A Note from Nathan the Wise Director Brian Kulick

By Brian Kulick

Lessing is perhaps, to Americans, the least known of his theatrical compatriots; that extraordinary convocation of German playwrights which includes Goethe, Schiller, Kleist and Buchner.  And yet each of these authors were, in one way or another, indebted to this extraordinary pioneer who almost single handedly helped to create a uniquely modern German theatre that would go onto rival anything that was taking place on the stages of France or England.  But who was this Gotthold Ephraim Lessing?

His biographer H.B. Nisbet wastes no time informing us that Lessing was one of the giants of the European Enlightenment, cut from the same intellectual clothe as Diderot, Voltaire and Rousseau.  Nisbet tells us that Lessing was “a poet, dramatist, journalist, literary theorist, critic, historian of literature, art, and religion, a classical and medieval philologist, a paleographer, librarian, archivist, a lay expert in languages, prolific reviewer and editor.”  The genre’s of literature that he tried his hand  include, “the ode, song, didactic poem, verse tale, epigram, fable, aphorism, comedy, tragedy, parable play, dialogue, satire, and polemic.”  In short: he was a phenomenon.  Today he is perhaps most remembered for his plays, his theories on literature and his enlightenment writings on religion where refused to privilege his Christianity over the beliefs of Islam or Judaism.  He was one of the first European intellectuals to believe and advocate that all three religions were equally valid attempts to understand the wonder of creation.

When Lessing arrived, as a young graduate, to Berlin in 1750s, he writes that he was “a man with no employment, no friends, and no luck.”  This would all change very rapidly; particularly  in the realm of friendship, for it seems he was as gifted in this human endeavor as he was in literature.  Perhaps Lessing most significant and life long friendship was with the Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelsshon who many believe to be the role model for Nathan the Wise.

Mendelsshon was nicknamed  “The Moses of Dessau” for his extraordinary aptitude in Hebrew and Talmudic studies.  A restless thinker, Mendelsshon went on to immerse himself in the Judaeo and Arabic philosophy of the Middle Ages and from there to a keen interest in modern French and German thinking.  And so it was over chess that Mendelsshon introduced Lessing to the intricacies of Jewish theology and thought; while Lessing, in return, fed Mendelsshon’s hunger for contemporary philosophy.  The two became the best of friends and could be found conversing freely through the streets of Berlin, a phenomenon which was unheard of at this time since the Jewish population, according to Nisbet, “suffered not only official discrimination, but also public abuse to which the ordinary populace routinely subjected the Jews on account of their distinctive customs and appearance.”  But, with the aid of Lessing and other Christian supporters, Mendelsshon soon earned the respect of his contemporaries for his abilities as a philosopher and later for the dignity in which he defended his religion against the importunities of the Christian proselytizer Lavater who had attempted to prove, through debate with Mendelsshon, that Christianity was superior to Judaism.  It was this “affair” with Lavater that would become part of the inspiration for the central debate between Nathan and Saladin in Lessing’s subsequent play.

Lessing’s beliefs on the equality of all religions was not looked upon favorably and many of his pamphlets on these matters found themselves censored or just simply banned by the authorities.  This did not dissuade Lessing from continuing to air his views, he simply shifted from the platform of pamphlets to that of plays.   His first play in this vein would  be THE JEWS which dealt with the question of Jewish civil rights; NATHAN THE WISE, his last play, deals with the rivalry over the three reigning monothesicstic religions and their respective claims of being the sole purveyor of divine revelation.  The play had a long gestation period, beginning with a series of false starts in the early 1750s.  But the work was finally completed in July of 1778 when Lessing lost his exemption from censorship and realized that, through an administrative loophole, he could use the play, if published by subscription, to get around the censors and continue his campaign for religious tolerance and mutual understanding.  The finished work was printed by C.F. Voss and was sent to some 3,000 initial subscribers in May of 1779.  The printed play became an immediate success and was followed by two reprints and two pirated editions totaling some 4,500 copies, thus rivaling Goethe’s previous success with his best-selling THE SORROWS OF YOUNG WERTHER.

NATHAN THE WISE takes place sometime between the end of the Third Crusade in 1192 and the death of Saladin in 1193, a brief and rare period of peaceful accord between the Muslim, Christian and Jewish communities in Jerusalem.  The central plot point:  Sultan Saladin’s request from Nathan the Wise to prove which religion is “most beloved of G-d” and Nathan’s subsequent answer will be familiar to those who have spent time with Boccaccio’s DECAMMERON, specifically the third novella of the first book, known as “The Story of the Three Rings.”  This parable has a long and tangled history, dating back to at least the eighth century with Hebrew, Latin and Old French variants that begin to proliferate from the twelfth to fifteenth century.  It is Boccaccio’s version that Lessing borrows but makes distinctively his own, crafting it into a pean to religious tolerance.

Even though NATHAN THE WISE is set in the 1190’s one should not think of Nathan’s wisdom as being that of his time or the time of his forefathers.  In Lessing’s hands, Nathan’s wisdom is that of the future, of the Enlightenment and his success in winning over Saladin and the Templar Knight is because his words speak to their own nascent Enlightenment leanings.

For although Nathan, Saladin and the Knight each come from radically different faiths and backgrounds, they share a modern sensibility that is ultimately allergic to superstition and xenophobia.  All three would be completely at home in Lessing’s own Freemason Lodge which espoused a brotherhood of humankind that transcended the specificities of faith or nationality.  Even though this and many other aspects of NATHAN THE WISE makes this play from the 1790s feel remarkably contemporary, there are also aspects that remind us how radically “other” Lessing and his circle are to our own modern day point of view.  This is particularly true of Lessing’s resolute optimism that such Enlightenment ideals will ultimately lead to a better world.  It is here that he parts company with his beloved Voltaire and perhaps many of us beleaguered residents of the 21st Century. One of the most hotly debated topics of the Enlightenment was the issue of optimism, everyone in Europe had an opinion on this subject, including such luminaries as Kant, Voltaire and Samuel Johnson.   The most famous literary outcome of this debate would be Voltaire’s scathing satire CANDIDE which ridicules the optimistic hopes and aspirations of his Enlightenment friends.   The debate rages on, to this day, but with perhaps more and more of us questioning the promise of the Enlightenment and its stepchild which goes by the name of Modernism.  Perhaps now more than ever, we’ve become somewhat collectively dubious of the belief in a ever increasingly perfectible world.

Lessing and his creation Nathan are on the other side of the divide, imploring us not to give over to historical despair.  Yes, the past is pockmarked with failure, the present full of challenges, but the future remains ours for the making, especially in light of the failures of our past and present.    Faced with the modern day skepticism of the Templar Knight, Nathan says, “We simply must be friends.”  Why? Because they are brothers of a certain healthy skepticism and it is this mutual skepticism that creates a rhyme between the two.  What at first separated them from others, ultimately brings them into alignment with one another.  It is an interesting and unexpected move on Lessing and Nathan’s part.  Perhaps the best analogy for it would be in the world of chess which also  happens to be Nathan’s favorite past time and one of the play’s major imagistic motifs.  In chess, such a gambit would be called “The Knight’s Move.”  The knight being the most unique and unpredictable of chess pieces, the one piece that moves like no other and defies the laws that govern its ivory siblings.  When other pieces are blocked or about to be taken, the knight simply makes a leap, avoiding both potential traps.  Nathan’s ability to turn his opponents seeming “difference” into a “commonality” is the philosophical equivalent of a Knight’s Move.

At the end of this play Lessing  will ask us that we, as an audience, make another collective kind of Knight’s Move.   A leap from historical despair to hope.  A leap that we have become less inclined to undertake at the beginning of this already troubled century.  The  question will be, how willing are we to make that leap and what does it say about us, as a people, if we hesitate or refuse. It will tell us as much about ourselves as it does about Lessing and his times.  And it may remind us that every leap is, in a way, a leap of faith.  The question Lessing provocatively poses is, do we, as a civilization, still have the appetite to make such leaps and what does it meant for our future if we can no longer envision them.