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March 7, 2007

A friendly game of chess makes for arresting theater

With its opposition between black and white armies and focus on total obliteration of the enemy, chess has always been viewed as a metaphor for conflict. It's not for nothing that the "King's Game," as it was dubbed, was used in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance to teach war strategy, that both Soviet Russia and the U.S. used computer chess programs to simulate nuclear combat during the Cold War, and that the media have been packed with chess-themed headlines ("Arafat playing a bloody game of political chess," "Iraqi chess game leaves butterflies in many stomachs," etc.) since the start of the war in Iraq. Che Guevara even has been quoted as equating the game with starting a revolution in Venezuela.

But in German dramatist Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's 1779 play Nathan the Wise, chess stands not for discord but for peace. This view of chess is quite different from how it's typically used in drama. From the iconic game between the Grim Reaper and the Knight in Ingmar Bergman's 1956 film The Seventh Seal and Kurt Vonnegut's 1953 short story "All the King's Horses" about a captured American colonel forced to forfeit real soldiers in a game of chess with a ruthless Asian warlord, to the love triangle at the heart of the 1986 musical Chess and the playing of "Wizard's Chess" in Harry Potter, chess has come to stand for the contentious act of survival itself. "For life is a kind of Chess," wrote Benjamin Franklin in his 1750 treatise on the game, The Morals of Chess, "in which we have often points to gain, and competitors or adversaries to contend with."

Yet in Nathan, chess represents the path of least resistance — the "Third Way." Saladin, the play's debt-ridden sultan, lets his sister win at chess. Al-Hafi, the court treasurer, longs to leave the pressures of society behind and return to a simple life of lounging by the river refining his playing skills under the tutelage of learned grandmasters. The characters operate like pieces on a chessboard, pushing toward the climax move by move, but there are no black and white players in this game: Each character wears many different faces.

The fact that Lessing based the protagonist on the well-known German Jewish philosopher Moses Mendelssohn, whom the playwright met in 1754 over a chessboard, also speaks of harmony. Like Nathan and Saladin in the play, the two German intellectuals became fast friends after their first meeting and went on to influence each other's ideas. Far from trumpeting war, chess, as Lessing would have it, is a harbinger of goodwill.

It makes for arresting theater. This is a remarkable feat considering that harmony has never been a promising premise for theater. Drama is first and foremost a medium of conflict, so any play that features a benign protagonist like Nathan whose halo soon rubs off on everyone else is bound to be a bit of a theatrical stalemate.

Set in the 12th century during the ethnic turmoil of the Second Crusade, the drama tells the story of Nathan, a rich Jewish merchant, who manages to unite antagonistic Jewish, Christian, and Muslim factions in Jerusalem with his generosity and open-mindedness — not to mention more than a dash of grandmasterly cunning.

When Saladin summons Nathan to his palace in an attempt to get money from the merchant by bamboozling him with a trick question about Judaism, Islam, and Christianity, Nathan plays a tactical sideways move. Instead of responding directly to Saladin's inquiry ("which faith have you found most enlightening?"), he tells the Sultan a fable, an allegory about the essential interconnectedness of all world religions pinched from Boccaccio's The Decameron by Lessing. The message in Nathan's "Story of the Three Rings" so impresses Saladin that he changes his outlook on life completely.

Nathan was considered radical in its day for its portrayal of a sympathetic Jewish character, something that was virtually unheard of during the intolerant Enlightenment period. But the most intriguing thing for contemporary audiences about Lessing's subtle-moral drama is its ability to preach a message of peace and love without resorting to John & Yoko-style hippy idealism or medieval didacticism.

As brought to life in TheatreFIRST's small-scale yet bighearted production, the marriage of chess with peace works like a serenely executed checkmate. Director Soren Oliver's production might not look like much — the predominance of ochre and mud-brown in the chessboard-themed set design and the frumpy "biblical" costumes give Nathan an unfortunate amateur Christmas pageant feel — yet the play as a whole still works. The plot's gentle, peacenik quality has led critics in the past to point out the play's dramaturgical pitfalls ("In a dramatic point of view, it has hardly any merits," wrote the Victorian critic John Fiske. "Whatever plot there is in it is weak and improbable.") But TheatreFIRST's decision to go with Edward Kemp's 2003 translation of the 4 1/2-hour-long, verse-composed original is a wise choice. Kemp's version clocks in at about half the length of Lessing's, and the witty prose whirls like a dervish at Saladin's court.

The actors' ability to convey the various contradictions and changes of heart at the core of their characters also compensates for the lack in dramatic conflict. Whether channeling groveling pawns, impetuous knights, or all-powerful kings, the performers imbue their characters with love, humor, and humanity. Christopher Maikish's portrayal of the Knight Templar, a man caught between his mission to convert heathen Jews and Muslims to Christianity and his passion for the Jewish merchant's adopted daughter Rachel, is a case in point. At once hotheaded and tender, Maikish makes us fall as much in love with the young Knight as his character does with Rachel. Terry Lamb is similarly protean. Doubling as both Saladin and the Christian fundamentalist Patriarch Heraclius, Lamb flows between munificence and malignance, underscoring Lessing's point that there is no single truth — all religions share positive and negative qualities. At the center of the play stands Will Huddleston's Nathan. With his bright eyes and Zenlike alertness, Huddleston's Nathan possesses the wisdom and blow-deflecting grace of a Jedi Knight. He's a rabbinical Obi-Wan Kenobi. Nathan might be a simple morality play, but as conveyed by TheatreFIRST's smart ensemble, its characters have many dimensions.

Ultimately, you could say the same thing of chess. The existence of noncombative versions of the game, like Metapontum (a hexagonal chess variant in which players do not fight each other but cooperate to reach a particular goal), hint at the game's friendlier face. Even as played according to the regular rules, chess can be seen as a peaceful, social activity, requiring only a few pieces of wood or plastic and playable by people of all classes, ages, and races. While commonly portrayed as a symbol of conflict, chess, as Lessing's drama suggests, may be one of the greatest equalizers of our times.



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