ONCE A KINGDOM
The Life of Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theatre
by Martin Boris
Start of an Incredible Adventure.
"You'll Be in Good
Greening Out in Philadelphia
Was a Bad Teacher, a Mean Teacher."
Four: The Start of an Incredible Adventure
Brave resolutions notwithstanding, Morris soon found himself adrift
in a morass of doubt and despair. “A gallery patriote have I
been and a gallery patriote I’ll remain,” he whispered to
himself (Schwartz 5 May, 1941). More than a few evenings, after a
day laboring in the rag factory, he’d tiptoe out the apartment on
Cherry Street, skulk along the night-draped streets of the Ghetto,
to the walkway of the Williamsburg Bridge, as he’d once been drawn
to the bridge over the Thames. The darkest thoughts would swamp his
self-tortured mind about the hopelessness of his life. With the
first arrows of sunlight announcing the new day, an idea lit up his
brain. If he couldn’t enter Yiddish Theatre through the front door,
he’d find his way in via the back door, the Jewish music halls. That
very evening he went to Spivack’s Music Hall on Eldridge Street. He
was prepared to offer himself free of charge, even sweep the floors.
Try any entry-level position.
Rabinowitz, the manager at Spivack’s, glanced at him disdainfully,
asked what the wet-behind-the ears kid wanted, probably knowing full
well. Morris sucked in his belly, threw out his chest and declared
that he wanted to be an actor.
to be an actor,” repeated Rabinowitz, first to the fearful Morris,
then louder to the young men, cronies, backstage with the manager.
The same idea for mischief must have simultaneously infused all
three men because they ordered him to disrobe, except for his pants.
Morris obeyed and they told the makeup man to apply greasepaint and
a wig. “I sensed that they were making fun of me, but I was helpless
[. . .]. I reasoned that maybe this is how it had to be to get a
role” (Schwartz 5 May 1941).
as much makeup as the jokesters could pile on, Morris was trotted
out on stage during a live performance. “The footlights blinded me.
Barefoot, I ran from one side of the stage to the other, searching
for a way out. The other actors watched and wouldn’t let me escape.
I began to run towards the audience, hearing their laughter. A cold
sweat covered my face and my naked body. ‘Act, do theatre,’ I heard
from behind the stage” (Schwartz 5 May 1941).
humiliation kept up for minutes longer though it seemed like hours.
Everyone in Spivack’s appeared to be in on the gag, everyone except
Morris. At last, the boy ripped off as much of the glued-on hair as
he could and barreled his way through the blockade of performers and
out the stage door. Nearly naked, he fled along the streets of the
Ghetto as if on fire.
first-hand episode with the cruelty of grown men towards a green kid
should have been the final nail in the coffin, should have been
ample evidence against entering a profession ruled by actors
behaving badly because they were afraid of allowing new talent in.
Not long after and recomposed, Morris was at the Forsyth Street Café
with his friends. Together they concocted a scheme to form their own
acting company and go out on the road. They were only following the
example of what Yiddish performers were doing ever since Goldfaden’s
group first began touring the big cities and hinterlands of Romania
and Russia. In the larger American cities such as Chicago and
Philadelphia there were a few more-or-less permanent houses vying
for the theatrical nomads. During the summer, Yiddish actors formed
itinerant companies bringing much needed culture to the smaller
towns as well as a few sorely needed dollars for themselves.
provinces’ finding a suitable theatre and a place to hang one’s hat
was no easy matter. “Sometimes a troupe had to settle for a dingy
room three flights up, off a dirty alleyway and far from the Jewish
neighborhood [. . .]. Sometimes a troupe was invited to appear at a
local synagogue or community center with the understanding that the
play would suit the host’s convictions” (Sandrow 80).
and undaunted, the boys began dreaming aloud. What they had in
abundance was an enormous amount of energy, an unbounded faith in
themselves, and a limitless love of theatre. What more did they
need? They had no one to chide them for their youthful ignorance.
The untried group chose Bridgeport, Connecticut as the first stop on
the tour because it was closest, the ferry ride a doable 75 cents. A
few days later, on a glorious spring morning they boarded the ferry,
a festive air of adventure and celebration suffusing each member.
They’d taken along enough sandwiches and wine for the entire trip,
and a large basket of fruit, nuts and candy. The day was warm and
impossibly sunny, each of them bursting with courage and hope for
the new, incredible adventure, unsure of what lay ahead but certain
they’d acquit themselves well, if not brilliantly. Plans were made
and expanded upon as the ferry ploughed toward Bridgeport. “We’ll
play in different cities of America, return to New York and show
them what kind of actors we are” (Schwartz 7 May 1941).
them was a baptism of fire never to be forgotten, a serio-comic
catalogue of everything going wrong that could possibly go wrong.
With practically no money they checked into a small boardinghouse,
took full advantage of the owner, waited an eternity to finally get
booked into the local YMHA, went door-to-door and store-to-store
selling tickets while talking up their non-existent triumphs back in
Manhattan. They made their collective debuts before a pumped up,
over-expectant audience, with few costumes, little makeup and no
musicians in The Immigrant, a piece made famous by Mogulesko.
Not surprisingly, the Jews of Bridgeport rebelled and nearly started
a riot. The police had to be summoned and the audience’s money was
refunded. The disgraced troupe left town on the first train out.
They returned home a beaten lot, their tails between their legs like
At low ebb,
Morris was deeply chagrined over the entire fiasco and told his
father he was seriously thinking about getting a workaday job. Isaac
was not impressed with his son’s admission of failure and promise to
do better with his life. He knew that very soon they’d be battling
again over the same thorny issue. However, for the time being, peace
blanketed he Schwartz household. The family—except for Isaac—was
ecstatic over the conversion of the sinner. Isaac remained
noncommittal, waiting for the day when the same scenario would be
replayed and he’d have to throw Morris out of the house once more
for the final time. Until the next time.
Not to put
the family through the wringer as he’d done so often in the past,
Morris voluntarily left the apartment on Cherry Street. He found a
dark tiny room on Forsyth Street around the corner from the Grand
and got a job in a factory making brass and copper signs. He worked
for ten hours a day and earned five dollars a week. With that paltry
sum, Morris found that he could eat decently, pay his rent, and buy
a book now and then. His free time he spent holed up in his room,
trying to find a more solitary and less frenetic use of his creative
instinct. He tried his hand at writing. He also began reading
poetry, especially the work of Morris Rosenfeld, the exquisite
The job in
the sign factory and his life as an isolated writer didn’t last
long. The old itch returned, insistent as ever. In the bowels of
despair, Morris languished in his small space until one evening
Spufka pounded on his door. He hadn’t been seen in weeks and his
friends were worried. But more than that, Spufka had come with good
news. “Come on, Morris. Come to rehearsal. We’re doing The
Twentieth Century in Brooklyn at Teutonic Hall. You’re going to
play the role of the father. It’s a big part. Morris, you’ve been
rescued” (Schwartz 17 May 1947).
preparing for his New York debut at the Teutonic, another
opportunity came along that he couldn’t ignore. He was asked to
journey to the hinterlands of Brownsville, Brooklyn to Singer Hall
on Pitkin Avenue, its main thoroughfare. Singer Hall “was a narrow
room with wooden benches, a stage the size of a yawn, and a curtain
that fell making noise as it came to rest on its wooden frame”
(Schwartz 17 May 1941).
The play they
were going to do was The Wild Man, the Jacob Adler vehicle he
owned, given him legally by its writer Jacob Gordin. Morris signed
for the stupendous sum of three dollars a week, playing an elderly
father. It was a juicy part, and the chance to do theatre and get
paid for it. But word soon got back to Adler that his private
property was going to be sullied in the farmlands of Brooklyn, and
by a band of rank amateurs. The Eagle threatened vociferously in
Marcus’s and other Yiddish watering holes to have the thieves
interest perked, Adler had to come and see for himself. He appeared
on opening night, bringing along an entourage of four that included
his attorney. Taking his seat in the audience after being recognized
and paid homage, Adler muttered loudly that he would teach these
robbers a lesson. A lawsuit. Prison. Behind the footlights, the cast
saw and heard the thundering—and trembled. The company manager came
out from backstage, approached Adler with fear and reverence and
“begged the great Eagle to have mercy on us. We swore never to touch
any play over which he had legal rights, but begged him to let us
perform this one” (Schwartz 21 May 1941).
moved. He sat nonchalantly opening a box of chocolates on his lap,
eating one after another, repeating his threats of prison for the
insolent boys. After the first act was over however, Adler stood up
and initiated the cheers. The audience immediately joined in, the
ovation lasting a full three minutes. He and they were genuinely
moved. Morris noticed the Eagle take out a handkerchief to wipe away
his tears. After the final curtain fell, the entire company basked
in the lengthy ovation that more than made up for the jarring effect
of Adler’s presence. No matter: the Eagle had helped the struggling
youngsters, tending to convince them that indeed they may yet become
exhilaration was short-lived. The company manager had a dispute with
the landlord and they had to leave. Morris was not terribly upset,
as the engagement at Teutonic Hall was coming up fast. Soon Morris
and his friends were busily involved, preparing for The Twentieth
Century, the play they were supposed to do in Bridgeport had not
misfortune overtaken them. In the Zolatarevsky piece, a priest’s son
falls in love with a Jewish girl, causing a pogrom, as if just being
Jewish in Russia wasn’t reason enough.
of Isaac viewing the play was surely the reason Morris had labored
so diligently on his role. Of the Schwartzes, including the aunts,
uncles and cousins, only his father had never seen him act. Isaac,
it seemed to Morris, had been holding back on purpose, a last ditch
effort to deny the reality of his errant son’s choice of career.
Morris worked on the family to get his father to the theatre. He
spoke to Rose, the girls, even Mendl, to apply pressure on all
fronts. Stodgy, intractable Isaac finally gave in. He’d go see the
silly nonsense about, of all things, a pogrom, as if he had to be
reminded. Pogroms had been one of the reasons he’d left Russia less
than a decade ago.
The day his
father would attend, Morris rose early and rehearsed before his
mother and three sisters. He became that old man, the father of many
daughters who are raped, whose house is ransacked and destroyed. The
sobs he wrung from his trial audience braced him. He prayed he might
do the same to his father later that evening. With every fiber of
his body, Morris wanted Isaac’s approval, if not understanding, of
how much theatre meant to him.
faster and irregularly, Morris arrived at Teutonic Hall at 6 PM,
planning to have enough time to transform himself into a 60-year-old
man. “I needed at least 60 wrinkles on my face. I wasn’t experienced
in mixing colors to get the proper shade for wrinkles—the eyebrows,
the beard, the deep lines in my forehead, the sunken bones in my
cheeks” (Schwartz 21 May 1941).
cubicle of a dressing room where Morris had aged 40 years in two
hours, he ran smack into Isaac and Mendl in the narrow corridor.
“Neither of them recognized me. Uncle Mendl asked where he could
find Morris Schwartz, who was in the play. I felt like shouting out,
’Uncle, Father, it’s me.’ I would have loved to kiss my father for
coming to the theatre. He’d finally acknowledged me as an actor”
(Schwartz 24 May 1941).
much-practiced role voice, Morris informed the pair that they
couldn’t see Morris Schwartz, that he was busy putting on makeup and
changing into costume. The two men started to leave, to join the
rest of the family in their seats. Morris couldn’t hold out any
longer and ran ahead of them, blocking their way. He identified
himself, had to do it a few times, then Isaac at last recognized his
son and wished him good luck with all his heart. “I seized his
wrinkled hands and kissed them. He became very emotional. In a rush
he opened the door and left. I mounted the stage, ready for my
performance” (Schwartz 24 May 1941).
particular and special evening, Morris didn’t merely give a
performance, he lived it, pouring every drop of himself into the
horribly violated man from Kishinev. Waiting at home later was his
family. In the kitchen, Rose was preparing potato pancakes, an
indication of their great happiness. Isaac, whose reaction was
uppermost in Morris’s mind, sat in his customary chair at the
kitchen table, grinning broadly and sipping his strong, black ,
Russian tea. It was 1 AM and he had to be up at 4 to recite his
morning prayers before going off to work. The voices of the family
swirled about Morris’s head, full of praise for his portrayal on
stage. In their midst Morris approached his father with great
trepidation and asked what he thought of the play, of his part in
came the lukewarm reply. “You played the role of an old man very
well. Your voice was a little peculiar but maybe that’s how it was
supposed to be” (Schwartz 24 May 1941).
Morris had expected much
more. He’d used everything he knew, stretched himself further than
ever before—and for so little in return from his father. He
retreated to his bedroom, tears barely held back. His father
understood that he’d offended the boy and entered Morris’s room and
gave him a kiss on the forehead. “When does a father ever kiss his
children? It had happened to me only once before, when he left for
America. I understood now that he approved of my career. My success
was a foregone conclusion” (Schwartz 24 May 1941).
Chapter Five: "You'll Be in Good Hands."
The day after his bracing personal triumph at Teutonic Hall,
impressing his father (and that unexpected kiss), Morris learned
he’d also impressed someone else nearly as important. Leo Largman,
the renowned and respected impresario, had heard about the excellent
youngster from, of all people, Jacob Adler. The Eagle had sung his
praises in Marcus’s Restaurant, which was like having it printed in
Largman’s particular niche was producing
Yiddish theatre outside New York City, the cost of operation being
lower, therefore the profits greater. Many a touring company,
condemned to ‘the provinces’ depended on, even flowered, under
Largman’s expertise in organizing theatre companies, booking
playhouses, and routing the groups logistically to cities with the
greatest concentration of Jews.
Like some scavenger, Largman would come to
New York City, scout the smaller theatres and halls looking for
fresh talent and even the superannuated old timer willing to work
for literally pennies. It was not an entirely one-sided deal. The
arrangement permitted the nascent actor to gain the necessary
experience denied him in a city overpopulated with Yiddish actors
who were often trapped between a solid cadre of established but
insecure players and an unforgiving audience. What had happened to
Morris at the music hall was but a microcosm of backstage reality.
Besides, it was impossible for a beginner to break into the Hebrew
Actors Union, which Morris was to relearn a few years later. Its
entrance requirements: being approved by the entire membership after
reciting a few well-chosen monologues, were too strict for even the
finest hopeful to pass.
On the evening Morris had acted his heart
and soul out for Isaac, Largman had been in the audience, liked what
he saw and heard, and sent for the seventeen year-old who’d
transformed himself so remarkably into a sixty year-old. When in
Manhatan, Largman resided on Broome Street, where Morris was told to
go. For moral support he took along Joe Schwartzberg, the steadfast
and reliable Spufka. Admitted to Largman’s chambers, Morris was
scrutinized from head to toe then offered a place in the company he
was organizing to play in Baltimore. First though, they’d play
Bridgeport, Hartford and New Haven. “For these shows you won’t get
paid. On the contrary, you’ll have to pay me. The key to your
success lies in my hands,” said Largman in a booming voice (Schwartz
24 May 1941).
Morris listened, frozen by awe, as Largman
smugly smoked one cigarette after another, but the boy had enough
presence of mind, sufficient self-confidence, to stand up to the
famed impresario, wheedling from him a contract of eight dollars a
week, with an extra dollar thrown in to serve as stage manager,
though Largman failed to describe the duties. He emphasized that
salary would begin in Baltimore.
The offer was accepted. Spufka was also
hired, conditions left unstated by Largman.
“Eight dollars?” his father asked
incredulously after Morris told him. “For this you have to paint
your face every night?” (Schwartz 24 May 1941).
In Patterson, New Jersey, the company had its
first tryout. By then, Morris had developed a strong dislike for
Largman, who turned out to be, despite his surface charm, a terrible
bully. Morris’s second role was as Eliezer in Goldfaden’s
melodramatic operetta The Sacrifice of Isaac which was
first produced in America in 1887. For it, Mogulesko composed a song
in which Eliezer laments the death of his child. “For years I wanted
to perform that role and sing the song. I always hated to see how an
actor would stand center stage and sing as if he were in a cabaret
or Romanian restaurant [. . .]. I believed the actor should sing the
song within the dramatic scene” (Schwartz 28 May 1941).
He told Largman his idea but was cautioned
against making any changes in the time-honored script. “Bigger
actors than you have sung right up in front of the audience. The
audience likes it that way,” said Largman. “Don’t spoil things,
Mister. There are ten actors waiting for your spot” (Schwartz 28
The direct warning went unheeded, as
Morris, convinced he was correct theatrically, did the song his way:
within the context of the play’s action, not apart from it. At first
the audience hissed, then laughed, but he persisted. In the wings
Largman was making loud threats to pull down the curtain. After the
song was over, the converted crowd burst into wild ovation, then
asked him to do it again. Morris hesitated until Largman dashed out
and raised the boy’s hand, telling the audience, “I found this
young man in a hall in Brooklyn. I arranged this for you, friends. I
told him to sing the song differently [. . .] and he listened to
me” (Schwartz 28 May 1941).
Largman wasn’t the first Yiddish manager to
take credit for his actor’s innovations, nor the last. A decade
later, Morris (then Maurice) would do the same, in a slightly
different situation. But pleased with the successful rebel, Largman
signed him up for another two years, sealing the bargain with a
fifty dollar advance. Morris took the five ten-dollar bills and
brought them home to Rose like a trophy he’d won. “Mama, you’re
going to get more like these” (Schwartz 28 May 1941).
Less than half Largman’s age and hardly his
equal, Morris had the grit, the audacity, to follow his instincts.
He’d taken a huge risk—and it paid off. Risk would become the very
essence of his theatrical cachet from then on, usually with more at
stake but often with fewer positive results.
Before long, to his Baltimore crew Largman
added two other actors, Clara Rafalo and her husband Morris
Goldberg. The pair was a study in contrast. ”Clara was young and
charming, and had burning gypsy eyes. She had a strong voice and
knew how to sing. Her husband, who ruled her with an iron hand, was
a peculiar, very angry fellow with bright red hair. The troupe took
an instant liking to her, but hated him” (Schwartz 31 May 1941).
As with many traveling companies, theirs was
a viper’s nest of intrigue and backstage politics: who got what role
and how, who took the most elegant bows, who was dallying with
whom—all grist for their Byzantine mills. Before long, the Largman
company was in a state of extreme unrest, rendered unable to carry
on in top form. It soon broke apart with Morris going off with the
Goldbergs to Cincinnati, where Clara’s parents owned a grocery
store. It was a small group, and Morris may have gone for the chance
to grow as an actor, a bigger fish in a smaller pond.
Ohio: a world away and Morris’s first time
in the Midwest. The Goldbergs rented the Auditorium Theatre, where
they did theatre only twice a week, Wednesdays and Sundays. Morris
was immensely content within the confines of the Auditorium, not
only because he took on more roles, but as he also served as stage
manager, a function Largman never really allowed. Being the
Goldbergs’ stage manager in reality meant toting around scenery and
applying makeup. He relished the work however, as he could absorb
the technical side of the profession.
The playhouse owned two projectors that
were gathering dust since only the footlights were employed to light
the stage. “When I saw the projectors, I decided to surprise Clara
in a scene she was doing in Bar Kochba. Her singing that
evening was totally different. She looked much better [. . .] and
performed differently. The audience applauded more enthusiastically
than ever” (Schwartz 31 May 1941). For his ingenuity, Goldberg
fumed and cursed, as had Largman. Clara stood by her makeshift
lighting director, encouraging him to carry on with fresh ideas and
Above the marital fray, Morris continued to
experiment. With his own meager savings of thirty dollars—a nice
piece of change then—he bought ten, hardly-used projectors from a
British traveling company down on its luck in the States. So armed,
he tried out original placements of the lights about the stage,
resulting in amazing effects and ambiences. He’d toil hard between
breaks and performances, while fellow actors leisured in bars and
restaurants, or played cards.
One evening, in the audience was an even
greater impresario than Leo Largman: the master manager from
Chicago, Elias Glickman. Next to New York, Chicago was Yiddish
Theatre’s favorite city (The Eagle himself performed at Glickman’s
Palace Theatre.) To capitalize on the situation, Clara announced to
the crowd that the famous impresario was among them in a box seat.
Glickman came on stage to praise the fine cast. Taking Morris aside,
he asked the boy wonder to come to his room at the Queen’s Hotel
where he was stopping. Could Morris dare say no? Turn down the
biggest chance of his life? He agreed but asked for permission to
bring Spufka along to act as his prompter.
With Joe Schwartzberg to feed him the lines
he may have forgotten, and to provide inspiration, Morris delivered
as never before for this very special audience, never mind that it
was in a hotel room. After the sound of his own voice ceased echoing
in his ears and the room had grown eerily quiet, Morris waited. And
waited, continuing to wait while Glickman contemplated the floor,
the high ceiling, the four walls. At last, he spoke. “Young man, you
have a fine voice, as soft and delicate as needed. Your motions are
not bad, a little nervous, but that can be corrected. You’ll be in
good hands. I’ll pay you fifteen dollars for the first week,
eighteen dollars for the second, and twenty-two dollars for the
third. Our season begins August 15th” (Schwartz 31 May
Morris tried not to betray his ecstasy at
being deemed worthy of working for Glickman, and at an improved
salary. He wasn’t that self-absorbed not to ask about Spufka, a par
excellence prompter. Spufka however was years to young to be a true
practitioner of that art. Besides crouching in a small box in front
of the footlights to cue a performer, a prompter would also scribble
down changes in the script that arose during rehearsals. He’d often
act as consultant to the director, even deciding on choice of play
and when to change the menu. More than a few playwrights rose from
the prompter’s box.
On a warm June evening a short while later,
with nothing much to do after the season at the Auditorium ended and
the troupe had disbanded for the summer to take fill-in work until
the fall, Morris was standing at his window, feeling serene and
relaxed, though a bit homesick for Cherry Street. He’d sent fifty
dollars of Glickman’s check to Rose, and her return letter brought a
longing to glimpse her face. His eyes drifted dreamily along the
Cincinnati skyline, coming to rest on the building across the
alleyway. Framed in a window parallel to his was a young lady
peering at him. Morris recognized her as the daughter of the corner
grocery store owner. They’d met earlier but briefly though he’d
noticed that she was stunningly beautiful, with milky blue eyes and
hair the color of wheat. Her name was Bella.
Over the next month, in the languorousness of the superheated
Midwestern summer, a mild flirtation with the grocer’s daughter
exploded into Morris’s first love affair. Spufka did his best to
cool down his hopelessly romantic friend reminding him that pretty
girls were fourteen to the dozen but roles with Glickman’s troupe
were rarer than hens’ teeth. Disregarding the sound if cynical
advice, Morris carried on with Bella, walking the baked streets of
Cincinnati along the Ohio River in the late afternoons, making
promises to the young lady he shouldn’t have.
Then reality intruded in the form of a telegram from Glickman,
ordering him and Spufka to Chicago to begin rehearsals. Morris asked
Bella to elope with him; she refused, unwilling to run off and shame
her parents. Rendered weak and helpless by her refusal, Morris
surrendered to Spufka’s admonitions, and the two young men caught
the evening train to Chicago.
Elias Glickman was pleased to see his two
recent employees. He introduced them to the rest of the cast, many
of whom were familiar to Morris, ex-New Yorkers who had sought a
steady berth out west. As might be expected, the troupe viewed the
new additions with normal Yiddish Theatre suspicion. At once, Morris
immersed himself in his work yet Bella remained an obsession with
him no matter how hard Spufka tried to dislodge the girl from his
mind. He kept hammering at Morris to move on. His efforts at first
were wasted as Morris sunk further and further into a slimy pit of
Morris credited Joe Schwartzberg’s tough
love and constant attention with getting him over the brief and
unsatisfied love affair. The crisis ended, his addiction to Bella
became history and he could concentrate on theatre as never before.
He had plays to do, lots to learn. He’d lost Bella before he ever
really knew her, sacrificed to ambition. The trade-off looked better
each time he thought about it. Theatre was his one true and abiding
love, his perpetual mistress. He would never again find himself
having to make such a choice.
As Largman had come hunting for fair game
at Teutonic Hall, as Glickman had scavenged the Auditorium in
Cincinnati, so Mike Thomashevsky, Boris’s younger brother, paid a
visit to the Palace. The meeting with Mike, probably just as covert
as the one with Glickman, soon took place. Thomashevsky told him to
come visit in New York. If Morris wasn’t considering a radical sea
change at the moment, Spufka was. He reminded his friend that
Philadelphia, where Mike ran the Green Street Theatre, was a
thousand miles closer to New York than Chicago. “From there you’re
within a few hours of the family. You can also go see Feinman,
Kessler and Mogulesko” (Schwartz 28 June 1941).
Meanwhile, Schwartz’s relationship with
Elias Glickman was fast souring. Like Largman, like most actors
turned manager, Glickman was more smoke than substance. Vain,
insulated by the flattery of surrounding parasites, he wasn’t as
concerned about theatre as he was about making money. Certainly,
Morris’s disenchantment was deepened by the prospect of working for
Mike Thomashevsky—and the proximity to the Bowery. We’ll never know
if harsh words were traded, only that after a single season, the
boys quit Glickman.
They’d been away for two years and while
gone Yiddish Theatre in New York continued to thrive. Stars such as
Adler and Kessler were still worshiped from below by the enamored
patriotten, who continued to fight each other claw and fang,
while their idols carried on the same old rivalries and animosities.
It was however “a period of uncertainty and vacillation between the
production of better plays and of cheaper pieces and operettas” (Lifson
242). The trend toward realism initiated by Gordin and Adler was
strong but counterbalanced by a return to the Hurwitz/Lateiner
school of what came to be known as shund (trash).
If a kind of homeostasis prevailed on the
Bowery during Morris’s absence, much had happened in the greater
world, In Russia, an abortive revolution had been brutally quelled
by a terrified ruling class. Albert Einstein had created his own
revolution in science by presenting his all-encompassing Theory of
Relativity. After years of seething controversy in France, Alfred
Dreyfus was acquitted of treason, in the process fanning the flames
of a virulent native anti-Semitism.
When Morris breezed into Marcus’s in the
summer of 1907, he carried with him like an aura the earned
reputation of solid achievement, a person to keep an eye on, a
comer. He was dressed to the nines in the spiffy new clothes
purchased in Chicago. At the Schwartz apartment, he’d been treated
like a conquering hero, exactly as Morris had envisioned that spring
day two years before on the ferry to Bridgeport. To his son’s pique,
Isaac regarded Morris with characteristic misgivings, never mind the
fancy duds and the money sent home to Rose.
Marcus’s Restaurant—more than just the mecca
where patriotten like himself would press their noses to the
window and gawk at the luminaries—was also where theatre managers
met to clinch deals, to work out terms of a contract with the
players. The arrangement “was written on a small piece of paper,
regardless of whether it was a big or a small part. [. . .] How
happy was the actor who could take a walk on Grand Street with a
contract in his pocket, knowing that he had a job for the next
season” (Schwartz 28 June 1941).
Mike Thomashevsky was waiting for him at a table
in the rear. He’d brought along Anshul Schor, his manager at the
Green Theatre in Philadelphia. Schor, a vastly talented playwright
as well, wrote over fifty dramas and musicals, in addition to
managing theatres on the East Coast. He made the final decision to
hire Morris, as he made most of the decisions at the Green Street.
The negotiations were brief and to the point. “My wages were to be
twenty-nine dollars a week, a rarity among actors at my level. I was
as happy as anyone could be” (Schwartz 28 June 1941).
Greening Out in Philadelphia
The only person in all of Manhattan unhappy over the
contract with Mike Thomashevsky was Joe Schwartzberg. After so many
good and bad years together, they’d have to go separate ways, Morris
now on the fast track to fame (or so they thought). Unfortunately,
the Green Street Theatre had its own prompter on a thinly stretched
payroll, and Joe couldn’t be hired no matter what.
The regulars at the Green Street were the
usual Yiddish Theatre mix of long-time thespians (some excellent,
others dreadful has-beens) and young climbers with the same wide
range of talent. Both groups were as jealous and guarded with
Schwartz as Largman’s and Glickman’s ensembles had been, not that
every Yiddish theatrical company in every era wasn’t a richly
complex novel overflowing with odd characters, superheated love
affairs, petty intrigues, smoldering hatreds and crosscurrents of
This particular company boasted its own vital
center of important players, Ida and Charles Nathanson. By that
year, Charles had already amassed an enviable list of credits,
though only 34 and already a veteran of European Yiddish Theatre.
His wife Ida was a lesser light, her strong suit being Charles’s
spouse. The Nathansons proved to be quite antagonistic towards
Mike’s latest find, especially Ida, who immediately sniffed out a
definite threat to her husband. An instant dislike blossomed between
Morris and the Nathansons.
Anshul Schor was an able ringmaster in this
circus of barely-tamed performers. He favored Mike’s new find, gave
Morris the choice secondary parts opposite Charles Nathanson. While
Ida would stand in the wings and mutter her discontent.
Turkel, the influential critic of the
Philadelphia Tag was overly lavish in his praise of the
newcomer. In the same column he needled Nathanson for his tendency
to overact, to rant. Demonstrating a total lack of sensitivity,
Morris took advantage of the column, exacerbating tensions by
hanging up in the Green Street lobby an assortment of photos: Morris
in the roles he hoped one day to tackle, roles he eventually did
recreate elsewhere and with supreme authority, among them King
Lear, Uriel Acosta and The Wild Man.
Though only 20 years old, Morris was no
stranger to backstage chicanery and must have known the problems he
was creating, especially with the Nathansons, the prideful old
lions. But arrogance of the worst order was the kindest that could
be said of his actions. He’d believed the flattering review by
Turkel and through design or accident caused a terrible row at the
Green Street. Ida cornered Mike and told him to get rid of those
damned photos in the lobby, then the trouble-making upstart who’d
hung them there.
Over the next few weeks, a power struggle
took place between the rightfully indignant Nathansons and the
too-self-impressed Morris, with Schor trapped in the middle. Charles
and Ida threatened to quit unless the boy was fired. Which he
subsequently was, only to be rehired when his absence—according to
Schwartz—took its toll at the box office.
For the next season, the troupe relocated to
the Arch Street Theatre on Seventh and Arch because their former
home had been declared a fire hazard. The Arch was a stately old
Greek style structure that resembled the Parthenon, with its
columned front and wide stone steps. Built in 1828 as a rival to the
Walnut Street and the Chestnut Street Theatres, it was once managed
by Louise Drew, grandmother of the Barrymores.
During his short stay in Philadelphia,
Morris would play every role handed him, never bothering to take an
evening off, never refusing to go on for an actor who wanted an
evening to himself. If he’d felt any resentment at being overworked,
nothing of it surfaced in his writings. Indeed, to such an
ambitious, hard-driving neophyte, the chance to show off his
versatility, his wide range, was a blessing. By the end of the
second season, Morris had gained enough self-assurance and expertise
to take charge of a nearly defunct theatre, the Columbia, owned by
Sol Dickstein, his to experiment with and resuscitate.
At about the same time he met Celia Adler,
Jacob’s daughter by Dinah Feinman. Celia had been raised in Yiddish
Theatre, first on the stage in 1892, a baby in her father’s arms.
Six years later, while Morris was singing in the choir at Sudlekow,
she’d been a child actress at the Thalia, appearing in Gordin’s
Mirele Efros with Keni Liptzin, David Kessler and Mary Epstein,
Boris Thomashevsky’s sister.
Morris and Celia met, and at once the sparks
of common interest and sexual attraction flew between them. She was
Morris’s age and very bright, extremely talented, overflowing with
ambition and the passionate yen to do better than was being offered
to the Yiddish Theatre patron. The company that Schwartz cobbled
together for the summer of 1910 “was made up primarily of young
actresses and actors who were in love with theatre. Usually, a
director has problems with actors coming late to a rehearsal. This
was not the case with us. Most of us would run to the theatre at
nine in the morning, even though rehearsals didn’t begin until
eleven “ (Adler 268).
This enterprise was the first evidence of
Schwartz’s charismatic effect on a troupe. Initially, he tested the
waters with minor stuff: sketches, a few songs from Yiddish
classics, then a one-act play he wrote especially for Celia, his
first. “The heroine was a young lady who couldn’t have the man she
loved because he was already married and the father of two children.
She arranges a party for him in her home, the only guest at the
party. She drinks a glass of wine with him. The wine contains
poison. They both die” (Schwartz 29 July 1941).
It could have been predicted with some
degree of accuracy that Schwartz, ever the romantic, would fall head
over heels for Celia. “You know what happens. You’re together day
in, day out, with rehearsals and performances taking up most of the
day. You become very close, almost like a family. He was for the
most part very amusing, pleasant and interesting. We [. . .] became
friends. Schwartz began to flirt with me and we dated” (Adler 190).
At first, to Morris’s great discredit, he
thought of Celia more as a prize to be won than as a young, lovely,
vital actress on his wavelength. The reason was a matter of naked
ambition. Joe Schoengold, a fellow actor, was also a close friend
who became Jacob Adler’s son-in-law. “I wished him the best, but I
started to feel jealous. Adler was a king and now Schoengold had
become a prince and would perform the best roles after Adler died.
Joe would become his heir. I wasn’t concerned about the money, just
the plays” (Schwartz 29 July 1941).
Again Schwartz revealed his dark ,
self-serving, monomaniacal side. Love of theatre superceded every
other form of that emotion, even self-love. Over the years, this
obsession would surface so many times, in so many ways, that
everyone who knew him took it for granted.
Between rehearsals at the Columbia, the
actor and actress would meet for lunch at Childs. She’d order a
sandwich, while he’d have only a cup of coffee. He’d tell Celia he
wasn’t hungry, but later she learned that he hadn’t enough money for
two meals. Obviously, running the Columbia Theatre wasn’t a very
financially rewarding endeavor. Before long, any thought of becoming
a prince like Joe Schoengold had vanished, consumed by his growing
passion for Celia. And the more he pursued her, the more elusive and
evasive she grew. Morris was certain of the reason. “Although Celia
didn’t hate me, she was thinking of her future. Her family had
suffered enough in the theatre and her mother Dinah used to say,
‘Get married to a man who can give you and your children a
satisfying piece of bread’ “ (Schwartz 29 July 1941).
Undoubtedly Celia liked and at times loved
the marvelously entertaining young man—but not as a husband. His
future prospects may have been good, but managing the Columbia was
more a labor of love than a means of support. In her memoirs, Ms.
Adler recorded her ambivalence toward the relentless actor.
“Schwartz was the first grownup young man that courted me, showing
me signs of genuine love [. . .]. Was it true love? Or is that how a
young girl feels when experiencing her first relationship, when she
is standing face to face with a real love affair? My heart refused
to answer me” (273).
An incident was supposed to have taken
place that, if accurate, confounds the writer seeking clues to the
true character of this brilliant and protean figure. Celia and Dinah
were preparing to go to Lodz to have erected a headstone on Papa
Feinman’s grave. (He’d died there on stage a few years earlier.)
Morris paid a call on them to say bon voyage, and to inform them
that come the fall, he might be working for David Kessler, in the
new theatre being constructed for him on Second Avenue, a half-mile
north of the Bowery playhouses. Despite her cruel toying with his
affections in the past, Morris had pressed on, hounding her for a
commitment. Celia, as usual, put him off again, at least until her
return from Poland.
On the boat during the long sea voyage to
Europe, alone with her mother, Celia broached the general topic of
Morris Schwartz. Wisely, she didn’t bring up the subject of
marriage, discussing only his talent as an actor. Then, in Poland,
in the mingling with Yiddish Theatre people, Celia overheard her
mother state as fact the impending marriage of her daughter to ‘that
up and coming actor, Morris Schwartz.’ A short while later, in her
hotel room, Celia dashed off a letter to Morris, telling of her
mother’s approval at long last.
The next morning an envelope arrived from
Schwartz containing only an invitation to the wedding of Morris
Schwartz and Eva Rafalo.
Eva Rafalo? Celia knew of her as the
19-year-old sister of Clara Rafalo from Cincinnati, and also an
actress. After rereading many times the invitation, she handed it to
Dinah. Not another word on that subject was spoken on the
interminable journey home, though Celia thought of nothing else, a
blend of outrage and shame making her mute and morose. Her first
evening back in Manhattan, the pending bridegroom, according to
Celia, paid her a visit. His eyes were full of guilt and he was
unable to offer a satisfactory explanation for his actions, for
diddling her for so long, for the inexplicable deception. Incoherent
rambling was the best he could come up with.
Years later, Sol Dickstein, owner of the Columbia,
told Celia that the man who claimed to adore her had been engaged to
Eva for two years, long before he’d come to Philadelphia. Vastly
more experienced and infinitely wiser by then, Celia felt no pain,
Actually, Morris and Eva did wed, but the
marriage lasted no longer than most honeymoons. From Schwartz’s
account of his rather shabby treatment of Bella, the beauty he’d run
out on to answer Glickman’s call, she may very well have been Eva
Rafalo, both women being from Cincinnati and grocers’ daughters.
In the autumn of this pivotal year of
Morris’s life, he cryptically announced to the cast at the Columbia
that he has to rush to New York and would tell everybody why later,
after he got back. The reason was his friend Sholom Perlmutter,
Kessler’s prompter, sent for him pronto. “You’re in luck, Morris.
You now have the chance to become famous overnight. But you have to
learn the role of the attorney in Madame X overnight”
(Schwartz 16 Aug. 1941).
The French play by Alexandre Bisson,
written in 1908, is a sudsy piece about a woman who is forced to
abandon husband and child, then descends into a life of crime.
Twenty years later, she re-emerges as the murderer of a man intent
on harming her son, who happens by chance to act as her defense
attorney. As things occurred in the tight community of Yiddish
Theatre, Morris Morrison, his friend and co-performer at the Arch
Street had a leading part in the piece and was asked to recommend
someone special to play the lawyer. Kessler was out of town on tour
and the final choice was left to Perlmutter.
“The idea of acting in New York for the
first time, so suddenly, without rehearsal or preparation was like
trying to swim across the ocean in a couple of hours” (Schwartz 16
Aug. 1941). Nevertheless, Schwartz left Philadelphia at once.
Perlmutter met him at the station, took Morris to his apartment on
Avenue A, stuffed him with food, then fed him the lines he had to
master by the next day. They remained at the impossible task until 2
AM, until Morris and the attorney had fused into one, until the
actor felt confident enough for a visit backstage at the Thalia to
meet the cast. Over Sholom’s objections. He didn’t want the boy
parading himself before Kessler’s troupe, knowing what bloodthirsty
sharks they were, worse than Ida Nathanson. For more than mere
sport, they’d pick him apart, enjoy the feeding frenzy.
Perlmutter fought Morris as long as possible
then consented. At the Thalia, Morris learned how correct the
prompter had been. “When I went to my dressing room, the actor
Leibush Gold offered me a welcome. ‘Just who are you, kid’ he asked
icily, then launched a string of colorful insults” (Schwartz 20
Aug. 1941). A second actor and Kessler’s other prompter added their
corrosive comments to Gold’s. The combined object was to make
Schwartz’s one-time-only New York debut as difficult as possible,
perhaps even keep the outsider on the outside.
Disregarding everything but the chance to
excel, Morris eagerly went on that evening. “I played my part with
confidence, as if I’d already played the part a hundred times. I did
a great job [. . .] not like an actor, but rather like a real young
lawyer” (Schwartz 20 Aug. 1941).
Schwartz claimed receiving ten curtain calls
(an exaggeration?) accepting the audience’s adulation, but the
attempt to intimidate him by Kessler’s crew, then going onstage to
give his all, took its toll. After the final bow, he retreated to
his dressing room, where he collapsed in a chair, trembling, unable
to remove his makeup. He expected a panic attack, but if it took
place, it was short-lived, ended by Max Wilner, Kessler’s son-in-law
and business partner. He burst into the room, lavish with praise,
promising that as soon as Kessler returned to New York, there’d be a
contract signing. Guaranteed.
"He Was a Bad Teacher, a Mean Teacher."
He would be
returning to New York in grand style after having spent six years in
the hinterlands, learning his craft, perfecting other theatrical
skills, surviving overly critical audiences, pouting prima donnas of
both sexes, and managers better suited to run a cotton
plantation—all while keeping body and spirit together on subsistence
wages. He’d be arriving at the epicenter of his chosen world, and
nothing or no one would keep him from claiming what was his by
virtue of skill and hard work. This would be his posture with
Kessler, he told himself.
Next day at
noon at the Thalia “Kessler looked me over with his big,
evil-looking eyes that were always bursting with fire, even when he
was easy to get along with. His pupils were fixed in one direction,
joining his thick black eyebrows, surrounded in a sea of white, like
a thief in the forest” (Schwartz 27 Aug. 1941).
opened with a compliment, recalling one of Morris’s top-notch
performances at the Arch Street Theatre. That out of the way,
Kessler shouted for his manager to write up a contract for thirty
dollars a week, thirty five dollars the next season if Kessler liked
him, if he lasted. End of negotiations.
In the fall,
Schwartz pulled up stakes and returned to New York, eager to get
started. As the Second Avenue Theatre was not yet completed, Kessler
and company took up temporary residence at the much less impressive
Lyric Theatre on Siegel Street in Brooklyn, a thoroughfare lined
with stores and pushcarts. Now part of this first-rate troupe in its
second-rate theatre, Morris soon discovered that David Kessler was
no absentee owner like Largman and Glickman, men more interested in
being flashy promoters than dedicated managers. The boss proved to
be a hands-on tyrant, an impossible taskmaster, a blusterer in
dealing with his actors, cursing and ridiculing them soundly,
publicly, in Yiddish, Russian and English. “He was a bad teacher, a
mean teacher, who wouldn’t explain, but a teacher from whom I could
learn a lot. [. . .]Almost all those who played with him grew to
be—some more, some less—actors with well-defined tastes for better
acting. His mockery often pushed actors to do better” (Bialin 7).
1, 1911, Kessler’s Second Avenue Theatre opened with befitting
hoopla and ceremony. Mayor William Jay Gaynor, one of New York
City’s most colorful characters, was on hand, as well as a host of
Jewish and Christian dignitaries. The theatre, the finest of it
time, was completely modern, with sinfully plush seats and an
overhanging balcony for special guests. Kessler had thought in terms
of a larger, more refined, better-incomed trade to see him perform.
Max Wilner thought only of the bigger box office revenue the change
in location would generate. For the premiere, Kessler chose a safe
bet, or so he thought: God, Man and Devil. At higher
prices than the Thalia would fetch.
was a total fiasco. The management counted on a very huge audience.
But they made a gigantic miscalculation. The crowd had already seen
[the play] and were not in a rush to pay the higher prices”
(Schwartz 20 Sept 1941). But this would change as other, fresher
plays were given and accepted by the public. Business picked up, and
more restaurants opened closeby to accommodate the increased
traffic. Following Kessler’s lead, other Yiddish playhouses would
open would open along the avenue , from First to Fourteenth Street,
thus shifting the geographic center of Yiddish Theatre.
For the length
of his contract, from 1911 to 1913, Morris accepted every role
demanded of him by his mentor, a man Schwartz came to love and
admire despite his glaring faults. With two productive years under
his belt, Morris decided that the time was ripe to obtain his Hebrew
Actors Union card, the indisputable badge of legitimacy for Yiddish
actors. It would be an undeniable entry into the charmed circle, the
steep mountain to be conquered before he could be considered an
actor. As has already been established, those within the union did
their utmost to keep out those attempting to enter, regardless of
ability. The first obstacle for Morris was the one hundred and fifty
dollar fee, a near impossible sum for a struggling performer. It was
overcome after Morris importuned his mother, Mendl and a cluster of
relatives to pony up the cash, strictly as a loan. Not a cent came
from Isaac, who was dead set against throwing away good money in a
The test was
scheduled at the union office at 108 Second Avenue, two blocks from
the theatre. Morris was given fourteen days to prepare material sent
him. He’d be doing monologues from Shomer’s Ezekiel Mazik
that had been first directed by Boris Thomashevsky in 1911, starring
Rudolph Schildkraut. His friends had two weeks to do some serious
politicking to change minds already made up, their votes
predetermined. Disregarding the obvious, Morris threw himself into
perfecting his material, naïve enough to believe that by sheer
ability alone he’d prevail. It was the only game in town, and he had
to be one of the players.
The day of the
test arrived. The union hall was abuzz with actors and actresses
who’d known him personally or by reputation during his two seasons
with Kessler, most of them avid to trim the upstart’s sails. In
fact, they considered it their solemn duty to man the barricades
against all invaders, no matter the fact that in the years
immediately prior to the First World War, Yiddish Theatre in general
was robust, with playhouses proliferating on Second Avenue and
spreading to Brooklyn and the Bronx.
The test was
scheduled for 3 PM. Long before, the noise began as idle chatter and
kept rising steadily like water filling a tub. Heated arguments for
and against Morris reverberated throughout the room. There were no
neutrals. ”The hall was dark. The small electric bulb didn’t
illuminate it properly. I saw the audience as in a fog or steambath.
I avoided the actors’ faces and did my monologue with fire and
clarity” (Schwartz 27 Sept. 1941). And when he was done, drained of
his boundless energy, he held his breath and waited, nerves frayed
to tenuous threads, skittish as a condemned man awaiting an
eleventh-hour reprieve from the governor.
Overwhelmingly, he was rejected by a vote of 96 to 11.
was livid when he heard that his favorite protégé had been so badly
treated. He took Morris aside, tried comforting him, but without
success. Heartsick, Morris couldn’t help wondering if his bright
future at the Second Avenue Theatre hadn’t been suddenly eclipsed.
Needless worry, as Kessler, who may have been a martinet, was also a
loyal friend. He wasn’t about to abandon the fine young actor he’d
been cultivating for two years, who could be depended upon to handle
any role and at a moment’s notice. He ordered Max Wilner to draw up
a new contract for the 1913-1914 season that included a ten-dollar
raise. Morris could hardly express his gratitude.
after his rejection, Morris was urged by Uncle Mendl to apply for a
second test. After a short healing period, he contacted the union
and was granted permission to try again. So what would change the
votes of those who’d turned thumbs down on him before? He
would, by doing even better than before, so smashingly that they’d
have to feel remorse and welcome him in.
For the second
test however Morris realized that he had to work behind the scene to
improve his chance at acceptance, to build a groundswell, as if he
were running for Congress. Uncle Mendl, who’d grown extremely
knowledgeable about theatre, suggested they go see Abe Cahan, the
chief editor of the Forward and the most powerful force in
New York Yiddish culture. Mendl told his nephew that no one knew
better than Cahan who was talented and who wasn’t. With large
measures of hope and fear, Morris went to face the revered giant in
his castle at The Forward Building on East Broadway. He’d met Cahan
before, in Chicago, at a labor benefit dinner, and recognized him at
once as the person contributing most to the overall betterment of
American Jewry. He also admired Cahan as a drama critic who favored
the kind of theatre that was “an expression of life experience, not
just amusement material” (Schwartz 8 Oct. 1941).
up his courage and entered The Forward Building. In the lobby, he
nearly changed his mind, recalling how Cahan would terrorize the
blustering David Kessler after the actor presented shund
plays or strayed from the printed text. Whenever the feared editor
was expected to attend a performance, Kessler would diligently bone
up on the dialogue and never improvise. With a few strokes of his
pen, Cahan could make or break a play. Berating his own
chutzpah, Schwartz entered the Managing Editor’s outer office.
He stood in limbo, listening to Cahan in his private office, barking
out orders to Hillel Rogoff, his assistant editor, a proven maven
himself in Yiddish cultural affairs. A second editor, Leon Gottlieb,
approached Morris, asked the lad what he wanted.
self-command, Schwartz identified himself and explained his purpose
in coming. Gottlieb listened patiently, then his expression changed
from indifference to interest. He knew of the young actor and his
problem with the Hebrew Actors Union. Offering sympathy, he led
Morris into Cahan’s office, the sanctuary of the almighty arbiter of
Jewish culture in America.
Schwartz ?” Cahan plumbed his mind. “Where is he playing? What is he
playing in? A newcomer to America?” he asked gruffly (Schwartz 15
Oct.1941). However, Cahan instantly regretted his slight. He asked
Gottlieb what roles had the twenty five year-old played? The
assistant editor rattled off a few and Cahan promised to visit
Kessler’s theatre very soon to catch the performer. He conceded that
Yiddish Theatre could use a transfusion of new blood.
was too indefinite for Morris, as the second test was fast
approaching. He asked if he could audition for Cahan here and now,
only a few minutes needed to show his stuff, He’d done the same for
Elias Glickman. Cahan didn’t object, warming at once to the plea. “A
talented actor can perform in a restaurant, even in his home, while
a non-talent couldn’t be helped with a crown and a royal costume”
(Schwartz 15 Oct. 1941).
Morris gave his audience of two a sample of what he would present to
the union: one of Chatzel Drachma’s monologues from God, Man and
Devil. He blocked out everything from his mind—the editor’s
office, the minimal audience, his previous failure—and gave a superb
rendition. When Chatzel became Morris once more, the chief editor
ordered Gottlieb to find out why Schwartz had been denied his due.
of the second test, a Friday the union hall was packed; many more
had shown up for this test than the last. Not only the
actor-members, but critics, theatre managers and owners. It was a
true Lower East Side happening, and one of the attending journalists
quipped that Schwartz couldn’t hope for a larger turnout at his own
funeral, which in a large sense this might be should he fail again.
If he’d given a bravura performance for Cahan, Morris gave an even
more spectacular rendition this Friday afternoon, pulling out all
the stops and holding back nothing. Cooling off after, he sweated
out the ballot counting alone, with only his thoughts and emotions.
He’d won, and
by a razor-thin margin, and though he was saddened by how many had
voted against him, he was elated that at last he’d have a union
card, He could now play in any Yiddish theatre and with a salary
more commensurate with his skills. Relaxed and buoyed by his
victory, he dove into new roles, expanding his repertoire, learning,
always learning, growing. Friends warned him against getting too
cocky, too full of himself. There still existed many who couldn’t
abide him for his talent, his aggressiveness. Modesty was always
required, and a union card was no free pass to become careless or
years from 1911 to 1918, while Schwartz was serving his
apprenticeship with David Kessler, not very much progress was made
in the cause of a more literary Yiddish Theatre. Any sincere trend
in this direction was met by three forces of resistance present
since the very beginning, when the Hebrew Opera and Dramatic Company
presented The Witch at Turn Hall on East 4th
Street in 1882.
serious obstacle was the all-pervasive influence of the star system,
where the leading player would appropriate a role whether or not it
dramatically suited him. “The stars of great talent such as Adler
and Kessler could really portray the role and the public would
believe them. But with it they set a bad example for those who came
after them, when performers with scant talent permitted themselves
to attempt the same” (Adler 86). With these lesser talents and even
with the brightest luminaries, Yiddish Theatre was shortchanged in
the fare offered the public. The star, who was often the manager and
the director, would decide the play and the cast regardless of
suitability. The piece’s author was frequently forced to tailor the
role to the star's tastes.
what ‘starism’ did was smother the star’s rivals in the very
circumscribed and competitive world where opportunity for
advancement was severely limited and the laws of the jungle
prevailed. The result of course was not the play being the thing,
but who the star was.
detriment to the more creative theatre movement initiated by Jacob
Gordin was the benefit ticket system. Traditionally, new plays were
reserved for Friday, Saturday and Sunday, but to keep the playhouse
alive and solvent during the week, ‘literary’ plays and experimental
works were presented then. These benefit audiences were often
first-timers, introduced to Yiddish Theatre by the sponsors of the
various organizations, clubs, benevolent associations and labor
unions that working class Jews belonged to. Discounts to these
groups ranged as high as seventy-five percent, while tickets to
their members were resold at full price, the difference used to
support that particular group. The money given to theatre managers
went a long way to cover a weekly nut of from three to five-thousand
money so vital, it’s no wonder that theatre managers did their best
to please the organizations’ sponsors with known, pre-sold winners,
with what had always worked in the past and was sure to work well in
the future. With working class audiences in the majority and quite
content with shund, small wonder that the fare presented held little
cultural or literary value. It was the same material that had
enthralled Uncle Mendl.
lastly, Yiddish Theatre stagnated because of the mindset of its
managers, who “were obligated to satisfy the committees [. . .] and
the societies that purchased the benefit performances for their
organizations. Thus the theatre benefit trade governed the
repertoire of the established theatres” (Lifson 252).
was dead by 1908 and his influence after waning. Shund
reigned supreme once more, if it indeed it had ever abated. Only
Kessler, Adler and occasionally Thomashevsky kept the flame alive by
resurrecting Gordin’s better plays, and by offering—if only
rarely—younger playwrights such as Leon Kobrin, Sholem Asch, Ossip
Dymov and David Pinski, all of whom were trying mightily to break
into the profession.
Theatre may have been stuck in neutral, but American Theatre was
beginning to stir itself—not on Broadway, but off the beaten track.
In 1915, The Neighborhood Playhouse was started on Grand and Pitt
Streets by the Lewisohn sisters, as an outgrowth of the Henry Street
Settlement House. The Playhouse, designed specifically as a holy
shrine for art pieces, presented the Jewish community on the Lower
East Side with the newest and finest in English-speaking and Yiddish
plays. A year earlier, the Washington Square Players developed from
the elite intellectual group known as The Liberal Club, a theatrical
company that offered full-length plays that ran counter to the
mostly inane pap appearing on Broadway. Among the playwrights
introduced were Eugene O’Neill, George Bernard Shaw, Chekhov and
Maeterlinck. Later, it would transmute itself into the Theatre
movement toward better theatre during this period was the
Provincetown Playhouse on Cape Cod, but transplanted to Greenwich
Village. At first, one-acters were given, then full-length works by
O’Neill, John Reed, Maxwell Bodenheim and Paul Green. More than
strictly a theatre company, the Provincetown was also a laboratory
for training young playwrights and taking risks on experimental
But with the
coming of a cataclysmic war, there were also changes that would
filter down to Yiddish Theatre. The younger generation was replacing
the old, even as the old ways hung on like survivors clinging to a
life raft. For a while immigration was halted as the war
intensified. With their ancestral homes cut off, Jews turned their
attention to the very circumstances of living in America. The new
Yiddish playwrights, reflecting the changes, would begin to place
more and more emphasis on surviving in the Golden Medina. Theatre
people like Morris Schwartz would sense the shift in wind direction
and chafe at doing the same old things in the same old ways. When
the time was right, they would rise up and take action.