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Svengali (/svɛŋˈɡɑːli/) is a fictional character in George du Maurier's 1895 novel Trilby. Svengali is a Jewish man who seduces, dominates and exploits Trilby, a young English girl, and makes her 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 general story has also been used for multiple movies. The character was portrayed in the following films, all titled Svengali: by Paul Wegener in the 1927 German silent film; by John Barrymore in 1931; by Donald Wolfit in 1954 (in Technicolor); by Peter O'Toole in a 1983 made-for-television modernized version co-starring Jodie Foster. In the 1983 movie, the names of the characters were changed. Derren Brown performed an Olivier Award–winning live show titled Svengali in 2012.
In the in the fourth season of Seinfeld in 1992 Seinfeld referred to Elaine's - played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus- manipulative psychiatrist/boyfriend Dr. Reston - played by Stephen McHattie) - as "svegali." In The Watch, Elaine had begun to date her psychiatrist but soon realized that he has too much control over her. She attempted unsuccessfully to end the relationship and he continually talked her out of breaking up. According to Rebecca House, "In the world of a sit-com, the premise is hysterical. In real life, svengalis ruin people's lives. And anybody those sad (and likely broken) individuals may be connected to."
- Rosenberg, Edgar, "From Shylock to Svengali: Jewish stereotypes in English fiction." (Stanford University Press, 1960)
- Seelymarch, Katharine Q. (March 13, 2015). "Defense in Marathon Bombing Has Echo of Clarence Darrow". The New York Times. Retrieved June 26, 2016.
- Du Maurier, George. Trilby. Harper’s New Monthly Magazine. Volume 88, number 525. February 1894. p. 329.
- House, Rebecca (December 21, 2014), What is a Svengali?, retrieved September 14, 2016
- Svengali (film), 1931, Director Archie Mayo
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