Playing Fagin

In a frying-pan, which was on the fire, and which was secured to the mantelshelf by a string, some sausages were cooking; and standing over them, with a toasting-fork in his hand, was a very old shrivelled Jew, whose villainous-looking and repulsive face was obscured by a quantity of matted red hair. He was dressed in a greasy flannel gown, with his throat bare; and seemed to be dividing his attention between the frying-pan and the clothes-horse, over which a great number of silk handkerchiefs were hanging.

Oliver Twist, Chapter 8

When Dickens introduces Fagin, he is called “a very old shrivelled Jew.” Dickens names him as “the Jew” over 100 times in the text of Oliver Twist, calling him “Fagin” nearly 300 times. It is an antisemitic portrayal. George Cruikshank’s illustrations make this characterization resoundingly clear. Yes, Dickens savages the officious Beadle, Mr. Bumble, the weedling undertaker, Mr. Sowerberry, and almost everyone else. Only Mr. Brownlow and the almost angelic Oliver avoid the jaundiced teeth with which Dickens bites into the world of workhouses, thieves, prostitutes, official disdain, privileged arrogance and ignorance, and moral corruption. Nonetheless, the portrayal of Fagin stands out.

Plate 23 from Oliver Twist by George Cruikshank

Of course, Fagin is a criminal. He corrupts the orphans he gathers from the streets and turns them into a gang of thieves, prostitutes, and murderers. He takes as much as he can and relinquishes as little as possible to keep the gang assembled. But compare how Oliver is fed at the workhouse (“three meals of thin gruel a day, with an onion twice a week, and half a roll of Sundays”) and how Fagin greets him: sausages. While his love for his “dears” may be tainted with ill-intentions, it is genuine and genuinely creepy. How can he not love the boys and girls who bring him loot?

You may scoff at the idea of Fagin as benefactor and provider, but that is precisely what Dickens is after. If privileged Londoners don’t take generous responsibility, Fagin will father the youth. Dickens does not confuse right and wrong; Fagin is streaked with evil, and the London Constabulary captures and executes him. Dickens may have been a reform-minded writer, but he was no anarchist. But the reformer looms when on the morning of his death, Dickens shows: “A great multitude had already assembled; the windows were filled with people, smoking and playing cards to beguile the time; the crowd were pushing, quarrelling, joking. Everything told of life and animation, but one dark cluster of objects in the centre of all—the black stage, the cross-beam, the rope, and all the hideous apparatus of death.” There is no love for this crowd. No golden justice is meted out by a “hideous apparatus.” This is the bad punishing the bad.

I am thinking about Fagin because I am playing him in the musical, Oliver!. Lionel Bart reframes Fagin almost as comic relief, making him far less dark than in the novel. Fagin is still a thief, still a corrupter, but absolute villainy resides in Bill Sikes alone. One unrepentant, irredeemable “bad ‘un” is enough for a musical. Indeed, Fagin escapes at the end, leaving behind “friends and treasures” and contemplating change. It’s possible.

Alec Guinness as Fagin in Oliver Twist, 1948

Portrayals of Fagin have emphasized his Jewish-ness, and not for the better. A hundred years after George Cruikshank’s illustrations, the Anti-Defamation League protested Alec Guinness’s portrayal in David Lean’s 1948 adaptation of the novel. The film did not open in the United States until over ten minutes of Guinness’s scenes as Fagin was cut. Ron Moody was nominated for an Oscar for his performance in Carol Reed’s 1967 film version, and the portrayal has not aged well. While faithful to the source, the source is problematic. Rowan Atkinson took part in the 2009 London revival, and he plays Rowan Atkinson playing Fagin, which considerably softened the antisemitic aspect of the role.

Ron Moody in Oliver! 1967

Dickens is not flawless, but he grew as a writer. His later characterization of villains focused more firmly on the actual villains of this novel—those who failed to honor their official responsibility. While Dickens always relied on quickly recognizable characters, he expanded beyond stereotypes and countermanded readers’ expectations. In Our Mutual Friend, Riah is Jewish and saintly—in James Mardock’s words an “anti-Shylock” and not just an anti-Fagin.

Rowan Atkinson as Fagin in Oliver! 2009

So, I will approach Fagin as a man who has carved out a niche in a broken society. While he advises Nancy that gin is dangerous to a “pure young girl,” he also knows that life is dangerous for everyone who lives outside the warm glow of privilege. Whether by choice, inclination, calling, or nature, if you live outside expected societal norms, you live at risk. I suspect that Dickens knew that Fagin’s Jewishness marked him as an outsider, and even though the portrayal is antisemitic, there is also sympathy. Dickens almost always stood on the side of the outsider. I will stand with that and see where it takes me.

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Brian Brennan

I am a writer and a teacher. I have lived in Philadelphia, Binghamton, Pittsburgh, Baltimore, Norfolk, and Northern Virginia. I have sailed on the ocean and flown over the North Pole. I write fiction, poetry, and nonfiction.

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