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The Inquisition Murders a Playwright

Lawrence Bush
October 17, 2017

António José da Silva, a leading playwright in early 18th century Portugal, was garroted and burned by the Inquisition in Lisbon on this date in 1739 at age 34, two years after being arrested for “Judaizing.” Da Silva had been born in Brazil in 1705 to a successful converso family, but when his mother was deported to Portugal in 1712 to be imprisoned and tortured because of her secret Jewish observances, the entire family was forced to return to Lisbon. Da Silva began writing satirical plays while a law student, which led to his arrest and torture (along with his poor mother for a second time). He survived the ordeal, however, and became an outstanding cultural figure, writing comedies that skewered society and ranged in style from puppet shows to operas to burlesques. His work made him many enemies, however, and in 1737, the Inquisition swooped down on the writer known as “the Jew” and his wife, who did not long survive his execution.

“He found [in Portugal] an ignorant and corrupt society ruled by an immoral yet fanatical monarch, who wasted millions on unprofitable buildings though the country was almost without roads and the people had become the most backward in Europe. As his plays show, the spectacle struck Antonio’s observation, but he had to criticize with caution. He produced his first play or opera in 1733, and the next year he married a cousin, D. Leonor Maria de Carvalho, whose parents had been burnt by the Inquisition, while she herself had gone through an auto-da-fe in Spain and been exiled on account of her religion. A daughter was born to them in 1734, but the years of their happiness and of Silva ‘s dramatic career were few, for on the 5th of October 1737 husband and wife were both imprisoned on the charge of ‘judaizing.’ ” --Encyclopedia Britannica 1911

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.