Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Yiddish playwrights are against greed. Me, too, no evil eye.

All of the plays in God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation are American (written in the U.S., performed in New York theaters), but most of them are set in the old country, not so old for most of the audience.

The best play, I think, it the one Nahma Sandrow puts in the title: Jacob Gordin's God, Man, and Devil (1900). Gordin was a giant in the Yiddish theater, it's first serious playwright. He was right in the mainstream of modern theater, and reminded me at times of Ibsen or Ostrovsky. Gordin was a Tolstoyan who wanted to use the theater to educate the masses about high culture; as a result, he wrote a stage version of The Kreutzer Sonata, and The Jewish King Lear, which I must, must read.

God, Man, and Devil has a literary predecessor, too, as one might guess from the title. This is a Faust story. In a simplified version of Goethe's prologue, Satan, not to be mentioned on anyone's blog, convinces a distant, preoccupied God to let him test the virtue of a pious man with riches. Satan, no evil eye, actually tells us that this has be more like the story of Faust than Job, because "Nowadays a Jew is used to sorrows."

The dapper Mephistopheles, not to be thought of, calling himself Uriel Mischief, inveigles the poor, virtuous scribe Hereshele into buying a lottery ticket, a winner. Hershele is a genuinely religoius man, but the money, and Mischief's influence, ruin his and his family's lives, no evil eye, in more or less predictable ways. We get divorce, industrial accidents, attempted murder, all sorts of dramatic things.

The ingenious thing about the play is how Hershele's worst traits turn out to have been present all along, and how they are brought out through his interactions with his wife and father and other characters. The story of a man destroyed by his greed, good stay, evil away, is not exactly subtle, but the dramatic revelation of his character is expertly done. Hershele really is a good man, but not just that, like all of us.

It was asking for trouble to mention the devil, not to be mentioned, or good luck, no evil eye, and Hershele has a superstitious neighbor who has all of the formulas necessary to ward off all the bad effects. I have interlarded my text with some of them. She, of course, mentions luck and the devil more than anyone. A good gag for a play where the devil is an onstage character.

David Pinski's play The Treasure (1906) is also a greed play. An undertaker's son finds some gold coins in the cemetery while burying his dog. The vain teenage daughter, who is, frankly, a scream, gets to be a rich girl for a day, perhaps a bit too publicly. Next thing you know, the whole town is digging up the cemetery. Finally, logically, the disturbed dead take the stage.

This one's not exactly subtle, either, but it's funny, it builds to a meaningful climax, and I'll bet it works well live. Sandrow includes a scene from another from another Pinski play, Yankl the Blacksmith, just to show that Jewish playwrights did actually write about lust and adultery and other typical dramatic subjects (and the scene is well-chosen - it's like Jewish Tennessee Williams). But four out of the five plays in her excellent book are primarily attacks on greed.

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