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Svengali is a fictional character in George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby. Scholars cite Svengali as a classic example of anti-Semitism in literature because he is Jewish, of Eastern European origins, and he seduces, dominates and exploits Trilby, a young English girl, and makes her into a famous singer.
The word "svengali" has come to refer to a person who, with evil intent, dominates, manipulates and controls a creative person such as a singer or actor.
Svengali "would either fawn or bully and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humour that was more offensive than amusing and always laughed at the wrong thing, at the wrong time, in the wrong place. And his laughter was always derisive and full of malice". In the novel, Svengali transforms Trilby into a great singer by using hypnosis. Unable to perform without Svengali's help, Trilby becomes entranced. The novel is less a discussion of the relationship between Svengali and Trilby than an evocation of "Bohemian" Paris during the 1850s.
Svengali was first portrayed by the actor Wilton Lackaye in the United States and by Herbert Beerbohm Tree in London in the 1895 stage play Trilby. The character has also been portrayed in many silent movie versions of the story and in talking movies, and was played by Paul Wegener in a 1927 German silent film of the same name, by John Barrymore in a 1931 version, by Donald Wolfit in a 1954 version in Technicolor, and by Peter O'Toole in a 1983 made-for-television modernized version, also in colour, co-featuring Jodie Foster. In the 1983 movie, the names of the characters were changed except for "Svengali", which had become famous.
- Rosenberg, Edgar, "From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish stereotypes in English fiction." (Stanford University Press, 1960)