is close to perfect.

The legend of the Wandering Jew is an anti-Semitic invention of the Middle Ages with no parallels in ancient or medieval Jewish texts. The tale first appeared in Christian Europe in the 13th century, but only became widely popular after the publication in Germany in 1602 of a widely disseminated chapbook on the subject. The story it told was of a Jewish shoemaker named Ahasuerus (actually the name of a Persian king in the Book of Esther) who lived in Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' crucifixion. On his way to Golgotha, Jesus, carrying the cross, stopped to rest in front of the cobbler's shop, but Ahasuerus ordered him to move on. In reply, Jesus said, "I go, and you will wait for me until I return." From that day on (says the tale), Ahasuerus has been a wanderer on the earth, forbidden ever to rest, and not permitted to die. Only at the Second Coming will he be allowed relief; till then his curse takes him all over the earth without cease.It's easy enough to understand how this figure resonated for Christians in the many centuries before the re-establishment of the State of Israel. How better to explain the Jews' worldwide exile than as God's punishment of them for their role in the crucifixion? The philosopher Schopenhauer, 600 years after the first appearance of the legend, spoke for centuries of Europeans when he said "Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, is nothing but the personification of the whole Jewish race ... which, strange to relate, was driven from its native land some 2,000 years ago and has ever since existed and wandered homeless." True, in Romantic and modern literature, the Wandering Jew is often depicted as a hero; but the legend's more typical shape remains profoundly anti-Jewish. So it should come as no surprise that the figure, as scholar Hyam Maccoby points out, "contributed to the Nazi anti-Semitic image."

Well times, of course, have changed. Western guilt over the Holocaust, the rebirth of Israel and the declarations of Vatican II would seem to have put the story of Ahasuerus to a long-deserved rest. But tell that to author Glen Berger, whose play Underneath the Lintel, currently being presented by the Alley Cat Players, is all about the discovery that Ahasuerus — or "Mr. A.," as Berger calls him — lives and wanders on.

Berger's only character, The Librarian, recounts the original story of Ahasuerus in approximately its classic shape (Mr. A. was standing "underneath the lintel" when Jesus collapsed nearby), and then goes on to tell us of Wandering Jew sightings over the centuries. Here's evidence that he was in Germany in the 15th century, in England in the 18th, in China, America, France and, most recently, "doing a sort of buck dance outside the fences of Buchenwald." He can't rest — is forbidden even to sit down — and can't tell anyone his story. What he can do is leave clues: a laundry ticket here, an overdue library book there, a coat with a 16th-century Jewish star on it and a Roman coin from the reign of Tiberius in the pocket. And he scrawls graffiti — in place after place, the unidentified words, "I Was Here." He can even be heard on some scratchy recordings.

Now I don't mean to suggest that author Berger revives this myth out of anti-Jewish feeling (I suspect he doesn't recognize just how offensive the old story is). Instead, his protagonist, the Librarian, comes to identify with Mr. A., imagines him as a rebel against God, and finally expresses support for his rebellion. In fact, if one had to characterize Lintel's religious stance, one would have to call it at least as anti-Christian as anti-Semitic. Because Berger's Librarian believes that we live in "a hash of a creation ... this muck and holy mess of a life," and that our condition resembles "a million insects ... caught in a million balls of lint behind a million couches each day and dying and no one knows."

Feeling overwhelmed by life, regretting a botched love affair that she now believes was her one chance for happiness, suspecting that fate — or God — has had it in for her all along, Berger's Librarian eventually finds the existence of Mr. A. a source of great pleasure. She too knows what it's like when "a superior makes an unreasonable demand." She too feels that, in spite of a curse, she's just "beginning to learn ... to dance."

Now, it's all very nice that author Berger feels such solidarity with the Jews. But it's not terribly pleasing that, in order to do so, he first has to imagine them accursed and irreverent. So the experience of Underneath the Lintel is terribly complicated: One finds oneself fascinated by the search for Mr. A. even while rejecting the myth of his existence. And this means that we can't afford to give full credence to Berger's Librarian, who after all, is the only onstage propagator of the Wandering Jew story.

And that's too bad, since Bridget Bean's performance as the ditzy, disheveled, Dutch-accented Librarian is close to perfect. Bean is wonderfully entertaining as she tries to convince us of Mr. A.'s existence, reaches into her old valise for another of her "evidences," or shows us a slide of one of the cities of her search. Impressive also is Jo Averill-Snell's direction and the clean, simple set (by "The Company"), featuring a slide projector and screen, a lectern and a blackboard. Alley Cat sets have, in the past, been a problem, but this time a fresh coat of paint and some useful furnishings provide all the background we really need. Finally, Bean's use of a microphone nicely solves the problem of noisy Florida Avenue traffic outside the ¡Viva La Frida! Café.

But what a subject for a play! Especially in this era when Jewish-Christian relations are at their best, it's more than a little distressing to find a contemporary writer who wants to revive one of the oldest anti-Jewish canards, even if only to tell us that he identifies with it. Clearly author Berger, talented though he is, lacks historical sensitivity. The story of the Wandering Jew was once a key text in the anti-Semitic repertoire. Nothing in Underneath the Lintel, not even the Librarian's admiration of Mr. A., justifies the resuscitation of such a pernicious myth.

And all the fine writing in the world can't raise this troubling play above the slander at its core.

Contact Performance Critic Mark E. Leib at 813-248-8888, ext. 305, or [email protected] .