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the Complete Review
the complete review - drama

Soul of a Jew

Joshua Sobol

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Title: Soul of a Jew
Author: Joshua Sobol
Genre: Play
Written: 1982 (Eng. 1983)
Length: 199 pages
Original in: Hebrew
Availability: Weiningers Nacht - Deutschland
El alma de un judío - España
  • The Death of Otto Weininger • Weininger's Last Night
  • Hebrew title: נפש יהודי
  • Translated by Betsy Rosenberg and Miriam Schlesinger
  • Soul of a Jew has also been made into a film, Weininger's Last Night (1990), directed by and starring Paulus Manker

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Our Assessment:

B : decent take, though tending towards the overindulgent

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Chicago Tribune . 8/5/1986 Richard Christiansen
The LA Times . 28/10/1988 Sylvie Drake
The NY Times . 4/11/1988 Walter Goodman

  From the Reviews:
  • "Torn apart by these feelings, he was a man uncertain of both his soul and his sexuality, a point Sobol emphasizes with scenes in which Weininger jousts verbally and physically with two other explorers of male-female relationships, Sigmund Freud and the playwright August Strindberg. To further illustrate the duality of Weininger`s character, the play provides him with a taunting mirror-image double, portrayed by a woman, with whom he wrestles and dances. After all the philosophical discussions and symbolic encounters, however, the play gets down to the basic cause of all problems shared by all nice Jewish boys: He had a Jewish mother." - Richard Christiansen, Chicago Tribune

  • "To listen to the Weininger character in Sobol’s play is to witness a self-loathing homosexual ranting against unadmitted sexual impulses. Linking them to the philosophies behind an ongoing (and, at the time, idealized and highly popular) Zionist movement of which Weininger disapproved, was and is a classic misplacement of personal difficulties onto the larger schema of racial or religious identity. It’s the sort of thing that sounds irresistibly theatrical but, unless magnificently distilled, can turn to dross as theater. Sobol’s attempt to extrapolate a larger message from this short and deeply troubled life remains confusing and confused. (...) If you strip this “Soul of a Jew” of its wider aspirations, it is unfortunately not exciting symbolism, or impressionism, but rather a bleak, unpalatable, self-involved odyssey that ironically owes more to another German often accused of anti-Semitic feelings -- Rainer Werner Fassbinder -- than to any Jew." - Sylvie Drake, The Los Angeles Times

  • "Its main novelty is to combine breast-beating with music-hall turns; the result is peculiar without being either stimulating or much fun. (...) The actors, caught between playwright and director, pose and cavort gamely, if gratuitously. (...) May his suicide bring Otto's soul the blessed peace that it brought to Symphony Space." - Walter Goodman, The New York Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

[Note: נפש יהודי has been translated into English, as Soul of a Jew, by Betsy Rosenberg and Miriam Schlesinger, but I have not seen that Israeli Centre of the International Theatre Institute edition; this review is based on the 1988 (revised and second) edition of the German translation by Ingrid Rencher, Weiningers Nacht, edited (both the translation and the book) and apparently also (self-)published by Paulus Manker, the 'Wiener Fassung' (Vienna version) that presumably differs slightly from the Hebrew original and English translation. All translations are mine, from that German translation. Weiningers Nacht also includes a great deal of supplementary material, from cast photos of the November 1988 production at the Vienna Volkstheater to drawing by Alfred Kubin and essays and excerpts from a variety of authors.]

       Soul of a Jew is a play about Otto Weininger (1880-1903), much of the action focused on his last night, when he rented a room in the house in which Beethoven had died and committed suicide there. Weininger is known for his Geschlecht und Charakter (already translated into English, as Sex and Character, in 1906) -- a work which, as Joachim Riedl notes in one of the essays appended to the German translation of the play, had gone through eleven printings by 1909 (by which time Freud's The Interpretation of Dreams, published a few years earlier, in 1900, had just managed to sell out the 600 copies of its first edition), with another seventeen printings to follow until 1932 (when the Nazis prohibited all Weininger's writings)
       The son of a talented goldsmith and jeweler, the academically very gifted Weininger was taught various languages, from ancient Greek and Latin to English, French, Italian, and Spanish by his father, and went on to study philosophy and psychology at university. He was also a tortured soul, with considerable identity-issues, both regarding his Judaism -- he converted to Protestantism after graduating -- and his sexuality.
       Sobol presents him as ambitious -- Clara, the woman who wants to save and love him accuses him of always craving attention at any price (though noting that this is a general Viennese condition in these times) -- and he is certain that he has made a great breakthrough with the theories in his dissertation and then Geschlecht und Charakter, that his will be the guiding understanding of the world in the twentieth century, rather than Freud's. Sobol has Weininger and Freud meet, with Freud having read Weininger's work (as he did in real life), with Weininger here cocky and combative, and Freud cautious and critical. Afterwards, Sobol has Weininger rant how shallow Freud is, and insist:

I will destroy Freud, him and his stereotypes ! I will erase him from mankind's memory ! I will shake up the Aryan soul, I will warn them about the Jewish spirit pushing itself to the fore, the one that threatens to castrate Aryan masculinity, that wants to foist Jewish femininity onto the Aryan spirit !
       Sobol quickly dips into the significant episodes and relationships from Weininger's life, from the meeting with Freud to his relationship with his parents, to the triangle formed with Clara and Berger, the other man in her life and close friend of Weininger's. Otto's relationship with his father is strained, but they share a passion for music, especially Wagner -- even traveling to Bayreuth to see him performed there. Duality is emphasized throughout: Weininger as Jew and, essentially, anti-Jew; Clara describing Berger as Otto's exact opposite; and, most notably, with a Doppelgänger, Otto's even more aggressive other self, who goads him.
       Sobol has Otto visited by August Strindberg in his last night -- a vision that transforms itself into Paul Julius Moebius, who accuses Weininger of simply stealing his ideas. (Strindberg was familiar with Weininger and his work -- and they shared some women-hating issues --, and even sent a wreath for Weininger's funeral.)
       The rise of antisemitism in Vienna at the time -- personified by the horrific mayor Karl Lueger, who also appears in the play -- is another layer that is quite well presented in the play, as in the exchange between Otto and Clara:
OTTO I am not a Jew !
CLARA You are a Jew, like me, like all the others.
OTTO I decide what I am !
CLARA Says you ! But slick Karl says: 'I decide who is a Jew !'
OTTO I don't give a damn about Karl Lueger and all his antisemitism.
CLARA He doesn't give a damn about you either -- and he does so much more resoundingly !
       Sobol packs a great deal about Weininger into the play, but without the larger context it can easily come across as rather hysterical; unsurprisingly, the play seems to have been much more successful in Europe, and especially the German-speaking world, more familiar with Weininger, than in the United States.
       Sobol does a decent job of presenting the man and thinker in his full complexity, but it can easily feel over the top here, every facet of Weininger so extreme -- and that played up here; the danger of over-acting this must be immense in any production.
       The German edition of the play is useful in providing a great deal of supplementary material that provides both more insight into and context for Weininger and his work -- a man whose funeral was attended by both Karl Kraus and Stefan Zweig (and, supposedly, a fourteen-year-old Ludwig Wittgenstein), and who was a great influence on the artist Alfred Kubin, many of whose (often very disturbing) drawings are included in this volume as well. (There is also supplementary material about the Vienna of the times, especially regarding the Jewish population there.)
       Soul of a Jew is a solid take on a very complex character, and quite effective slice of this significant point in history -- intellectual and political. If hard to imagine nowadays that, as Weininger's double claims, an either/or choice, between Freud and Weininger, would determine much of the path of the spirit of the twentieth century -- since Freud so obviously and completely prevailed -- Sobol at least suggests the other possibility. Of course, Weininger is a problematic figure in this regard, being so muddled, in his person and his thinking (and even more so in Sobol's presentation); nevertheless, his influence -- at least where and when it lasted -- isn't to be underestimated.

- M.A.Orthofer, 8 November 2023

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Soul of a Jew: Reviews: Weininger's Last Night - the film: Otto Weininger: Joshua Sobol:
  • Joshua Sobol at the Israeli Institute for Hebrew Literature
Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Israeli author Joshua Sobol (יהושע סובול) was born in 1939.

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© 2023 the complete review

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