Home       |       Site Map       |      Exhibitions      |      About the Museum       |       Education      |      Contact Us       |       Links



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

Chapter Eight: "I'll be Looking for Greener Pastures."
Chapter Nine: “The Theatre Must Be a Sort of Sacred Place.”
Chapter Ten:
“Our Policy: The Best Plays and Players.”
Chapter Eleven:
“Mr. Schwartz, You Are Killing Me.”

Chapter Eight: “I’ll Be Looking For Greener Pastures.”

                        The assassination in 1914 of Arch Duke Ferdinand in the Bosnian city of Sarajevo ignited a powder keg that had been smoldering for decades. With Europe devastated by conflict, America was transformed into democracy’s arsenal, its factories from coast to coast turning out supplies to feed the Allies’ war machine. Employment, prices for all goods and services, profits, and the pace of life in America rose, and with everything else, America’s influence and power in the world.

                        Rising too in the swell of prosperity was Yiddish Theatre, especially at David Kessler’s Second Avenue Theatre. In every Jewish restaurant and store along the Avenue, photographs of Kessler’s troupe adorned the walls as if they were saints and presidents. Not only did East Siders flock to see the newest Kessler piece, but Jews from every neighborhood in New York came in droves.

                        In May of 1914, after the season ended and the war in Europe was but a month away, Morris married Anna Bordofsky, a twenty-four-year-old, oddly beautiful girl from Brest-Litovsk in Russia, where the treaty ending hostilities between Germany and Russia would be signed three years later. She’d been in America for a decade. The marriage was to last, despite enormous pressures on it, over forty-six years, ended only by Schwartz’s death in 1960. About their courtship, little is known, though if Morris was true to form, it must have been a rocky one, the suitor a man of strong, often ungovernable emotions. They’d met during Morris’s apprenticeship at the Second Avenue Theatre. She may have been an incipient actress originally, but becoming and remaining Mrs. Schwartz, appealed more to her than a career in the limelight. They were, like so many other couples, young, poor and wildly in love. Together, they shared the same dream of success and fame.

                       On the surface, everything seemed rosy at the Second Avenue Theatre, but inches below, a veritable cauldron of intrigue as convoluted as a Balkan political plot was eroding the playhouse and the man whose name was part of the title. Though David Kessler happened to be divorced, with a young daughter to raise, he’d met and fallen in love with Rachel Wilner, a recently divorced woman, mother of five and proprietor of Wilner’s Full Dress Parlor, a highly regarded ladies shop on the Lower East Side. After a tempestuous courtship, they married. At once, David opened his magnanimous arms and embraced Rachel’s children, especially her two sons, Max and Harry, installing them at the Thalia, Max as manager, Harry in the box office.

                       As with most family-operated businesses, there were plenty of problems besides those engendered by the normal routine of commerce. Morris did his best to remain aloof from the constant bickering between David and Max. Instead, pupil and teacher jousted on the higher plane of theatre: the plays selected, the shund Kessler presented to pay the bills, and the basic acting techniques that marked their differences. “I brought books to Kessler to demonstrate that it’s not the actor’s role to cry on stage, but to make the audience weep. I would give examples from Shakespeare [. . .] but Kessler was not convinced. He claimed that talented actors do not depend on books to teach them how to act”  (Schwartz 18 Nov. 1941).

                         Easily ignited, especially after a run-in with Rachel’s sons, Kessler would strike out blindly, embarrass his protégé during rehearsals over interpretation, use of body motions, inflection of voice. The exchange would end in Kessler blowing up, becoming furious, then lighting a cigar before executing an about-face and stalking off somewhere to puff away and decompress in isolation. Leaving Schwartz to carry on as best he could, feelings battered, faith shaken, muttering to himself and wondering how much longer would he be able to tolerate the giant who was being hewn down little by little each day. In seething anger, Schwartz silently swore, “I’ll be looking for green pastures”  (Schwartz 18 Nov. 1941).

                        Yet there were times he and Kessler got along splendidly. And hadn’t David Kessler been his greatest champion in an hour of extreme need? Gratitude however can be the most fleeting of emotions, and the truth was Schwartz had been experiencing growing pains as an artist, and as a young husband with higher ambitions.

                           Joseph Edelstein prided himself on knowing what was happening in every Yiddish theatre in New York. He was one of those clever non-acting theatre owners who’d made several fortunes by giving the Yiddish public what it wanted, which was cheap, lugubrious melodrama. Concerned only with the bottom line “he was no expert in acting, but was an excellent businessman. His definition of the theatre was a comparison with a grocery store. When a customer came in to buy bagels, cheese, herring or sour milk, he had to be treated nicely. The same should apply to the theatre”  (Schwartz 18 Nov. 1941).

                        Out of desperation to escape Kessler’s often stifling orbit, Morris secretly agreed to meet Joe Edelstein at the Actors Club for lunch. Right off, the very direct Edelstein offered to feature him at the People’s, one of Edelstein’s properties, in better plays, as well as the troupe’s manager. Joe had pushed all of Schwartz’s buttons, dazzling him. He’d be onstage at the legendary People’s, which still had a reputation for grandeur. The salary proposed was $120 a week, far more than Kessler was paying him. Persuaded, overwhelmed actually, Morris signed on the dotted line. He knew full well however that he’d have to eventually face those advocates—led by Cahan—for better theatre, who would be gunning for him should Edelstein fail to live up to his promises. But Joe was a man of his word, a rara avis among his fellow owners.

                        At his first rehearsal next season of Libin’s The Angry Mother-in-law, Morris realized he’d made a horrible mistake. The play was worse than terrible, and at the first reading with full cast, he asked himself why he’d left Kessler. A strong sense of shame overcame him and he’d give anything to undo the damage, to return to the Second Avenue. Alone with Anna, his new bride, he admitted his recklessness. He’d been an overreaching fool who’d made an unwise career move. From the very start, she’d tried reasoning with him when he told her of his intention to sign with Edelstein. She’d cautioned that shifting to the People’s would prove to be a step backwards. His future and the future of Yiddish Theatre, his kind of Yiddish Theatre, resided on Second Avenue.

                        This was a pattern to be repeated throughout Schwartz’s career: Anna the prudent businessperson offering sound advice, Morris the impractical hothead, never fully considering the hazards, the end results. It is said with much accuracy that Schwartz would never have been able to remain afloat financially without Anna. She took full charge of the checkbook and the province of dimes and dollars. Inspiration was his forte, not practicality. He would never have soared so high if Anna didn’t provide the ballast to anchor him to earth.

                        To everyone’s surprise except Edelstein’s, the play and Schwartz scored big. After the piece’s full run however, the obligation to Joe considered met, Morris asked for and received a release from his contract. Not long after, Morris was summoned to Kessler’s dressing room. A warm embrace from the master—and a question: when would Morris be ready to work again? So Schwartz returned to the fold, doing loads of shund, but also performing in the quality plays he loved. For the 1915-1916 season, he was allowed to coordinate a benefit evening for himself.

                        Actors’ benefits were a vital part of a Yiddish performer’s income. They were labeled ‘honor nights,’ which was less ignoble-sounding than charity. When an actor signed contract at the beginning of the season, there would always be a clause entitling him such an evening and from half to all the receipts. “Ambitious actors would do it because on that evening they would appear in roles they wanted to play but couldn’t otherwise because of their status in the theatre. For others, it was simply a matter of making the few hundred dollars they needed so badly”  (Adler 125). With Schwartz, it was never the money but always the chance to do good theatre and shine at it. For his first benefit, he chose Ibsen’s Ghosts, assigning the plum role of Oswald to himself.

                        Schwartz reported that the benefit was an unqualified success despite a prediction of failure from David Kessler. When Morris had arranged the evening and told his boss what play he’d chosen, Kessler warned him in his usual caustic manner against presenting such radically far out material, especially from a non-Jewish, humorless playwright. Not a song, nor a dance, nor a single laugh in the entire script. Benefits, Kessler reminded him, were for filling the theatre using accepted crowd-pleasers in order to maximize the receipts, even if the play was    ancient and shopworn. But as he’d done in the past, and during his entire career, Schwartz defied the obvious, the traditional, the accepted wisdom of his elders, and went with his own internal soundings.

                        The morning after the benefit, Kessler greeted him with an off-putting comment “So, you took the audience with drums and trumpets. From now on you’ll have to keep them on a high plateau. You’ve poisoned them with literature. They won’t accept less”  (Schwartz 18 Nov. 1941). In one of his blackest and bitterest moods, perhaps weary of trying to enlighten an audience that only wanted to be entertained, Kessler had revealed his contempt for them. Of course there was no way for Schwartz to know that many years later he too would become as depleted and disheartened as Kessler, though he’d never grow disillusioned with the idea of mounting great theatre, never surrender to cynicism about the Yiddish playgoer’s lack of intelligence or his desire to be honestly moved, even if that special audience would slowly melt away.

                       The more enmeshed in these benefit evenings he became, the more Morris loved the involvement. He was able to use the many skills required in cherrypicking the cast, holding meetings to discuss interpretation of the main theme and the individual characters, the production details, the lighting, choice of music and the myriad of secondary people to deal with. Then the next level of rehearsing with his actors and actresses. He found that he actually relished the initial chaos then bringing order out of it, something akin to what God did in creating His world, but longer and with more confusion. He could only admire how the lesser deities such as Adler, Thomashevsky and his own Kessler would do it over and over again, season after season. It was after one of these ambitious projects that Morris knew he’d be leaving Kessler again, and this time permanently. Kessler was rapidly falling apart, and with him, the theatre he’d built. He was becoming more and more indifferent, giving mechanical performances on stage. By 1917, the sad, embattled titan was relying to a great extent on inferior material, much to Schwartz’s disgust. “I have to escape a theatre that permits such mediocre plays, an offense to an actor, an artist. I have to save myself”  (Schwartz 22 Nov. 1941).

                         In defense of David Kessler, the man was suffering enormously with family problems that seemed to have no solution. He became bogged down in a long and acrimonious lawsuit with Max Wilner and lost his beloved playhouse, which bore more than merely his name. Banished from the premises, Kessler became a journeyman actor, rootless after decades of being practically an institution.

                         While negotiations had been going on to have Kessler ousted—he’d refused to sign the documents, insisting that his name must be first removed from the theatre everywhere it appeared—Morris stepped into the vacuum created by the turmoil. He directed a few plays with himself in the starring role. The news in the cafes on the Bowery and along Second Avenue (probably spread by Wilner) heralded the rise of the youthful successor and of the revamped theatre.

                        With Kessler’s departure a done deal, Morris met with him to say he’d be leaving too, in a show of solidarity. Perhaps this was merely a token gesture, an attempt to make up for deserting Kessler a couple of years before. Deeply touched, Kessler could only respond with abject silence, his eyes becoming pools of tears. If the beau geste was indeed made, the fact remains that after Kessler had been aced out of his own house, Morris did not leave in his wake. Wilner, now in full command, asked Morris to take over Kessler’s favorite roles. According to Schwartz, he refused flat out, but was ordered to by Hershel Zuckerberg, the genial but dictatorial head of the Hebrew Actors Union. The Second Avenue couldn’t survive a second hole in its troupe, Zuckerberg was said to have told him. Dozens would be thrown out of work.

                        And so Morris stayed, for reasons known only to himself, ambition surely high on the list. A marriage of convenience, he called it though Celia Adler detected the realpolitik in the arrangement. “In a word, Wilner saw Schwartz as his winning lottery ticket for the future of his business in the Yiddish Theatre. No sooner had he thrown Kessler out of his theatre than did he make Schwartz his right hand. He allowed him to be the director at the Second Avenue Theatre until the end of the season”  (426).

                       The year Kessler was booted from his tiny kingdom, Czar Nicholas was evicted from a much vaster one. On March 5th, 1917, the Russian Revolution began with rioting and strikes over food shortages and the nation’s continued participation in the war. Jews the world over rejoiced at the prospect of the hated Romanovs losing their thrones. The Great War had been in progress for three horrific years, and finally on April 6th, America entered the fray. By June, the first divisions of the AEF landed in France, commanded by General John J. Pershing, whose nickname was ‘Blackjack’ because he’d once led a regiment of Negro soldiers. Before this bloody year was over, in September, Kerensky would proclaim Russia a republic, only to be overthrown two months later by Lenin and his Bolsheviks.

                        The world was changing precipitously and forever.

Chapter Nine: “The Theatre Must Be a Sort of Sacred Place.”

                         “Everything is in a tumult over the great bomb that the young actor Morris Schwartz threw at the Yiddish Theatre. We mean about Schwartz becoming a director and securing a lease on the German Irving Place Theatre on 14th Street,” wrote A Theatre Patriote (a pen name) in the Forward. ”Many old theatrical producers have been going around trying to secure a theatre and then suddenly, just like that, a young actor gets a theatre”  (15 Feb. 1918).

                        It was by no means ‘just like that,’ capturing a playhouse in an expanding market with a limited number of sites (eight regular theatres and two presenting a mix of vaudeville and motion pictures) in Manhattan and Brooklyn, all of them set to open for the 1918-1919 season.

                        Toward the close of 1917, Schwartz told his boss, the surviving member of the Kessler/Wilner partnership, that it would be his final season at the Second Avenue. He was through playing trash and planned to open his own shop dedicated to the classics. Max expressed his regret at losing the very excellent young man who’d done quite nicely as temporary director and general all round actor. Nailing down the Irving Place Theatre would be an impossibility, Wilner told his brash employee, houses being so scarce, and this particular one owned by a Gentile. But the more Wilner considered losing Schwartz—who would certainly siphon off his best players to the bargain, perhaps even open up within walking distance of the theatre wrested from Kessler—the more interesting the move became. Wilner wondered how the loss might be turned into a gain.

                        “He asked me how much money I had. I replied about $2000 of my own and another $2000 I could borrow. Wilner said get your share and I’ll invest from $10,000 to $12,000. We’ll become partners” (Schwartz 26 Nov. 1941). Whether Wilner actually believed this overly aggressive hustler would actually obtain a lease on the Irving Place is moot. The point was, Schwartz believed it and went about the serious business of getting one, as if he believed that wanting something and getting it were parts of the same continuum.

                        In his free, restless hours, Morris had often dropped in to observe the German plays at the Irving Place Theatre and got to know Rudolph Christians, its producer. He knew that hard times had fallen on the playhouse because of the wartime anti-German sentiment sweeping the nation, despite twenty-seven successful years in operation. Morris had also met Dr. Max Winder, its business manager, who’d listened to Schwartz’s plan and suggested he go to the building’s owner and make an offer. The theatre was in a deep financial hole, losing money steadily. The owner, General Sessions Court Judge Thomas Crain was not interested in a deal however. He was willing to tough out the war now that the American doughboys were there to clean up the mess. With peace and the anti-German prejudice subsiding, things would be back to normal in short order. Morris made his pitch regardless, presenting letters of recommendation from Christians and Winder.

                       Perhaps Schwartz’s brass and elan changed the Judge’s mind. More likely it was the sea of red ink the Irving Place Theatre was drowning in. A month later, Crain sent Morris a proposal offering a ten-year lease at a fair rent, an eleven-year renewal option, and a request for $5000 as security deposit. “I ran to Wilner like a crazy one, and he told me to get my $4000. I brought him the money, then his lawyer took over. Like an inexperienced actor, I kept signing papers”  (Schwartz 26 Nov. 1941). Later, Morris was to discover that the contract he so willingly signed without benefit of his own attorney loaded the deck in Wilner’s favor. Naively, he believed that Wilner would give him carte blanche to create an Art Theatre, one with choice actors and worthy plays.

                        Much too soon, the lack of marketplace acumen and the absence of an attorney was to cost Schwartz dearly. Anna was not involved in the contract signing and therefore could not voice an objection to its one-sidedness. It is doubtful, had she expressed a negative opinion, if Morris would have listened. He was totally hypnotized by the thought of having his own troupe like Kessler and Jacob Adler, except his would be better, truer to his own ideals. He’d avoid the pitfalls of playing down to the public with shund. The fine points and small print in the contract were of minor importance by comparison.

                        In February, the Theatre Patriote of the Forward, noting Schwartz’s fantastic coup, expressed a measure of mistrust about what Morris would do with the Irving Place, having seen other fiery young reformers come and go over the years. “Any day, he’ll outline his plans. Our young actors and actresses, Schwartz will snap up [. . .]. Then we’ll see if they go into the new temple and play new things, or if they will fall back on the old theatrical tricks”  (15 Feb. 1918).

                        The ink barely dry on the contract, Morris began a high-powered campaign to generate interest in his dream come to fruition. A manifesto of sorts appeared simultaneously on March 2nd in both the Day (the second most influential Yiddish paper in New York) and in the Forward, under the provocative title: “Can New York Support a Better Yiddish Theatre?”  It began provocatively: “For the last few years there’s been a lot of talk about plans to open a people’s theatre [. . .] where one could stage better plays. In that time, I’ve been carrying around in me this plan to put together a company that will be devoted to performing superior literary works that will bring honor to the Yiddish Theatre”  (Day 2 March 1918).

                       After a long, rambling discourse on theatre economics and other problems in operating a theatre in the current business climate, he formally announced that he’d secured the Irving Place Theatre. That stated, Schwartz went on to outline his own agenda for successful, quality theatre based on smaller operating costs in a smaller playhouse. It included a grandiose program of not only superior artist and superior play, but the installing of a subscription so that a foundation of involved  audience members would be in place as a source of funds. “This theatre must be a sort of sacred place, governed by a festive and artistic spirit”  (Day 2 Mar. 1918).

                        This was quite a tall order for Yiddish Theatre, where historically shund had been king since its inception. But as Sandrow has pointed out, Schwartz’s chimeric tenets had been promulgated before by the Vilna Troupe and the Moscow Yiddish State Art Theatre. (261). With such worthy goals expressed  in typical Schwartz exuberance, it’s no wonder that he made of himself a huge target to the Yiddish press and its hardcore readership of ideologues and cynics. Idealists, especially the outspoken, flamboyant kind, are a newspaperman’s red flag, the more to deflate after reality erodes their bright and shiny principles and sends them crashing to earth. And so, after the March Manifesto, the knowing men of the Yiddish Fourth Estate sharpened their pens and waited.

                        On that subject, and perhaps as a response to Schwartz’s pronouncements, a columnist wryly diagnosed: “Literature in the Yiddish Theatre is like a dangerously ill patient in a hospital [. . .]. You tiptoe around the patient so that he doesn’t die. You’re afraid to utter a single word. You’re very quiet and slow so the patient, God forbid, won’t catch a cold. An earnest dramatic work lives a sick life on stage”  (Forward 8 Mar. 1918).

                        Nevertheless, Schwartz began constructing his troupe with, of all people, Celia Adler, who since their days together in Philadelphia, had become an amazingly skilled actress. Schwartz knew that if he could win her services, others of equal abilities would soon follow, not like a Judas goat, but as a guiding light toward better theatre. Celia was working at the former Kessler theatre, but like Schwartz, she was dissatisfied with the material being foisted on the actors and the public. Schwartz knew instinctively that she would jump at the chance to work strictly literary pieces; she would be the crown jewel in the Irving Place collection. “He bewitched me with the beautiful colors he used to depict his fantasy theatre. He wanted me for his leading lady. He needed me to help him. [. . . ] He promised me that I would be advertised together with him, that nobody would get as large a billing as the two of us”  (430).

                        Soon after Celia came onboard, he spoke to her about bringing Bertha Gersten into the fold. A twenty-four year-old sensuous beauty, she’d already attained stardom at Boris Thomashevsky’s National Theatre when Morris approached her. Gersten told him that she wanted a guarantee of leading lady before she’d consider leaving Boris. Betwixt and between, wanting Gersten as his romantic lead, Morris went back to Celia, who had that position already locked in by contract. Humble and contrite, Schwartz begged Celia to reconsider their agreement. She relented and gave in. It was, after all, a rare and wonderful journey they were embarking on, and, truth be told, Bertha’s demand was not unreasonable. Schwartz then applied his considerable powers of persuasion to effect a compromise. Celia and Bertha would be billed as co-leading ladies along with Morris, a kind of ménage à trois they all could live with.

                       With two quality players safely accounted for, Schwartz went back once more to Celia for a third. “He wanted Ludwig Satz [. . . ] and only I could convince him. Satz had recently been hailed by the public and the press for his performances with Jacob Adler at the Grand Street Theatre. He felt very loyal to Adler, who’d given him his first chance to shine”  (Adler 432). Satz had been a great comedic actor for many years and lately a smash in Dymov’s The World in Flames. He was also married to Celia’s younger sister Lillie, and she appealed to Satz as a relative with his best interests at heart, even if it meant he should leave her father’s employ.

                        Satz continued to resist, but the onslaught of Celia, Lillie and their mother Dinah Feinman hammered away about his sacred duty to become an integral part of this historic project. In the end, Satz caved in and became the third pillar in Schwartz’s temple of better theatre. For her part, Celia felt no sense of betrayal in taking Ludwig away from her father, her faith in Schwartz that strong.

                        Anna Appel was also hired and remained for ten years. A relative unknown, she’d also worked for The Eagle, and before him, Max Gabel. After leaving Schwartz, she would oscillate between Yiddish and English-language theatre. Jacob Ben-Ami was among the last players engaged for the 1918-1919 season, and the most troublesome. As it worked out, because of this problem, Schwartz won his enduring high place in Yiddish Theatre. Ben-Ami  was a rara avis in his chosen profession, an intellectual, an ideologue with a well-defined philosophy on theatre, not an actor like Schwartz who’d learned his craft on- and backstage. Like so many Yiddish actors before him, Ben-Ami had left home in his teens to join a traveling company, performing in Odessa, Vilna and London. He emigrated to America in 1913. A handsome, dark-haired, noble-featured man, with the air and manners of a university professor, Ben-Ami came to New York City in 1915 to work for the Lewisohn sisters at The Neighborhood Playhouse. He was recruited for seventy-five dollars a week by Schwartz, but only if he could perform a literary play of his choice. “He was adamant about this point. Schwartz was afraid it might have a negative effect on the theatre. The plan was to perform a literary play every Wednesday. Ben-Ami called it Literary Wednesday. Schwartz countered that because he would lose money on the deal every week, Ben-Ami must also agree to take five dollars off his salary”  (Adler 434).

                        This statement is of course in direct opposition to Schwartz’s stated and published principles. It would on the surface indicate that despite the flowery rhetoric about theatre being a holy place, where literature would be worshipped, Schwartz was doing business as usual the old way, as Kessler had run his playhouse and disgusted Morris to the point where he simply had to get out.

                        Most likely, the truth will never be known. Celia Adler had her axe to grind with Schwartz for both obvious and unstated reasons, and Ben-Ami had his troubles with the supremely pragmatic Morris, who practiced as well a different kind of idealism. Schwartz claimed that he’d been completely boxed in by Wilner, that the choice of plays was taken out of his hands, regardless of what he’d proclaimed in the Forward and the Day. Wilner, who would rather read a healthy profit-and-loss statement than a beautiful piece of playwriting, had in effect clipped his partner’s wings. Schwartz’s wonderful impulses, at least initially, had to be put on hold, perhaps until he’d gotten a firmer grip at the Irving Place. If and when Ben-Ami had traded a five-dollar cut in pay for the assurance of Literary Wednesdays, it had to have been after Morris read the fine print in his contract with Max and had to swallow the humiliation.

                       Making the best of a bad situation, Schwartz abandoned himself to the new season. As did Celia. She sincerely believed that if Morris kept his word, they would indeed begin a second Golden Age of Yiddish Theatre, just as her father and Gordin had been responsible for the first. “I sensed the same feeling coming from every member of the company when we all went onstage for the first time. In everyone’s eyes, in their shining faces, you could see the joyous anticipation”  (Adler 433).

                        To a great degree, the season of 1918 was the best of times to introduce something extraordinary. War-generated money was flowing freely, filtering through every layer and division of American society, even trickling to Second Avenue. Moreover, Yiddish Theatre was mired in mediocrity and trash, ready to be rescued and overhauled.

                        By early August, nothing theatrically newsworthy had happened, except that Boris Thomashevsky would open the National with some cheap melodrama, and that the high and mighty Mr. Schwartz, after much fanfare, would set Yiddish Theatre on fire at the Irving Place Theatre (which he all but stole from the Germans with space at such a premium). Things were falling into place by mid-August, only two weeks from the official opening of the new season. Joe Schoengold would be playing the Liberty Theatre in Brooklyn. Jacob Adler at the Second Avenue would be doing Zolatarevsky’s The Governor. Max Gabel was to premier his knock-off version of the Broadway hit Common Clay. At the Lenox in Harlem was Willie Siegel’s new musical comedy Orphans of the World would be the curtain-raiser at the Lyric in Brooklyn. Not to be left behind, Kessler would attempt A Woman’s Duty at the People’s.

                        The real guessing game that turbulent preseason was what Morris Schwartz would do to live up to his advanced billing. A delicious rumor circulated that even before the start of the season, there was trouble in Paradise. Celia and Satz, it was said, was feuding with the boy wonder and were considering leaving, going out on their own. The details of the supposed dispute were never aired by Celia or Morris. Maybe the troupe was in rebellion over the first selection, that it was hardly the way to kick off the Second Golden Age.Or just maybe the rumor was one of those trifles newspaper people regularly send out to liven a dull news day. Nothing came of it however, although internal dissension did rock the brave band of brothers and sisters later on, nearly sinking the entire enterprise.

                         Much has been written about the first production by this greatly anticipated company, some of it contradictory, some of it maliciously slanted to make Schwartz the heavy, most of it simply untrue. The logical starting place for answers is the advertisement appearing in the Forward on August 15th. “Morris Schwartz opens his Irving Place Theatre with David Pinski’s new drama that will be an honor for the Jewish people. Look for the coming announcements. Groups, lodges, societies, unions, Workmen’s Circle branches—if you want a moral and financial success, buy your benefit tickets at the Irving Place Theatre.”

                        The name of the Pinski piece was not given, reflecting perhaps an uncertainty in choice, but not direction. He was clearly trying to fulfill his promise of quality theatre. Wilner hadn’t as yet lowered the beam on him over the season’s opener. Schwartz indicated that the starter he’d selected was not a Pinski work, but Peretz Hirshbein’s The Blacksmith’s Daughters. In terms of artistry, the two playwrights were on the same high level, among the finest Yiddish dramatists ever, though Hirshbein’s works were seldom produced, while Pinski enjoyed relatively greater success. Set in an Eastern European shtetl, The Blacksmith’s Daughters “is a picture that needs neither plot nor climax. Its joy lies in its refreshingly ecstatic naturalism, its delightful characterizations, human point of view, charming episodes [and] snatches of folk and religious song”  (Lifson 100).

                       It appears that Schwartz was honoring his commitment, whether it was Hirshbein or Pinski served up that opening night. But then Max Wilner stepped in, exerted his authority, demanding instead a standard drama or operetta to jumpstart the season. Stella Wilner, Max’s wife and an astute businessperson, agreed with her husband, stating as gospel that if they bombed the first time at bat, all was lost. Between Max and Stella only, this vital decision was made.

                       Morris was mortified. He responded with a loud and long objection. Wilner suggested that the two men talk it over like gentlemen and took Schwartz for a ride through Central Park, far from the hectic, demanding pace of the theatre, in the serenity of this Manhattan oasis.

                        Max Wilner began with a short lecture. “A theatre piece is like a machine with a small screw and a large screw. In The Blacksmith’s Daughters, the big screw, the climax, is missing. We have to choose a play with a climax”  (Schwartz  29 Nov. 1941). The production with all its screws in place selected by the Wilners was Libin’s Man and His Shadow, which was far below the standards originally set in the manifesto. Morris knew of the work and told Max, in the spirit of harmony, that he’d do the play for the second or third offering. Max refused the compromise, reminding Morris about the clause in their contract giving Wilner the final say in the matter.

                        What was Schwartz to do? Call the whole thing off? Give Celia Adler and the others their notices? Walk away from all his dreams and hard work, not to mention the $4000, half of which wasn’t even his?

                          The play itself was serviceable as standard melodrama. It concerns a musician with a wife and child, and the younger woman he falls hopelessly in love with. Not the most original of premises, the subject of many a woeful letter to the Forward’s ‘Bintel Brief ‘ column. Torn between passion and obligation, the musician falls asleep one night and dreams that the lovers unite. In due time, he grows old. But the younger woman he’s forsaken wife and child for leaves him. He suffers, becomes sick and stumbles toward the grave. Then he wakens, rethinks his dalliance, and returns to home and hearth. The moral is all too obvious: family responsibility before personal happiness.

                       Schwartz assigned himself the part of the musician. Celia was his wife, Bertha Gersten played the young girl and Satz took the role of a comic waiter. Despite the lesser material and his vows to the public, Schwartz thoroughly enjoyed working with his carefully chosen crew.

                       Man and His Shadow received disappointing reviews. the Forward’s drama critic, Hillel Rogoff, whom Morris had met in Cahan’s office the day that unusual audition had taken place, ignored the play entirely even if commenting favorably on the actors, the director and the sets. Alter Epstein of the Day, who wrote under the pseudonym of Uriel Mazik, singled out Morris for special abuse: “He was too stiff, too formal, and superficial”  (28 Sept 1918). Another keen observer of the Yiddish Theatre scene indicated that the play failed because with so much melodrama opening that season, there was little purpose in hiking over to see yet another one.  (Zohn 140).

                         Their knives sharpened, the Yiddish press slashed and cut at this parvenu who’d promised much and delivered little. Schwartz had gulled them, was the opinion of those parched and weary wanderers in the arid desert of shund. Never mind why Morris hadn’t been able to deliver the goods. From this first misstep, the Yiddish purists would view anything Schwartz did and said with skepticism and a readiness to find fault.

                        Man and His Shadow ran for about a month, mainly due to the curiosity of those attracted to the advanced publicity and caustic press. Schwartz knew at once that he had a flop on his hands. His many adversaries at the Café Royale (the in place for theatre people and buffs) were overjoyed, predicting a quick death for the Irving Place Theatre. Max invited his junior partner to dinner the day after the opening, and over steak and potatoes, dished out a few words of consolation. “Don’t take it too hard. A play is a blind object; nobody can predict its success or failure—not the author, not the actors. We won’t give up. Get ready to do another one”  (Schwartz 29 Nov. 1941).

                        Without recriminations about the past, Schwartz asserted himself, demanding the right to determine the plays from now on. Could he do any worse than the Wilners had? Max consented but cautioned Morris to hold down the costs. Schwartz recorded this moment of concession as the true start of the Yiddish Art Theatre, though he didn’t call it that, not until sometime later. As if to memorialize the occasion, Schwartz assumed a more befitting identity. From that day forward he listed himself as Maurice Schwartz, the way Abram of the Bible was transformed into Abraham, after his covenant with God.

                       At about the same time, even more profound events were taking place in the world at large. The war was at last lurching toward its bloody conclusion in the trenches of France. In July, in the tiny Ural Mountains village of Ekaterinburg, the local branch of Lenin’s proletarian dictatorship executed Czar Nicholas and his entire family. And while Man and His Shadow was in rehearsal, the scourge of influenza was mercifully abating, after having killed over 20 million worldwide, more than double those lost in the war to end all wars. But to the Yiddish Theatre devotee, the opening of the new season obliterated every other concern, large and small.

Chapter Ten: “Our Policy: The Best Plays and Players.”

                         For the next five productions, Schwartz appeared to be stumbling around in the dark, rudderless and without a clear idea where he was heading. He boasted the finest aggregate of performers on the current Yiddish stage, perhaps on any Yiddish stage ever. He wanted the best plays for them. The season would run for nine months and his Irving Place company wouldn’t last much longer if he kept producing box office flops.

                        On September 25th, he gave Anna Appel a ‘benefit evening,’ permitting the worthy actress to demonstrate her abilities in Mrs. Warren’s Profession, a doubly daring bit of bravado on Schwartz’s part: introducing the clever George Bernard Shaw to the Yiddish Theatre patron, offering a most unusual view of prostitution. When first presented on the Broadway stage in 1905, the work was shut down after an avalanche of protest.

                        The very next evening, Schwartz put on Baylke the Marionette by Berl Botwinick, who edited the “Theatre News” column of the Forward from 1914 to 1922, then later its entire theatre page. The play had been a smash in 1913 at the Royal Theatre on the Bowery, starring Malvina Lobel and featuring Schwartz. But it drew few favorable notices from the Yiddish press as the second offering at the Irving Place.

                        A week later, the sure-fire Gordin/Adler hit Sappho was played, again without enticing the critics or the audience. Floundering, it seemed, and probably straining the tenuous relationship between himself and Wilner, Maurice presented Uriel Acosta by the Christian German playwright Karl Gutzkov. Written in 1846 by a member of the very liberal Young Germany clique, the work concerns the vicious religious intolerance by the authorities against a 17th Century marano. The piece soon found its way to the very core of Yiddish Theatre literature. But a tepid response was generated by this powerful yet overused workhorse. Next came Schiller’s The Robbers, played with great verve and brilliance by the game troupe, but with little reciprocal interest by the public.

                        The circumstances surrounding the next play, A Secluded Nook, Schwartz’s first huge triumph at the Irving Place, is crusted over in controversy and conflicting claims as to who was responsible. Maurice’s version, vague at best, is the first considered, as he is the subject of this study. “I notified Jehiel Goldschmidt that our next play would be The Blacksmith’s Daughters (the piece Wilner had scotched back in August), but he suggested A Secluded Nook by Peretz Hirshbein. [. . .] My decision to do it was clear. If Wilner won’t agree then our partnership is ended”  (Schwartz  29 Nov. 1918).

                       But in all truth, Schwartz himself had serious doubts about the entire magnificent enterprise he’d undertaken, especially after the early handful of failures. Attendance had declined sharply and he wasn’t sure if the public would understand so delicate a play as A Secluded Nook. The play that opened on Wednesday evening, October 16th, had as its locale, the home of a Jewish gravedigger in a tiny Lithuanian shtetl. Life is hard for the gravedigger, his wife, and his beautiful young daughter. Also living in town is a prosperous miller, his wife and son. The two youngsters fall in love though their fathers hate each other, in true Romeo and Juliet fashion. The love affair is complicated by a second but wealthy suitor. The gravedigger, with pretensions of getting rich, will accept the second suitor, but only if he agrees to finance his new father-in-law in building another, unnecessary, mill in town owned by the gravedigger. This serves only to intensify the feud between fathers, and they engage in mortal combat, nearly destroying one another and their families. There is however a final happy resolution to the conflict.

                       The opening was attended by a minimal group of about 200, mostly hard- core devotees and friends of Hirshbein. After the final curtain fell, the audience buzzed with excitement. “The effect was so powerful that no one rushed to leave the theatre [. . .] . The actors were called out on stage one at a time, with loud ‘bravos.’ I received special recognition as an actor and as the director. I got to say a few words of thanks to the audience and to praise the actors”  (Schwartz 3 Dec. 1941).

                        That the play was introduced on a Wednesday evening, when little-known works were inauspiciously presented, demonstrated how poorly Schwartz considered its chances. As much as he may have loved the Hirshbein opus, he wasn’t about to risk another gutting disappointment by scheduling it during the prime- time weekend. In truth, he was probably fulfilling his obligation to Jacob Ben-Ami: the concession to devote Wednesday evenings to literary works, even if Schwartz’s writings mention not a single word about Ben-Ami’s imput.

                        But quick to capitalize on the surprising success of A Secluded Nook, Maurice stood before the cheering first-nighters and implored them to spread the word throughout the Jewish community. He promised them that to accommodate the expected box office stampede, he’d run the work every weekday evening until further notice. Because of the large demand for seats that materialized, he also ran it on weekends and for the following 14 weeks.

                        The first to greet Maurice in the wings after he left the stage was his partner Max. He seized Schwartz’s hand and began pumping it, effusive with praise. Other admirers were just as congratulatory. It was a happy time for him, basking in the warmth of his first solid hit, even if A Secluded Nook wasn’t a ‘serious’ piece of drama, only popular in the various amateur clubs.

                        Jacob Ben-Ami told the story differently. His recollection was entirely consistent with his original claim that he’d forced Schwartz to grant him every Wednesday evening for works of literature as a condition of employment. But when the moment arrive to honor the clause by presenting A Secluded Nook, Schwartz balked. “A literary book cannot (or should not) be presented on stage” is how Ben-Ami quoted Maurice in a conversation he had with David Lifson.  (334). Of course, later on Schwartz often adapted novels by Asch, I.J.Singer and others for the Yiddish Art Theatre. Said Ben-Ami, “Schwartz reneged on an agreement with me [. . .] and I threatened to leave. Then he agreed [but] after hearing an act that ended without a spectacular curtain speech or situation, he declared that Hirshbein was a playwright for amateurs”  (Lifson 335).

                        Celia Adler, whose love/hate relationship with Maurice spanned most of her professional life, backed Ben-Ami’s take. She stated that Schwartz dragged his feet during the play’s preparation, and had to be coaxed into joining the cast. “Old seats salvaged from the Second Avenue Theatre were used. Schwartz refused to pay the $30 needed to repaint the sets, as he doubted they’d take in thirty dollars at the box office. Ben-Ami did the painting”  (Adler 443).

                        But to Jacob Ben-Ami’s credit, he had to admit that “at the time Schwartz hired me, no one else in Yiddish Theatre would dare to agree to my demand for at least one night a week to do a literary piece”  (Lifson 361).

                         The critics were unanimous in their praise. They adored the work and quickly dubbed it the beginning of the long-desired Second Golden Age, regardless of whether Schwartz alone was the originator, after months of coming up empty, or had to be dragged backwards into the new era by Jacob Ben-Ami. One critic, Joel Antin, declared A Secluded Nook to be “the noblest for which the public and artists have aspired”  (17 Nov. 1918).

                        However, Schwartz would not continue to win favor with them after presenting strictly high-class Yiddish fare. He’d sworn to follow his own dictates, stated it boldly (if not rashly) in that splashy manifesto, though with the welcomed outpouring of hosannas from the Yiddish press and the rush at the box office, he could well stand up to Max Wilner. Armed as never before, he plunged with dazzling speed into twenty-seven more plays, thrilled to his marrow with each new undertaking. On October 18th, alternating with A Secluded Nook, he offered The Haunted House by Nakum Meir Shaykevitz, who wrote under the pen name Shomer, and was also a political activist, translator and a screenwriter of Yiddish films. A week later, came Ossip Dymov’s The Awakening of a People, a box office lightweight, though Rogoff deemed the play “worthy to be seen by all intelligent people”  (12 Nov. 1918).

                       On the final two days of October in that seminal, exciting opening season, the company presented first Ibsen’s Ghosts, then Gordin’s The Kreutzer Sonata, based on Tolstoy’s 1889 novella of the same name, a cautionary tale about the effects of jealousy on a marriage. A week after the Great War ended on November 11, 1918, another Ibsen classic, A Doll’s House (retitled Nora) was presented for the first time on the Yiddish stage. Contrary to the often-repeated statement by critics and fellow-actors that Schwartz set aside the best roles for himself, the part of Helmer went to Boris Rosenthal. Bertha Gersten took the title role. The two other main characters were acted by Anna Appel and Jacob Ben-Ami. Maurice limited himself to directing. On the playbill for that production, the theatre-goer could see, in full face, a likeness of the thirty-year-old Maurice Schwartz’s intense and thoughtful expression. Irving Howe described him as “having the dark, fleshy features and soulful eyes of the mythical Arab potentate”  (22). Even more defining was Maurice’s  theme on the cover: “Our policy-the best plays and players.” He didn’t promise the best Yiddish plays, nor the most literary, nor the most popular.

                        Early in December, moving at a speed that belied his own tenet about giving actors sufficient time to learn and understand their characters, Schwartz dipped once more into the world repertoire with Karl Schoener’s The Devil Woman. The piece, centering on peasant life as a subject for modern drama, depicted a love triangle in which a desperate woman of  lowly birth goads another man into murdering her husband. Three days later, Tolstoy’s long novel Resurrection, reworked by Gordin, was given. Sarah Adler performed wonderfully as Katusha, the lusty peasant girl seduced by a prince in Czarist Russia. On December 11th, the literary set was again impressed, with Love’s Byways, a charming, bucolic piece by Pinski, the dramatist with whom Schwartz had intended to open his theatre.

                        In January, 1919, Maurice treated himself to his first ‘benefit evening,’ one of the privileges of rank. He selected Arthur Schnitzler’s Professor Bernardi. The dramatist, an Austrian Jew and favorite on the world stage, had never before been produced in Yiddish. His play deals with the scandal stirred up by a conflict between a Jewish physician and a Catholic priest. Certainly confusing to a Schwartz-watcher, in the post-war year of directional changes and liberation in all the arts, Maurice’s next five plays, from January 17th to February 21st, were by Yiddish playwrights, each a work of superior quality. None however created a stir at the almighty box office or with the press. It seemed as if  Schwartz was stuck in neutral once more, waiting for lightning to strike a second time.

                        It did, on February 18th, with The Treasure by Pinski, enthralling everyone. It would be the first of this great dramatist’s work to attract mainstream attention and “deserves wider recognition and a place in the history of drama alongside the best of Moliere [. . . ]” declared one theatre historian.  (Lifson 86). The plot begins with a rumor that some poor gravedigger in a Russian shtetl has discovered a large vein of gold in the local cemetery. The entire town is then transformed into a madhouse, with villagers of all means and status, desecrating the cemetery with pick and shovel, though no gold is ever found. It is a darkly humorous even if pessimistic view of the human race, as well as a study in greed.

                         Even greater kudos were tendered by the critics and the playgoers a few days later on February 21st with the staging of The Blacksmith’s Daughters, the piece Maurice intended to open the season with, but was talked out of by Max Wilner, who found it missing ‘the big screw.’

                          As in many pivotal incidences in Schwartz’s history, there is his account and that of others. Esther Hirshbein, in an interview with David Lifson, related that while  A Secluded Nook was been hailed in Manhattan, she and Peretz were on their honeymoon in Canada. Despite a frantic telegram from Maurice to return ASAP to New York to discuss future plays, the suddenly hot playwright was in no particular hurry, matters of the heart taking priority over everything else. When the Hirshbeins returned, so Esther claimed, they came unannounced to the Irving Place Theatre and viewed A Secluded Nook. Delighted—how could they not be?--, Peretz and Esther  went backstage to congratulate the players. Schwartz took them to his office and spoke grandiloquently to Peretz: “How do you like the success I made for you?”  Without waiting for a reply, he said, “I want the sole rights to all your written and future plays.”

                       Nonplussed, Hirshbein refused out-of-hand. “If a man borrows a pail to fetch water, does it mean he has all future rights to the pail?”

                       A few days later, narrowing his objectives, Schwartz asked the couple to his office and locked the door behind them. For the next three hours, he badgered the Hirshbeins ceaselessly for the rights to The Blacksmith’s Daughters, but was refused again, for reasons Mrs. Hirshbein never stated, even though Maurice had proven himself a wonderful interpreter of the play.  (Lifson 344). In Cleveland, on his way to the West Coast, Peretz learned that his refusal notwithstanding, Schwartz had put The Blacksmith’s Daughters into production.

                       Hirshbein immediately phoned friends in New York to halt Maurice’s illegal actions, only to be told that if rehearsals were called off, the actors and everyone involved would be thrown out of work. A kind and considerate man, Hirshbein backed off and let Schwartz have his way. The latter told a different though not conflicting story. At the Irving Place, the returning pair was invited by Maurice to view A Secluded Nook, and the play was presented in their honor, a truly festive happening. “My admiration for Hirshbein was such that I wanted to present his plays for the entire season. My troupe had second thoughts about another play of his, but I was so impressed with his talented style that without asking anyone, I decided to do The Blacksmith’s Daughters. [. . .] I had a strong yen to get drunk on Hirshbein’s charm. I wanted to take a walk in his flowering garden”  (Schwartz 6 Dec. 1941).

                        It is understandable though not condoned that given Schwartz’s total immersion in his work, he might harass even a pair of newlyweds. Even more comprehensible is that fire in his soul pushing Maurice to cross the line and present Hirshbein with a fait accompli , rather than waste precious time trying to wear him down and win him over. In the hurly-burly, gray morality of Yiddish Theatre, much worse had happened before, and his ethical lapse—if true—was a relatively minor one.

                        The Blacksmith’s Daughters did very well, confirming the critics general consensus that indeed something extraordinary had sprung to life at the Irving Place Theatre. In the play, set in a bucolic Jewish town in the Pale, there’s a romantic mix-up between two young sisters and their simple-minded swains. Celia Adler and Bertha Gersten played the sisters to a fine turn, while Elihu Tenenholtz and Maurice were the suitors. The blacksmith’s role went to reliable Boris Rosenthal.

                        With typical recalcitrance, Schwartz completed the balance of the season with an assortment of works from the world repertoire, and a few superior Yiddish plays. He followed Hirshbein with Leonid Andreyev’s Believe Your Wife, introducing the bitter, sardonic anti-Bolshevik Russian to the Yiddish audience. Schwartz would display Andreyev in three other stunning pieces of first-class theatre, each concerning the multiple cruelties of modern existence.

                       In early April, Schwartz held his second ‘benefit evening’ with Oscar Wilde’s The Ideal Husband, treating his fans to the much-maligned but brilliant Irish man of letters, who was scandalizing the entire British Empire with his antics. For Celia’s ‘evening,’ Maurice directed her in Suderman’s four act German comedy The Battle of the Butterflies, first produced in 1894. For his ‘night,’ Ben-Ami went far afield, selecting Samson and Delilah by Danish dramatist Sven Lange. This was no Biblical epic, but a modern love story with a theatrical background. The play also provided the springboard for Ben-Ami’s American stage debut in 1920, at the Greenwich Village Theatre. The production also introduced two newcomers, Sam Jaffe and Edward G. Robinson in supporting roles.

                        In the spring of 1919, two of Schwartz’s favorite  playwrights were presented—Stanislaw Przybyszewski with The Truth and Leo Tolstoy with The Power of Darkness, based on an actual case about a series of crimes in a peasant household. On May 1st, Schwartz made perhaps his boldest effort, Strindberg’s The Father, the starkly bitter, anti-feminist treatise that oddly enough was staged for the first time in England, in Yiddish, at the Pavilion Theatre in Whitechapel. The year was 1911. In like turn, Schwartz introduced the play in America eight years later.

                        Among the Yiddish pieces Schwartz worked into his crowded schedule to end off the season were Pinski’s Gabri and His Wives and Isaac Sheftel. The very last number was Sholem Aleichem’s, People,Maurice’s first excursion into the works of Yiddish Literature’s most beloved figure. Over the years, Sholem Aleichem would become one of Schwartz’s prime playwrights, returning again and again to capture his greatest moments in Yiddish Theatre.

                       The first season of the Irving Place Theatre was over by June 1st, the most remarkable season in the medium’s entire history. Schwartz had managed to produce, direct and act in about 30 plays over 39 weeks. Thirty collections of sets and scenery and costumes. Thirty casts to assemble and whip into shape. Thirty problems of lighting, and a large number of scores to wrest from composers. Some performances, the actors’ special ‘evenings’ ran by design for only a single show. As far as the sumptuous banquet presented to the public, precisely half came from the better Yiddish dramatists. The other half was a smattering of the world’s best plays. Maurice had acquainted his patrons with artists they’d never heard of before. He’d expanded their limited horizons, trying to remove the shtetl-oriented Jew from his self-imposed cultural isolation, so that he might experience and appreciate the untasted riches around him.

                        Celia Adler, one of his severest critics, who never missed the chance to berate him for what he didn’t accomplish, had to admit that most of the cast had satisfied their professional yearnings that season “through the fine literary plays that each of them chose for their benefit performance.[. . .] Most actors on the American stage live their entire lives and never perform more than seven roles like these”  ((490-491).

                        Yet in spite of her gratitude towards Schwartz, relations between them were rapidly deteriorating. Often, they wouldn’t speak to one another for days. The reason (or reasons) pointed to Ludwig Satz’s position in the billing hierarchy , that he was never placed on a par with Gersten or Schwartz, who’d promised each a place at the top, disregarding the law of physics that states the impossibility of two objects occupying  the same place at the same time. The fragile egos of many of the players were crushed,as very quickly it was apparent that Schwartz was going to continue the hated star system. Tensions mounted and found release in an attempted putsch by certain members of the troupe.  They approached Max Wilner with a proposal to dump Schwartz for the next season and draw up a new contract with them. But no matter the ongoing problems with his maverick junior partner, Wilner refused them. He was not enticed by the prospect of having five partners instead of one.

                        It doesn’t require many clues to identify the cabalists, as the following season saw the birth of the competing Jewish Art Theatre, composed of Celia Adler, Jacob Ben-Ami, Anna Appel, and Jehiel Goldschmidt. The fifth likely conspirator, Ludwig Satz, left to pursue other ventures. With the bulk of his players gone, no one would dare predict the Irving Place Theatre’s future, except Schwartz, who never doubted it. The pessimists would only scoff at Schwartz, the Icarus who’d flown too high, too fast, on the hot air of his own making. They would be dead wrong about Schwartz’s return for the 1919-1920 season, as they would be wrong so often about his survival each year over the next three decades.                 

Chapter Eleven: “Mr. Schwartz, You Are Killing Me.”

                       “I send you, through my friend Jacob Saperstein, a play which I have composed  from several works written by me twenty years ago,” wrote Sholem Aleichem to Jacob Adler. “You will find only a simple Jew, the father of five daughters, an honest, clean, wholesome and greatly suffering character who, with all his misfortunes, will make the public laugh from beginning to end”  (Rosenfeld 322-323).

                        Of course, the playwright was describing his Teyve the Milkman, offering it to Adler around the turn of the century. But The Eagle declined the gift, as it had no romantic part for him. The play with which Maurice Schwartz opened the 1919-1920 season at the Irving Place Theatre was the one Adler had refused. With Sholem Aleichem dead for three years, Schwartz bought the production rights from his widow. A condition imposed by her was that Isaac Dov Berkowitz, married to her daughter, work on the stage adaptation. Berkowitz, a highly regarded writer in his own right, had come to New York with the Sholem Aleichems, remaining there until 1928, then settling in Palestine.

                        The play worked on by Berkowitz and Schwartz, opened to superb reviews in the Yiddish press on August 29th, and enchanted packed houses for 16 straight weeks. Schwartz felt redeemed, his artistic yearnings justified. He’d survived the profound loss of Jacob Ben-Ami, idol of the intellectuals, and the other less-worshipped defectors. And for once in many months, Max and Stella weren’t on his back with their prating lectures about money—the lack of it, the loss of it, the absolute need to show a profit. More important to Schwartz, “Mrs. Sholem Aleichem was very happy. She’d been afraid that Tevye, Sholem Aleichem’s favorite work, wouldn’t make a glorious impression. [When it did] she exclaimed, ‘Thank you so much. You’ve removed a stone from my heart, from my family’s hearts’ ”  (Schwartz 10 Dec. 1941).

                         More gratifying still, she’d granted Maurice permission to produce her late husband’s other works. He didn’t have to lock her in his office and badger her for hours, as he was accused of doing with the Hirshbeins. The play also provided the debut vehicle for a 23-year-old comic actor Schwartz had been observing for some time. His name was Muni Weisenfreund and had been in Yiddish Theatre since birth, part of a family of vaudeville performers in Chicago.

                        Early in 1919, Weisenfreund came to New York to work for Joe Edelstein, who’d wrested the Second Avenue Theatre from Wilner. Edelstein was cleverly dispensing trashy musicals on the main floor where once David Kessler had shaken the rafters, and better plays in a more intimate setting upstairs at the Roof Garden. The kid had been hired to work in shund, singing, dancing and playing the fiddle. Muni was unhappy with his vapid roles, and in the fall he returned to Philadelphia. But to both their good fortunes, Schwartz happened to sorely need a comic to replace Ludwig Satz, who’d been snapped up by none other than Joe Edelstein, and for more money. This was how the game was played in Yiddish Theatre by everyone, to overcome its vicissitudes, a give and take by actors, composers, playwrights and theatre owners. In the taking mode, Maurice dispatched his friend Leon Berger to bring Weisenfreund back to New York.

                         Berger met the young man (later to be known to all the world as Paul Muni) and found him to be overly modest and self-effacing for a Yiddish actor. Muni couldn’t believe that the vaunted proponent of literary theatre on Irving Place was interested in him. If indeed it was true and not some nasty hoax; he had to hear it from Mr. Schwartz himself. “Weisenfreund came to see me. He looked [. . . ] like a shy Yeshiva boy, frightened and helpless. I told him I wanted him to take over Satz’s roles”  (Schwartz. 10 Dec. 1941). Muni was even more astounded when Schwartz promised him dramatic parts as well. He managed two rather ingenuous questions: where had Schwartz heard of him?, and was he really serious? Maurice assured the youngster (he was older than Muni by eight years) that he wasn’t joshing, offering him forty dollars a week for the first year. He buttressed the deal with the prediction that in the right hands, playing the right roles, Muni would become a great star, exactly as Kessler had promised his own frightened and insecure protégé.

                        Weisenfreund’s response startled Maurice, who’d assumed that every actor, good and bad, was driven by healthy ambition, and considered himself star material. “I’m honored by your offer, but I’m not ready for competition. I’d be willing to play the minor roles—if you’ll offer them to me”  (Schwartz 10 Dec. 1941). Over his 20 years in Yiddish Theatre, Schwartz had met all kinds of characters and oddballs, but never one as inscrutable as Weisenfreund. He’d been ready to cast Muni in a major role in Tevye, but had to settle for casting him as Zazulye, the village scribe, hardly more than a walk-on role. Muni had but a few lines, but took hours to get into makeup and costume, an even greater stickler for detail than Schwartz himself. The transformation to Zazulye had been amazing, and Maurice must have recalled how he’d disguised himself so artfully as an old man in The Twentieth Century that his own father couldn’t recognize him.

                         In Paul Muni’s biography by Jerome Lawrence, the other side of the story is told. The terrified young actor had been reading reports in the Yiddish press—probably planted there by Schwartz—of Maurice boasting about his new find, the quite adequate replacement for Satz. A future acting genius, was the prediction. “The word for ‘genius’ in Yiddish leaped out of the newsprint at Muni, and it frightened him. He rushed to confront Schwartz in person. ‘Mr. Schwartz,’ blurted Muni. ‘You’re killing me. What do you mean telling the newspapers that I’ll be a sensation in New York? What happens if I’m not? They’ll toss me back to Milwaukee, or the dung heap in Philadelphia. Please, I want only small parts’ “ (74-75).

                         Before many years would elapse, the two consummate actors would have a falling out over principles and actions, precisely as Schwartz and Kessler had gone head to head. Starting with the conflict that emerged with Ben-Ami, a pattern had been established of disputes between Schwartz and the unknowns he hired, who, under his aegis, would grow to outstanding performers. They were bound to clash, as—according to his detractors—there could be only one sun in his solar system. They’d part with bruised feelings on either side, only to reunite a season or two later, mutual respect intact, when Schwartz needed that particular persona for a play. His ego was not so monumental and blinding that he couldn’t suppress it for the greater good of better theatre.

                       The bountiful revenues generated by Teyve the Milkman carried the Irving Place Theatre for a goodly part of the 1919-1920 season, which was otherwise graced by only a handful of commercial successes. Though his parts at first were minimal, Weisenfreund made the most of them, delicious cameos that quickly gained him a loyal and vociferous following, like the patriotten of the generation before. To a lesser degree, the other replacements filled the void left by the extraordinary quintet who’d deserted him. At first, Schwartz must have been decimated by these losses. A weaker, less tenacious producer might have chucked the entire concept of quality theatre and taken the sure and easy path to solvency with shund. As Boris Thomashevsky  was still doing at his National Theatre on Second and Houston. As Kessler had done, though it killed first his soul then the rest of him. But Maurice had slaved too hard, too long in the service of his ideals. He’d been battered his entire existence by fortune’s cruelty and mankind’s treachery and each time came up tougher and stronger, his goals fixed even if now and then rerouted. And if the past had always been a constant attempt to keep his head above water, the future would prove no different, except the stakes would be higher, the defeats more bitter, but the rewards sweeter.

                        The latest threat to his goals was the Jewish Art Theatre. Long before he’d made his exit from the Irving Place, Jacob Ben-Ami must have been negotiating with Louis Schnitzer, a wealthy business he’d met at the Progressive Dramatic Club, the most prestigious amateur group in the City. Schnitzer’s wife Henrietta was a member, hell-bent on learning the actor’s trade. Abe Cahan would describe her as having a good figure but little talent. Schnitzer negotiated a lease for the Garden Theatre in Madison Square Garden, which was owned by Tex Rickard, the boxing promoter best known for arranging the Dempsey-Carpentier bout. Louis would also handle business matters, while Ben-Ami gathered the cast. Besides the three other former Irving Place players, he hired Lazar Freed (who was unavailable to Schwartz the season before and Celia’s husband of short duration), Gershon Rubin from the Progressive Dramatic Club, Bima Abramowitz (steady as the Rock of Gibraltar in her type-casting as a mother), Joe Schoengold, and a half dozen like-minded, better theatre advocates. Along with Schnitzer’s money came, came Schnitzer’s wife, who would be as great a thorn in Ben-Ami’s side as Ben-Ami had been in Schwartz’s.

                         In a spirit of magnanimity , Maurice sent the Jewish Art Theatre a congratulatory telegram. “I also recommended theatre patrons to go there. No matter what, another good theatre is an asset [. . .]”  (Schwartz 6 Dec. 1941). Such generosity toward so able a competitor must be taken with a mountain of salt, given the jungle-like conditions of Yiddish Theatre and the intensity of Schwartz. He’d probably fumed at how both the Yiddish and the mainstream press treated the arrival of the Jewish Art Theatre on the scene, as if it were the Second Coming, instead of merely the second art theatre in as many years. Schwartz’s chief tormentors, the Yiddish drama critics, never really trusted Maurice, most likely because of his schizoid blend of high art and personal ego, how he’d attempted a marriage between superior repertory theatre and the star system, with himself the topmost star.

                        To those critics far removed from the nitty-gritty of making a profit, Schwartz had certainly paved the way, had given a few daring plays, but hadn’t gone far enough. What Schwartz knew instinctively, they would never learn: that American Jews, like all Americans, needed heroes—leaders in politics, sports and industry. For the theatre, this translated into superstars. Audiences of all cultural backgrounds went to theatre usually because a star, some magnetic personality, had drawn them there. By war’s end, America was the center of the capitalist world, and what was capitalism without its outstanding strivers who fought their way to the top and reaped the benefits? And so, the press stood on the dock and cheered as the Jewish Art Theatre, captained by a committee of idealists, set sail on the roiling ocean of Yiddish Theatre. Ostensibly, Maurice wished them well, but knew better.

                       Of the handful of plays presented for its maiden voyage by the Jewish Art Theatre, the large majority were by Peretz Hirshbein, David Pinski, Sholem Asch and Sholem Aleichem. The balance included works by Tolstoy, Sven Lange and Gerhart Hauptman. It is interesting to note that The New York Times discovered Ben-Ami’s company before it noticed the Irving Place Theatre, though the latter had been functioning for a full year, pumping out fine play after fine play at the unheard of rate of about one a week. On November 17, 1919, the Times’s critic favorably  reviewed the Jewish Art Theatre’s production of The Dumb Messiah by Pinski, finding it hard to believe that "an art of the theatre so robust, so sensational, so veteran and mellowed [. . .] should have to find its expression in what is, after all, off the beaten track”  (Block).Not until April of the following year is mention made of Schwartz’s theatre, only a seven-line note tacked on to a much longer, more positive review of the Jewish Art Theatre’s The Mute, about the days after the abortive 1905 revolution in Russia.

                           The profits from Tevye allowed Schwartz to produce The Dancer by Melchior Lengyl, the clever and funny Hungarian, who went on to write Ninotchka for Greta Garbo. The English-speaking version of The Dancer had been presented a few months earlier at the Sam Harris Theatre on Broadway and received mixed reviews. The Schwartz essay faired poorly, but was great fun to do, to experiment with.

                        In November, with Tevye continuing to do immensely profitable business on weekends, Schwartz filled the weekdays with two Gordin standards, God, Man and Devil and The Truth. On Christmas Day, he played Gorki’s classic The Lower Depths (retitled Night Lodging), translated into Yiddish by Mark Schweid, another fine replacement at the Irving Place. “Our audiences were Yiddish theatre-goers, but we were also honored with the English-speaking press [. . .] The actors of my troupe played extremely well”  (Schwartz 13 Dec. 1941).

                        The new year opened with Leon Kobrin’s After the Wedding. It was Schwartz’s first attempt at a Kobrin piece, though he’d done the colorful playwright’s first work Yankel Boila for Kessler. Kobrin was one of those accidental Yiddish playwrights without formal training, having held a variety of jobs prior. Arriving in America in 1892, in his twenties, he tried farming in Pennsylvania, factory work in New Jersey, even slaving in a laundry,until Yankel Boila and Other Tales was published. His play The East Side Ghetto was the first true portrait of American tenement life. Later in January, the Irving Place did The White Flower, an easily-forgettable musical, noteworthy only because Abe Cahan refused to see it, furious over Schwartz’s apparent move into shund.

                        Before his next well-received production, Schwartz would suffer a string of flops—a few by Gordin, a play by Theodore Herzl (The New Ghetto), one of a dozen or so penned by the father of Zionism before finding his true vocation, and The Son of Two Nations, by Mark Arnstein, the Polish writer, who would perish in the 1943 Warsaw Ghetto uprising. On April 2nd, Maurice made yet another excursion into musicals with an adaptation of Sigmund Romberg’s Maytime, reborn as Once in May, In it, Weisenfreund played the part of a womanizer who, by the last act, is over 100 years old and still chasing young girls. Evidently, there was a Yiddish audience for this sort of lighthearted material, as Schwartz presented Zaza, the Sardeau comedy. Decades before, it had been translated into English for David Belasco, and into Yiddish by Zolatarevsky for Kessler at his Thalia Theatre.

                         One of the final presentations of the season, on April 8th, was Thieves by Fishel Bimko, a dramatist heretofore unknown in America. At the age of 15, he’d been sent to Siberia for revolutionary activity. First a prompter, he wrote over 20 plays with strong, earthy characters, some of them criminals. Thieves was first produced by the Vilna Troupe in 1919, then by Schwartz, who fashioned it into another badly-needed hit for the Irving Place.

                         Overall, the actor/director/producer wasn’t disappointed with his second season, even though the few operettas presented weren’t up to his own original standards. But if he was content in general with his accomplishments, the Wilners were not, “I groaned heavily under the yoke of [. . .] having Max Wilner as a partner and his wife the bookkeeper. She had authorization over the finances and demanded that the flops be taken immediately off the boards. Max had little sympathy for my artistic feelings and would disappear, leaving me with Mrs. Wilner [. . .]”  (Schwartz 13 Dec. 1941).

                        As if his running war with the Wilners wasn’t heartache enough, David Kessler died suddenly on May 15th.After Tevye the Milkman had opened the previous August to rave reviews and the certainty of a long run, Maurice contacted his former mentor and begged him to come see the play. Despite Kessler’s understandable anger over the Wilner/Schwartz partnership, Maurice knew that his former employer held no grudges and was proud of his attempt to raise the level of Yiddish Theatre. Like a son anxious to please his father, Maurice yearned for Kessler to come as his special guest. “I sent numerous invitations [. . .], but he never came. He was still carrying a grudge against my partner and refused to face him ever again. Whenever he mentioned my name in front of other, he wished me well professionally, but not financially. I wrote his wife Rachel, but to no avail”  (Schwartz 13 Dec. 1941).

                         Was Kessler’s fate to be his as well, wondered Maurice? He began questioning his entire relationship with Max. Would Wilner soon evict him from the Irving Place if principles stood in the way of making money?

                         With the long season at last over, Schwartz and company were anxious to quit the City and go on tour. They did the well-worn Yiddish Theatre circuit, as far west as Chicago, as northerly as Montreal. The natives were waiting for them, eager to see whatever Maurice would present to them, starved for first-rate productions. Tevye the Milkman was far and away their favorite. Audiences would form long lines at box offices . Patrons would often delay vacations until after they’d seen the Irving Place players. If Schwartz had often been disheartened by poor attendance during the regular season, he was restored by the enthusiasm of the crowds coming to empathize over the Job-like woes of lovable Tevye. For the entire troupe, spirits were lifted, batteries recharged.

                         Late in the summer of 1920, Schwartz returned to New York, rejuvenated by the large, appreciative audiences in city after city during the two whirlwind months. He was more than ever dedicated to continue along the same path he’d begun, improving as he went, always learning. There were so many plays he wanted to do, playwrights to be introduced, techniques to be explored, new things to try. He’d hardly scratched the surface of what he was capable of, and what those in the know had declared unworkable. It all now seemed within his grasp. Inevitable.



What's New       |       Opportunities       |       Downloads       |      FAQs       |      Credits       |       Guestbook       |       Help

Copyright © 2008. Museum of Family History.  All rights reserved.  Image Use Policy.