THE BIRTH OF SHYLOCK AND THE DEATH OF ZERO MOSTEL by Arnold Wesker

THE BIRTH OF SHYLOCK AND THE DEATH OF ZERO MOSTEL

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KIRKUS REVIEW

A passionate, peppery backstage diary of a play’s lifespan, from inception to its star’s death and its own demise on Broadway, by the contentious playwright of Chips with Everything. In 1974, after seeing Lawrence Olivier’s oy-vey performance in The Merchant of Venice, Wesker decided to rewrite Shakespeare from a pro-Semitic perspective: a cultured, religious Shylock, a bosom friend of the weary Venetian merchant Antonio, who enters into a contract only because of the city law’s requirements, but who agrees with Shylock’s scheme to make it into “a nonsense bond—to mock the law” by having a pound of flesh as security. Wesker was unable to get the play produced in London, where his recent track record was spotty and his relations with several theaters disaffected. In a stroke of amazing fortune, New York Broadway producers, the Shuberts, offered to back his Merchant thanks to the interest of a bankable star—the great comedian Zero Mostel. Wesker was also thankful to get his friend John Dexter, who was then based in New York, to direct. Unfortunately, behind the scenes things fall predictably apart as Wesker and Dexter fight over cuts, American actors rankle under British stage tradition, and Mostel overwhelms Wesker’s text in an exuberant performance that would be cut short after one night by a heart aneurysm. Wesker airs grievances against his play’s fate with the publication of this diary, with its score-settling footnotes. Also, for a book that will appeal mostly to those passionately interested in the stage, Wesker’s habit of footnoting the obvious, whether famous figures such as Lindsay Anderson and Robert Bolt or explanations of blocking and notes, is as distracting as someone coughing after the curtain goes up. Although Wesker is a prickly impresario, his vivid, often obsessive record brings to life backstage drama, theater politics, and, finally, tragedy.

Pub Date: May 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-88064-238-6
Page count: 400pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: May 1st, 1999