To the Editor:
I read Heinz Politzer’s article “Starring Schwartz and Skulnik” (COMMENTARY, January 1949), while still under the impact of my encounter with New York’s Yiddish theater. Since 1938, when I left Europe, I had lost all contact with Jewish art. In South America, I read about Maurice Schwartz. Full of curiosity and expectation, I went to the Yiddish Art Theatre at the first opportunity, and saw The Voice of Israel.
I left the theater a very disappointed man. A few days later the editor of a leading Jewish periodical asked me to write an article for him. When I suggested a protest against this type of “Yiddish Art,” the editor shook his head sadly. The policy of his publication was to ignore the New York Yiddish theater. Convinced that criticism is useless, the editors content themselves with “doing nothing to injure” the Yiddish theater. This attitude was not much more to my liking than that of other Jewish-American publications. One of these felt obliged to praise the play. Another, published by an organization to which the author belonged, even went so far as to speak of his talent.
Heinz Politzer’s article is one more indication of the independent attitude that has given COMMENTARY its well-earned place on the Jewish American scene. If I have anything to add to Politzer’s article, it is only because of the difference in our temperament and approach. Politzer writes with measured calm, as befits a detached art critic; whereas a specifically Jewish standpoint seems to justify, or perhaps even to demand, more passion, despair, and bitterness.
Here a discussion of the acting and technical considerations is irrelevant. The crucial point is the repertory. Some events are so overpowering that they cannot be properly seen until a certain time has elapsed. When in the middle 30’s someone asked Karl Kraus why he had not yet stated his position on Hitler, he replied: “I have no ideas about Hitler.”—The epic of Israel’s rebirth has not yet been written. With respect and veneration, a generation that is assuredly not poor in writers has abstained from writing prematurely of a great moment.
I do not protest that a Mr. Elias Gilner should feel a poetic impulse and not allow himself to be deterred by the fears that beset the angels. But if it is the democratic right of every citizen to write bad plays, the responsibility for performing them rests on the producers. If a few speeches of Ben Gurion and Shertok, and some of the many able articles on Israel’s struggle for liberation that have appeared in the American press in the course of the past year had been presented in dialogue form, the result would surely have been better. It is simply beyond comprehension that in a year which to school children of coming generations will represent as obvious an historical date as 1492, a Jewish “art” theater can find no better expression of Jewish heroism and martyrdom than to stress the fact that the heroes of its drama have had nothing to eat for several hours, not so much as a “glesele tai.” It is bad enough that Arabs, Poles, and Englishmen should seem unreal. But this Jewish theater actually succeeds in making its Palestinians seem un-Palestinian. The author shows not the slightest spark of feeling for character. And even if he did the all-pervading pathos would make it utterly impossible to portray a generation that is distinguished by a complete lack of pathos.
So much for the Yiddish Art Theatre. Yiddish it unquestionably is, and I suppose it is theater, but art it is certainly not. What a Guy is an American musical in Yiddish. It is no better and no worse than its prototypes. Skulnik is an excellent clown with nothing particularly Jewish about him. Two scenes are specifically Jewish. In one of them six million Jewish martyrs are sandwiched between vaudeville and review.
When I state my opinion on the New York Yiddish theater at the Café Royale, I am invariably told that the public is to blame, because it wants not art but kitsch. This explanation does not satisfy me. The audience at The Voice of Israel was not moved. There would have been no demonstrations against a better play.
Heinz Politzer is generous when he says that Schwartz’ and Skulnik’s “contribution to the totality of Jewish civilization in our time is wholly passive; it does not go beyond the contribution which the group they represent makes by its mere existence. They . . . keep alive a tradition. . . . One day the Jewish communities of the Western countries may feel called upon to use this tradition.”
I believe that this view is too fatalistic. And I do not think we shall be injuring the Yiddish theater by ruthlessly disclosing its defects. If the public is to blame, it is to blame for its passive acceptance of everything that is offered to it. And this blame is shared by the press that feels obliged to close both eyes. If New York can have good Yiddish newspapers, why, at this turning point in Jewish history, should there be no talented Jewish dramatists? If The Voice of Israel and What a Guy are really all that is left of the tradition of the Yiddish theater, there is no reason why, in a moment of definitive Jewish renaissance, this Yiddish theater should not disappear.
New York City