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Jewish Drama on The New York Stage 1985-2004
By Michael Taub

Michael Taub, a prominent scholar and critic of Jewish Drama, has translated and edited two anthologies of Israeli Drama and will be publishing a third collection this year.

This presentation is a summary of stage works of Jewish interest in various New York theatres spanning two decades. As in years past, playwrights and producers tackled the usual issues of concern to the Jewish community in this country: antisemitism, Israel, the Shoah, the East European shtetl, and the complexities of Jewish identity within the context of America's overall social and cultural life.

Surprisingly, there were a great deal of plays dealing with antisemitism (past and present). Alfred Uhry's Parade (1998) - a play recreating the persecution, arrest, and eventual lynching of Leo Frank in 1913 Atlanta - is perhaps the best known. David Mamet's autobiographical The Old Neighborhood (1997), about growing up in 1960s' Chicago, is another prominent work. Daniel Goldfarb's Adam Baum and the Jew Movie (1999), about Samuel Baum, a Hollywood mogul who hires a Jewish scriptwriter for a film on antisemitism, is probably unfamiliar to anyone outside New York. Fred Newman's Crown Heights (1998), is an Off Off Broadway piece, chronicling the 1991 Brooklyn riots that resulted in the tragic death of a black youngster and a yeshiva student. Mark Kimble's Names (1997) with the seemingly immortal Tovah Feldshuh, underscores the antisemitic undercurrents during the notorious 1952 redbaiting by the U. S. House Committee on Un-American Activities. Finally, every production of The Merchant of Venice (probably several in the 1990's) revisits this sensitive topic. Arnold Wesker's Shylock (written in 1977, shown in New York in 1999) is in the words of a Forward critic a "retooling" of Shakespeare's classic.

Naturally, when something as dramatic as the Crown Heights riots occur most Jews rally to the cause of unity. Generally, Jews are reticent to draw attention to themselves as a persecuted minority; such actions are bound to damage the image of a well integrated group, an ethnic community belonging to mainstream America. That is evident in Adam Baum as well as in the making of the 1947 classic film, Gentlemen's Agreement. In both cases, Jewish producers and directors are seen debating whether to raise the issue of antisemitism.

The stunning success of this year's Golda, the Broadway hit by William Gibson, starring Tovah Feldshuh, the grand dame of the Jewish theatre, is proof that done right, even highly controversial Israel is capable of attracting a large viewing public. Before Golda, the media and public were talking about David Hare's compelling solo performance in his own play, Via Dolorosa. This is a work made up of vignettes about Israel and the Arabs following the playwright's several visits to the region. London's Royal Court first produced it in 1998.

Lately, on Off and Off Off Broadway, Israelis and the Palestinians have been receiving a great deal of attention from many young, largely new playwrights. In a play called Voices from the Holy and not so Holy Land" (2000), Steven Greenstein presents a one-man-show about this seemingly endless struggle in the Middle East. In it he gives voice to all affected by the conflict: Israelis, Arabs, tourists, religious and secular, liberals and radical conservatives. Like Hare, Greenstein presents a series of brief scenes to highlight some of the problems and major forces involved in this mortal conflict. No solutions are offered, and the general tone is one of frustration and futility. Another play set in Israel is this year's The Fist by Misha Shulman an Israeli living in America. This unique work focuses on an Israeli reservist who refuses to serve in the West Bank and Gaza. With echoes of Vietnam, the play is, as expected, highly controversial.

In 2000, Israela Margalit, a world renowned Israeli musician living in America staged her Night Blooming Jasmine, about a Jewish man falling in love with a Palestinian, a woman whose dress and demeanor he mistakes for a religious Jew. The same year, Marc Maron's Jerusalem Syndrome focused on the author's search for spiritual connections in the Holy Land. Finally, this year, New Yorkers got to see Victoria Linchon's Rite of Return, the story of two young women, a Palestinian and an American Jewish radical. According to the play's publicity, the plot "exemplifies opposing choices and destinies in the cycle of world violence."

In general, these and other recent American plays about Israel advance a liberal point of view: return the land, stop the occupation, and make peace with the Palestinians. In Margalit's case, we are simply invited to witness the tragedy of neighbors killing each other when so much could be gained from peaceful coexistence. Unlike other playwrights, she lets the action speak for itself: there are no slogans or political agendas.

Like Israel, the Shoah also presents controversy. At the time of this writing two fairly successful Holocaust plays are running side-by-side in New York. One is Kate Fodor's Hannah and Martin. Hannah is Hannah Arendt, the celebrated writer and political theorist, and Martin is Martin Heidegger, the famous German philosopher who was her teacher, mentor, and lover at Freiburg University in Germany where she once studied. When Hitler came to power Arendt returned to New York while Heidegger joined the Nazi party. After the war she and other intellectuals denounced him; but soon after she reneged, citing confusion and rumors as the basis for her initial repudiation. In essence, Fodor's play asks whether words and ideas are as responsible for the tragedy in Europe as those who fired the guns and released the gas in Auschwitz, and whether a Jew should ever forgive those who either stood by or simply ignored the grave injustices committed during the war.

Another play, David Auburn's The Journals of Mihail Sebastian, deals with the experiences of a little known Jewish intellectual growing up in fascist Bucharest of the 1920's and 1930's. Sebastian reflects on the ironic fate of many assimilated Jews in Europe like the German Victor Klemperer and the Italian Primo Levi. These Jews trusted enlightened ideals and progressive political systems, hoping they would protect them in times of trouble. However, to their deep disappointment and shock, these beliefs were brutally shattered by a dangerous mix of fierce antisemitism and blind nationalism.

In 1994, viewers saw Arthur Miller's Broken Glass, a failed attempt to connect personal tragedy to the national Jewish tragedy, in Europe of the 1930s'. In the process, Miller serves an indictment of American Jewry for doing relatively little to save their brothers and sisters overseas. Two years later, Jon Robin Baitz's Substance of Fire, starring Sarah Jessica Parker, was shown in New York to mixed reviews. This work deals with a recurring theme in many American Shoah plays: the problematic relationship between European survivors and their American-born children. Although family, the two generations seem to be coming from different planets when it comes to basic values, outlook on life, and Judaism. Around the same time, viewers were treated to a healthy dose of black humor in Donald Margulies' The Model Apartment (1995), a more successful drama about this complex family dynamic. A lesser known play, Arje Shaw's The Gathering (2001), focuses on a similar situation. Martin Sherman's Rose (2000), a monologue performed by the talented Olympia Dukakis, is exclusively a survivor story. Another one-woman survivor drama is Shelley Mitchell's Talking with Angels (2002). This play is about Gitta Mallasz, a Hungarian righteous gentile. While frequently on the big screen - as in Schindler's List, Divided we Fall, Enemies, A Love Story, The Pianist - this story of Righteous Gentiles has only rarely been covered on stage. In their own way, these stories are "survivor" stories too. Barbara Lebow's play, A Shayne Maidl (1987) is also a different kind of survivor play: here, the survivor is the child while the parent was safe in America. The quest for appropriate aesthetic approaches to the Holocaust has also produced several comic monologues; the best known is by second generation Deb Filler, Punch me in the Stomach (1967).

One of the most powerful statements on the Holocaust is Abby Mann's Judgement at Nuremberg (2001), a stage adaptation of the 1957 TV and 1961 film versions of the monumental Nuremberg trials of Nazi criminals. The New York production featured America's favorite German, the perennial and always compelling Maximilian Schell. Like Hannah and Martin, this play explores the limits of moral responsibility; here the questions are directed to former German judges who sat on courts that helped carry out the Nazi program against the Jews.

Another category - shtetl life in Eastern Europe - features dramas and musicals that portray the "life and times" of Jews before the Shoah. Usually these works are nostalgic, longing for a time when presumably Jews lived happily in their charming little villages in Poland and Russia. First and foremost is the seemingly indestructible Fiddler on the Roof. Since the 1960's, and especially since the 1971 film version by Norman Jewison, this simple story about the sorrows and joys of the lovable Tevye has been a favorite of many theatres around the country. The recent version on Broadway with British actor Alfred Molina continues to attract thousands. Its universal appeal carries with it both positives and negatives, since in many countries (re: Japan) the only encounter with Jews is through this musical adaptation of Shalom Aleichem's Yiddish classic, Tevye der Milchiker. Whether or not Fiddler is "good or bad for the Jews" is a complex question, perhaps one that should be thoroughly examined another time. In the meantime listen to the wise bubbe in James Sherman's Door to Door: at one point she begs her American daughter to stop taking her to Fiddler because where she comes from the Cossacks were not as nice as those shown on stage. On the contrary, as she remembers, they were rather brutal animals, killing, raping, and ransacking every Jewish home in their bloody path.

Barbara Streisand's successful 1983 film adaptation of I. B. Singer's Yentl, the Yeshiva Boy has inspired several stage versions in both Yiddish and English. In the 1970's, the play in English starred, who else, Tovah Feldshuh. In 2002, it was Yiddish's turn to take a crack at this popular Jewish drama of cross dressing and gender bending in, of all places, the stuffy but mysterious world of the Hasidism. While the play is critical of tradition over its exclusion of women from leading worship services and serious studying, both, the musicals and the film paint a romantic picture of Jewish life in the East European countryside. A more realistic picture of shtetl life before the war is the 1993 film Ivan and Abraham, a work directed by Yolande Zauberman.
A different sort of play, this about Jewish women in Germany, is the fine adaptation of the memoirs of a seventeenth century German Jew, Gluckel of Hameln. The Memoirs of Gluckel of Hameln (2000), by Jenny Romaine, Adrienne Cooper, and Frank London, was shown in English and Yiddish at La Mama, a well known New York avant-garde theatre. Aside from its obvious historical value, the play is to be commended for its lack of sentimentality and nostalgia so typical of many artistic journeys into the Jewish past. The shtetl provides American Jews material for escape, for reliving a time when supposedly things were simple and romantic. As a famous Mamet character puts it, this is a time when "a Jew would chop wood in the forest."

Within the general category "drama of identity" there are many comedic works featuring the classic plot "single Jew meets single Gentile." These plays show the difficulties facing couples of mixed religions, and in a few cases, mixed races. Donald Margulies' Sight Unseen (1992, 2004), Gavin Kostick's The Ash Fire (1994), Norman Barash's Standing By (1995), Peter Ackerman's Things You Shouldn't Say Past Midnight (1999), and Israel Horowitz's My Old Lady (2002), all present a Jewish man falling in love with a Gentile woman. James Sherman's Beau Jest (1993) is slightly different: the woman is the Jew, and the Gentile is the man. In Donna Spector's Golden Ladder (2002), the troubles do not start because the lovers belong to opposite camps, but because the woman's parents are themselves of the mixed marriage variety. (In the New York production, the young woman was Amy Redford, the daughter of Robert Redford!)

As various studies show, intermarriage is on the rise as more than one in three Jews marries outside the faith. On stage, the parents are generally against such unions while the children struggle to balance love with a sense of respect and duty towards them. If the parents are from the "old country," or worse, Shoah survivors, the feelings of guilt for letting them down are significantly deeper. Usually a compromise is reached: either one converts (mostly the Gentile), or the parents relent once they realize how wonderful the two are together. Ironically, in a few cases it is revealed that the parents have not exactly "behaved" properly themselves as in some Wendy Wasserstein works. Whatever the case, for the playwright this is usually a pretext to parody stereotypes (i.e. overbearing Jewish mothers, saucy Jews vs bland goyim, pampered kids), while calling attention to antisemitic elements in society. But all this is done in a gentle way; the harshness and sinister tones a la Gentlemen's Agreement are nowhere to be found. Antisemitism and prejudice exist, but nothing so serious that it cannot be fixed. Basically, bigotry loses and in the end true love wins out.

Interracial relationships (not only of the romantic type) are explored by Herb Gardner in I'm Not Rappaport (1985), Alfred Uhry in Driving Miss Daisy (1986), Seth Zvi Rosenfeld in The Flatted Tooth (1997), Epstein and Hassan in The Seven Secrets of a Very Successful Marriage (2000), and Henry Redwood in No Niggers, No Jews, No Dogs (2001). A 2002 adaptation of Lessing's eighteenth century German classic Nathan the Wise - featuring a Jewish woman, a Moslem, and a Crusader - serves as a perfect vehicle for exploring both interreligious and interracial issues. Black-Jewish relations, recently a contentious and controversial matter are on the viewers' minds while watching this old, yet timeless play about tolerance and human understanding. The racial divide is much more difficult to bridge than the religious one for the simple reason that people can change their religion but not the color of their skin.

The Flatted Tooth is a good example of this type of Jewish drama. Set in contemporary America, the play advances the notion that distinctions by skin color, religion, and ethnicity are absurd, that in this multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, post-modern world, categories and boundaries are absurd. This is how Ben Brantley of The New York Times saw it: "consider the play's line-up of confused adults. They include Balu (Sarita Choudhuri), a female trumpet player from Africa who is part English, part Indian, and who thinks she belongs in Puerto Rico, because everyone there is a mulatto; her boyfriend Ray (Jose Joaquin Garcia), a Puerto Rican poet traveling through Israel, and Shlomo, an Israeli bartender who is also a rap singer." All this mishmash of multiethnic/multiracial characters clearly urges us to start rearranging our perceptions, to rethink our feelings about identifying with particular groups. If we take Rosenfeld seriously, this means a rejection of the tribalism with which Jews are traditionally identified.

Identity plays are sometimes set against a background of multi-generational drama. James Sherman's Door to Door (2004) is such a work. After decades of drawing heavily on stereotypes - of the old as more traditional and the young as more modern, more American, he takes a surprisingly new turn. It is true that Sherman's grandmother hates Fiddler and a variety of American cultural products; she is equally critical of her married daughter's neglect of basic yiddishkayt. However, just before the curtain falls we discover that this supposedly model bubbe is not such "a good girl" after all. In her youth this lovable Russian octogenarian was passionately in love with a Jewish man (deceased) who everyone calls "tate" or "zeyde" - and the two started a family without ever getting married!

Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig , a hit in New York in the 1992 season, unfolds along the more conventional lines. Starting with Isn't It Romantic (1981), Wasserstein's heroes are Jewish women struggling with the demands of career, motherhood, and a desire to work for tikkun olam. These women possess an acute social consciousness of their place in a society that, despite the reforms of the 1960s', still treats them unfairly. In Rosensweig we have a rather popular plot scheme: while the father is dead, the mater familias runs the household. She is a traditional Brooklyn woman. Sara, the American-born daughter, is twice divorced and a career woman in the highly competitive world of business and finance in, of all places, London. Sara's daughter Pfeni is a travel writer for a magazine, dates a bisexual Gentile, and worries more about the Kurds in Iraq than her Jewish heritage or Israel. After a series of twists and turns, the cynical, assimilated Sara finds comfort and, to her big surprise, even love in Merv, a New York furrier. He is a down-to-earth, ethnic man who reminds her of her Jewish roots in Brooklyn: he particularly enjoys spicing up conversations with Yiddish words or Jewish references. Through him, she begins a spiritual journey, a journey of recovering her Jewish roots. The final scene, Sara blessing shabbat candles, is a clear sign that her life is about to take a radical turn.

Similarly, in Sarah, Sarah (2004), Daniel Goldfarb creates an interesting plot built around a generational clash - the older Sarah, a strict, hard-working mother from Russia, abuses her authority as mother by censoring her son's marriage to a Jew she rejects for reasons only she seems to grasp. Her wishes are honored; four decades later, this son, now married to someone else, accompanies his own daughter to China to, of all things, adopt a baby. Like in Door to Door, here too there are family secrets: it turns out that the punishing mother of forty years back is herself an adopted child! The irony is clear: her bubbe, an adopted child, stopped her father from marrying his choice, and here she is in China adopting a baby.

The younger Sarah's decision to adopt serves as a critique of strict tradition as practiced by her grandmother, the older Sarah. The older Sarah is a tough, unyielding woman. She is the proud mother of a son whom she thinks is studying to be a dentist. In her book this profession is ideal for a nice Jewish boy. But all comes crashing down when she discovers that all along he was studying philosophy! And, to make matters worse, he (in her eyes) is dating the wrong girl. Although she wants to be supportive of her son's choices, she cannot fight what appears to be primitive beliefs and ingrained prejudices, all part of her traditional upbringing.

No doubt, the past two decades have been good for Jewish drama. Plays like Sight Unseen, Tale of the Allergist's Wife, Parade, Broken Glass, The Sisters Rosensweig, and Golda, have been produced by major companies with prominent actors and directors. It is impossible to know how these works have impacted the public's perceptions of Jews. What is certain is that, largely because of these plays, Jewish concerns have received significant attention in the cultural columns of America's major newspapers and other media outlets. As we move on in the twenty first century it is interesting to see what the Jewish stage will look like.
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The article was first published at AJT Newsletter Summer 2004 We would like to thank Kayla Gordon the Editor for her permission to re-publishing it.


Source: AJT 2004

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