“As an artist, you probably know when a project pulls at you, sometimes kicking and screaming. Shylock definitely has me by the back of the neck.”
By Ian Thal
David Sokol is a Vermont-based illustrator and essayist who turned to art after a career as a psychologist, psychotherapist, and professor at the University of Vermont. Most recently, he has become a lyricist, collaborating with guitarist-bandleader-composer Dennis Willmott in writing Shylock Sings the Blues, a song cycle that sets William Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice in the New Jersey of the 1950s. The album, recorded by The Venetians, is reviewed on The Arts Fuse here.
In an email interview, I discussed with Sokol the experiences that led him to imagining Shylock as a blues singer.
Arts Fuse: David Sokol, you first came to my attention in 2007 with the illustration “Puppets Lynch Jews” that you had created in response to the exhibition of a series of murals in Burlington, Vermont by Bread & Puppet Theater founder Peter Schumann. Schumann’s images drew equivalencies between the Warsaw Ghetto and the construction of the wall separating Israel from the West Bank. Due to my own past involvement with Bread & Puppet, I was interested but could only follow the controversy from press clippings, so I was hoping you could satisfy my curiosity by telling me what you witnessed.
David Sokol: Couple of hundred people. Many angry Jews from all three temples in Burlington, Vermont and unaffiliated Jews. All three rabbis in Burlington were disturbed [Rabbi Joshua Chasan’s letters on the controversy can be found here].
Later, Mr. Schumann called those protesting, “a faction of Jews.” [Actually “a faction of the Jewish community” as reported in a January 9, 2011 interview in The Burlington Free Press, no longer available on the BFP website.] The police came. There was anger. A speaker, [eco-socialist theorist] Joel Kovel preached on “Overcoming Zionism.”
The most important thing about that unpleasant scene was it radicalized me. If radical means “the center or root of things” then it brought me back to my roots of caring about human rights and seeing that I had been blind to the contemporary anti-Semitism in the “progressive” movement and in my friends of 30 years or so. I was a full-time visual artist and I quickly went home and drew that cartoon and posted it around the Art Hop (Burlington’s annual art festival.) I have been following that scent, the scent of the anti-Semite ever since. If you go to my web site, you can see where it has led me.
AF: Your illustration and caption played rather ironically both on the radical theater company’s name and mode of performance but also on the anti-Semitic motif of Jews as puppeteers that appeared in Nazi-era cartoons during Schumann’s childhood in Germany. Had you spent much time researching this iconography?
Sokol: No, but I did mean to imply that the “kids” hanging with Peter Schumann were puppets themselves.
AF: The following year you produced The Golem of Church Street, a book of illustrations portraying what many call “the new anti-Semitism.” Had anti-Semitism been a subject of your art before this?
Sokol: No. Started with the Art Hop.
AF: How did you come to be the lyricist for Shylock Sings the Blues? Had you always been a songwriter as well as an illustrator or was this a new endeavor for you? What drove you to dive into this story?
Sokol: After the last several years of producing art and academic articles and the video Mufti, I wanted to do something a little more positive. To me music is positive and collaboration is positive. In November 1, 2010, I saw the Daniel Sullivan production of Merchant on Broadway with Al Pacino and Lily Rabe. The director included the often excised monologue by Launcelot Gobbo [there was a fashion, since abandoned, of cutting the monologues of Shakespeare’s clowns.] This internal dialogue reflected the inner workings of a bigoted personality. It was a scathing analysis of how a person who thinks of himself as decent can twist himself into a pretzel by rationalizing as good what he knows is wrong.
A light bulb instantly went off in my mind, and Shylock Sings the Blues was born. In the discussion of whether Merchant is anti-Semitic or about anti-Semitism, that monologue pushed me to believing that Shakespeare had a strong understanding of bigotry and had hidden a message deep in the play. The message is anti-bigotry and pro-Jewish. The play was sold to the bigoted fools in the audience, and the real message whispered to those few who could hear it.
My research has since strengthened this interpretation. Not to get too academic but did you know that the Mercy speech that Portia delivers to Shylock telling him what Jews don’t know about mercy is taken almost verbatim from a Jewish rabbinical text from 200 BCE? We know Shakespeare knew about that text because he named his two daughters from the names he found in the document (Kenneth Gross’ Shylock: A Legend and Its Legacy). This is a clearly a subversive slap in the face to the bigots. In other words, Shakespeare knew perfectly well that Judaism was not lacking in the teaching of mercy. I have five or six more points showing support for my interpretation.
Back to why I dove into this: I wanted to produce art that would reach a large audience and not get bogged down in intellectualism. Thus, music and entertainment. I had no experience with lyrics but had written about non-fiction. I called Dennis Willmott, blues guitarist and band leader, who I first met 40 years ago when he was playing in Boston with the bluesmen who were touring bars playing for the baby-boomers in the sixties. He drove up to Vermont on his motorcycle to visit his girlfriend (now his wife) at Goddard College where we both attended.
We have bumped into each other over the years. Dennis said yes and we had a ball. Dennis is an expert in blues history and “got” it right away. Dwight Richter and Nicole Nelson went to the University of Vermont and have been performing professionally as Dwight and Nicole for 15 years. Here they perform under their full names. Nicole is in LA right now. I think she is going to be a star. Bassist Tom Buckley bass played in Chicago as a kid with several of the greats.
AF: Your collaboration with composer and blues musician Willmott is interesting, in part because it brings out a major thematic trope in The Merchant of Venice that is missing from much contemporary writing on the play: that of the diabolic. In Shakespeare, Lancelot Gobbo, Antonio, and others repeatedly describe Shylock, and other Jews, as being like the Devil if not the Devil incarnate. In the blues repertoire, the Devil is a prominent character.
Sokol: I chose the blues number one because I am most familiar with it. Also the blues is the music of an oppressed people. I would love the stage presentation of Shylock Sings the Blues to have a black Shylock. I have just been turned down by a local radio station who refuses to play any songs from the album because “it is too dark! “How can blues be “too dark”? And there is humor in the musical—Jessica can be comedic and Launcelot is the truth telling fool.
The depth of anti-Semitism is intertwined with the darkest of human misery—and the Devil represents the latter. The fundamental basis of anti-Semitism is the belief that Jews don’t just act evil but that they embody evil itself. Possibly the lineage of European theater, morality plays, etc. and their depiction and teaching of good and bad through the use of devils and angels contributed to the Devil’s visits to the play. Also, in my quest to be entertaining and not pedantic, the Devil is a universal and simple dramatic tool.
AF: What inspired the re-imagining of sixteenth-century, Venetian nobles as 1950’s, Italian-American Mafia types in New Jersey?
Sokol: This is still a problem with what might become a stage presentation. I went through a number of settings—Venice, Italy, then New Orleans. But I do not know much about New Orleans. I grew up in New Jersey, and I know Mafia and Jersey Jews. I still am considering changing the setting. But next to Nazis, what better villains than the Mafia? Catholics and Jews. I just wonder if the characters would be singing Frank Sinatra and Mel Torme tunes instead of Chicago Blues. Initially I had a 13-year-old character who was a bag runner for the Mafia. He was half-Jewish and half Italian, so he had access to both sides and loved to shop for Black blues music records in Newark, New Jersey.
AF: What was the greatest challenge presented by the change of milieu?
Sokol: As I said, what New Jersey Mafia or Jewish immigrant knew who Reverend Gary Davis was?
AF: You have a strong sense of who these characters are, and it never takes more than a line from the songs to identify the character—which would otherwise be a challenge for the listener given that all the characters are handled by two vocalists. Which characters were the most difficult to get a handle on?
Sokol: In some ways the song “The Devil Told Me” is all wrong when you apply it to Lance. In a play version, the songs would have to be much more character driven. The album was to stand on its own as much as possible. You might call them song-driven songs as opposed to character driven. A comparison might be to compare “Mack the Knife” when it is sung by Bobby Darin and when it is sung by some rough guy character in Brecht and Weill’s Three Penny Opera. I like both versions. On stage, all of the songs in Shylock Sings the Blues would be character-driven. I also cleaned up the songs to be less specific. I did not want words like Jew, etc. taken out of the context of a presentation on stage. For example, “Run run as if I flew/ run away from you,” was “run run as if I flew/ run away from the Jew” or something like that.
AF: The songs have been recorded. What’s next for Shylock Sings the Blues? Is there a musical in the works?
Sokol: I am working on a second draft of the script. I know I can take it just so far and then I need help. So, yes, if I can find a production, possibly a collaborating writer or a very active director. As an artist, you probably know when a project pulls at you, sometimes kicking and screaming. Shylock definitely has me by the back of the neck.