“New Jerusalem: The Interrogation of Baruch de Spinoza at Talmud Torah Congregation, Amsterdam, July 27, 1656” is a mediocre play wonderfully performed at Theater J, which seems to appeal to almost everyone who sees it.
In 1656, the 23 year old Spinoza, a star pupil and assumed future rabbi and scholar, was excommunicated by the Amsterdam Jewish community as a result of his publicly stated un-orthodox conceptions of God and God’s relationship to the universe, and his admitted lack of belief in traditional Jewish tenets. For the rest of his life, he lived isolated from his community and his family.
David Ives’ play purports to show how this happened. It is a courtroom drama, and is clearly stated to be non-historical, although it is, I am sure, meant to be a teaching play. 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 objections, I think, are the same as one has to Oliver Stone’s non-historical, historical films. The audience sees the play, and think they are learning history. But they’re not.
But the attraction is clear. The performances (all of them) are outstanding, the set is just right, the direction clear and (with the exception of some weird and diverting sound effects that should be eliminated) everything was seemless (OK, not everything: a front row spectator put his program on the stage, and another front row spectator had her cell phone ring (and ring and ring and ring) during the first act.)
For the audience, Spinoza (known to most perhaps as a philosopher who was Jewish and was excommunicated, and that’s all) has now become a person, a young person, bright, creative, over-confident, romantic. Not just an academic philosopher. Perhaps this was the true Spinoza; most likely, though, it isn’t. But that’s OK. It provides context, it makes him accessible, it makes the play appealing. You come out thinking you know a lot more about Spinoza and wanting to find out even more.
Should you see “New Jerusalem”? Yes, because it’s good theater, it makes you think, and it does broaden your appreciation about what 17th century Holland must have been like for the Jews who live there. But just don’t think you are watching an historic reenactment. That, you are not.