Passing for a Jew, On Stage and Off: Stage Jews and Cross-Dressing Gentiles in Georgian England
It is not surprising that the general public became fascinated with—even to the point of mimicry—a people that had been banished from England from 1290 until the 1650s, and that were suddenly seen in the eighteenth-century as a defining feature of the new commercial identity of England.1 In this essay I examine the ways in which the figure of the Jew in Georgian England became a highly visible and significant theatrical construct, the product of professional actors on the stage and the public at large off the stage, from the time when the fiasco of the “Jew Bill” put the Jews on the national agenda in the 1750s through the opening decades of the nineteenth century. The explosion of new plays containing Jewish characters in this period allowed, and perhaps even encouraged, the public at large to participate in the performance of Jewish identity: the stage Jew often existed as a farcical exaggeration that was easily mimicked at masquerades and in street theater. I begin by recording the ways in which the general public embraced the act of passing for a Jew, frequently in more or less overt political demonstrations. Passing for a Jew was not mere comic sport; it became the means of expressing a deepening anxiety over the increasingly fluid border between Jew and gentile, and the location of Englishness in relation to Jewishness. I then turn to the way in which, through the trope of the cross-dressing gentile, the stage examined its own representations of Jewish identity as well as the theatricalization of Jewish identity in the culture at large.
KeywordsPage Number Jewish Identity Audience Member Optical Illusion Street Theater
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