“Melodrama, Purimspiel, and Jewish Emancipation”
in Victorian Literature and Culture
by Sharon Aronofsky Weltman
Long forgotten, Elizabeth Polack (fl. 1835–43) is the earliest known Jewish woman playwright in England. This essay argues that her first play, Esther, the Royal Jewess, or the Death of Haman! (1835), performed at a public playhouse in the Jewish working-class neighborhood of London’s East End, radically realigns diverse genres and populations in advocating both Jewish emancipation and a voice for women. By way of a very brief introduction, I first point out the applicability here of Judith Butler’s Notes toward a Performative Theory of Assembly. Butler explores how group protest, such as Tahir Square or Occupy Wall Street, serves as a kind of communal bodily signification. Of course, her point is not to address how people come together in a public theater, where the cast arrives daily for salaried jobs and the audience plunks down cold cash for a fun night out. Yet something else meaningful can occur in assembly within the theater. Theatrical performances can take on the discursive power of political assembly that Butler defines, signifying “in excess of what is said,” bringing actors and audience together with potentially political valence. Butler helps us understand the stakes of theatrical performance and public assembly and why it is important to examine Esther, the Royal Jewess beyond recovering a neglected author, though that too is part of my object.