Don't deprive us of our best villains

Click to follow
ACCORDING TO a recent article about the BBC's Oliver Twist, due this autumn, the distinguished dramatist Alan Bleasdale has, for the most ethical reasons, decided to eradicate the more flamboyantly revolting aspects of Fagin, our second favourite villain (Shylock of course being the first).

It's heartening to feel that liberals, be they Christians, agnostics or atheists, are sensitive to Christian portrayals of the Jew as money- grabbing, avaricious and cruel. However, having said that, they are also eradicating and painting over some of the most fascinating portraits the Jew has been forced to pose for throughout European history. Mr Bleasdale is to clean up Fagin and turn him into a Czech magician who, according to starring actor Robert Lindsay, is only "incidentally a Jew" ... ! Which would be like saying the nose of Cyrano, is only incidental to his character. Usually the writer or artist was depicting what he or she saw, and if that was ugly, twisted and rather sinister, one has to examine the context in which it was created.

Medieval Christian societies, as most of us now realise, circumscribed the alien Jew in their midst to work that was not palatable to the native, much as the white Americans did, and still do, the African-American. The Jew was in many cases forced to live either outside the city - or locked into ghettos where unhealthy conditions, appalling overcrowding and interbreeding led quite naturally to a pathetic and distorted human being. Money-lending, dealing in refuse and second-hand goods, tailoring and wandering the land as tinkers were permitted occupations. The cleverer ones made a virtue out of necessity and excelled in their limited work opportunities and thus led to a Shylock or, in other cases, to a Fagin, a sinister miscreant spawned in another form of ghetto in London's East End.

Poor Shylock suffers, in many modern productions, the same fate, as he too is thrown into the bath tub for a little harsh scrubbing. He is a grotesque and fabulous creature, slithering along the alleyways of the ghetto, his coat stiff with the dried spit from the well-aimed depredations of the aristos of Venice. However, we now often see him as a distinguished and rather debonair Rothschild-like banker which not only violates the descriptions in the text but demonstrates a degree of emancipation that would have enabled him to have his spitter arrested! During Olivier's great reign, he essayed a wonderful Shylock, and at the dress rehearsal revealed his makeup which contained a reasonable Arabic/Semitic nasal curve which was swiftly cosmetised by the director. In any event, Olivier gave a fantastic performance.

Oliver Twist's treatment at the hands of the poor house, magistrates and church is hideous, cruel and totally without regard for humanity. Curiously, it is only when he arrives at the filthy hovel of Fagin that he is treated with some degree of affection and respect.

Society creates its own villains, quite often by discrimination and exclusion. Crime is sometimes the only method of asserting some control over one's environment, however minimal. Movies that continually throw up negative images of blacks, as if their actions were career choices rather than arising from substandard environments, continue to stir up prejudice.

So whatever portraits the Gentile created out of the Jew, the artist was in part imaginatively responsible. He was stimulated by superstition or religion to create a monster and we must be permitted to observe this aberration. However, in the case of Dickens and Shakespeare, unlike the filthy outpourings in Der Sturmer, (Hitler's famous rag) the portraits of Shylock and Fagin are creations of genius, bizarre and brilliant rogues and nobody but a fool could be offended. Nobody today (except those already contaminated with racist inclinations) could see this as a reflection on Jews any more than Richard the Third as a reflection on our royal family.

These are portraits and they reflect the time and the persecutor and if we can have our Einsteins, Freuds and Spinozas then let us have our Shylocks and Fagins. I was never offended by Shylock any more than I was by the great portrayal of Fagin by Alec Guinness in David Lean's film. It was to my amusement that I learned that New York audiences found the portrayal offensive. I think we can handle it. To step back and whitewash Fagin is a dubious and disturbing act. It suggests that the portrayals are in earnest and true. It denies complicity and causality.

At least nobody will cut the horns off Michelangelo's "Moses" since that is the way the great artist saw the ancient Jew. With horns. It's the artist who was responsible. Give us our horns.