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

Chapter Four: The Start of an Incredible Adventure.
Chapter Five: "You'll Be in Good Hands."
Chapter Six: Greening Out in Philadelphia
Chapter Seven: "He Was a Bad Teacher, a Mean Teacher."

Chapter 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.

                          Isadore 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.

                           “He wants 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).

                         Adorned with 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).

                         The 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.

                          This 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.

                         In ‘the 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).

                         Undeterred 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).

                         What awaited 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 whipped dogs.

                         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 sweatshop poet.

                         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).

                        While 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 arrested.

                          But his 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).

                          Adler wasn’t 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 recognized actors.

                         Their 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.

                          The prospect 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.

                         Heart beating 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).

                           Exiting the 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).

                        In his 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).

                         For that 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 it.

                        “Fairly good,” 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 the Forward.

                         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 May 1941).

                         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 novel approaches.

                        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 1941).

                        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 depression.

                        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).

Chapter Six: 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 conflicting purposes.

                       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, no anger.

                          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.

Chapter Seven: "He Was a Bad Teacher, a Mean Teacher."

                       Exhilarated after his one-night triumph, Morris returned to Philadelphia, still on an Alpine high. His fellow actors were more than warm in their congratulations, the news having reached the city faster than the train. Those he wanted most to impress: Celia and her mother were cordial but cool. Dinah however remained firm in her unwillingness to consider him a suitor. Was it his profession still, or the sticky marriage he’d gotten into and out of in record time? Waiting at home for him was a letter from Perlmutter. “Come to New York tomorrow. Kessler wants to hire you. Twelve noon at the Thalia. Don’t expect anything big because Kessler wants everything for almost nothing”  (Schwartz 22 Aug. 1941).

                        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).

                         Kessler 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).

                        On September 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.

                        “The opening 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 hopeless cause.

                       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.

                        David Kessler 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.

                        Within days 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).

                        Morris screwed 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.

                        With admirable 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? 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.

                        ‘Very soon,’ 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).

                         Emboldened, 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.

                         The morning 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 lazy.

                         During the 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.

                        The first 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.

                        In effect, 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.

                        The second 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 dollars.

                         With benefit 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.

                            And 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).

                       Jacob Gordin 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.

                        Yiddish 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 Guild.

                        A third 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 works.

                        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.


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