The Producers, Part II

A theater catastrophe story starring Zero Mostel. Sound familiar?

The Birth of Shylock and The Death of Zero Mostel
by Arnold Wesker
(Fromm International)

reviewed by Cary M. Mazer

Theater productions, like sausages, are things you should not watch being made. That’s equally true for theatrical triumphs as well as theatrical disasters. When you witness a catastrophe, you might wonder how experienced and talented artists could have created such dreck. But if you’ve ever watched a production being put together, you’ll know that there comes a point when there’s an equal chance of a play becoming a brilliant triumph or exploding into a colossal failure.

When a production becomes a classic, supporting actors and assistant stage managers often rush their journals into print with stories of how close the triumph came to calamity. There’s less of a market for journals about mediocre productions – and so the journal I kept when I was a production assistant to Joseph Papp on a silly and shallow 1976 production of Henry V featuring Meryl Streep, Michael Moriarty and William Hurt still sits, untouched, in my desk drawer.

Who wants to read the story of an out-and-out theatrical calamity? It’s better to avert one’s eyes and try to forget about it as soon as one can, or so you’d think. This brings us to The Birth of Shylock and The Death of Zero Mostel.

During the rehearsals of the new play in 1977, British playwright Arnold Wesker found out that three other people involved in the production were keeping journals. When the play closed on Broadway five nights after it opened, others put their journals in their attics or threw them away. Wesker, 20 years later, has now published his journal, an account of the play, the production, why it failed, and why (he argues) it shouldn’t have.

The title is inaccurate for two reasons. For one thing, the play in question isn’t called Shylock but The Merchant – Wesker renamed it several years (and several revisions) later, though he pretends throughout the book that the play already has its later title. And second, the book is not really about Zero Mostel’s death at all. Mostel, famously, was hospitalized with an infection after giving only a single performance of The Merchant in its Philadelphia tryout at the Forrest Theater, and died of heart failure in Jefferson Hospital six days later. A more comprehensive portrait of Mostel and his demise would have made fascinating reading. But Wesker is less interested in either Mostel or his death than he is in why the production of his beloved play failed. And it turns out that Mostel’s death, while creating a crisis in the production, was the least of the production’s problems.

The Merchant is Wesker’s philo-Semitic reimagining of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice. In Wesker’s version, Shylock the Jewish moneylender and Antonio the Christian merchant are not adversaries but lifelong friends. They agree to the notorious "merry bond," the "pound of flesh" collateral for a loan, to express their contempt for the laws of the anti-Semitic Republic of Venice, which outlaws financial transactions between Jew and gentile without written contracts. When the loan is forfeited and the pound of flesh must be collected, Shylock is willing to go ahead and kill his friend to protect the entire Jewish community from legal exploitation.

When Portia finds a loophole and declares the contract invalid, at the expense of Shylock’s own fortune, livelihood and religion, Shylock, relieved from having to kill his best friend, mutters "Thank God!" and submits to his fate. At the center of the play, then, is a friendship put to the test. And so it was with the production as well.

Director John Dexter had worked on five of Wesker’s early, successful plays, which established both of their reputations. (Wesker and his wife had taken Dexter in after the director had served a six-month jail term for homosexual solicitation.) Dexter’s career had since taken off (he directed Peter Shaffer’s Equus, and was resident stage director of the Metropolitan Opera) and Wesker’s was then floundering, but with The Merchant their fates were thrown together once again.

It’s embarrassing to read about Dexter and Wesker when they’re consulting their accountants about the Equus-like millions they expected from a long Broadway run of The Merchant, planning the subsequent British production, arguing about the best locations to shoot the big-budget movie version. It’s painful to read Wesker’s accounts of Dexter’s notorious cruelty to the thinnest-skinned cast members, his alcoholic binges and his thrice-weekly servicing by a gay escort service.

Most painful of all is reading about the death of their personal and artistic relationship. At one point, when Sir John Clements, the aging and stagy actor-knight playing Antonio, started taking issue with the play’s central plot twist, Dexter, supporting Clements, asks Wesker whether he, like Shylock, would be willing to kill him, his best friend, for the greater good of his people. To Dexter’s surprise, Wesker answers "yes.’’

In the play, Shylock’s willingness to kill Antonio and Antonio’s willingness to be killed validate their friendship. But this simple exchange evidently poisoned Dexter and Wesker’s friendship and jeopardized their working relationship.

Before long, Dexter was, according to Wesker, lying to the producers about the playwright’s unwillingness to make cuts in his script and, soon after, made cuts of his own without Wesker’s contractual permission.

But can we trust the author? On the one hand, he seems to be a stickler for accuracy: Whenever anyone sleights the playwright – for example, the artistic director of the National Theatre turning down the play – he duly notes it in his journal; he then mails the page recording the phone conversation to his correspondent, and includes that person’s corrections in his next journal entry.

On the other hand, Wesker certainly has a slippery recollection of his time in "Phili," where he stayed at the "Berkeley" Hotel, visited "Buck’s" County, went to the top of "Pen" Tower, and was interviewed by the "Philadelphia Post." Besides, Wesker, who gives one chapter the title "Betrayal," is hardly a disinterested party. But if he’s lying to anyone, it’s to himself.

He describes in meticulous detail how crucial roles are miscast, how actors fail to capture his word music, how the cuts undermine his subtleties, how and why actors quit or are fired; he records the wanton cruelties of the rehearsal process in numbing detail; and he confesses his own doubts about the script. And yet he seizes on every laugh or gasp or ovation from the audience as proof of the script’s effectiveness. So, when he tells us that the now-renamed Shylock is his greatest, most effective play, should we believe him? The proof of the pudding, Bertolt Brecht often said, is in the eating. If you can stomach it, read the book. And then pass the sausage.