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Svengali is a fictional character in George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby. Scholars call Svengali 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. In court, a "Svengali defense" is a legal tactic that purports the defendant to be a pawn in the scheme of a greater, and more influential, criminal mastermind.
[Svengali] would either fawn or bully, and could be grossly impertinent. He had a kind of cynical humor which 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 silent movie versions of the story and in talking movies. The character was portrayed by Paul Wegener in a 1927 German silent film, Svengali, by John Barrymore in a 1931 version, by Donald Wolfit in 1954 (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; O'Toole's character is named "Anton Bosnyak", but is clearly based on Svengali – and the movie is named Svengali. Derren Brown performed an Olivier Award–winning live show titled Svengali in 2012.
- Svengali (film), 1931, Director Archie Mayo
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