Monday, April 27, 2009

Yes, you are a Jewish King Lear!

"Reb Dovidl, I do not know if you have heard of the world-famous writer Shakespeare. Among his works is a drama with the title King Lear. The old king, like you, divided his kingdom and also like you sent away the loving daughter who told him the truth. Oh! How dearly he paid for that! Yes, you are a Jewish King Lear! May God protect you from such an end as that to which King Lear came." (Act I)

That's from The Jewish King Lear, a Yiddish play by Jacob Gordin, written and first performed in New York City in 1892. As a repertory vehicle for the legendary actor Jacob Adler (see left), it was performed, off and on, for over thirty years.

The Yale University Press translation (2007) is actually called The Jewish King Lear: A Comedy in America, but the play is, Fool aside, really a melodrama. Cordelia marries Edgar and is reconciled with Lear. Goneril and Regan are more weak and pitiful than evil. The Gloucester plot is merged with Lear's story - it's Lear who goes blind, from glaucoma, which is cured by his surgeon daughter!

I'm keeping Shakespeare's names, since they fit, but the characters' names, the settings, the Purim play, are all Jewish. When a rich merchant divides his property among his three daughters, and rejects the beloved daughter who refuses to thank him for his gift, it is the educated, secularized Edgar who recognizes that the situation is exactly like Shakespeare and says the lines I started with. The climax of the play comes when the battered, pathetic, blind Lear acknowledges the literary analogy:

"What was it [Cordelia's] teacher once said to me? I am the Jewish King Lear... well! I will stretch out my trembling hand and will say: 'Give a little kopeck to the Jewish King Lear!'" (Act III)

Then Lear and his loyal Fool, I mean servant, go into the world to beg. A great scene; easy to imagine how effective it was. Unlike the blunt ending, post-glaucoma:

"I was against Science! But look what a wonder science has performed. I thought a woman had to be dependent on her husband. But look at what a useful person my [Cordelia] is," etc. (Act IV)

I wrote about a later Jacob Gordin play last month, God, Man, and Devil. That one is a Jewish Faust. Perhaps it is possible to detect a pattern already. Among Gordin's eighty plays are adaptations of Tolstoy's The Kreutzer Sonata, and Tennyson's poem Enoch Arden. There's also a Jewish Queen Lear, and why not. Gordin was an improver - educate and uplift. Some other titles: The Pogrom in Russia; Siberia; Hasia the Orphan. You can see where he got his nickname, "Big Barrel of Laughs" Gordin.*

Actually, The Jewish King Lear is not quite humorless, because of one character, the servant, the Fool, who just flew in from the Catskills:

ALBANY: Do you think that we only think of eating?
FOOL: I have heard it said: study like a Jew and eat like a Gentile. And that is after all the law in the Torah.
ALBANY: With your peasant's head, what do you know of what is written in the Gemara?
FOOL: Even if it's not written in the Gemara, it's still a very fine law.

The Jewish King Lear is a step or two away from a masterpiece - I think God, Man, and Devil was better, anyway - but I would love to read more of these fascinating Jacob Gordin plays.

* Nickname made up by me.

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