The Jewish presence in the London theatre, 1660-1800

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Since 1960 I have been engaged, with Professor Philip H. Highfill, Jr of the George Washington University and Professor Edward A. Langhans of the Univer- sity of Hawaii, in researching, writing and publishing/1 Biographical Dictionary of Actors, Actresses, Musicians, Dancers, Managers and Other Stage Personnel in London, 1660-1800 (hereafter referred to as BDA). The purpose has been to provide biographical data on anyone who was a member of a theatrical or musical com- pany, an occasional performer, or a patentee or servant of a patent theatre, opera house, amphitheatre, pleasure garden, theatrical tavern, music room, fair booth, or other place of public entertainment in London and its immediate environs, between the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 and the end of the 1799-1800 theatrical season. Sixteen volumes, covering the letters A-Z, have now been pub- lished by the Southern Illinois University Press (with the assistance of the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Guggenheim Foundation, and other funding organizations), completing a project that has occupied the three of us over a total of some one hundred man-years.

In the course of researching and writing the BDA, I came to realize that a small but significant number of those who became professional singers and musicians in London during the 18th century had roots in the City and in parts of what came to be known as the East End, and that some of these had been trained in the choir of the Great Synagogue, Duke’s Place. The most famous of these were, of course, John Braham and his uncle Michael Leoni (Myer Lyon). But what began as an investigation of the musical establishment at the Great Synagogue and its relationship to the performing arts in London, soon expanded into a study of the Jewish presence in the performing arts, conducted in the hope of determin- ing what factors affecting Jewish life in London may have contributed to that presence. I attempted to focus on activities in the synagogues, the support and cultivation of singers and musicians, and the possible influence of liturgical prac- tices. Unfortunately, any initial optimism proved misplaced, because of the dearth of contemporary documents containing specific information about these types of activities. But I am now able to provide a census and a modest biographical dictionary of any performers and other participants who could be identified (in some cases indecisively) as Jews. Many of those involved were also active in other professions, in the arts and humanities, the sciences, commerce and industry. In a sense, I am exploring the demography and social history of a vibrant segment of east London. What I offer here are some observations and information about work in progress.

In his seminal study, ‘Jews and the English Stage, 1667-1 8 50’, Alfred Rubens identified about thirty Jewish people who were performers on the London stage during the period specified, including Hannah Norsa, the Isaacs and Jacobs famil- ies, Maria Bland, Michael Leoni and John Braham.1 Since I began to concentrate on my own area of research,

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