Yiddish literature is full of surprises. Whatever I thought I might find, it did not include a play with a cast of characters featuring:
AUNT JEMIMA, black cook in apron, advertising pancake mix
ARROW COLLAR MAN, blond and handsome, advertising collars
NESTLÉ BABY, baby girl, advertising baby food
WRIGLEY TWINS, twin youngsters, advertising chewing gum
And so on. The play is (here's a Yiddish lesson) Bronks Ekspres, or Bronx Express: A Dream in Three Acts (1919 or so), by Osip Dymov.
A button maker, Khatskl Hungerproud, is riding the subway from 14th Street up to the Bronx. He bumps into an old acquaintance, a con man, Flames, who gets him fired up about getting rich:
FLAMES. (Points to the subway ads.) Do you see that Pluto Mineral Water?
HUNGERPROUD. The red devil with the tail?
FLAMES. Yes. Twenty-five million. I know him - he's a buddy of mine. Or Tuxedo Tobacco, "Your nose knows," forty million. Or Arrow Collars - he was a telegraph messenger boy. Who needs a collar? Do I need one? Do you? Bluff. Now he's worth one hundred million. Or Aunt Jemima Pancakes, "Delicious, economical, convenient," ten million.
FLAMES. No? And people don't go every year to Atlantic City to the beach? And football and bathing suits, moving pictures and chewing gum, and ice cream, and shoeshine every minute. Do you have any idea what's going on with the Americans? Nestlé? That baby? Two hundred million. And Smith Brothers Cough Drops, three hundred fifty million.
HUNGERPROUD. Both brothers together?
FLAMES. Each brother separately. Both together, five hundred.
I like the con man's math there. Khatskl falls asleep on the subway, and, one thing leads to another, he ends up lounging in Atlantic City, married to a cigarette mascot, father of the Nestlé baby, with his own real family somehow tangled up in his dream. When Khatskl wakes up, has he learned his lesson about what's really valuable in life? Whaddaya think?
A good part of the fun here is that several of the mascots are still in use, or at least distantly recognizable, and I suppose this would be even more fun live, seeing them wander around the stage. But I also like the critical thinking about advertising. the satire is still pretty much on target. Gee, people were on to the game back in 1919?
The play deepens the bite, too - Hungerproud acquire his dream-riches by selling his Judaism. I haven't found a Yiddish writer yet who sees America differently. The opportunities for improvement are endless, and there's no going back to the shtetl, but the corruptions are endless as well.
Bronx Express can be found in God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation (1999), translated by Nahma Sandrow. The other plays in the book are not the off-kilter hoot that this one is, but they have their own merits. A little more Yiddish theater tomorrow.