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The Life of Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theatre
by Martin Boris

Chapter One: In the Beginning
Chapter Two: “I Burned With a Passion For the Theatre.”
Chapter Three: “Go Home and Don’t Get Involved in Theatre.”

 Chapter One: In The Beginning

                      Consider this archetypal Yiddish melodrama: A father leaves turn-of-century, virulently anti-Semitic Russia with half his family, to plant foot in America, before sending for the other half. A year later, having established himself in Manhattan on the Lower East Side after much struggling, the father sends the steamship tickets back to Russia, to bring over the balance of the family.

                       Things go smoothly exiting the country, but in England, at the final way station on the journey to New York, there is a horrible mix-up and the eldest son, age eleven, is left behind to fend for himself.

                        The marooned child, not knowing a single word of English, wanders the cold, dismal, dangerous streets of London, barely surviving until, two years later, he is reunited with his joyful parents.

                         This is marvelous material for a writer of trashy fiction, perfect for the gristmill of Yiddish Theatre, to be ground course or fine, by hacks and truer artists. Except that this particular story line is fact in its broader outline, and strangely enough happened to, of all people, Maurice Schwartz, arguably the greatest figure in the century-old history of Yiddish theatre, once a vibrant and thriving, but long-since deceased world.

                         The pages that follow are an attempt not only to resurrect the undisputed monarch of this vanished kingdom, but to illustrate the world he inhabited, a time when the American Jew was as much European as he was a Yankee, until the balance shifted in the span of a few generations and the reign was over.

                          Avram Moishe Schwartz was born in 1888, in the small Ukrainian town of Sudlekow, which lay in the Polish section of Russia, some one hundred and fifty miles due west of Kiev, and eighty miles east of Lemberg. The patriarch of the family, Isaac, was a comfortable grain dealer in the prime wheat-producing area of Russia. A devout Jew, his life was bounded by the typically standard Orthodox triangle of family, synagogue and work. Besides his wife Rose, that family consisted of three boys and three girls. Moishe, the oldest of the boys, had an outstanding alto singing voice that stood out in the synagogue choir. He was also a born performer, but the Orthodox branch of Judaism turned its pietistic nose up at all forms of artistic expression, except for the Esther-centered plays during Purim. Choir singing had to suffice for those with other more worldly talents.

                        In 1898, Isaac split the family in two, taking his three teenage daughters to America, leaving behind Rose and the three boys, Moishe being the oldest at ten. It was a well- conceived plan, as the girls were old enough to obtain work in New York and help accumulate the money to buy another round of steamship tickets. The waiting period however was short, as after a year of scrimping and saving—Isaac had created a rag-sorting business on Lower Broadway—Rose received a letter from America that contained the tickets and their marching orders.

                        Rose Schwartz immediately packed the family’s belongings and within a week they were in the port of Hamburg (the jumping off place for most European Jews), and on their way to London. In the British capital, they took a train 200 miles across the waist of England to Liverpool. From this port, they’d board a vessel jam-packed with other like-minded immigrants and brave the awesome Atlantic to the Golden Medina. This route, Isaac had discovered, was considerably cheaper than sailing directly from Hamburg.

                       The snafu began innocently enough. Isaac had sent Rose an adult ticket for herself and three half-price tickets for his sons. But during the year’s separation, Moishe had shot up like the proverbial beanstalk, not exactly a man, but with a man’s appetite. Because of the short hop from Hamburg to London, this wasn’t deemed a problem, but the boarding agent in Liverpool was incensed: why a strapping lad like Moishe could eat for two, even three! The agent told Rose and the two younger boys to please board the ship first.

                       Rose, who’d become disoriented and confused over the half-price ticket hassle, dutifully obeyed, certain that the matter would be quickly resolved. After the ship got underway however, she soon discovered that Moishe was not with them, that he’d been detained on shore. After the error was realized, Rose wailed and beat her breast in vain for the captain to return to Liverpool. The journey without her eldest son must have been hellish, each day soaked in tears, sorrow and guilt. Not the least of her problems was what to tell Isaac.

                      Those first few hours had to have been equally as devastating for the misplaced child. Not a shilling in his pocket, not a word of English at his command. Truly a Joseph in the alien land of Egypt. The impact on his psyche, on his inchoate personality, cannot be overestimated. “It gave me an insight into what life is. It was my first university”  (Braggiotti).

                       When his situation became apparent, he fled the steamship office onto the street, tearful and panic-stricken. A passerby thought enough to stop the boy who, using gestures, made his plight known. The stranger led Moishe back to the office, where he was given a refund for the half-price ticket. A tag was attached to the boy and he was shipped back to its London headquarters like a piece of lost luggage. There, in the narrow, garbage-strewn streets and back alleys of Whitechapel, the city’s worst slum area, he had to fend for himself.

                        After the refund ran out, he lived catch-as-catch-can, searching for odd jobs and barely managing to stay alive. In the winter he slept in the subway and in church basements, on park benches in the summer. And starved all four seasons of the year. He joined breadlines and queued up at soup kitchens, accepting charity ladled out by young volunteers.

                          The week before The Day of Atonement, wandering along Whitechapel Road in the Jewish enclave, he heard music coming from within a synagogue. He entered and won a job singing in the choir. The choirmaster was a kindly, hoop-bellied man named Simon Hawkins. Taken with the young urchin, Hawkins gave him a pair of his own but oversized trousers. The boy found a length of cord to use as a belt. Moishe couldn’t afford a haircut and looked for all the world like one of the many shabbily dressed clowns who scraped out a living on the even shabbier streets. Even the most hardened East Ender would gawk at the boy. Children would throw stones as if he were some mangy dog.

                         After the brief synagogue gig was over, Moishe resumed his ways as a homeless vagrant, until a Bobbie spied him on a park bench one night and took him to a German bakery along his beat. The baker gave him shelter, allowing the urchin to sleep in the back room. For months, the boy walked the streets during the day, covered head to toe in flour dust, making him an even greater subject of ridicule Later on, Moishe found a corner in a tannery to occupy, and in the evening he would climb out a window, to an inner courtyard where herrings were being pickled. Night after night he’d dine on sour herring and stale bread. For seven months he existed on nothing else. Often he’d find his way down to the Thames and stare dejectedly at the blinking lights of distant ships. Indeed, once he stared out and wondered what was the use of enduring it all. “But at that moment I saw my mother’s face in the water and I said no, I shall live on”  (Braggiotti).

                        All good things and some bad eventually come to an end. In Moishe’s case, rescue came at the close of his second year in Whitechapel. Long before, his father had placed an ad in the London newspapers and at last there were results. More than a few Londoners had noticed the hapless child. When Isaac arrived and saw his son, barely recognizable under his rags and tangled mop of hair, the overwrought father fainted. Revived, Isaac had to remind himself more than once that this filthy ragamuffin was indeed his son. Convinced, he set about rehabilitating the boy, first with a hot bath then a haircut and finally a visit to a clothing store on Whitechapel Road for a completely new wardrobe.

                         The year was 1901, and Isaac hadn’t seen this semi-stranger in three years. In that period Moishe had endured more suffering and privation than most experience in a lifetime. The time spent in London would also serve him well in the coming years of huge success and terrible failure, of the high peaks of elation and deep valleys of depression, of bitter disappointment and sparkling moments of the greatest triumphs Yiddish Theatre has ever known.

Chapter Two: “I Burned With a Passion For the Theatre.”

                        On the packed steamer crossing the limitless Atlantic Ocean, arriving in New York after the incredibly long voyage, Moishe and Isaac had plenty of time to get reacquainted. It had been three grueling years since the father split the family down the middle and took his half to America. Fully one-quarter of Moishe’s life had been spent out of Isaac’s influence, perhaps the most important segment of any youngster’s life.

                        The reunion with his mother and siblings was warm and emotional, as the tears flowed freely from all participants, especially from Rose, who still blamed herself for much of the turmoil in Liverpool. But the tears soon washed away the stains of guilt and the family was made completely whole again. Rose and Isaac brought their reclaimed child home to the modest apartment on Cherry Street on the Lower East Side, practically in view of the East River.

                        But the child Rose had inadvertently left behind in England was not the young man she’d embraced with her every fiber at the gangplank in New York. It was more than the physical changes that had taken place in the shift from age ten to thirteen. After all, he’d lived alone in London’s worst hellhole, survived its jungle of assorted predatory animals. His childhood amputated and jettisoned, he’d grown a tough carapace. Moreover, it would take Moishe a while to get used to being shivered over by a loving mother, to taking orders from an often stern father, to blending in with his brothers and sisters. By thirteen he’d become a country of one.

                        At once, Isaac registered him in the Baron de Hirsch school on East Broadway. De Hirsch, the foremost Jewish philanthropist in the world, had established a trade school for the sons of recent Jewish émigrés from Russia, to help them become useful citizens. The Baron had made it his personal mission to rescue as many victims of Czarist persecution as possible. A quick learner, having picked up Cockney English in Whitechapel, Moishe (now Morris) adapted well, especially in his literature class. Afternoons found him toiling in the small factory his enterprising father had begun, supplying recycled rags to the burgeoning clothing industry in Lower Manhattan.

                        The America that Morris had come to at the dawn of the twentieth century was a vibrant overturned anthill of a growing nation, flushed with pride after having flexed its muscles and beaten Spain three years earlier, becoming a world power in the process. The population was exploding, mainly from the avalanche of hopeful immigrants—nearly a million by 1905—passing through Castle Garden, Ellis Island and other portals of entry. Most of them settled in Manhattan, especially the Jews, favoring the Lower East Side. New York City quickly became the largest Jewish city in the world.

                         At once, Morris developed an intense bonding with his uncle Mendl, who would often receive cheap tickets to the galleries of the Yiddish theatres on the Bowery close by. “He secretly took me to a Sunday, and at that moment, from the first curtain, I became a theatre fanatic”  (Schwartz 1 Jan. 1941).

                         For many reasons, all of them sound, Isaac Schwartz took a dim view of his son’s newfound interest. His hope was for Morris to become foreman in his factory. Morris, as it so happened, had other plans.

                          At the time, Yiddish Theatre was confined to a few blocks on the Bowery between Canal Street and East Houston Street, and consisted of three major playhouses and a few minor ones. In each of them, wrote Hutchins Hapgood , is the ghetto world, the New York of Russian Jews, a world of “tinsel variety shows, ‘dive’ music halls, fake museums, trivial amusement booths of all sorts, cheap lodging houses, ten-cent shops and Irish-American tough saloons [. . .]”  (113).

                           While Isaac railed against the foolish waste of time and money, his difficult son hung around the unsavory Bowery. Morris was too headstrong to obey his father, a boy who’d heeded only his own voice for so long. The arguments over the kitchen table became so heated that Isaac actually fired his son who’d some time earlier quit school to work full time in the rag factory, and, more than once, despite Rose’s frantic pleas, the boy packed up and left home, only to return the next day or the day after. But Morris never surrendered to his father’s demands and Isaac was forced to accept the seamy love affair with the Bowery theatres. If this is what my son wants, Isaac’s manner suggested, then so be it. But he’ll regret it later.

                         Together Morris and his uncle would saunter off to the Bowery, mostly to see and hear and delight in the star who’d captured both their hearts, the comic genius Zelig Mogulesko. Their idol was the first professional Jewish actor anywhere. Avram Goldfaden had hired him for the troupe of players he was assembling in Bucharest, Romania, where Mogulesko had sung in synagogue choirs and in the chorus of French operettas. By age 30 this natural performer was recognized as a major talent.

                          Morris had become what was first known in Russian-Yiddish theatre, then in American, as a patriote.  A fan in the most rabid sense. Patriotten would dress like their idols, ape their manners, their voice patterns and the clothes they wore. They had favorite meeting places, usually a restaurant near the playhouse, where they would gather for hours, debating and bragging about their actor-heroes.

                            The first object of patriote love was Boris Thomashevsky, Uncle Mendl’s favorite. Unbelievable as it may seem, Thomashevsky had practically originated Yiddish Theatre in America. An immigrant cigar maker’s son who also worked in a cigar factory in Manhattan, Thomashevsky claimed to have been in the first Yiddish play presented in New York in 1882, The Witch by Goldfaden, though this has never been firmly established.

                        Hapgood describes him as “a young man, fat, with curling black hair, languorous eyes and a rather effeminate face, who is thought very beautiful by the girls of the Thalia. Thomashevsky has a face with no mimic capacity and a temperament absolutely impervious to mood or feeling”  (139).

                         Morris was a loyal but not fanatical follower of Mogulesko. For his preference he got a black eye from a patriote fiercely attached to another star of the period, Sigmund Feiman.

Uncle Mendl was not a great Feinman partisan either, nor fond of any serious play in which he acted. He much preferred the wildly popular lowbrow operettas and musicals. When Morris would take him to see a more realistic offering, Mendl would groan. “You’re making me spend my few pennies so that I should see real life in the theatre. Don’t I have enough real life at home? When I see real life on stage I feel melancholy. When I come to the theatre, I want to laugh. I want to hear people sing. I want to see them dance”  (Schwartz 2 Feb. 1941).

                        This was no idiosyncratic tic. Mendl was expressing the view of most Yiddish theatre-goers, then and over the next half century, much to the disgust and frustration of the serious Yiddish actor, director, playwright and producer. But the Yiddish audience then was an unusual one. The vast majority of them were recent immigrants who’d barely escaped the many forms of the Czar’s wrath. They’d come to America expecting to find paradise on earth, only to discover intolerable sweatshops and crowded tenements. Like Mendl, they attended theatre as a reprieve from, not a reminder of, their own tawdry lives—if only for a few hours. Anyone in Yiddish Theatre who offered otherwise was only swimming upstream against a strong current.

                        In all honesty, Morris loved the lighter fare, the Thomashevsky extravaganzas, nearly as much as Uncle Mendl. He adored the music, the grand, sweeping, impossibly trite plots. He knew all the songs by heart, would sing them at the drop of a hat. From the very start, he was never a strict ideologue, a theorist driven by one pair of philosophic blinders or another. To him, good theatre transcended categories and labels. And so Morris steeled himself to remain above blind partisanship and heated arguments over which star shone the brightest. “Yet I burned with a passion for the theatre [. . .]. I worked for my father all week and thought every second about the theatre”  (Schwartz 5 Feb. 1941).

                       Before long however, Morris found an actor not to idolize, but to emulate. David Kessler, to whom Morris was to hitch his wagon a decade later, had a riveting stage presence, powerful dominating eyes, and a sonorous voice. Born in 1871, he’d come to America fifteen years later and at once became a popular figure in better Yiddish plays. Hapgood labeled him “one of the best of the Ghetto actors in realistic parts  and one of the worst cast, as he often is, as the romantic lover”  (131).

                       If theatre was now in Morris’s blood, the infection spread to his brain. For months on end he didn’t miss a single Kessler performance. There were nine of them weekly, one a day plus Saturday and Sunday matinees. For the true believer, the Saturday matinee was the week’s high point. The faithful would begin lining up early Saturday morning waiting for the box office to open, their lunches and snacks crammed into brown paper bags. The queues for the gallery would extend into the street and around the block. Tickets would be quickly sold out. There was an excitement in the crowd as palpable as rain. They were like pilgrims waiting to be admitted to a holy shrine.

                       The theatre packed chock-a-block, its house lights would dim around 2 PM or thereabouts, Yiddish Theatre of that era being notorious unpunctual. The footlights would spring to life; the band would play the introduction; the curtain would rise, as an awed hush fell over the boisterous throng. And Morris would be transported to wherever the playwright was taking him.

                         A subtle shift took place in Morris during his Kessler phase, and he wondered how in God’s name he might become an actor like this man, which was a far cry from hero worship. But where to begin? How to break into what surely was a rarified brotherhood of the gifted and the lucky. He confessed this dream to his parents. Ever the cynic (or realist), Isaac shook his head and made dire predictions. An Orthodox Jew, he had no love for that which  frivolously displays itself in public, and on the Sabbath yet. Being a businessman, his father also knew how hard it was to make a living at even a legitimate trade. Rose however refused to discourage him, certain as only a Jewish mother could be, that her son would grow up to be not only a good man, but a prosperous one.

                        Morris’s proclivity towards Kessler continued until he saw Jacob Adler in   Solomon the Wise  and The Jewish King Lear, both by Jacob Gordin at the People’s Theatre. The careers of both Gordin and Adler, playwright and actor, are permanently entwined. Each propelled the other to great heights, and together they launched the first magnificent Golden Age of Yiddish Theatre.

                          Jacob P. Adler, born in Odessa in 1855, had been a dilettante and a dandy in that very cosmopolitan Russian city. Until he met Goldfaden and his traveling players in 1879 and decided he had to become an actor. After some success in London that ended in tragedy—he lost his first wife and child to illness, and his theatre to a mistaken call of ‘fire’ that resulted in seventeen patrons being trampled to death—he came to America in 1887. He was no immediate success like Kessler and Mogulesko. With his second wife Dinah, he went off to Chicago where competition was less keen. Nothing came of it, so the Adlers returned to London then reversed themselves and left once more to try New York.

                         This circuitous route led to the People’s Theatre on the Bowery and favorable recognition, then ultimately to his dominating the Yiddish stage for many years. An actor of enormous power and noble features, Adler despised the type of acting (exemplified by Thomashevsky) that used exaggerated body motions, gestures and comic antics. Adler preferred employing face, voice and eyes to extract the inner truth of the role he was playing. To be natural and honest was the sum and substance of his career.

                          Jacob Gordin had also emigrated from Russia, but directly. “He was a man of varied literary activity,” wrote Hapgood. “Of a rarely good education, a thorough Russian schooling, and of uncommon intelligence and strength of character. He is Russian in appearance, a large broad-headed man with thick black hair and beard”  (167). Natural allies, the two men formed a loose partnership that endured for years. Together they created a vital center for Yiddish intellectualism. For nearly two decades Gordin’s plays were the most important ones on the Yiddish stage, with Adler their finest interpreter.

                           Secretly, Morris began running with the Adler faction headquartered on Eldridge Street. Of all the sects of stalwarts, the Adler boys were the toughest, the most devoted. They called their leader the Great Eagle, because in Yiddish ‘adler’ means eagle. “The splendid eagle has spread its wings” was how his patriotten announced to each other the opening of a new  play starring their idol.

                        The incipient actor began to educate himself, reading better literature to fully appreciate Adler and Gordin, as he never could have in a formal school, this teenager who’d received the first part of his education on the streets of Whitechapel. Ibsen and Shakespeare were among the non-Jewish dramatists he furiously attacked, absorbing entire monologues from Ghosts and The Merchant of Venice.  “After a year of reading all the published plays, I understood how an actor performed and what he brought to the play and what was not the intention of the writer [. . .]. I was never interested in the playwright before, but now he was beginning to interest me more than the actor”  (Schwartz 12 Feb. 1941).

                         Since its inception, Yiddish Theatre had always been an actor-driven medium rather than play-oriented, the vehicle for the star. And if Schwartz believed then in the writer’s primacy, time and painful experience later modified his views and actions. This shift and many others in Schwartz’s long, unparalleled career has been the subject of much written about him in English and Yiddish, a great deal of it unflattering. Word and deed did not always coincide with Schwartz when he became the vital powerhouse behind the Yiddish Art Theatre. Eventually, a play, a novel, a short story to him would be merely the raw material from which to extract good theatre. In his hands, the Yiddish Art Theatre became neither an actor’s nor a playwright’s vehicle, but the director’s. For this reason, Schwartz anticipated the rise and dominance of the movie director.

                        One day, a bolt of lightning sizzled through the Lower East Side. A new playhouse was to be built on Grand Street. It would be the first theatre specifically constructed to house Yiddish Theatre. Before, there had been only three top grade locations of any substance, all on the Bowery, within sight of one another. The most sophisticated was the People’s at 199 Bowery, close to Delancy Street, with a seating capacity of 1750. It was opened in 1883 by Harry Miner and bore his name in the original title. Among its early stars, before transition into a Yiddish playhouse, were Lily Langtree and Thomas Keene. Its current Yiddish attractions were Mogulesko, Adler and Thomashevsky, the latter two never appearing together in the same play. Adler would take the high road, while Thomashevsky usually traveled the low of less-than-artistic clunkers.

                          Down a few blocks at 45 Bowery was the Windsor, which billed itself as ‘the largest and most popular theatre in the City.’ Before it closed forever in 1917, the Windsor had survived a fire and several name changes. During its Yiddish phase, it served as the site of many popular operettas. Directly across the street at 46 was the elegant Thalia with its five-stories high front of Greek columns. Like its two competitors, the Thalia began as a non-Yiddish theatre called the Bowery. It served up mostly German language plays. David Kessler was the main attraction during its Jewish phase.

                          But now a fourth temple of sorts was to rise on Grand Street and speculation ran high among the various factions as to who would open it. Kessler? Adler? Mogulesko? Maybe even Boris Thomashevsky and his actress-wife Bessie. Those with and without money bet on their favorites. Tension mounted, but the various opposing armies maintained a kind of uneasy truce. With other partisans, Morris would stand and gawk at the construction site. “And even though the many fan clubs didn’t know if their stars were going to perform at the new theatre, they couldn’t hide their joy that they would be there. Their happiness was passed from house to house, from shop to shop”  (Schwartz 20 Feb. 1941).

                          When the posters went up announcing the grand opening, the Lower East Side let out a collective sigh. The first play was to be Joseph Lateiner’s  On the Rivers of Babylon,  a biblical epic, one of many from the lightning pen of the master of such gaudy melodramas. The era of good feelings among the usually opposing forces continued. Whoever would be the performers, whatever the play, they all pulled together for a smashing start for the Grand. On the night before the opening, many of the faithful slept on the theatre’s fire escapes and by the stage doors.

                           Of course every ticket had been sold long in advance and only the gallery was available. A squad of police had been dispatched to maintain order. Eager patriotten were circulating in the lobby offering to pay up to fifteen dollars for a seat, any seat. “The crowds were so thick people fainted and had to be continually taken out. Peddlers did well, selling bagels and soda”  (Schwartz 26 Feb. 1941). And for all their prayers and anticipation despite being squeezed in the gallery like oranges in a crate, the play was a terrible disappointment. Instead of applause, the actors were rewarded with boos, catcalls and curses. Groups of every loyalty boycotted the Grand, refusing to make the long climb to the gallery.

                         After a disastrous half season of like offerings, the Grand closed. A donnybrook then took place over possession of the once-virginal but now sullied theatre. The Zukor-Loew’s powerhouse organization wanted the Grand as a movie house. That year, The Great Train Robbery  --a twelve minute film-- had become an enormous hit, ushering in a new form of entertainment for the masses. But Jacob Adler yearned for a home to do the more realistic plays of Gordin and his successors. After much wrangling that ended up in New York State Supreme Court, Adler got his wish.

Chapter Three: “Go Home and Don’t Get Involved in Theatre.”

                        Severe shock waves were felt by foot soldiers and civilians alike on the Lower East Side over the Grand Street Theatre fiasco. Patriotten  of every preference and intensity made it their cause celebre, as they filled the cafes and restaurants, and made longwinded speeches every evening until dawn, when it was time to go to their sweatshops and offices, retail stores and pushcarts. Nowhere were the reverberations more keenly felt and with greater passion than in the many amateur dramatic clubs that were springing up in the Ghetto like mushrooms after a summer rain.

                         Even before there was Yiddish theatre in America, a few such clubs were in existence, devoted to the cultural enrichment of the mostly Russian immigrants. The Promised Land had developed no solid achievement of drama schools the way Russia, France, England and Germany had, so these restless, gifted, but culturally starved Eastern European Jews created their own. Not in the traditional temples of art, but in social halls, private homes and any convenient location large enough to accommodate a group of stage struck young Jews sufficiently motivated to talk about and perform in serious drama.

                           Within a generation, these literary and theatrical clubs became a major force for good literary drama, as well as the breeding ground for budding actors and playwrights. Each member was the patriote of  an even larger army. Some clubs were named for the writer of their choice: the Jacob Gordin Dramatic Society, the Mendele Moshe Sforim Literary-Dramatic Society, the I. L. Peretz Society. Its members would slave all week in their shops, factories and stores, but in the evening and on weekends they’d present theatre to a very rarified and appreciative audience of the like-minded. Not only were incipient playwrights and actors nurtured, but a matching public was cultivated to enjoy as well.

                         A literary society of smaller size and much less polish was the Delancey Street Dramatic Club, which actually met in a basement on Attorney Street close-by. It boasted over 60 adherents, few old enough to vote or legally consume alcohol. But children then were more mature, especially the offspring of immigrants, who were often on their own, trapped between two cultures—the one at home and the one on the streets. Through a friend, Joseph Schwartzberg (hereafter known as ‘Spufka’), a member of the club, Morris had been invited to audition for membership. There was no other way to join. He was thoroughly tested and accepted.

                          Meanwhile the storm continued unabated over the demise of the Grand and Adler’s somewhat suspicious takeover, the biggest brouhaha ever to hit the very circumscribed world of Yiddish Theatre until then. It was common wisdom among the  patriotten that if the first play of the season was a bomb, the entire season was lost. And so it happened with the Grand despite the enormous talents of those involved on stage and behind the footlights. When it trickled down that the Eagle had seized the prize in his talons, wiping out the jobs of so many actors, a holy war—more a children’s crusade—began against Jacob Adler. Marcus’s Restaurant on Grand Street and Goldstein’s Café on Forsyth percolated with wild talk about using force to deny Adler his prize. Hotheads threatened to use metal spikes, wooden clubs, knives.

                         Round and round went the threats to clip the Eagle’s wings, but nothing came of it. The dismissed actors quickly found work elsewhere, some with the new despised owner, as Adler moved swiftly to reopen the Grand. Nevertheless the opposing patriotten were neither satisfied nor forgiving. “Among the foes, a life-and-death struggle broke out. Each fan had to swear by his parents that he would shun the Grand Theatre. For months the playhouse remained under excommunication”  (Schwartz 12 Mar. 1941).

                           The first offering of the reopened theatre didn’t go over well, but the second,  Broken Hearts, became a runaway hit. The play was written by that post-Gordin , transitional dramatist Solomon Libin, who wrote over 50 plays, many well-crafted and depicting the life and woes of the immigrant sweatshop worker, the problems of real people in true situations all too familiar to the Ghetto inhabitants, Libin himself a former factory worker. The highly successful piece at the Grand shattered the opposition’s resistance. The more they tried to deny Adler, the more the general public flocked to catch his performance. Unable to hold out any longer, and despite his own conscience, Morris went to see what all the fuss was about. Afraid to be caught by the more physical anti-Adlerites, he took in a Monday evening performance, when no self-respecting patriote would be there. He sat in the first row of the gallery hoping to be pleasantly disappointed. But the Eagle worked his theatre magic and soon Morris was drawn back into the fold. Adler the actor was forgiven even if Adler the man couldn’t be.

                        What Morris loved the actor for was the Eagle’s total immersion in his work, as Schwartz himself would be later on. “Every minute of his life was dedicated to the theatre. This was his life. It occupied every minute of the day. He even played theatre at home. There was almost no difference between the stage and his private life”  (Schwartz 19 Mar. 1941).

                         As Adler’s fortunes rose at the Grand, David Kessler’s declined, if only temporarily, at the Thalia. One play after another became an instant hit, especially the ones Gordin wrote for him: The Demented, The Stranger, and The Tree of Wisdom. Previously, Jacob Gordin had been closely allied with Kessler, but as with Morris, his loyalty had shifted. In Schwartz’s view, the noble and lofty playwright had made the change for mundane reasons. “Adler paid better. Adler invested more money on stage sets. Adler’s wife Sarah was a treasure and a terrific talent. What her husband lacked, she completed”  (Schwartz 19 Mar. 1941).

                        Morris couldn’t help feeling pity for the put upon actor, yet aware that much of Kessler’s woes were of his own making. Adler came prepared; he knew his lines perfectly, every shade and nuance, and never mind the prompter’s aid. But Kessler would spend hours in Marcus’s, gorging himself with food and drink, and playing pinochle until near curtain time. He’d rely heavily on the prompter to feed him his part.

                          Divided loyalties troubled young Morris’s conscience, but the windstorm raging among the faithful at the Delancey Street Dramatic Club was even worse, with the most hot-tempered hurling silverware and curses across the meeting hall. Often, weekly sessions would deteriorate into shouting matches that would spill out onto Attorney Street. Crowds would gather to take sides, cheering and jeering from the curbs. Threats were made to kidnap Gordin, to maim Adler. In a calm moment, a plan was drafted to send a small group to visit Gordin and beg him to return to Kessler. But that harebrained scheme had to be abandoned: how do you get any two patriotten to agree on anything? A brighter idea took hold. Morris would confront the mighty blackbearded Gordin himself, a party of one, and make the plea. He’d take the ferry to Brooklyn where Gordin lived, fall to his knees, pour out his heart.

                        Late next afternoon, Morris made his way along the East River, then under the newly constructed Williamsburg Bridge, hoping possibly to catch his man at the ferry slip. All the while, he berated himself for his audacity .”Then I saw him coming, looking distinguished. I hid behind the wooden statue of an Indian in front of a tobacco shop. I saw him at the corner. [. . . ] Short of breath, I ran to him. I spoke hoarsely. ‘Mr. Gordin, save the great Kessler’ “  (Schwartz 29 Mar. 1941).

                         Morris must have appeared like a madman, raving crazily. Gordin saw him and raised his cane as if to ward off a thief. Almost incoherently, Morris spewed out what was on his troubled mind. Gordin listened attentively, now at ease, used to the mad  pronouncements from young theatre striplings.

                        After Morris had exhausted the speech he’d gone over again and again between Grand Street and the ferry slip, Gordin led him to a candy store, where he ordered seltzer for the boy and a dish of chocolate ice cream for himself. Between gulps, Morris made his pitch. “I want you to write a few good plays for David Kessler. It’s a real shame. I feel for him”  (Schwartz 29 Mar. 1941).

                          Gordin regarded him with compassion. He paid for the seltzer and the ice cream then invited the now calm youngster to take the ferry with him to Brooklyn. On the river, they’d talk things over. At that hour of the day the ferry was deserted. Gordin sat him down by a window and took off his jacket. It had been uncommonly hot and sweat was dripping from his magnificent beard, and he asked about his old friend and recent enemy with a poignant bitterness. He leaned on his cane as he spoke, observing the gentle waves the ferry was making. Then he turned back to Morris, his eyes misty. “Such a food lover. Such gluttony. He will die looking into a food plate .[. . .] Such talent, such temperament. He should be able to conquer the entire universe, but to him hot dogs and pinochle are more important” (Schwartz 2 Apr.1941).

                       Gordin then grew silent for a long while, drawing figures with his cane on the ferry deck. On the Brooklyn side, he glanced up at Morris with an infinite sadness. “Boy, go home and don’t get involved in theatre. Even composers and  actors die of hunger in the Jewish Theatre. Forget about Kessler”  (Schwartz  2 Apr. 1941).

                        The playwright got off the vessel but Morris remained onboard, watching Gordin disappear into the approaching darkness. Morris swallowed hard and returned home. Not longer after, he came to a decision. He would disregard the great artist’s advice. The fire in him refused to die and he would no longer settle for a life of reflected glory as a mere admirer. He found himself going over in his mind the performances of every actor he’d ever seen, knowing with absolute and arrogant certainty that he could do better, or if not, then differently, on his own terms and with no convenient mold to pour himself into. He simply had to become the character he was playing.



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