Theatre - David Jays on the absence of the Jewish context in British drama

Harold Pinter has just turned 70, and theatrical cele- brations continue throughout the winter. They include not only Michael Gambon in a revival of The Caretaker, but also an adaptation at the National Theatre of an unfilmed screenplay based on Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past. Faber & Faber's birthday present gathers together affectionate, wary tributes from friends and colleagues in Harold Pinter: a celebration. They touch on many subjects - Pinter's place in the European intellectual tradition, his fervent political conviction, his passion for cricket - but never his Jewishness.

It might seem a puzzling omission, but it's not untypical. Despite the work of Pinter, Arnold Wesker and Deborah Levy, Jewish writing is a neglected presence in British theatre. If you want to see an overtly Jewish character on the British stage, you usually have to wait for the ambivalent hero-villains in Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice or Marlowe's The Jew of Malta, both written at a time when Jews were officially banished from the country. Subsequent waves of immigration did not produce a correspondingly heightened profile among the dramatis personae of British drama.

Pinter's relationship with Jewishness is interestingly ambiguous. His monstrous patriarchs - the retired butcher in The Homecoming, the father spuming on his deathbed in Moonlight - carry uncomfortable resonances of the religion in which he was raised. "God speaks through me," booms the interrogator in One for the Road. "I'm referring to the Old Testament God, by the way, although I'm a long way from being Jewish." His early work struggles against the grip of organised religion. As Michael Billington points out in his biography of the dramatist, The Birthday Party argues against the dead hand of Judaism and Catholicism, as represented by the heavies Goldberg and McCann. Pinter himself has said that the play "showed how the bastards . . . how religious forces ruin our lives".

Jewish identity is a slippery subject, because it is both an ethnicity and a religion. Also, there are almost as many forms of British Jewry as there are Jews. There was certainly widespread immigration from eastern Europe, but there is an equally strong tradition of Jews with an Iberian and Mediterranean heritage. None the less, there are connecting experiences, of which the Holocaust was defining. Despite honourable exceptions, such as Kinderstransport by Diane Samuels, it is too rarely addressed by Jewish playwrights in Britain. Audiences here have recently seen two plays examining Albert Speer's delicate games of conscience, but only Julia Pascal, in The Holocaust Trilogy, creates a wide canvas of collusion and exclusion beyond the rotten glamour of evil.

Even in the 1980s and 1990s, years that were dominated by writing about identity politics, few Jewish plays were produced to accompany black, feminist and gay texts (again with exceptions, such as the plays of Deborah Levy, although Judaism is a subdued texture in her work). Instead, the people of the book include vibrant transformers, adapters and re-readers of texts. Jonathan Miller, Mike Alfreds and Steven Berkoff have played, argued with and reconfigured Shakespeare and Kafka, Sophocles and Isaac Bashevis Singer. Michael Meyer, the mighty translator and biographer of Ibsen and Strindberg, who died this summer, was in the same tradition. Jews make good spectators, too, according to the playwright David Hare. When Michael Gambon asked why West End audiences slumped in quality during a long run, Hare told him: "Because there are only enough Jews and gays in London to give you 80 rewarding nights. After that, you have to play to the rest."

Dodgy racial theories about aptitude are best avoided. Daniel Pick collects several in his study Svengali's Web (Yale University Press), noting that the necessarily adaptable wandering Jew was unflatteringly described as a natural actor. Nietzsche proclaimed that "one might see them virtually as a world-historical arrangement for the production of actors, a veritable breeding ground for actors". George Steiner, pondering more soberly why Jewish communities have produced (he considers) relatively few artists, comments: "The Jewish impulse is to know, not to invent. The world is there to be understood. It is a lifetime's work to try and interpret its complexity. Why fecklessly create new complexity?"

Flushing out the Jew from your bookshelves is a distasteful idea. In the United States, Mary McCarthy and Leslie Fiedler were among the critics who hounded Arthur Miller for denying the Jewishness of the Lomans in Death of a Salesman, just as Pinter has denied that The Homecoming depicts a Jewish family. Well, they are the writers. But would it be so bad if the subjects were Jewish? What is equally distasteful is the notion, lurking behind their vehemence, that a play tied too closely to Jewishness would be somehow less significant, less "universal". Universality is an increasingly tired and discredited concept, too often subsuming difference and particularity.

Just as the great American novel can be a Jewish one, so can the great American play. Although Miller's probing of the American conscience has an ambiguous relationship with Jewishness that makes him, like Pinter, appear reluctant to place it at the centre of his drama, he none the less addresses the Holocaust directly in plays such as After the Fall, Playing for Time and Broken Glass. The critic Christopher Bigsby believes that "the knowledge that the sky can fall has given a greater urgency and a sharper edge to his commitment to reinventing the moral world". Tony Kushner's hugely accomplished Angels in America (Nick Hern) makes of the United States a teeming diptych that contains multitudes, where Jews, fags and Mormons bob around in torturous moral squirming and dazzling self-discovery. David Mamet, too, conducts ethical inquisitions about what it is to be a man, about words invested with bluster and deceit, about the tenuous moral community implied by shared language.

Why does Pinter on stage, like Mike Leigh on film, not deal with this material in an overtly Jewish context? Beyond questions of artistic choice, there is surely an issue of cultural confidence. Jews in Britain have long been an "invisible" ethnicity. Among white Europeans, they can fade in and out if they want to, and assimilationist politics often encourages a low-key approach. Pragmatism, keeping your head down and not drawing attention to yourself have characterised mainstream Jewish life in Britain.

Public probing of fault lines and divisions, even individual perfidy, is best avoided for a community quietly trying to fit in. Jews behaving badly are a rare sight on stage, which makes Berkoff's rancorous, unapologetic creations in plays such as Kvetch a bracing corrective. Ritual in Blood, to be produced at the Nottingham Playhouse next year, concerns the "blood libel" persecutions in medieval England. Judging from the text, which was recently published in the third volume of Berkoff's collected plays, the argument arrives like a sledgehammer. Amid a raft of venal Christians, the hounded Jews of Lincoln attempt to respond with conciliation and adaptation, until one character spits: "I am sick of your perpetual victim philosophy, Rabbi!" These arguments are as old as assimilation itself, and too rarely aired on stage.

British, as the recent Runnymede report revealed, is still a contested term, an umbrella whose spokes may still poke you in the eye. I don't want to see tokenism on stage, to confine writers to thin dramatisations of their CV. I don't need to see people shrugging and saying "Oedipus, Schmoedipus" every time I go to the theatre. But isn't the immigrant experience, the construction of modern Britain, the examination of society as a moral crucible - hell, isn't all that kind of interesting? Not to mention the struggle of secularity against orthodoxy, the ideological and personal conflicts that have shaped modern Israel.

Linda Grant's novel When I Lived in Modern Times, the winner of this year's Orange Prize, dealt audaciously and seriously with several of these subjects - it can be done. "Perhaps our compulsion to tell each other our stories is no more than talkativeness and we would be better left in our silences, each with our own essential mystery," reflects Grant's narrator. "Though God knows how you're going to sell that one to the Jews." Surely it is time that some of those unstoppable stories edged out from the silence and on to the stage.

The Caretaker is at the Comedy Theatre, London, from 15 November (020 7369 1731). Remembrance of Things Past opens at the Royal National Theatre, London, on 23 November (020 7452 3000). Harold Pinter: a celebration is published by Faber & Faber (£7.99)

David Jays writes on theatre, books and film for the Observer and Sight and Sound

This article first appeared in the 30 October 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Divorce your husband and watch him get rich