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here to start with jewish theatre

In classics long after, outside drama on February 23, 2010 at 1:18 am

If you think that’s a curious and moderately uncomfortable title, I should explain from the hello that this next series of posts comes from a book called 3 Great Jewish Plays (on Applause Books, I note with ticklish approval). Rather than merely authorial ethnicity, I guess the binding here is a sustained engagement with Jewish history and mythos – plus the emergence of Yiddish (as opposed to Hebrew) culture. This does not mean there are not lots of rabbis. There are lots of rabbis.

warsaw theatre

A pre-war warsaw theatre - click through for more

i. why language matters

In a pleasing meta-scriptural echo, the book, edited by Joseph C. Landis, comes with a foreword and multiple introductions. First, to pan through the former: “When…the Jewish middle class of central Europe found a possibility of easier access to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, it began a parallel movement of Jewish enlightenment, the Haskala, to modernise Jewish life under the banner of Hebrew, the respected language of religion. Yiddish, as the language of the backward masses of Jews living in the semi-feudal Slavic world and as the vehicle of the pietistic Hassidic movement that stood diametrically opposed to the Haskala became the object of its scorn.” Later, Yiddish would emerge as the vernacular of Jewish socialists, while Hebrew was championed by Zionists, to whom “Yiddish became the representative of the despised Diaspora and of the Diaspora mentality.”

And so: “amidst the break-up of empires and the crumbling of the small-town, isolated, religiously-centred Jewish world” scattered Jewish writers were to “effect a transition of Jewish life from its provincial base into a modern, worldwide cultural nationality” – at least, in the first four decades of the twentieth century. “The destruction of the heartland of Yiddish in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust  of the Hitler years, however, effectively ended that vision” (please note this is from 1966/72/86, and Landis goes on to suspect a resurgence – an “ethnic revival” – even then, especially in the American novel).

His summation is fairly magnificent: “It may only be an accident of history that this return by the third generation to its ethnic roots coincides with a moment in American history when so many have begun to question so much. The prosperity of the middle class has not kept its children from doubting its values. […] The massive estrangement of people from themselves, from one another, and from their world, that has been one of the commonplace facts of our time, has triggered a restless search for meaning and identity…this Yiddish revival, in its own way a counterpart to the contemporary quest for lost innocence and the search for a simpler and more genuine world, may also reveal unsuspected moral alternatives for a troubled time.”

The Dybbuk

Production of 'The Dybbuk' in San Francisco, 1928

ii. why beliefs matter

Landis dates the rise of modern Yiddish literature to 1864 (“less arbitrary than most such designations, for it was the year in which the first major work of its first major artist appeared”) and locates it with the Askenazic Jewry. His next task is to unpick the idea of a neat ‘Judeo-Christian’ paradigm, teasing out the parallax of visions: “To the moral vision of the mentshlekhkayt, the central Christian concept of original sin or innate human depravity is wholly foreign. Counterposed to this view stands the Talmudic sense of man’s original innocence, which sees him unburdened by any sins but his own. […] Though deeply aware of the horrendous power of evil, Jewish tradition is nonetheless convinced of man’s ultimate superiority over evil…man’s inclination to good is capable of conquering without external intervention. By contrast, for the Christian, the central drama involves a struggle against a native taint, a battle with an accomplished, innate, and inevitable evil, a conflict whose ultimate resolution depends on salvation from without.

“The Ashkenazic Jew’s aversion to violence was not based on any sentimental exaltation of weakness or of the power of ‘the power of powerlessness’ but on a principled repudiation of force as bestialising and on a faith in the ultimate victory of reason and morality. […] If Adam’s disobedience and fall haunts the Christian imagination, it is Cain’s defiant question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ that exemplifies the depth of dereliction to the Ashkenazic Jew…with this question he repudiates the sole path to atonement…” (this last paraphrased for web). Landis identifies this with Jewish culture’s emphasis on family and social responsibility. He likewise contrasts the Christian focus on faith with that of good deeds and study for the Jew (“It required everyone to be a mentsh – even God; and it did not hesitate to rebuke him when it thought He was remiss”).

With this in mind, a tragic Jewish hero might be brought down by external forces – or their own incorrect conduct – but not toxic, rooted, inescapable flaws (“And the catastrophe that overwhelms them need never be irreparable “).

Abraham Goldfadden

Abraham Goldfadden

iii. when we make the stage

“Though a badkhan (wedding bard) chanted rhymes at Jewish weddings, though Purim was a regular day for amateur ‘play’ performances, the direct stimulus for a [Jewish] theatre came from other sources. And it came relatively late [I’m sure readers of this post sympathise] – Yiddish plays written before the last quarter of the nineteenth century were written with no hope of performance on a professional stage.” That potential would gradually coalesce from variety performances containing song and impersonations.

“In Jassy, Romania, in 1876, Abraham Goldfadden, along with two Brody singers, as these entertainers were called, conceived the idea of adding to the songs an element of plot or continuity, with dialogue improvised in the manner of the commedia dell’arte.” Jacob Gordin, an American, would build on the subsequent wave of musicals to rework European classics into new Jewish plays – and these twin musical and realistic traditions would next be joined by work out of Ukraine’s relatively cosmopolitan seaport Odessa, with the short-lived Hirshbein Troupe touring work from Sholem Asch, David Pinski, and Sholem Aleichem. They would be succeeded by the Vilna Troupe, who premiered Anski‘s The Dybbuk (subject of the next post) in 1920.

After World War I, Yiddish companies sprang up in Poland, and Russia “with the help – almost the insistence – of the Soviet government, which persuaded Alexander Granovski to assume the direction of a company…for which Marc Chagall was commissioned to do the murals. […] As late as 1950, the State Yiddish Theatre in Moscow was one of the best in the country…” (and there were fifteen others). Alongside, the Habima, a famous Hebrew company succeeded in attracting Stanislavski as advisor and director. In America, Maurice Shwartz founded his own Yiddish Art Theatre, and the Artef company besides.

But, again, and to underline the historical schism in this story: “The virtual elimination of Yiddish cultural life in Poland since the war and in Russia since 1952, when almost every Yiddish writer of stature was executed, has not only left the Jewish community of the United States the largest in the world; it has also served to underscore the fact that on the cultural continent within our own borders, a large body of non-English writing was created and continues to be created.”

Phew. First Subjectiviste post to exceed 1000W (this will not happen often). Thanks to Joseph C. Landis for his unwitting – but vital – contribution – the book is recommended – and a sleepy salute to those of you who made it all the way down here. Next: those three great plays from the tradition…


literally a pinteresque soap opera

In classics long after, video on February 16, 2010 at 1:38 am

I hate bloggers’ excuses, and I hate bloggers’ apologies, and I am aware that the health of any blog can be scientifically determined by the ratio of those to actual content (there are blogs in the world which consist entirely of the two – and they are a miserable blight on all our patience). But!

I suddenly have a play in development, and no sooner did that flood my fluttering cortex than I additionally became non-dramatically ill. Bed, reading, really bad food, better. Now, I fully intend to keep my promises re: Jewish theatre so one or two posts on that should arrive this week, but in the meanwhile, I’d recommend keeping an eye to Theatre in Pieces, where small but intriguing things appear daily, plus – for all y’all delectation, a non-programmed item:

Yes, it’s Laurence Olivier’s adaption of Pinter’s ‘The Collection’ for British TV. Click through to YouTube for the other five parts. I have mixed feelings to be honest.

Oh, and – do you have any olives?

a firebreak

In system links, work of others on February 10, 2010 at 11:59 am


A momentary break from the stage to share a few pages – over the tail-end of last week, I wandered weightlessly across the face of the web looking for other drama blogs of proven quality. Glad to report that, although theatre online can be swallowed by niches, I found 29 (mostly UK-based) sites that I recommend you get acquainted with over at a dedicated page I built for them (there’s an intro for each so you know where you’re clicking). Expect more safaris and resources behind that ‘Elsewhere’ tab over time.

In other news and as of yesterday, Subjectiviste now has a sister site, in the shape of Theatre in Pieces – a tumblr blog designed to store/share all the unconnected tangents and shorter fragments I dig up in the course of my general research. Even nerdier, there’s a linked twitter account which will tweet one quote from a play per day.

Next here: a four (or more, who knows) series on Jewish theatre including run-throughs of ‘The Dybukk’ and ‘The Golem’. Foreboding? We got it.

lines from the strip

In quotables, writers writing now on February 9, 2010 at 11:26 am

“Female impersonation is a rather curious career choice for a woman, Miss Coo.” (Otto)

A feted first line for Nagy’s fourth play, and the last I’m zapping through for right now. Again, it takes a form somewhat beyond conventon – as Michael Coveney writes in the Methuen edition’s introduction: “…all the various strands of action seem to be manipulated by Otto Mink, a sleazy, shadowy figure not unlike, as my colleague Paul Taylor pointed out, the Duke of dark corners in Measure for Measure

“Do you think Saint Veronica had any talent? Or Saints Theresa, Bernadette and Anthony, for that matter? […] The hand of God provided their direction. They were empty vessels waiting to be filled with relevance. Just as you are an empty vessel waiting for me to fill you.” (Otto)

And he fills plenty, an unreadable puppetmaster pulling the plotlines of disperate characters – including a female female impersonator, a repo man, a supremacist fugitive, a disgraced reporter  and more – ever tighter, until they all come together for a finale which is also an eclipse. “Adapt to circumstance. Assimilate. Conquer. Mr. Mink’s triple crown for success.” (Loretta)

the strip

I could be wrong, but The Strip feels like the point where all the devices Nagy had jury-rigged for serious purposes – often employed in quite an austere fashion – ripened to an extent she not only had total control, but could start to have fun – it’s positively carnivalesque. Especially nice is how narrative acts can trigger short circuit symbolism – a homophobe, kissed, drops dead (he thinks – gets better).

“I’m like a doormat. People coming and going, breaking and entering, the whole time.” (Ava)

Lateralism keeps seeping – characters spill across the stage – occasionally united via phone calls and letters between scenes, rippling via domino dumbshow and mime performances, relaying via infections and computer astrology, subtitled via a ouija board which spells out messages, via, well… “Baby Ray likes you. He’s a genius and communicates with me telepathically. What is your sun sign?” (Loretta). The climax of the first act sees the whole parade simultaneously up-ended like a chain of island realities under one heavy psychic weather system.

“Have you noticed the alarming rate of coincidences lately?” (Suzy)

lines from disappeared

In quotables, writers writing now on February 5, 2010 at 1:00 pm

“I take things away from people to provide them with a false sense of renewal. When you take something from somebody, it stays took. They don’t understand that. I do.” (Elston)

Disappeared is very simple. Sarah Casey, a travel agent, goes missing in the first scene. Aside from flashbacks, the rest of the play explores the wake. Her mother insists she’s dead. The bar where she was last seen tries to cash in. A detective unearths nothing, especially in his dealings with the chief suspect, an oddball of compelling dimensions called Elston Rupp.

“…in your people job, you give them things. Information, accommodation. The potential for snapshots. Me, I remove things from people. Information, accommodation. Cash.” Elston works in a thrift store, wears others’ clothes, adopts their identities, has no furniture, sleeps in a closet. He is never revealed as a killer, or discredited as a fantasist. He very much enjoys the attention afforded by his suspect status. But he’s alienatingly neurotic: “I wish I could go with the flow. But I can’t. I read too much.” He prostrates himself before authority figures – to his boss: “…you don’t work. You own…I work for you. I belong to you.” – and Ted, the detective. He also somehow connects with Sarah in a way neither he nor she understand. As he says to her: “It must be sad having a job where there’s no psychic stability. Always coming or going. Never staying put. The travel motif.”

That Nagy can flag her subtext so is due to her resistance as a writer to ever let suggestion ripen (and flatten) into plot point. It’s enough to make the shape without articulating the parts or, worse, setting the whole contraption shuddering away to eventually spit out a product (the ‘meaning’). A one-sentence synopsis would be: travel agent provides journeys for others, never moving herself – until, one night, she disappears from the face of the map. Many conventional writers would, in expanding the story, deflate it – declawing any paradox, sorting and binding each parallel, answering every last question in an artful reverse strip. But if the detective novel proved modernism’s ideal form, so sci-fi/fantasy – the art of possibility which only need make sense in its own terms – has provided the same for postmodernism. Also consider that, contrary to popular belief, Freud didn’t believe in dream analysis but free association – and this makes for an expanding universe, not one which contracts to a ultimate lump of unambiguous fact.

nagy collected

It’s a play for today ’cause, formally, it’s a net (reticular) – details hint at the larger form, fractally, casual comments chime with dramatic acts distant in the narrative – and this doesn’t glue the two belatedly together (as a ‘clue’ would). A good scientist would remind: correlation does not equal causation. The strength of writers like Nagy (and Churchill, most obviously) is that their work swells with repetition – unlike most, which return to standby when they’ve achieved their ‘function’. Elston knows: “I won’t answer your questions any more, Ted. Because if I answered them, you wouldn’t come back here.”

lines from butterfly kiss

In quotables, writers writing now on February 4, 2010 at 2:08 pm

“Martha. Listen to me. My mother asked me to kill her.” (Lily)

Butterfly Kiss unfolds to fill the limbo between the arrest and trial of Lily Ross, for matricide: “I’ve been reading a lot lately. Sensational crime cases. Mostly murder cases. There’s a vested interest, I’ll admit.”

butterfly set

A telling stage direction: ‘The time is the present, the imagined past and the imagined future’. And it’s the continual, cumulative overlap of times, spaces, places, the bleed between dialogue and monologue, the dance of figures skipping in and out of each other’s orbits which makes Butterfly Kiss so almost liquid crystal. Form solidifies in patterns around events – each of which lasts a matter of minutes, sometimes moments, before dissolving, allowing the configuration to refacet itself. It’s more fluid again than Weldon Rising‘s series of circular frames – and feels as freshly freestyle and futureproof as Churchill & Lan’s A Mouthful of Birds or Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis.

“It’s a long time before I actually speak to Lily. I was transferred quite a bit, you see, and I could taste the distance between us through the telephone lines. As if each transfer, each click of each switchboard, took me deeper underground. Under something I could not accept.” (Martha)

Another stage direction reads: ‘Although Lily’s age ranges substantially during the course of the play, no attempt should be made to ‘play’ the younger ages.’ This is how to do contemporary unrealism: ‘”How old did you say you were, Lily? Forty-six? Twelve? Seventy-seven?” (Jenny) Reverberating through the play’s ‘real’ world, Lily’s mother (Jenny) becomes demented, old before even her own mother (Lily’s grandmother, Sally): “I could leave you here, you know that. Let you rot in place. Shrivel up with a shot glass in one hand and a blood pressure kit in the other. I shrivel little by little myself, just thinking about how I could have given birth to something like you.” Time out of joint.

Vignettes from Lily’s life evaporate into one another, sometimes react. Her awakening sexuality. Her parents’ mistaken lovematch: “Your daddy was a wrong number, Lily, who ought never been answered.” (Jenny); “My father is a scientist. He likes to watch.” (Lily) Her latest (last?) relationship, with Martha – another source of simmering tension between Lily and her mother and grandmother. Ultimately, it is the casual everyday cruelty between the three that drives toward an end with no consummation, conclusion, or verdict – only an act of deep, hidden love.

lines from weldon rising

In quotables, writers writing now on February 3, 2010 at 9:27 am

“We used to be civilised, you know.” (Tilly)

Nagy’s debut opened in Liverpool, but hopped half the length of the country onto the Royal Court stage within two months. As almost an act of teleportation, a knight’s gambit, the abruptness of the transfer could be a realworld reflection of Weldon Rising‘s indistinct drift. She’s often tagged as ‘lateral’ – situations rather than narratives, carousels rather than rollercoasters – and her distinguishing characteristics are apparent from this first production. This is less surprising when one realises it was written after her second and third to be  produced (‘Butterfly Kiss’ and ‘Disappeared’) but, again, such shuffling fits her elliptical style. What follows contains plenty spoilers…

“I hear someone say: FAGGOT. I always hear that word when it’s said. Always.” (Jaye)

If the background is perennially out-of-focus,her characters possess a concision of expression. Natty, for example, is one half of a same-sex relationship uncomfortable with his orientation (or at least the stereotypical culture surrounding it): “They’re not my peers. I own a small business. I have customers. I’m not political. They’re your peers…You can dance. I can’t. You know I look like Peter Lorre in M when I dance.” The partner to who this is addressed, Jimmy, is rather more secure: “Maybe I’d like to hold your hand. Walk along Eighth Avenue and spit at passers-by…The boys don’t believe me when I say I have a lover. You ought to prove I’m not a liar.” If the relationship feels like a losing battle – Natty replies, “But I am a liar. I’m pathological. I lie about everything. I crave it” – they muddle along happily enough in their own way. Then, in almost the play’s first movement, Jimmy is meaninglessly murdered via a stranger/street flashpoint which sparks from nothing (Natty splits as it gets serious).

weldon staging

“What was it like? To see him die. I didn’t. See it. I should have.” (Natty)

Tilly and Jaye, also lovers, live overlooking the murder scene, and witnessing it comes to obsess them somewhat: “We witnessed a horrible crime and we’ve responded by becoming criminals ourselves…We watched him from above. We thought we were safe” (Tilly). Meanwhile, the temperature of the outside world is continually rising at a freakish pace – the repercussions of centre-stage violence punctuated by increasingly nightmarish news reports (“…a Greyhound bus bound for Lincoln, Nebraska melted within seconds of entering the Holland Tunnel. Current Central Park temperature a hundred and sixty-seven and RISING”.) The play’s resolution doesn’t retreat into fantasy, but it does defy realism, cause and effect. It’s a magic ritual.

“We did watch him die. The sky split open. The temperature rose. And nothing’s been the same since.” (Tilly)

here to start with phyllis nagy

In bio, writers writing now on February 1, 2010 at 11:13 am

The first contemporary writer to get a spot on Subjectiviste (except for my launch icon), today’s post will be a brief intro mediated through other web resources before I quickstep through notes on her first four plays over (let’s believe) the next four days.

Coming through in the Nineties alongside the In Yer Face writers, Nagy is an American transplant, whose work therefore lacked the same obsession with lower end UK pop culture plus offered less aggro than was standard practice (you can access an interview in which Nagy discusses Sarah Kane here).

nagy works

there are few pictures of usable size - please forgive these clumsy pixels

There’s not an abundance of content about her on the web – the wikipedia entry is stubby and the interviews are often ends-directed promotional gush – but perhaps this reflects how little theatre / realtime performance overlap the internet (as of right now). Certainly, there seems more material on the film career she has embarked on since, with the success of her adaptation of The Talented Mr Ripley (duologue extract here) building to a directorial debut with Mrs Harris.

For more than scraps on our subject, then, I have to look toward Michael Coveney‘s introduction to her first collection of plays. “The theatrical cross-fading and flash-backing demanded by the play…which seemed nonetheless to be played in a constant theatrical present” is a trim little evocation of her style – a kind of centreless materialised cinematics. As for tone, Coveney speculates Nagy: “…is fired by her own experience [working abroad] to express and explore other dreams of leaving. And it is because these stories are bedded in ideals of emotional and sexual possibility and of fulfilment that they resonate so effectively in performance…” There’s something in that. Tomorrow: her debut, Weldon Rising.