New rendition of Chaucer tale stirs debate over anti-Semitism

From his scatological "Miller's Tale" to his ribald "Wife of Bath's Tale," medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer has amused and outraged centuries of English scholars. But "The Prioress' Tale," a retelling of the brutal Jewish "blood libel" legend, rarely makes it into English 101. Like Shakespeare's grisly "Titus Andronicus," it doesn't play in Peoria.

But in an ambitious and groundbreaking effort to dramatize all 24 "Canterbury Tales," the Marin Center Showcase Theatre is staging the controversial tale, which some say is really a satire rather than an anti-Semitic diatribe.

"The Prioress' Tale" opens Saturday, Jan. 18 at the San Rafael theater, along with "The Sailor's Tale." In the production, Valerie de Jose plays the prioress, with Mike Vaughn as the sailor and Chris Ayles as Chaucer.

Marin composer and director John Geist is co-producing the series with his wife, Becky Parker Geist.

"There's something to offend everyone in Chaucer," said Geist, pointing out that "there are also plenty of negative references to the Catholic Church" in the poet's work.

"Chaucer is a very sophisticated 14th-century social critic. He was upset by the abuses and corruption of the medieval church."

Chaucer's prioress, the head of a convent, is one of a motley group of travelers engaged in a storytelling competition during a pilgrimage from London to the shrine of Christian martyr Thomas à Becket in Canterbury.

Her tale is a graphic narrative about the brutal murder of a young Christian child by "ghetto" Jews, described as "hateful to Christ and all his company."

At one point, the story recites: "as the boy passed at his happy pace/This cursed Jew grabbed him and held him, slit/His little throat and cast him in a pit." The stated reason for the killing is the boy's singing of a Latin hymn honoring the Virgin Mary.

The hotly debated question is whether "The Prioress' Tale" is indeed a satire of such violently anti-Semitic attitudes or merely an expression of them.

According to Geist, "The Prioress' Tale" is a satire of blood libel, the historical practice of accusing Jews of the ritual murder of Christian children.

"It's pure satire," he said. "There's no evidence of anti-Semitism anywhere else in his writing."

Despite the certitude of his position, Geist admits he was nervous about how theater audiences might respond to the story.

"We were undecided for the longest time whether to include it," he said. "But I wanted to see that all the `Tales' got their own life and statement."

Geist's view of Chaucer is shared by George Tuma, a San Francisco State English professor and expert on medieval literature.

"There is almost uniform agreement among Chaucer scholars that he wasn't an anti-Semite," said Tuma. "Chaucer sees the prioress as a hypocrite; he's criticizing her lack of charity and human compassion.

"However, the problem is that contemporary audiences may not understand Chaucer's techniques," he added. "They may miss the satire."

Indeed, even sophisticated audiences may miss the satire. One could easily read "The Prioress' Tale" as a virulent anti-Jewish tract. For this reason, the production was brought to the attention of the S.F.-based Jewish Community Relations Council and others, concerned about the apparent message of the piece.

To address these issues, Geist met with the JCRC's Judy Penso and other Marin County Jewish leaders in an effort to reach an accommodation. It was decided that a question- and-answer session would follow each performance, with Tuma moderating the discussions.

In addition, Rabbi Stanton Zamek of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco agreed to write playbill notes on the history of blood libel in England and continental Europe during the Middle Ages.

"We're pleased it's being handled in a responsible way," said Penso, the JCRC's coordinator for Marin and Sonoma counties. Penso also expressed hope that "these audience sessions will stimulate discussion, not just about anti-Semitism but about xenophobia in general."

Sharing the playbill with "The Prioress' Tale," is "The Sailor's Tale," which Geist describes as "fun and bawdy, the way people normally think of Chaucer."

But Geist, who has no shortage of praise for the 600-year-old "Canterbury Tales," doesn't believe people should draw conclusions about the whole of Chaucer's work on the basis of a single tale, or performance.

"Together, these tales form an incredible human comedy, perhaps the greatest in the theater," he said.

Some who attend "The Prioress' Tale" may be confused or upset by Chaucer's apparent failure to explicitly condemn the prioress. Yet it is precisely the absence of such clear statements in "The Canterbury Tales" that Tuma believes reflects Chaucer's genius.

"He's a moral poet, but he's not didactic," said Tuma. "He doesn't tell you what to think; he just holds out these characterizations and asks the audience to draw its own conclusions."