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Awake & Singing

Charles Wright offers a full report on Ellen Schiff's new critical anthology of six great American Jewish plays. logo
No group has contributed as much to the American theater over the past century as the Jewish community. At a time when Anglo-Saxons still dominated business, law, and finance, and when quotas restricted the number of Jewish students admitted to all but one of the great eastern universities, the stage -- and later the movies -- relied to an astonishing degree on the talents of Jewish actors, musicians, writers, technicians, impresarios, playgoers, and philanthropists. For every Barrymore, American drama boasted a Garfield and some Adlers; for every George Abbott, a David Belasco, a George Kaufman, and a Moss Hart; for every Cole Porter, a Rodgers, a Hammerstein, and a couple of Fieldses. Tyrone Guthrie, a British director who worked frequently in the United States during the 20th century, remarked that, without the Jews, our national theater "would collapse about next Thursday."

In a new critical anthology, Awake & Singing: Six Great American Plays (Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 588 pp., $19.95), editor and essayist Ellen Schiff examines what she calls the American Jewish repertoire, identifying in it a unifying conflict between the individual urge to blend into secular culture and a communal desire to preserve ethnic identity. Schiff, author of From Stereotype to Metaphor: The Jew in Contemporary Drama, has brought together in Awake & Singing a handful of finely wrought scripts by and about Jews, addressing issues of communal character and individual moral responsibility. The name of Schiff's book is a variation on Clifford Odets' 1935 drama Awake and Sing -- and what an apt name it is, conveying as it does the vibrancy of much American Jewish writing and, particularly, of the plays in this volume.

As might be expected, Schiff includes Odets' gritty yet lyrical play among the volume's representative scripts, but that selection is the only predictable choice in the book. The six dramas in Awake & Singing are consistently high in literary and dramaturgical quality. All are by Jewish playwrights who have addressed themselves to general audiences; all come from the theatrical mainstream of the 20th century and have enjoyed prominent New York productions. Given these criteria, Schiff has managed, for the most part, to include plays that have not been widely anthologized. The first in the volume, Elmer Rice's once popular Counsellor-at-Law (1931), has 28 characters; this makes it unfeasible for most modern producers and, as a result, the play is in peril of being forgotten. Sylvia Regan's Morning Star, though presented on Broadway in 1940, was never very well known and is offered here for a deserved reassessment.

The other three plays can't be said to be off the beaten path like Morning Star; still, Herb Gardner's Conversations with My Father and Arthur Miller's Broken Glass are less familiar to the public than several other works by the same playwrights. The Tenth Man, on the other hand, had the longest run of Paddy Chayefsky's Broadway dramas and has been available in previous anthologies. Yet this work, inspired by Solomon Anski's classic of the Yiddish stage, The Dybbuk, is an easily defensible choice. It's less time bound, more intellectually challenging, for instance, than Chayefsky's famous Middle of the Night, which concerns the no-longer-shocking idea of a romance between an older Jewish man and a young gentile woman.

Gardner's Conversations with My Father, by the way, contains a memorable riff on the Yiddish language by the son of Charlie, the protagonist:

"Sure, you can say 'Rise and shine!, but is that as good as 'Shlof gicher, me darf der kishen,' which means 'Sleep faster, we need your pillow?' Does 'You can't take it with you' serve the moment better than 'Tacktrich macht me on keshenes,' which means 'They don't put pockets in shrouds?' Can there be a greater scoundrel than a paskudnyak, a more screwed-up life than one that is ongepatshket? Why go into battle with a punch, a jab, a sock, and a swing when you could be armed with a klop, a frosk, a zetz and a chamalia? Can poor, undernourished English turn an answer into a question, a proposition into a conclusion, a sigh into an opera?"

In her fine introduction to Awake & Singing, Schiff acknowledges the richness of Yiddish and discusses the achievements of Yiddish theater; however, she doesn't concede that English is "undernourished." Schiff makes short work of the view, expounded by writers such as Cynthia Ozick and Robert Alter, that great Jewish works can be composed only in an indigenous Jewish language. English, she observes, "has superseded Yiddish as the Jewish lingua franca." The plays that interest her -- and that qualify for her anthology -- tell "the story of Jews in America and, increasingly, of Jews in the world." These plays are "customarily the work of Jewish playwrights collaborating with non-Jews in the production of scripts typically populated by both Jews and non-Jews, enacted by casts in which Jews do not always play Jewish roles, and performed for audiences and critics comprising the gamut of multicultural theatergoers."

The publisher of Awake & Singing, Applause Theatre and Cinema Books, is doing its part to preserve diverse voices of the American theater. Long a specialty house with limited distribution, Applause entered the big time in 2002 with wide distribution of David Kaufman's Lambda Award winning Ridiculous! The Theatrical Life and Times of Charles Ludlam. Among the company's new offerings in 2003 was Ben Hodges' admirable collection, Forbidden Acts: Pioneering Gay & Lesbian Plays of the Twentieth Century, which explores how homosexual characters have been depicted on the English-speaking stage between World War I and the first Clinton Administration.

Awake & Singing includes a formidable introductory discussion of the history of the American Jewish repertoire, as well as useful prefaces to each play. The book is conscientiously annotated and, as a result, the reader never puzzles over where information came from or how to find more on a particular topic. Schiff is that rare breed: a punctilious scholar whose lively mental functions are evident in every paragraph. Her prose may now and then make concessions to academic jargon, but it's always clear and engaging. She not only explicates the plays that she has chosen but also defends them with verve. These six dramas, she argues, "are valuable because they bring to life before our eyes many of the seminal events that shaped the American Jewish experience through the last century: immigration, family life and generational conflicts, the Great Depression, 'making it' in America, encounters with anti-Semitism, the Triangle Fire, assimilation, two world wars, the Holocaust, and Israeli nationhood."

Awake & Singing: Six Great American Jewish Plays demonstrates that the modern theater, while not innocent of anti-Semitism, has been hospitable to Jewish artists. The scripts presented as representative by Schiff are a collective testament to how much those artists have given back to the theater, the nation, and the world.

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