Thursday, March 12, 2009

The machines make noise; they make noise - some Yiddish socialist agitprop

So greed is bad, I think we all more or less agree about that. What's a fellow to do about it? Be less greedy, I suppose.

Or reform society from the ground up. Every Yiddish writer I have considered here - to my knowledge, actually, every one I have read - was a socialist of some sort, and many were some variety of Communist. The degree of radicalism varied a lot, but in the face of brutal poverty, an oppressive Russian state, a materialistic America, and so on, all of the writers ended up on one side. Or, to be more precise, all of the literary writers.* There seems to have been a lot more disagreement about Zionism than about the redistribution of property.

H. Leivick's play Shop (1926) is first-rate agitprop by one of the Communist writers. Jewish garment workers in a Lower East Side factory go on strike, and win. The good people more or less get their way, the bad people do not. At the end of Act II, the workers sing the "Internationale."

What keeps the propaganda interesting is exemplified in the songs in Act I: two flighty young things come to work singing "Yes, sir, that's my baby \ No, sir, don't mean maybe," while an older woman sings a traditional Yiddish sewing song. The play's politics are idealized, but the characters and setting have some reality of their own, and are allowed to argue back a little.

Shop works in a lot of dancing, too; it would probably be a lot more enjoyable to see than to read. At first, it's all social dance - workers on break play music and form couples. The play ends, though, this way:

"The pattern of the dance is transformed into something which welds the people with the machines. Severe and inhuman from the start, it changes increasingly into a storm. Hands outstretched and faces like fire. At its greatest heat, as the dance reaches ecstasy, screams and whistles are suddenly heard from the street."

Purely modernist, there. This is after the workers have won the strike, too; a joyous moment turns into something more complicated, or skeptical. Here's the very end:

"The shop is alone. The machines make noise; they make noise."

* This is vaguely related, apparently, to why I haven't come across any early female Yiddish writers. The few women who were fortunate enough to be educated and had the temperament to write did not want to waste their time with literature. Rosa Luxemburg and her kindred spirits were going to change the world.

No comments:

Post a Comment