Swans Commentary » swans.com January 31, 2005  



Shakespeare, Playwright Of The Diaspora?
Joel Berkowitz's Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



Joel Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, University of Iowa Press, May 2002, ISBN 0-87745-800-6, 283 pages, cloth, $32.95.


(Swans - January 31, 2005)   At first blush, Shakespeare and the Yiddish stage would seem to be as incongruous a combination as the Noh Drama and the Folies Bergère but the fact is at the start of the 20th century, and for approximately sixty years thereafter, Yiddish theatre companies maintained a constant, somewhat perverse, relationship with the Bard which influenced leading Yiddish playwrights such as Jacob Gordin, Moyshe Zeifert and Mikhl Goldberg and highlighted the careers of actors such as Boris Tomashevsky, Jacob Adler and Maurice Schwartz.

It is a perfectly understandable affinity. Shakespeare, like the playwrights whose work transfixed the Jewish immigrant community at the turn of the century, was preoccupied with family strife ("Romeo and Juliet," "Hamlet") religious or ideological factionalism ("The Histories"), personal crises that ultimately led to civil disaster ("Romeo and Juliet", "Othello"), commercial adventurism that rebounded on its perpetrators ("Merchant of Venice," "Timon of Athens"). When over two million east-European Jews settled in the 'new world,' their crisis was whether or not to conform to the materialistic imperatives of the new society or retain their 'old world' customs and beliefs; a conflict not unlike the Lancastrian and Yorkists' squabbles that ran beneath the Wars of the Roses). That conflict, or variations of it, was regularly played out on Yiddish stages for half a century.

One of Jacob Adler's greatest successes on the Yiddish stage was "The Yiddish King Lear" by Jacob Gordin, the true progenitor of the Yiddish theatre, although Avrom Goldfaden is usually awarded that distinction. Consider the play: An arrogant father cruelly betrayed by his finagling daughters, two of which bring him no-goodnick sons-in-law and a third who refuses to display that show of affection which all Jewish fathers jealously demand of their youngest. The great macher, after acquiring immense affluence, is reduced (in Gordin's version) to a quavering blind beggar. You can call this a despicable piece of "shund' (i.e., Yiddish for 'trash') but the centrifugal soap opera plot is to be found smack-dab in the middle of Shakespeare's epic tragedy. Filial ingratitude, domestic squabbles, scheming-in-laws, smart-ass schlemiels offering their masters pithy advice, altah cocker seniors losing their eyesight, majesty to penury, riches to rags: how could any Jewish audience resist it? -- And of course, they didn't. Jacob Gordin's "The Yiddish King Lear" was one of the great popular successes in 1892 -- so much so that six years later, he wrote "The Jewish Queen Lear" or "Mirele Efros" which, though even further removed from Shakespeare's source, became a mainstay of the Yiddish Theatres in both America and Europe.

In the hands of artists like Jacob Adler, Boris Thomashevsky and Rudolph Schildkraut, works such as "Romeo and Juliet", "Hamlet" and "The Merchant of Venice" appeared at regular intervals on Yiddish stages; much of the poetry whittled down into Yiddish argot, minor characters eliminated and plots reduced to their dramatic essentials.

Jacob Adler's Shylock was so successful on the Bowery that it wound up on Broadway with Adler's character playing in Yiddish while his supporting cast performed in English. Despite cavils here and there, it was considered a triumph, buoyed by a palpable ethnic pride that a Yiddish actor had, for the first time, broken through into the mainstream and was being lauded by gentiles as well as Jews.

Joel Berkowitz's Shakespeare on The American Yiddish Stage is a fleet, resourcefully researched, brilliantly chronicled story of how a primitive, immigrant community, longing for something loftier than its mundane urban existence, found passion and social identification in the works of William Shakespeare. It is as much a history of the Diaspora as it is a record of the theatrical phenomenon which, though it only lasted little more than half a century, made an enormous impact on millions of new Americans. It doesn't take much imagination to see how the strains of Judaism in American show business can be traced back to much of what happened on these lower east side stages between the 1900s and 1920s.

But, to balance the ledger, one must also say that despite the clever transmutations of Shakespeare's work into familial kreigs in Jewish households, these works represent a gross diminution of great verse drama, a vulgarization of language and a compression of plots which, though they mesmerized the hoi polloi, could not help but appall the literate minority that knew the original sources from which they had been poached. One can argue as Berkowitz does that there were striking affinities between the crude and child-like Elizabethan groundlings and the immigrants that packed the balconies of the Oriental, Irving Place and Windsor Theatres of the lower east side, but there is a world of difference between pushcart realism and carefully-refined, high-definition verse drama that deals with primordial conflicts between archetypical characters, warring classes and antithetical ideologies. For all the external similarities that Berkowitz cites, Shakespeare is not the playwright of the Diaspora and to make him appear so involves a reductionism that borders on the hypocritical.


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Joel Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage, University of Iowa Press, May 2002, ISBN 0-87745-800-6, 283 pages, cloth, $32.95.

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Published January 31, 2005