“Character is a question of time. It lasts for a certain length of time, just like a glove. There are good ones that last a long time but they don’t last forever”
The Jewish Wife is not so much a play as it is a sketch or a vignette. It is part of a series of sketches that form the play Fear and Misery of the Third Reich alternatively known as The Private Life of the Master Race. These sketches are all slices of life in the early years of Hitler’s reign when the horror was slowly beginning to creep into people’s lives. The sketches are actually unconnected to each other except for the time and place they inhabit. The Jewish wife is often performed as a standalone one-act play, and it works brilliantly as such.
When the curtain goes up, we see Judith Keith packing her bags. She’s restless and nervous and cannot sit still. She then goes to the phone and calls a few people to tell them that she’s leaving for Amsterdam for a few weeks. The phone calls done she turns to a chair and starts rehearsing what she is going to say to her husband about the trip. She tells him that she has seen the change that’s come over him lately. They can’t look each other in the eye anymore. We find out that she is a Jew married to an Aryan and Hitler’s propaganda is beginning to infiltrate their lives. Fritz, a surgeon, has been facing some unpleasantness at work on her account and she worries it is all going to get much worse. By now Judith has worked herself up into near hysteria as she lashes out at the powers that have divided the country and its people.
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Fritz comes home and Judith tells him she is going, desperately hoping that he will stop her. But he doesn’t. He claims the change of scene will do her good and she can come back in a couple of weeks when ‘all this has blown over’. She knows, he knows and we know that it will never be. As the curtain falls, Fritz hands her the fur coat that she won’t need until next winter.
The Jewish Wife is a brilliant look at the way in which the politics of hate seeps into the everyday lives of ordinary people. Judith was a beloved wife, a friend, a bridge player and housewife, but now she is only Jewish. Brecht doesn’t portray Fritz as a villain but as a victim. A victim of fear and distrust that gradually distorts him.
This was one of Brecht’s early anti-Nazi plays, written when the full horror of the holocaust was yet to unfold. It is quieter, though just as effective as his later plays like Arturo Ui.... There is no melodrama here; Brecht lets us feel the rot beneath the surface without screaming about it. We all know about concentration camps and the like, but The Jewish Wife is about all the other, subtle ways in which people are broken.