The Germans in Paris
By Jonathan Leaf
152 West 71st Street, New York
It sounds like a variation upon a hackneyed joke: Two Jewish writers and an anti-Semitic composer walk into a salon. But it is also the plotline of Jonathan Leaf’s new play, “The Germans in Paris,” which asks how the friendships of Heinrich Heine, Karl Marx and Richard Wagner would fare if their paths crossed in 1840’s Paris. Would Marx overcome the French government’s attempts to jail and exile him for his radical writings? Would Heine and Wagner buckle under the pressure (and tempting payoffs) and sell their friend out to the French police? How would Heine and Marx respond to Wagner’s blunt anti-Semitism?
This sort of writing is risky business. When artists manipulate history, they run the risk of playing with characters and events already solidified in the audience’s minds in ways that do not jibe with those preconceived notions. It is often far easier to forgive mythical characters’ inadequacies than those of real ones. But historical fiction can work really well when it brings a fresh, convincing approach to an already familiar set of characters and events, as do “The Guns of the South” and “The Poisonwood Bible,” among many others.
On its page, “Defining the Genre,” the Historical Novel Society explains that there are several problems with defining historical novels: “When does ‘contemporary’ end, and ‘historical’ begin? What about novels that are part historical, part contemporary? And how much distortion of history will we allow before a book becomes more fantasy than historical?” Debates abound about how far back a work must go to be history, with answers ranging from the somewhat arbitrary 50 years to two generations to any narrative, which the artist never experienced and had to approach through research.
Leaf’s play has both the 50 years and two generations requirements going for it in its tracking of the misadventures of the three exiles in salons, dueling grounds, aristocratic drawing rooms and jails. According to an insert in the press kit, titled “Background for critics − the play’s historical accuracy,” the play is “loosely based on actual circumstances.” For instance, composer Richard Wagner (1813-1883) and poet/journalist Christian Johann Heinrich Heine (born Chaim Harry Heine, 1797-1856) were friends. Heine and Karl Marx (1818-1883) were friends, and the two published a radical magazine. But “there is no evidence that the paths of Wagner and Marx ever directly crossed. Indeed, while both were friends with Heine in Paris, their stays in the Paris of the 1840’s ended and began approximately a year apart.” (Although Marx did write, “Notes on Wagner,” the Wagner in question was Adolph Wagner.)
Heine (Jon Krupp) is the strongest character both in the script and in the performance. The script calls for a “beautifully dressed” Heine with “an air of cultivation and assurance, indeed arrogance,” and Krupp plays him with a decidedly unsentimental air about him. He accuses Marx of being “self-dramatizing,” and exhibits a tremendous wit time and again, as when he explains why he has demanded pistols and not sabers for a duel he must fight. “I’m one of the few Jews who likes his nose. I can’t have it lopped off by a saber. A gunshot in the groin doesn’t spoil my profile.”
Jon Krupp as Heinrich Heine and Angelica Torn as Madame Marguerite Morisot in a scene from Verse Theatre Manhattan’s production of Jonathan Leaf’s “The Germans in Paris.” Photo Credit: Oncu Arslan.
Heine seems an unlikely friend of Marx (Ross Beschler) and Wagner (Brian Wallace), both of whom are relatively shlumpy in comparison. Marx wears his beard long and dark, and immediately conveys through his dress and mannerisms that he holds his thoughts in far higher regard than his appearance. Wagner, meanwhile, is a nervous wreck, always talking with jerky movements and wearing a beret that covers his brow.
Early on, when police inspector Burckhardt (David Lamberton) commissions Wagner to spy on Heine (who is also a police spy), Wagner reveals his anti-Semitism quite unapologetically. “I did no more than meet these revolutionists,” he pleads, “I wouldn’t even have agreed to do that you understand, but Meyerbeer − the composer − was among them and I need his help. They were mostly Jews, and ” Burckhardt cuts him off by saying, “Yes?” and Wagner replies, “You know, no matter how weak a country is, Jews prosper.” Burckhardt, whom Wagner does not realize is himself Jewish, asks Wagner how he accounts for Heine the Jew. “Converted, yes,” Wagner says. “Some of them have talent.” He adds, “You think I’m being ridiculous. But it’s true. They’re crafty. They run the music business in Paris. The banks.”
In another exchange, Heine tells Wagner not to forget his debt to the Jews:
Heine: It’s good that you should take from Jews, granted how many people wind up paying everything to our moneylenders.
Heine: But take what you wish from us, Richard, so long as in making a new German culture, you recognize your debts.
Jon Krupp as Heinrich Heine and Ross Beschler as the young Karl Marx in Verse Theatre Manhattan’s “The Germans in Paris.” Photo Credit: Oncu Arslan.
Wagner tries to learn from this, when he is a second to Heine in his duel with Solomon Strauss. Wagner begs the two to settle without violence. “Gentlemen, perhaps, as fellow sons of Israel, you’d consider putting aside your hostilities − allowing as we Gentiles have plenty of our own hostility for you.” Strauss and Heine assure Wagner that his comments are not funny, and Heine notes parenthetically that he was baptized and intermarried. Strauss pauses with his gun and chastises Heine. “Just a moment: you now claim not to be Jewish?”
In an interview with The Jewish Press, Leaf said he did not consider Wagner’s anti-Semitism critical to the story, but he does think it carries particular relevance to contemporary Jewish life. “I also don’t think it’s unimportant at a time when we as Jews face renewed calls for our mass murder.” In a previous play, “The Caterers,” Leaf explored the 1977 Hanafi Muslim takeover of the B’nai B’rith offices in Washington, DC.
The most important lesson of the play, above and beyond the exploration of Wagner’s anti-Semitism – which he levels at two Jews with complicated Jewish identities – is “the impossibility of re-making the soul.” Heine early on describes Marx’s ideas as an attempt to make a better man. But when Marx, afraid of losing his life at a duel, sends his secretary Conrad Schramm (Alexander Bilu) to duel for him, Heine gets outraged. “That wasn’t right,” he admonishes Marx. Marx defends himself, “If I died, how much could Schramm contribute to the cause? You thought this was some poem you’d written, a story with a hero in love with a virtuous maiden?” Heine responds with the devastating condemnation of Communism. He asks, “How can you make a better man without first being one?”
In Heine’s conclusion that Marx “seeks to replace kings and sees himself as one,” he finally comes to realize that he will forever remain both an insider and a foreigner within the French aristocracy. Foretelling what could become of Marx’s followers, he launches into a brilliant prophecy:
“With their rough fists they will smash all the marble images of my world of art, will chop down my laurel forests and plant potatoes in them; the nightingales those useless singers, will be driven away, and alas! my Book of Songs will be used by grocers for packets into which to pour tobacco. They shall take the logical statement: all men shall eat, and from this, like devils, they shall change the shape of the world that all upon the earth shall be rendered to supply every man an equal portion of black soup … The gods themselves … will cover their faces out of sympathy with us, and perhaps out of apprehension over their own fate. The future smells of blood, godlessness and very many beatings. I would advise our grandchildren to come into the world with a thick hide on their backs…”
Leaf’s off-Broadway play, although it only played for a limited run, was rated the number one play by audience members in New York City on Theatermania.com
, well above Broadway rivals, “The Producers” and “Hairspray.” Additionally it has sold out many of its engagements. Unfortunately, the timing was too tight to review the play before it closed, but hopefully its great success and reviews will lead to a renewed performance schedule. In the play, as in “The Caterers” before it, Leaf has proven once again that not only can he write narrative and develop scenes with tremendous skill, but he also infuses his scripts with a very nuanced and honest Jewish identity.
Menachem Wecker is a painter, writer and editor based in Washington, D.C. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.