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Lessing the Divisive: A Brief Critical History of ‘Nathan the Wise’

Folger Theatre returned to in-person performances on March 16, 2022 with Nathan the Wise, produced in association with Theater J. Michael Bloom’s adaptation of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing’s 18th-century, Shakespearean-styled fable is directed by Theater J Artistic Director Adam Immerwahr. Here, Theater J Director of Patron Experience Chad Kinsman introduces us to the play and its controversial history.


As long as there has been theater, there have been plays which have irked the powers that be. Lysistrata, Tartuffe, A Doll’s House, Angels in America. Today considered masterpieces, these plays, for various reasons, sparked controversies and even bans earning their writers censure and possible ignominy. Few plays, though, have drawn the ire of historical forces across ideologies and centuries like Nathan the Wise.

In 1779, when G. E. Lessing published his drama of religious tolerance, the Enlightenment-era writer, critic, and theologian had already greatly contributed to German theater. Influenced by Shakespeare, he had thrown off the constraints of de rigueur  French neoclassicism to write several plays which blended comedy and tragedy, dealt with concerns of middle-class characters, and contributed to a distinct culture capable of unifying the dozens of disparate German territories.

Despite this success, he often found himself at odds with German authorities. Throughout the 1770s, Lessing had been editing and publishing texts which questioned Christian doctrine. Lessing and his peers, including his close friend, philosopher and polymath Moses Mendelssohn, were heavily influenced by Spinoza. For them, faith and reason were not irreconcilable, dogma should not impede freedom of thought, and no single religion could claim a monopoly on truth.

Such beliefs ignited a very public feud with a prominent Lutheran pastor, Johann Melchior Goeze.

While Lessing’s arguments were generally more substantive, as well as literary, Goeze’s political connections were better. When the local government banned Lessing from publishing religious materials, he decided to turn to his “old pulpit, the stage.” His play Nathan the Wise, depicts the tense truce under which Muslim and Jews cooperated in 1122 Jerusalem, a city still distressed from the recent Third Crusade. The play juxtaposes the actions—not the religions—of Christians, Jews, and Muslims. It was not performed until 1783, two years after Lessing’s death at the age of 54.

Nathan the Wise was first translated and performed in England in 1805, and it remained popular across Europe throughout the 19th century. In 1922, German director Manfred Nolan adapted the play for a silent film as a commentary on the rampant nationalism which contributed to the outbreak of the First World War. Seven years later, while speaking at an event observing Lessing’s 200th birthday, Thomas Mann called it “the high point of German literature and culture.” Many, though, saw assimilated tendencies in the play and asserted the dangers of depicting a universal and undifferentiated humanity, in their eyes the hubristic and failed project of the Enlightenment.

In the 1930s, the play continued to stir controversy. In 1933, Julius Bab selected the play to inaugurate the Kulturband Deutscher Juden, a Jewish cultural organization founded with Nazi approval. Defending his choice to produce a German-authored play for a Jewish audience, Bab cited the play’s depiction of a pluralistic society and evoked its message of universal human rights and tolerance. Post-Holocaust, writers such as Hannah Arendt built on earlier antiassimilationist critiques, arguing that seeking tolerance in the face of history was naïve and left European Jews at the mercy of the dominant society.

Today, Nathan the Wise does not receive the same level of pushback. But the play’s history shows that its message of liberalism and the promise of a multi-faith society can provoke those who, as a means to power, employ division and prejudice, or even those affected by their terrible exercise.


Michael Bloom’s new adaptation of Lessing’s Nathan the Wise is at Theater J through April 10, 2022. For tickets visit theaterj.org or call 202.777.3210.

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