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  YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  JEW SUSS                                                 

JEW SUSS1, by Leon Feuchtwanger

(Yiddish: Yid zis)

 

Introductory Note: "The present play 'Jew Suss,' like Feuchtwanger's famous novel 'Power', deals with the meteoric rise and fall of that amazing German Jew, Joseph Suss Oppenheimer (1698-1738). Born at a time when the Jews of Germany were treated as pariahs, the son of humble parents who were strolling actors, he rose by virtue of his financial genius, magnetic personality, handsome appearance, and sheer bravado, to dizzying heights of wealth and power, becoming the virtual ruler of the Duchy This shows Suss at the height of his wealth and power, becoming the virtual power, though even then sitting on the ruler of the Duchy of Wurttemberg during the reign of the profligate Duke Karl Alexander (1733-1737). The fact that he, a Jew, wielded so much power, gained him many enemies, and all kinds of charges, ranging from embezzlement to high treason, were made against him. But invariably he succeeded in disproving these charges, and the Duke heaped fresh honors upon him. When, however, Karl Alexander died suddenly on the night of March 11, 1937, Suss's enemies saw their opportunity and were quick to seize it. By a ruse he was arrested that very night, charged with high treason, and nine months later he was sentenced to death. Several attempts were made to convert him to Christianity, but he who had all his life violated the laws and practices of Judaism refused to obtain his freedom by turning renegade, and to all these overtures his answer was, 'I will die as a Jew; I am suffering violence and injustice.' He was hanged at Stuttgart on February 4, 1738, his last words being the Jew's immemorial avowal of faith in the unity of God: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohenu Adonai Ehad ('Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God the Lord is One'). Today all German historians agree that his execution was an act of judicial murder.

So much is history. Around this historic nucleus Feuchtwanger, with the magic hand of his poetic genius, has woven a story of extraordinary power and beauty shot through with mordant irony and sardonic humor, -- 'a wondrous story of greed and lust and vanity and love,' -- which bids well to rank among the great novels of the century. The present play likewise deals with Suss's life, though of course, in a concentrated form, and with certain divergences from the account given in the novel. Naturally, this synopsis is based not upon the novel, but upon the play, or rather upon Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish adaptation of it.)"2


 

"Jew Suss" is a drama in thee acts and four scenes, by Lion Feuchtwanger.

Direction and Jewish Version by Maurice Schwartz. Settings by Boris Aronson.

The music was composed by George Teuller.

The play was staged by the Yiddish Art Theatre in New York City on 21 October 1929.

 


 

photo: Anna Teitelbaum, in "Jew Suss", 1926. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

The cast members who acted in this play were:

Izidore Casher, Maurice Schwartz, Louis Weisberg, Pincus Sherman, Morris Strassberg, Michael Gibson, Mark Schweid, Lazar Freed, Jacob Mestel, H. Frank Joseph Greenberg, Anna Appel, Judith Abarbanel, Bertha Gerstin and, Stella Adler.

Scene of the play: The Duchy of Wurttemberg. Time: 1736-1738.

So, here is the synopsis of Feuchtwanger's "Jew Suss". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:
 

SYNOPSIS 2

ACT ONE

This shows Suss (Samuel Goldenburg) at the height of his power, though even then sitting on the top of a volcano. His antechamber is crowded with delegations and individual callers, all waiting for an audience with the all-powerful Privy Financial Councillor. The first to be ushered into Suss's presence is Schultheiss Binder (Michael Gibson), a burgher of Settinfels, who wants Suss to set aside a heavy fine imposed upon him by the judicial commission of his home town, one of the bodies set up by Suss throughout the Duchy in order to obviate lengthy and costly court proceedings (or, as his enemies charged, to sell justice to the highest bidder). Suss denies his petition, and from Binder's remarks we get an idea of the bitterness which exists in the country against the Duke's oppressive rule, for which the Jew is blamed.

The next to be admitted is Weissensee (Izidore Casher), newly appointed President of the Church Council. Well he knows that the post was given to him because his only daughter, the profoundly religious Magdalen Sibylle (Berta Gerstin), had become the Duke's mistress, for which he blames the Jew. But not daring to display the bitterness that consumes his heart, the oily prelate assumes an attitude of gratitude  and humility and thanks the Jew for the honored post conferred upon him. But from a certain hint dropped by him regarding a mysterious castle near his country estate he has just discovered (and where unknown to the world Suss's beautiful and only daughter [Judith Abarbanell] is living), we know that he is plotting revenge.

Master Schober (Mark Schweid), a timid but crafty poetaster, is admitted next. He aspires to the post of librarian in his native Brackenheim, but complains he cannot raise the 200 gulden demanded for the post. (All civil service posts were for sale under Suss's regime, for which purpose there was created a Patronage Office.) If he secures the post, he will then be able to marry the girl he loves, Magdalen Sibylle. Suss ingratiates himself with the young man by promising to advance the money required, and the latter, growing confident, recites to the Jew some of the rhymed lampoons against him which circulate throughout the country. A delegation from the Estates, as the smaller offshoot of the Wurttemberg parliament was called, enters next with a complaint against the government's attempt to Catholicize the army. They are interrupted by the arrival of the Duke (Maurice Schwartz), who has 'but one answer to the delegation's complaints and pleas, namely, that he is the ruler of the country, and dismisses them brusquely. When the duke and his Privy Councillor are left alone, the latter soon notices that the Duke is rather hesitant about carrying out the Catholicization of the army and surmises correctly that this change of front is due to the influence of the pious Protestant Magdalen Sibylle. Refreshments are served and the Duke expatiates upon the charms of his latest mistress, warning the Jew not to try to "lick out of his dishes" this time. Graziella (Stella Adler), the opera singer and another of the Duke's innumerable flames, enters and poutingly expresses her jealousy of Magdalen, and pretends she is going to leave the country now the Duke loves another. Suss's uncle, the Magus (Lazar Freed), is announced. The Duke, remembering how Suss's uncle had once predicted his accession to the ducal throne, though at that time the heir apparent was still alive, insists that the Magus read his horoscope, and particularly what luck he will have with women. The Magus begs to be excused, but as the Duke is insistent, he foretells that one of them will cause his death. The Duke and Graziella depart, and Suss's uncle urges his nephew to go to see his daughter, who is longing for him. Suss expresses his misgivings over Weissensee's remarks earlier in the day, and been the Magus begs Suss to remove his daughter to another country, and also is overjoyed to leave the country himself. This Suss will not hear of, for to him life is worthless without power and influence over the destinies of a whole people such as he enjoys in Wurttemberg, and all of his uncle's cabalistic pleas as to the vanity of this world are unavailing. He insists, moreover, that he sticks to his present post not merely from love of power, but from the desire to protect his brethren and to avenge the wrongs they have received at the hands of their Gentile neighbors. His uncle declares that Suss will soon find out his life is one of self-deception. Suss promises to visit his daughter soon and his uncle leaves. A delegation of Jews, headed by the Rabbi of Frankfort (Jacob Mestel), enters and pleads with Suss to use his good offices to secure the release of a coreligionist named Jecheskel Seligmann who is being held unjustly in the Free City of Esslingen on a charge of ritual murder. Suss declines to intercede, pleading reasons of state, whereupon they leave. Magdalen Sibylle enters next, having come against her will at the request of Suss. She is still bitter against the Jew for having forced her into a life of shame as the Duke's mistress in order to ingratiate himself with his master. Suss declaims against her middle class notions of morality and declares that he has placed her in her present position in order that she may come into the possession of life's most precious treasure, Power. She and he alone are worthy of power and of each other, and between the two of them the destiny of the land will now be shaped. Elated because he has at last explained  himself to the one woman he loves and honors, Suss reverses his previous stand and dictates a letter to the Esslingen authorities demanding that the Jew Seligmann be turned over to Wurttemberg on the ground that the prisoner is a subject of the Duchy.  


ACT TWO

At Suss's country retreat, Tamar, a beautiful, poetic, dreamy girl of seventeen, and her grand uncle, the Magus, are engaged in their favorite topic of conversation; the hidden, inner meaning of the Scriptures.

Suss arrives, and the girl, who has been pining away because of his long absence, is overjoyed. She tells him of her distress because people are saying such bad things about him, but he tells her to have faith in him. When Tamar withdraws, the Magus once more urges his nephew to take his daughter and go with her to another country. Suss refuses on the ground that his destiny as avenger of Israel makes it necessary for him to remain at his post in Wurttemberg. Thereupon the Magus plays his trump card. He brings in Suss's mother, who, unknown to Suss, has arrived from Frankfort, and the latter confesses to her son that his father was not a Jew, but a Christian nobleman and general, Georg Eberhard von Heydersdorff, with whom she once had an affair, and who afterwards died in disgrace. But even this does not shake Suss in his determination to remain at his present post of power. Magdalen Sibylle is announced. Suss is surprised that she should have known his present whereabouts, to which she replies that she learned it from her father. She informs Suss that the Duke has decided upon a coup d'etat to Catholicize the whole country, and that the execution of the coup has been entrusted to Suss's enemy, General Remchingen (Louis Weisberg). Suss is touched by her fidelity to him, and there follows a brief but touching love scene between the two.

After Magdalen leaves, Master Schober, obviously in his cups, intrudes, and drunkenly calls Suss to account for having sold the soul of Schober's beloved, Magdalen Sibylle, to the devil. Suss gets rid of him, only to receive infinitely more unwelcome and dangerous company: the Duke, Weissensee, Remchingen, Graziella, etc. Refreshments are served, and Graziella entertains them with a song. The Duke's servants push Tamar into the room. At the sight of the young girl's virginal beauty, the lascivious Duke is at once filled with lust. Presently he and his entourage leave. By a ruse the Duke lures Suss away from the house, then returns to attack the girl, at a moment when the Magus is away and she is all alone in her room. Tamar escapes from his clutches and seeks refuge on the roof of the house. The lustful Duke pursues her, whereupon she jumps off and is killed. The Magus returns and presently Suss also comes back. The Duke makes humble apologies to Suss for having caused his daughter's death and graciously offers to pay the funeral expenses. Suss mechanically mumbles words of forgiveness to his master, but his heart is consumed by grief, hatred, and the desire for revenge.


ACT THREE

Scene 1: The Duke and his entourage -- Remchigen, Suss, Graziella, etc. -- are gathered at the Castle of Ludwigsburg and wait for word from Stuttgart, the capital of Wurttemberg, for on this night the coup d'etat is to be carried out. A fierce storm is raging outside, and the atmosphere inside the castle is equally depressing, despite Graziella's efforts to cheer up the company.

Schober, who has meanwhile become Suss's confidential secretary, and through whom Suss in order to avenge his daughter's death has betrayed the Duke's plans to the Protestant populace, is filled with compunction because Suss has pledged him to absolute secrecy, for in the event the Duke's conspiracy is frustrated, Suss will be arrested as the chief instigator and he, Schober, will not be able to testify in his defense. Suss silences him with a jest.

Magdalen Sibylle approaches and vows her love for Suss, but Suss can only think of revenge and of the courier from Stuttgart who is speeding along with word that will crush the Duke. Weissensee draws near and congratulates Suss on the great triumph awaiting him with the imminent success of the coup. The Duke issues orders for all church bells to be rung as soon as the news about the coup arrives. The courier finally arrives and hands a message to the Duke, who summons everybody to hear the good news. When, however, he reads that the conspiracy had been discovered and frustrated by his Protestant subjects, he is stricken with paralysis. "Was it you who betrayed me, Jew?" he asks Suss. "Yes, your Grace," answers the latter.

Scene 2: Suss has been sentenced to death for his complicity in the conspiracy. We see him now in his death cell with all traces of his former elegance gone, the while the hangman is entertaining him with his ghastly jokes. Weissensee arrives and expresses his incredulity that the Jew will submit tamely to his fate out of a foolish sentiment, when by merely speaking out he could save himself. As Suss refuses to enter into conversation with him, he leaves. Schober enters and implores his master to release him from his pledge and permit him to tell the truth so that Suss's life may be saved. Suss refuses to do so. Weissensee, accompanied by the Magus, returns with word that Sturm, the Chief Secretary of the Estates, is coming to see Suss, and judging by Strum's wry face, he must be bringing good news for the Jew. Sturm comes in and announces on behalf of the Regent that the latter is ready to pardon Suss, in view of his past services to the country, provided however, [that] he will turn state evidence, disclose the names of all who were implicated in it, as well as the names of Christian women with whom he has had carnal relations. Suss refuses the offer and asks only for the privilege of being permitted to see once more the stricken Duke Karl Alexander. Sturm promises him that and departs, after which both Weissensee and the Magus take Suss to task for his obstinate refusal to save himself, but to all their pleas Suss answers that his only desire is to join the spirit of his daughter Tamar.

The stricken Duke is wheeled in, but Suss's words of compassion for the "wounded soul which lies buried in your body," find no responsive echo in the Duke's heart, and the two are not reconciled. The Duke is taken away, and Suss has a vision of his daughter and hears her voice calling him to her.

Magdalen Sibylle enters and telling him that the jailers have been bribed to enable him to escape, pleads with him to save himself, offering to flee with him wherever he might choose to go. Again Suss refuses, and Magdalen, overwhelmed by grief and despair, denounces him for having strengthened her soul while he himself is too weak to resist his own dreams.

The rabbi of Frankfort now arrives to minister spiritually to Suss, following which the latter is led away to his execution.    

 

1 -- From the play program for "Jew Suss", Yiddish Art Theatre, 1929. Courtesy of YIVO.

2 -- Synopsis prepared by Maximilian Hurwitz.

 

 

 

 




Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

Copyright Museum of the Yiddish Theatre.  All rights reserved.