First Dissents: Is David Ives Really Oliver Stone (or Who Wants In on the NEW JERUSALEM Debate)?

This from our friendly blogger, “ArthurThinks,” who feels that David Ives has written the equivalent of JFK, NIXON, and W; which is to say that he’s written a “non-historical play about an historical event.”

“Of course, it is difficult to write a non-historical play about an historical event, and Ives’ story, which has an Amsterdam civil and Christian leader not only attending the excommunication debate at the synagogue but to a great extent controlling it, and testimony both from a young gentile Dutchman who had portrayed himself as Baruch’s best friend but who turned out to be a spy for the Christian community, and a young Christian woman who was Spinoza’s romantic interest. I am not a student of the Spinoza trial, but would be very surprised if any of these three characters were historical.

So verisimilitude is not Ives’ primary goal. But, unless you knew something about Spinoza, you would not know that you were not seeing actual history.”

The question and the challenge: How much of what Ives has written is true? Did he make up Simon DeVries or Clara Van Den Enden? No. But their roles in the play are enhanced and augmented from what we know of them in real life. Each represents a kind of composite of multiple figures in Spinoza’s life. Hopefully we’ll hear from some Spinoza readers–and our dramaturg Steve Spotswood–as to how Ives’ characters both adhere and depart from the history. And to what affect.

And what of the dissenting critical view with respect to performance? Here, Lisa Traiger of the Washington Jewish Week finds fault in the production’s otherwise highly lauded performances. What to make of it, coming as it does, later than all the other reviews? Is this as much a churlish response to the rapturous reception as to the performance itself?

Curious how others respond to these two pieces, our first less-than-rapturous takes on the production. Methinks this is healthy.


2 thoughts on “First Dissents: Is David Ives Really Oliver Stone (or Who Wants In on the NEW JERUSALEM Debate)?

  1. Remember, I criticized the play, not the performance which I thought was terrific. I am going to try to get to a talk back or two to hear the Spinoza experts on the historicity.

  2. First, let me say: SPOILER ALERT.

    Second, let me apologize for the length of this response. I’ve been living with this play for a little while, and I do love to talk about it.

    I like the description “non-historical play about historical events.” New Jerusalem is a lot of things, but a history play isn’t really one of them. Its purpose isn’t to present a certain historical event, but to use that event to illuminate and dramatize much larger, and still very relevant, issues.

    What Ives has done is use Spinoza’s cherem as a stage where we can see conflicting beliefs clash (modern vs. medieval, religious vs. secular, the needs of a culture vs. the passions of the individual). In many ways it’s a microcosm for the Age of Reason, where all of these battles played out on a much larger stage.

    To do this, Ives has taken a number of liberties with historical events. Most of these liberties help either to tell a clearer story, or heighten the drama of the play. Yes, the Amsterdam Jews were always under pressure to regulate their community, but the civil authorities did not play as large a part in Spinoza’s excommunication as they do in the play. Valkenburg’s role is not a historically accurate one, but it does heighten the stakes of the play considerably, especially for Rabbi Mortera, who has so much to lose.

    In reality, Simon de Vries was the name of a friend and benefactor of Spinoza after he left Amsterdam. He was not the one who betrayed Spinoza to the synagogue’s leaders. In fact, that was done by two young members of the synagogue who went to great efforts to get Spinoza to incriminate himself.

    Clara Van Den Enden was also a historical character, though very different from the woman we see on stage. Clara’s father, a defrocked Jesuit and practicing deist, believed greatly in both the powers of education and in letting his daughters learn as much of the world as they were able to. The real Clara was possibly the only female master of mathematics, music, theatre, and Latin in all of Amsterdam. She was the one who first taught Spinoza Latin.

    Were they more than student/teacher? There’s no evidence that they were lovers. But there were rumors at the time. However, those might have stemmed from the simple fact that she was a woman and nobody at the time could understand what reason, other than an illicit one, Spinoza would choose her as his teacher.

    So, why—when the historical Clara is so fascinating—write her as a simple, devout Christian? And why does the Spinoza in the play love her so much?

    I asked Mr. Ives the latter question when he visited our rehearsal. He said, “Spinoza is seeking a perfect love of God (or what Spinoza calls God). To simply live and love. And Clara does that without thinking. She just walks down the street and is irradiated by love.” Which is why, very early in the play, Spinoza refers to her as “perfect.”

    Clara’s love of God plays a key role in the second half of the play, and leads Spinoza to complete his philosophy. While the historical Clara might have been an interesting character in her own right, Ives’ Clara allows the playwright to tell a much clearer, more emotional tale, and one that manages to outline 5 volumes of complex metaphysics in two quick hours.

    In his blog, thinkingarthur notes that New Jerusalem is surely meant to be a teaching play. And I agree. But I don’t think its central purpose is to teach about the historical Spinoza, or the Portuguese Jews of 17th c. Amsterdam. What draws me to the play, and the reason I’ve been a big fan since first reading it last season, are what it teaches about faith and reason and love, and about the many ways that a person can choose to live and think about themselves and their role in the world.

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