Friday, 5 April 2013

Fagin: depicting a stereotype?

I had the option of attending two free events last night: one was a concert (preceded by a short talk) by the ConTempo Quartet, a classical string ensemble, who were playing at the Romanian Cultural Institute in Belgrave Square to mark the beginning of their new tour, OR the event I ultimately ended up choosing, at The Wiener Library, Russell Square, which was a talk given by Dr Charles Drazin, a senior lecturer at Queen Mary, University of London (and writer of a number of books on British film history), on the subject of one of Charles Dickens's most famous creations and its perceived association with anti-semitism; entitled FilmTalk: Reviewing Fagin, 1948-2005.

The talk was the first in a series entitled The Jewish Villain (the next one taking place in June), organised in partnership with the Leo Baeck Institute. Dr Drazin focused mainly on the 1948 David Lean adaptation of Oliver Twist, the Dickens novel which is of course where Fagin was first introduced to the world. His key argument was centred around his view that the character has always been presented in such a way as to evoke a racial stereotype. And the 1948 film production in particular depicts Fagin, as played by Alec Guinness, with a more sinister and evil overtone than the much later (and better known) portrayal by Ron Moody in the 1968 Carol Reed directed musical, based on the 1960 stage show. But this was perhaps a little unfair on Lean, who was ultimately attempting as faithful a recreation as possible of the book, right down to the visual appearance of Fagin himself, which in turn was based on the original drawings by George Cruikshank.

Indeed, Dickens was accused of anti-semitic stereotyping at the time and in the novel refers to Fagin 257 times in the first 38 chapters as 'the Jew', while the ethnicity or religion of the other characters is rarely mentioned. He explained that he had made Fagin Jewish because "it unfortunately was true, of the time to which the story refers, that that class of criminal almost invariably was a Jew". It would seem he had some sense of discomfort about it however, as he had the printing of the book halted and modified the text for the parts that had not yet been set, resulting in the book's remaining 179 references to Fagin rarely referring to his Jewish status at all.

In the question and answer session afterwards, some strong viewpoints and opinions were expressed and thrashed out, leading to the end of an interesting discourse. No 'one for the road' in the pub for me afterwards though - I thought I'd do the uncharacteristic thing and head off home. But fear not - it was a temporary lapse!

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