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School of Arts and Sciences

Heather Nathans's "Hideous Characters" Nabs National Award

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Professor and Chair of the Department of Drama and Dance wins two prestigious awards from the American Theatre and Drama Society

Heather Nathans

"How could I resist?"

That's the rhetorical question that convinced Heather Nathans, Ph.D. '99, to join the Tufts Department of Drama and Dance as chair six years ago—and it's the question that kept her scouring the archives for every last letter, folder, and footnote to finish her latest, award-winning book.

Published in 2017, Hideous Characters and Beautiful Pagans: Performing Jewish Identity on the Antebellum American Stage has already been called a formidable and seminal study, a masterpiece of scholarship. It picked up the 2018 American Theatre and Drama Society's John W. Frick Book Award for capturing and skillfully researching the influential Jewish narrative that transformed pre-Civil War American theater.

Nathans is no stranger to recognition for excellence in research—or teaching. Most recently, she was awarded the Betty Jean Jones Award also from the American Theatre and Drama Society for her exceptional work as a teacher and mentor. In 2012, she received the Outstanding Career Achievement Award from the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences; she's also the current Alice and Nathan Gantcher Professor in Judaic Studies.  

She's stood as a Tufts role model for her work with faculty members across campus to improve the way they assess the effectiveness of their teaching. "Heather has worked incredibly hard to make sure that not only her own students, but all students, are getting the most they can out of their classes," says Nancy Bauer, Dean of the School of the Museum of Fine Arts and Dean of Academic Affairs for Arts and Sciences.

The Choice's Voice

"There's nothing inevitable about stereotypes," says Nathans, "they are always a choice." For example, Jews were generally portrayed on English stages as greedy or cowardly men and hypersexualized women, but were re-thought in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century U.S. theaters.

The cycle, she argues in her book, comes from society's choice about how stereotypes are navigated and reimagined. Tudor England laughs at Shakespeare's Shylock, but, in 1794 Philadelphia, a production of The Merchant of Venice is praised for its more sympathetic portrayal of Jews; an 1802 Charleston production is pulled because local Jewish citizens object to the play.

These episodes don't mean that the U.S. eradicated all Jewish stereotypes; rather that they acquired new meanings in the U.S. cultural context. Hideous Characters and Beautiful Pagans looks at the ways in which stereotypes change or are used by different communities in ways that have local, regional, or national implications.     

"Stereotypes are recycled and perpetuated.  They may fade out of a culture for a moment before they come sweeping back in," Nathans says.

A Man Named Mister

Nathans credits the seeds of the book to serendipity and the Solomon family.

"I'm very obsessed," Nathans says with a laugh, with what she thinks may be the first Jewish acting family in America, beginning in the 1780s. The patriarch, a Mr. Solomon—whose first name remains unknown—continuously popped up throughout her research. "He always wanted the lead, had a marvelous singing voice by all accounts, but when he didn't get Hamlet, he moved on. I started following him everywhere, from Charleston to Portsmouth to Providence to rural Georgia." She adds, "I had a dream where I found a whole box of evidence about the Solomons and I was so mad when I woke up!"

Nathans has a personal history with history: her parents are U.S. historians. While on the research hunt for figures who have left so few traces behind them, she knew she needed to triangulate her stories; an anecdote is nice, but three pieces of evidence is her magic number to make a tale more plausible. And it's the arduously verified, artfully woven personal stories that have brought such acclaim to Hideous Characters.

"If I said 'William Dinneford,' you'd say, 'Who?'" Nathans asks. "I need to conjure him for you, so you care about why this guy leaves England, changes his name, starts a career as a theater manager and goes through lots of trials and tribulations before dying in Panama on his way to the Gold Rush."

Rock Star Status

What's next for Nathans? Sugar Stained with Blood, a study of abolitionism and antislavery plays in France, and The Mysterious Murder of Mrs. Shakespeare are her current projects in progress.  She says, "The Mysterious Murder is about a woman from Salem who left her family and went to New York, where she wound up in the crime-ridden Bowery neighborhood declaiming passages of Shakespeare's plays to anyone who would listen.  On the night of Shakespeare's birthday in 1891, she was so horribly murdered that people thought Jack the Ripper had come to town."

Bauer calls Nathans an academic rock star. "As underscored by the scholarly awards she has won this year—which can take their place alongside numerous similar honors that have been bestowed upon her over the years—she is at the top of her profession as both a scholar and a leader."

Nathans says she's grateful for Tufts' support of her research and, "how engaged my students get" in following some of her more obscure characters.  She adds that she loves sharing her finds with them—especially since you have to be quiet in an archive (something she admits she has trouble doing when she makes an exciting discovery). 

Hideous Characters (published by the University of Michigan Press) is available to read for free through the Tufts Digital Library.