Henry Goodman: I wanted to play this Jew-hater

The acclaimed actor explains his decision to take the role of antisemitic painter Edgar Degas


I am appearing in a new play by Timberlake Wertenbaker called The Line. It is about the famous 19th-century French painter Edgar Degas, whom I try to bring to life.

Although the play, which opened in London on Wednesday, focuses on Degas’s relationship with the painter Suzanne Valadon, it also exposes the complexity of the man himself. And among his prime characteristics, Degas was unquestionably anti-Jewish.

From the moment I worked on the play with acting students at RADA last spring, I felt attracted to this opinionated maître with his fixed and rather old-fashioned views. He jumped at me, he irritated me and yet he inspired my respect. I wanted to play him, to be him. He was a man of integrity and deep sensitivity, and yet an antisemite.

And there are other contradictions which come out in his relationship with sensual young Suzanne. He is of the right in so many ways — traditional, old school, bourgeois — and yet he is the leader of the rebel intransigent artists, the independents whom we know today as the Impressionists.

Twenty years ago I played the Jewish artist Pissaro in a Channel 4 film directed by Paul Myerson, about his relationship with Degas. They were friends and then they fell out.

Degas was also close to the Jewish Halevy family of theatre and banking fame — he dropped them with appalling cruelty during the Dreyfus affair, which divided France at that time. Why? Because the Halevys supported Dreyfus, the Jewish army officer alleged to have spied for Germany.

France had recently been humiliated in the Franco-Prussian war. Degas (who fought against the Prussians) could not believe that a Jew could be loyal to his country as he thought they would always put their religion before their nationality.

How do I, a Jewish actor, portray such a man? I am, though non-observant, proud of being Jewish. I am aware of the dangers of making plausible, even sympathetic, a man who is antisemitic.

As Degas says in the play: “If we don’t look closely at each other, where will tenderness and pity come from?” There is the problem — he was capable of such humanity. So yes, I look very closely at him, I approach him with critical compassion and empathy and respect.

I, personally, detest his views, but while being him those views must feel absolutely logical. I must become a selfish, vain genius who is antisemitic. That is my job — to undergo the experience of being other people, to reveal the failings of fine and gifted people.

Degas’s opinion of Dreyfus is the thinnest thread in the play’s tapestry and his achievements as an artist far outweigh, for me, his failings socially. However, his antisemitism is a deep stain on his work and legacy. The playwright, Wertenbaker, invites me, and so the audience, to see the toxic link that binds French nationalism, excessive belief in purity of tradition with the readiness to vilify “others”.

In my career I have played many unattractive Jewish characters, such as Shylock, and especially the vicious, corrupt homophobic Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America.

For me, a lingering disappointment sits over my work in these roles. I would really love to be offered parts playing modern, unstereotypical, integrated Jews, the kind that exist in every field of life.

But English society apparently needs me to be the vicious, scheming, charming, unreliable Jew, the kind that exists deep in literature (Fagin is a prime example, and we have not yet really shaken off this stereotype).

In this context, being Degas is to be on the other side of this simplistic theatrical persona. In a way, it is liberating. This time, enjoyably, it is a Catholic behaving badly.

I try to bring dignity and truth to all my characters, but in the end I am an actor, not just a Jewish actor.

French Society has had a long love-hate fascination with Jews (think of Lautrec drawings; think of attacks on the actress Sarah Bernhardt, labelled la belle juive; think of Sartre; of Jean Renoir’s famous film, La regle du jeu. There are many more examples.

If, as a Jewish actor, I can negotiate Degas’s distorting mirrors and reveal the self they reveal to me, then I feel worthwhile as an artist, and true to the Jewish audience too. Degas pays a heavy price for his antisemitism and I have found that his painful exposure to the consequences of his behaviour have been tough to experience in rehearsal.

Ultimately, the question I have to answer is why play him at all?

Well, Degas was a radical conservative who led the rejection of old values in art, fought for the poor and for his country and found it difficult to cope with the pace of change. Sound familiar?

There are many like him in our country and no doubt in France today.

Finally, are there really characters, fictional or real-life, who are just too antisemitic, too ghastly, to destructive for a Jewish actor to play? Having watched Downfall, the German film exposing Hitler’s last days in the bunker, I know the answer intellectually is no. One must be brave enough to play anything.

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