American Jewish Theater: Defining the Indefinable [in Bloomsbury Review]
Awake and Singing: Six Great American Jewish Plays (new edition), edited and with an introduction by Ellen Schiff
Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays, edited by Ellen Schiff and Michael Posnick, foreword by Theodore Bikel
Ask the random person to name a Jewish play and chances are you’ll hear “Fiddler on the Roof” more than anything else. But according to Jewish theater historian and anthologist Ellen Schiff, “The role of Jews in the making of American theatre is difficult to overestimate,” as she writes in Awake and Singing, one two recent anthologies highlighting American Jewish theater.
Indeed, take a look at some of American theater’s luminaries: George S. Kaufman, Arthur Miller, Neil Simon, and, more recently, Tony Kushner and the late Wendy Wasserstein. The Pulitzer Prize for Drama boasts some 26 Jewish winners (including all of the above) since the honor began in 1918, while Jewish theater folk have been nominated virtually every year for Tony Awards (again, including all of the above who were not only nominated, but won). To say that American theater is largely American Jewish theater is not too far a stretch.
What exactly is American Jewish theater? In her two recently published companion volumes, Awake and Singing: Six Great American Jewish Plays and Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays, Schiff offers a broadly inclusive overview of what constitutes American Jewish theater and presents 15 notable examples of the American Jewish canon, spread through both titles.
Schiff opens Awake and Singing (in an updated, revised edition of her 1985 original) with a noteworthy essay that examines American Jewish theater’s roots in the “enormous popularity” of late 19th-/early 20th-century Yiddish theater. The influx of Eastern European Jews brought their middle-class tastes, says Schiff, which included “a frequently indulged affinity for theatre.” As with most immigrant groups, the new generations of American Jews assimilated in varying degrees and, not surprisingly, began writing in English, for English-speaking audiences. The praiseworthy reception from mainstream audiences was swift; Elmer Rice’s Street Scene won the Pulitzer in 1929, making Rice the first Jewish playwright to receive the esteemed award.
Schiff deftly draws parallels between “the classic conundrum of ‘What is a Jew?’” in her attempt to define what is an American Jewish play. As Jewish-ness cannot be quantified with a single definition – most simplistically because being Jewish has both religious and cultural implications – so, too, what constitutes the American Jewish play is confronted by “multiple, contradictory opinions” that run the gamut from “a Jewish play is any written by a Jew” to “no play written in English can be a Jewish play.”
While she does not offer concrete definitions, Schiff instead uses the six plays in Awake to illustrate the diversity of the Jewish experience over seven decades of successful productions. The collection’s inaugural play, Elmer Rice’s Counsellor-at-Law (1931), presents a successful Jewish businessman complete with the big Westchester house, the Gentile trophy wife and powerful colleagues – but in spite of his vast accomplishments, he realizes that he can never be one of “them.”
Schiff refers to the play which gives the collection its name, Clifford Odet’s Awake and Sing (1935), as “a quintessential American Jewish play” in which the Berger family desperately struggles to survive post-Depression immigrant life. Sylvia Regan’s Morning Star (1940) is another family play, about three generations that escape the Russian Revolution to face harsh immigrant life in the New World.
In The Tenth Man (1959), Paddy Chayefsky (whose film, Network, coined the battle cry for a generation: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!”) channels S. Ansky’s Yiddish classic, The Dybbuk, to stage an exorcism in a storefront synagogue in Mineola, Long Island. Herb Gardner’s Conversations with My Father (1991) examines the ongoing challenges of being both Jewish and American for Eddie Ross, born Itzik Goldberg, and his troubled family. In the final play of the collection, the acclaimed Arthur Miller’s Broken Glass (1994) explores the link between the psychosomatic paralysis of an American woman and the tragic events happening in 1938 Germany.
In Schiff’s most recent anthology, Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays, coedited with Michael Posnick, she is unmistakably ready with a definition of Jewish theater: “This volume forcefully demonstrates what the term ‘Jewish theatre’ has come mean,” she insists. With the “markedly proliferating efflorescence of drama about Jews written and presented in the vernacular… the term ‘Jewish theatre’ has rightly come to denote all drama and production to which Jews, Jewish history, or the Jewish experience is central.” Period.
These nine diverse plays have all benefited from the “New Play Commissions in Jewish Theatre,” an on-going program established by the National Foundation for Jewish Culture (NFJC) in 1994 to support the development of new Jewish theater. Nine is Jewish theater at its latest; with the exception of one play (Exile in Jerusalem, first produced in 1990), the eight others are all less than a decade old.
Nine opens with Pulitzer-winning Donald Margulies’ adaptation of the century-old God of Vengeance, written originally in Yiddish by Sholom Asch in Poland. In spite of a successful New York run in Yiddish, the play’s 1923 transfer to Broadway in English translation caused it to be shut down for indecency. Margulies updates the classic morality story of a man who has profited from other people’s shame, moving the tale from Prussia to New York’s Lower East Side. Profiting from shame is also at the core of Nora Glickman’s A Certain Raquel, in which a young woman recognizes a picture of her long-lost grandmother in a television documentary which exposes white slave trade in Argentina, perpetrated by Jewish traffickers.
In Green Violin, Elise Thoron examines the relationship between those who left (painter Marc Chagall) and those who stayed (actor Solomon Mikhoels who ran the Soviet State Yiddish Theater) during the early years of the Stalin’s regime in Russia. Ari Roth’s Life in Refusal travels to Russia and back to explore the developing relationship between an American Jewish filmmaker and a gravely ill refusenik scientist.
In Corey Fischer’s adaptation of David Grossman’s novel, See Under: Love, a writer imprisoned in a concentration camp wants only to die; in desperation, he makes an anti-Scheherazade pact with a Nazi guard who promises if he likes the writer’s stories, he will shoot him. Jeffrey Sweet’s The Action Against Sol Shulmann asks what happens when a child – and the community – find out the parent was a Nazi accomplice. In Motti Lerner’s Exile in Jerusalem, the German poet Else Lasker Schuller escapes the Shoah in 1939, only to feel herself an exile in the Promised Land. In Asher’s Command, Marilyn Clayton Felt examines the complex, controversial relationship between a young Israeli general commanding the occupied West Bank and an older Palestinian villager. The collection closes with Jennifer Maisel’s The Last Sedar which presents a family splintered by the father’s dementia as members gather one final time before the home must be sold.<
The enduring success – not to mention the proliferation – of these so-called American Jewish plays speaks to the universality of the human experiences they portray. “Plays by and about Jews have become so mainstream and popular (think Brighton Beach Memoirs or Driving Miss Daisy), their ethnic particularity attracts little special attention,” writes Schiff. While certain details might be specific to the Jewish community, the overall humanity of these stories invites everyone to witness, to question, to participate and, ultimately, to enjoy. It’s some of American theater at its finest.
Review: The Bloomsbury Review, November/December 2006
Readers: Young Adult, Adult
Published: 2003, 2005