Realism on the Ghetto Stage

THE distinctive thing about the intellectual and artistic life of the Russian Jews of the New York Ghetto is the spirit of realism. Among them are men of learning and talent and of consuming energy. The Ghetto is full of socialists and men of expressive mood who in Russia were persecuted for their race, or at least hampered in the free expression of their opinions. Their energy is now let loose in this city, where there are six Yiddish newspapers and several reviews devoted to the discussion of intellectual and political questions. At the cafés on Grand and Canal streets there gather a band of socialists, poets, journalists, actors, and playwrights, — a Yiddish Bohemia, poor and picturesque.

The intellectual impulse of the Ghetto, no matter what its manifestation, is the spirit animating modern Russian literature, the spirit of Turgeniev and of Tolstoi, a spirit at once of realism in art and of revolt in political opinion.

This serious representation and criticism of life pervading the intellectual circles of the Ghetto is noticeable even on the popular stage. The most interesting plays are those in which the realistic spirit predominates, and the best among the actors and playwrights are the realists. The realistic element, too, is the latest one in the history of the Yiddish stage. The Jewish theatres in other parts of the world, which compared with the three in New York are unorganized, present only anachronistic and fantastic historical and Biblical plays, or comic opera with vaudeville specialties attached. These things, to be sure, are given in the Yiddish theatres on the Bowery too, but there are also plays which in part at least portray the customs and problems of the Ghetto community, and are of comparatively recent origin.

There are two men connected with the Ghetto stage who particularly express the distinctive realism of the intellectual east side, — Jacob Adler, one of the two best actors, and Jacob Gordin, the playwright. Adler, a man of great energy, tried for many years to make a theatre which should give only what he called good plays succeed on the Bowery. Gordin’s plays, with a few exceptions, were the only dramas on contemporary life which Adler thought worthy of presentation. The attempt to give exclusively realistic art, which is the only art on the Bowery, failed. There, in spite of the widespread feeling for realism, the mass of the people desire to be amused and are bored by anything with the form of art. So now Adler is connected with the People’s Theatre, which gives all sorts of shows, from Gordin’s plays to ludicrous history, frivolous comic opera, and conventional melodrama. But Adler acts for the most part only in the better sort. He is an actor of unusual power and vividness. Indeed in his case, as in that of some other Bowery actors, it is only the Yiddish dialect which stands between him and the distinction of a wide reputation.

In almost every play given on the Bowery all the elements are represented. Vaudeville, history, realism, comic opera, are generally mixed together. Even in the plays of Gordin there are clownish and operatic intrusions, inserted as a conscious condition of success. On the other hand, even in the distinctively formless plays, in comic opera and melodrama, there are striking illustrations of the popular feeling for realism, — bits of dialogue, happy strokes of characterization of well-known Ghetto types, sordid scenes faithful to the life of the people.

It is the acting which gives even to the plays having no intrinsic relation to reality a frequent quality of naturalness. The Yiddish players, even the poorer among them, act with remarkable sincerity. Entirely lacking in self-consciousness, they attain almost from the outset to a direct and forcible expressiveness. They, like the audience, rejoice in what they deem the truth. In the general lack of really good plays they yet succeed in introducing the note of realism. To be true to nature is their strongest passion, and even in a conventional melodrama their sincerity, or their characterization in the comic episodes, often redeems the play from utter barrenness.

And the little touches of truth to the life of the people are thoroughly appreciated by the audience, much more generally so than in the case of the better plays to be described later, where there is a more or less strict form and intellectual intention, difficult for the untutored crowd to understand. In the “ easy ” plays, it is the realistic touches which tell most. The audience laughs at the exact reproduction by the actor of a tattered type which they know well. A scene of perfect sordidness will arouse the sympathetic laughter or tears of the people. “ It is so natural,” they say to one another, “ so true.” The word “ natural ” indeed is the favorite term of praise in the Ghetto. What hits home to them, to their sense of humor or of sad fact, is sure to move, although sometimes in a manner surprising to a visitor. To what seems to him very sordid and sad they will frequently respond with laughter.

One of the most beloved actors in the Ghetto is Zelig Mogalesco, a comedian of natural talent and of the most felicitous instinct for characterization. Unlike the strenuous Adler, he has no ideas about realism or anything else. He acts in any kind of play, and could not tell the difference between truth and burlesque caricature. And yet he is remarkable for his naturalness, and popular because of it. Adler with his ideas is sometimes too serious for the people, but Mogalesco’s naïve fidelity to reality always meets with the sympathy of a simple audience loving the homely and unpretentious truth. About Adler, strong actor that he is, there is something of the doctrinaire, and also about the talented Gordin.

But although the best actors of the three Yiddish theatres in the Ghetto are realists by instinct and training, the thoroughly frivolous element in the plays has its prominent interpreters. Joseph Latteiner is the most popular playwright in the Bowery, and Boris Thomashevsky perhaps the most popular actor. Latteiner has written over a hundred plays, no one of which has form or ideas. He calls them Volksstücke (plays of the people), and naïvely admits that he writes directly to the demand. They are mainly mixed melodrama, broad burlesque, and comic opera. His heroes are all intended for Boris Thomashevsky, a young man, fat, with curling black hair, languorous eyes, and a rather effeminate voice, who is thought very beautiful by the girls of the Ghetto. Thomashevsky has a face with no mimic capacity, and a temperament absolutely impervious to mood or feeling. But he picturesquely stands in the middle of the stage and declaims phlegmatically the rôle of the hero, and satisfies the “ romantic ” demand of the audience. Nothing could show more clearly how much more genuine the feeling of the Ghetto is for fidelity to life than for romantic fancy. How small a part of the grace and charm of life the Yiddish audiences enjoy may be judged by the fact that the romantic appeal of a Thomashevsky is eminently satisfying to them. Girls and men from the sweatshops, a large part of such an audience, are moved by a very crude attempt at beauty. On the other hand they are so familiar with sordid fact, that the theatrical representation of it must be relatively excellent. Therefore the art of the Ghetto, theatrical and other, is deeply and painfully realistic.

When we turn to Jacob Gordin’s plays, to other plays of similar character and to the audiences to which they specifically appeal, we have realism worked out consciously in art, the desire to express life as it is, and at the same time the frequent expression of revolt against the reality of things, and particularly against the actual system of society. Consequently the “ problem ” play has its representation in the Ghetto. It presents the hideous conditions of life in the Ghetto,—the poverty, the sordid constant reference to money, the immediate sensuality, the jocular callousness, — and underlying the mere statement of the facts an intellectual and passionate revolt.

The thinking element of the Ghetto is largely socialistic, and the socialists flock to the theatre the nights when the Gordin type of play is produced. They discuss the meaning and justice of the play between the acts, and after the performance repair to the Canal Street cafés to continue their serious discourse. The unthinking nihilists are also represented, but not so frequently at the best plays as at productions in which are found crude and screaming condemnation of existing conditions. It is the custom for various lodges and societies to buy out the theatre for some particular night, and have a fitting play presented as a benefit performance. The anarchistic propaganda, one night last winter, hired the Windsor Theatre for the establishment of a fund to start the Freie Arbeiter Stimme, an anarchistic newspaper. The Beggar of Odessa was the play selected, — an adaptation of The Ragpicker of Paris, a play by Felix Piot, the anarchistic agitator of the French Commune in 1871. The features of the play particularly interesting to the audience were those emphasizing the clashing of social classes. The old ragpicker, played by Jacob Adler, a model man, clever, brilliant, and good, is a philosopher too, and says many things warmly welcomed by the audience. As he picks up his rags he sings about how even the clothing of the great comes but to dust. His adopted daughter is poor, and consequently noble and sweet. The villains are all rich; all the very poor characters are good. Another play recently produced, Vögele, is partly a satire of the rich Jew by the poor Jew. “ The rich Jews,” sang the comedian, “ toil not, neither do they spin. They work not, they suffer not, — why then do they live on this earth ? ” This unthinking revolt is the opposite pole to the unthinking vaudeville and melodrama represented by Latteiner and Thomashevsky. In many of the plays referred to roughly as the Gordin-Adler type, — although they were not all written by Gordin nor played by Adler, — we find a realism more true in feeling and cast in stronger dramatic form. In some of these plays there is no problem element; in few is that element so prominent as essentially to interfere with the character of the play as a presentation of life.

One of the plays most characteristic, as at once presenting the life of the Ghetto and suggesting its problems, is Minna, or the Yiddish Nora. Although the general idea of Ibsen’s Doll’s House is taken, the atmosphere and life are original. The first scene represents the house of a poor Jewish laborer on the east side. His wife and daughter are dressing to go to see A Doll’s House with the boarder, — a young man whom they have been forced to take into the house because of their poverty. He is full of ideas and philosophy, and the two women fall in love with him, and give him all the good things to eat. When the laborer returns from his hard day’s work, he finds that there is nothing to eat, and that his wife and daughter are going to the play with the boarder. The women despise the poor man, who is fit only to work, eat, and sleep. The wife philosophizes on the atrocity of marrying a man without intellectual interests, and finally drinks carbolic acid. This Ibsen idea is set in a picture rich with realistic detail, — the dialect, the poverty, the types of character, the humor of Yiddish New York. Jacob Adler plays the husband, and displays a vivid imagination for details calculated to bring out the man’s beseeching bestiality, — his filthy manners, his physical ailments, his greed, the quickness of his anger and of resulting pacification. Like most of the realistic plays of the Ghetto, Minna is a genuine play of manners. It has a general idea, and presents also the setting and characters of reality.

The Slaughter, written by Gordin, and the main masculine character taken by David Kessler, an actor of occasionally great realistic strength, is the story of the symbolic murder of a fragile young girl by her parents, who force her to marry a rich man who has all the vices and whom she hates. The picture of the poor house, the old mother and father, the half-witted stepson with whom the girl is unconsciously in love, is typical in its faithfulness of scenes in many of these plays. It is rich in character and milieu drawing. There is another scene of miserable life in the second act. She is married and living with the rich brute. In the same house is his mistress, curt and cold, and two children by a former wife. The old parents come to see her; she meets them with the joy of starved affection. But the husband enters and changes the scene to one of hate and violence. The old mother tells him, however, of the heir that is to come. Then there is a superb scene of naïve joy in the midst of all the sordid gloom. The rapturous delight of the old people, the turbulent triumph of the husband, the satisfaction of the young wife, — they make a holiday of it. Wine is brought. They all love one another for the time. The scene is representative of the way the poor Jews welcome their offspring. But indescribable violence and abuse follow, and the wife finally kills her husband, in a scene where realism riots into burlesque, as it frequently does on the Yiddish stage.

But for absolute, intense realism Gordin’s Wild Man, unrelieved by a problem idea, is unrivaled. An idiot boy falls in love with his stepmother without knowing what love is. He is abused by his father and brother, beaten on account of his ineptitudes. His sister and another brother take his side, and the two camps revile each other in unmistakable language. The father marries again, a heartless, faithless woman, and she and the daughter quarrel. After repeated scenes of brutality to the idiot, the daughter is driven out to make her own living. Adler’s portraiture of the idiot is a great bit of technical acting. The poor fellow is filled with the mysterious wonderings of an incapable mind. His shadow terrifies and interests him. He philosophizes about life and death. He is puzzled and worried by everything ; the slightest sound preys on him. Physically alert, his senses serve only to trouble and terrify the mind which cannot interpret what they present. The burlesque which Mr. Adler puts into the part was inserted to please the crowd, but increases the horror of it, as when Lear went mad ; for the Elizabethan audiences laughed, and had their souls wrung at the same time. The idiot ludicrously describes his growing love. In pantomime he tells a long story. It is evident, even without words, that he is constructing a complicated symbolism to express what he does not know. He falls into epilepsy and joins stiffly in the riotous dance. The play ends so fearfully that it shades into mere burlesque.

This horrible element in so many of these plays marks the point where realism passes into fantastic sensationalism. The facts of life in the Ghetto are in themselves unpleasant, and consequently it is natural that a dramatic exaggeration of them results in something poignantly disagreeable. The intense seriousness of the Russian Jew, which accounts for what is excellent in these plays, explains also the rasping falseness of the extreme situations.

Some of the more striking of the realistic plays on the Ghetto stage have been partly described, but realism in the details of character and setting appears in all of them, even in comic opera and melodrama. In many the element of revolt, if not a conscious idea, is expressed in occasional dialogues. Burlesque runs through them all, but burlesque, after all, is a comment on the facts of life. And all these points are emphasized and driven home by sincere and forcible acting.

Crude in form as these plays are, and unpleasant as they often are in subject and in the life portrayed, they are yet refreshing to persons who have been bored by the empty farce and inane cheerfulness of the uptown theatres.

Hutchins Hapgood.