Theodor Herzl was born on May 2, 1860, to a family of German-speaking Jews in Budapest, Hungary. While still a child, he moved with his family to Vienna, Austria. He would go on to receive a law degree from the University of Vienna. He became a journalist and playwright, creating about one play per year, most in the 1880s (mostly comedies). Ultimately within his 44-year life he would be credited with starting (or at least furthering) the Zionist initiative.
Until sometime around the 1894 treason trial of Alfred Dreyfus, Herzl felt that Jews should assimilate. At the time of the Dreyfus Affair, Herzl was serving as the Paris reporter for the Neue Freie Presse. In mid-October 1894, he reviewed a production of the play La Femme de Claude by Alexandre Dumas (1873), and took exception with the Jewish character, who longed for a homeland. Herzl wrote that the character should have known that no homeland would be possible, that the wide variation in the dispersed Jews of the world would hinder the new country trying to come together. On October 21st, Herzl began writing a play, finishing The New Ghetto on November 8th. Dreyfus had been arrested on October 29th. Herzl may have been trying to write himself out of the haunting matter of where Jews should live, but his new play only served to reemphasize the issue.
He would become convinced that Jews should establish a country after all, to reflect a Jewish response to the “Jewish Question” nefariously prevalent in anti-Semitic Europe at the time. In Der Judenstaat, The Jewish State, he contemplated creating a country in great detail, the location to be determined by those affected. He considered Palestine and Argentina, and later also approved the notion of eastern Africa. He felt that generally Jews often move to where we are not persecuted, but that our very relocating to those places instigates hatred. This became the basis of his Zionism, his quest for a homeland. But we digress: what about that play writing career?
Herzl’s plays were produced in major theaters in Vienna. He initially created roughly one play per year. Most were light and amusing and successful. He wrote, inter alia, The Disillusioned (1883), Tabarin (1884), Mother’s Little Boy (1885 comedy), His Highness, a satire on the power of money in bourgeois society which evaluates all human beings according to their possessions, and What Will People Say? (1889 comedy). Wish we could produce one in English or Hebrew now!
However, in 1890 his The Lady in Black failed, just around the time his first child was born, which was also just before his close friend committed suicide. That was when he got himself a job as a reporter, early on covering and uncovering a scandal involving the Panama Canal Company. This fiscal scandal seemed to bring out the anti-Semites, as there were Jews involved in the double-dealing. All of this and the subsequent attacks on Jews in Paris ultimately fed into the play The New Ghetto. The play was published in serial form, and a production of it opened in early 1898 at the Karl Theater. It moved to Berlin and to Prague, but fell on harsh criticism, likely due to its oft-perceived neither-here-nor-there stance on anti-Semitism. Herzl apparently wrote a clear portrait of human beings, in which even the Jews (especially the wealthy) are flawed. One interesting line from the play, spoken by an assimilated main character, is “Jews, my brothers, they won’t let you live unless you learn to die!”