A photo recently surfaced on Tumblr, of the Baz from the 1929 stage play Judas (co-written by Rathbone and Walter Ferris). I’ve decided to feature it here because it signifies a notable period in Basil’s life.
It’s very high res, click on the images and enlarge them to full size and you can see all the details of the dust on the floor, the vein running over his forearm, and the homespun weave of…whatever that thing is he’s wearing. It makes it all quite immediate and real. A frozen moment in great clarity.
The moment was in January 1929. Things must have looked pretty great to him right then. Judas might not have been a hit with the critics (it only ran for twelve performances), but his theatre career was riding high; the year before he’d been touring The Command to Love all over America and playing in a festival of Shakespeare in New York. At 37 he was looking forward to a long and distinguished stage life on both sides of the Atlantic. Later that year he would travel to Hollywood to make his first talking picture – The Last of Mrs Cheyney, opposite the Queen of Hollywood, Norma Shearer. A second career as Hollywood leading man seemed there for the taking.
He couldn’t possibly have guessed it when this photo was taken, but in reality the great stage career was already all but over, and his leading man status would vanish completely and without explanation within the next five years. This photo represents a moment just before that odd process of loss began. So, it’s kind of notable for that. I also agree with Rosebette that it’s a strangely modern image of the Baz. Something about the stubble, something about the attitude combine to make him look almost kinda like he might be met now, walking down a street or slouching over a table in some Starbucks.
Ahh, reader…would that he were…
And what about Judas? It was fairly hated at the time. One critic described it as being full of “pretension and bombast,” and almost every Christian religious denomination deplored it for its attempt to find sympathy in the title character. But the perspective offered by William Z. Spiegelman in the B’Nai B’Rith Magazine from February 1929 offers the possibility it might have been ahead of its time. Spielgelman calls Judas a “splendid play”, and suggests “this interpretation…is so radically different from the Orthodox Christian point of view that it will hardly be acceptable to those who are unaware of the research work recently done.” In other words it might be intolerance and bigotry that is causing it to fail on Broadway as much as, if not more than, any artistic flaws. It’s such an interesting review, I’m gonna quote it in full:
The Jew on the Stage and Screen
The B’Nai B’Rith Magazine, February 1929.
Of more than passing interest is the drama, “Judas,” written by Walter Ferris and Basil Rathbone, presented at the Longacre Theatre. The events or the legend of the events which occurred in Galilee and Jerusalem some 1900 years ago, giving rise to Christianity, have not yet been historically or psychologically fully ascertained, explained, or understood. When theology mixes with history, the latter is undoubtedly the loser. So it is that despite the untold volumes written on the subject of the rise of Christianity, its origin and the exact nature of the events which led up to its development are still in the twilight region.
The drama of the crucifixion which has turned out to be, due to the interpretations and the legends springing from it, a Jewish tragedy for the past 1900 years, is certainly of a most stirring character. However, the exploitation of this drama outside the realm of the church, and its presentation on the secular stage is of comparatively recent date. The attempts at the dramatization of this material have in the past followed the official narratives. One of the major characters in this drama is undoubtedly that horrifying and repugnant figure, Judas Iscariot, painted in such dark and unredeeming colors that black is white next to him.
The authors of “Judas,” to their credit, it must be said, have adopted a totally new point of view in the interpretation of his character, faith, and fate. To be sure, the interpretation now given at the Longacre Theatre is not entirely new. It is based on the conclusions of impartial, modern historians, and particularly Jewish scholars who have attempted to reconstruct the story of Jesus of Nazareth on the background of the then-prevailing political conditions in Judea under the Roman yoke. This interpretation, nonetheless, is so radically different from the Orthodox Christian point of view that it will hardly be acceptable to those who are unaware of the research work recently done.
Judas Iscariot, as represented by Basil Rathbone, who plays the part, is not a born betrayer, but a highly dramatic human figure. He did what he did not for ulterior motives, but inspired by patriotic zeal and devotion to his Galilean master in order, as the lines have it, “to save him from himself.” It was the impatience of one of the Judean zealots, whose number during the Roman subjugation at that time was legion, and his irrepressible desire to see in Judea the return of the Kingdom of Freedom and Justice, that moved the disciple to force the hand of his master.
Walter Ferris and Basil Rathbone in their play of three acts tell the story of Judas-Brutus with outspoken sympathy and understanding. So conscientious were both in their treatment of the subject that not a single detail recorded in the Christian gospels was omitted or ignored. Surprising, however, as it may be to the uninitiated, these facts when stripped of the bias do not constitute the black indictment which theology has rendered. A human, fighting, and disappointed Judas, driven to an act of desperation, emerges out of Rathbone’s interpretation and presents a sincere plea for vindication, although he is aware that the “world will not understand.” Even the most indicting detail of the 30 pieces of silver is not omitted, but it really played no role in the act or the motive. Judas agrees to the high priest’s suggestion only to “bind the bargain,” but when the 30 pieces are thrown to him, he contemptuously lets them drop to the floor, walking away into the darkness to hang himself.
Act One takes place in the courtyard of the house of Simon Ish Kerioth in Judea on Passover in the year 30 of the Christian era. Act Two takes place in a house in Bethany near Jerusalem on the evening of March 28, the eighth of Nissan in the year 33. The last act takes place in one of the chambers of the Temple in Jerusalem and in the house in Bethany. The figure of the founder of Christianity is not visible but his presence is indicated by a light coming from the garden into the house in Bethany.
Judas, a son of a well-to-do Judean family, a student of the law, is fired with enthusiasm for the redemption of his country. He burns with indignation against the persecutions of the Romans and is most eager for action. He therefore gets into conflict with his pious father. When he is attracted to John the Baptist on the Jordan and meets the Galilean there, he is so absorbed by the hope of redemption for Judea which is to come through direct action and result in the restoration of the Kingdom of Justice and Freedom that he neglects to return home for the celebration of the Passover and the consummation of his betrothal to Naomi. He has a vision of an empire and thinks that he and the Galilean fulfill each other. He is somewhat impatient with the theory of meekness and of blessing the persecutors, but believes in the powers of his master and in his leadership and hopes to persuade him to action which will grip the people and arouse them against the foreign yoke. When the entry into Jerusalem materializes he is overcome with disappointment and when several days in Jerusalem pass without the leader calling for the uprising, he decides to bring it about by forcing his hand to choose between life and death. His leader, he knew, loved life and feared pain, and when confronted by the choice he would assume the leadership. Failure was all that he dreaded. When failure came by failure to act, he hanged himself.
The staging and costumes by Richard Boleslavsky and the settings by Jo Mielziner were chosen with care and skill, with an eye to historical accuracy. Dorothy Cumming in the role of Naomi, to whom Judas sings the Song of Songs, is pleasing to the eye. William Courtleigh in the role of the high priest Caiphas and also as Simon Ish Kerioth gives a dignified and impressive presentation. Basil Rathbone is the personification of a convincing and sincere Judas pleading for vindication.
It is interesting that some of the reviews in the metropolitan press did not predict a long run for this splendid play, nor are they favorable in their comment. It seems that with theology as an influence, a historical interpretation which sounds plausible and convincing on the face of the facts stands small chance.
In this man’s eyes at least, Judas was trying to say something that its audience didn’t want to hear. Its picture of a morally ambiguous, confused but sympathetic man was maybe too subtle for a 1929 that was still locked in a lot of Victorian religious absolutism.
So, maybe it’s not just the image in the photo that seems strangely modern? Maybe if the Baz really was around now, slouching over a table in some Starbucks, with Ferris beside him, drinking lattes and writing their play on a Macbook, their Judas might get a different reception? Maybe their view of this angry, confused man trying to do right by his oppressed people and only making things worse might catch on with our present confused generations who don’t know much for sure except that moral absolutes are rarely true or a good idea