Twelve: “I Can’t Describe My Suffering.”
With spirits bolstered by a summer spent
among friendly out-of-town critics and ardent enthusiasts, Maurice
Schwartz opened the 1920-1921 season at the Irving Place Theatre
with I.L. Peretz’s The Golden Chain. A mystical drama with a
prologue of pure poetry, it nevertheless had a history of commercial
failure. In 1906, Peretz completed The Destruction of the
Tsaddik’s House in prose, in Hebrew, then revised it in Yiddish
as Der Nisoyon. Ester Rokhl Kaminska’s company performed the
altered version in Warsaw, but it fared no better. Peretz tinkered
with the work some more, and in 1907, the play resurfaced as The
Golden Chain, but was still unacceptable to the Yiddish public.
Schwartz blended both versions, firmly convinced he could
prevail where others had not. He loved the language, was fascinated
by the tale of a rabbi who can’t tolerate the deterioration of
Jewish tradition, so greatly that he refuses to utter the prayer
ending the Sabbath. The rabbi craves an eternal Sabbath. The chain
referred to in the title is the linkage of four generations of
rabbis that it broken when the youngest one lacks the proper
fervency. Maurice considered this most unusual and lovingly prepared
amalgamation the most important and personally meaningful production
so far in his career. He understood the characters and the portraits
of chassidic life in the Pale—all part of his own background in the
Ukrainian town he’d left as a child.
To Maurice’s extreme sorrow, the audience (or
lack of one) was a good deal less enthralled with The Golden
Chain, staying away by the multitudes. After two weeks of hoping
for a miracle to save this sick patient, Schwartz had to bow to the
Wilners’ pressure and pull the plug on what they and everyone else
in the production considered an unsalvageable loser. Bemoaned
Maurice, “I cannot describe my suffering over those two weeks. Every
night I woke up with the fear that they were going to close the
Irving Place Theatre” (Schwartz 24 Dec. 1941).
The final performance of The Golden Chain
had the dreary and mournful atmosphere of a wake. Gloom hung thick
and dark over the actors and the audience, the few faithful who’d
come to see the dear departed off to the nether world of
unsuccessful plays. Putting on the bravest face possible, his heart
completely shattered, Schwartz remained on stage after the final
scene. He thanked the public, small as it was, blessed the good and
loyal players, and promised both groups that better times awaited
them. Before he tore himself away, Maurice sang the main song
‘Shabbos, Shabbos,’ not dirge-like, but with unflagging hope. The
weeping audience joined in.
This scalding experience, almost like the
loss of a loved one, initiated in Schwartz an endless obsession
about subsidized theatre: its need, its benefits, its sad absence in
America. The Golden Chain was an eminently worthy piece of
Yiddish Theatre that would have eventually found a wider audience if
only the money was there to keep it going until word of mouth took
effect. One more month would have done it, Maurice was convinced.
Not that Schwartz, the most rugged of the
rugged individualists, had become enamoured with the Russian
experiment with Socialism. But this vitiating experience he’d
recently endured made him envy at how the Moscow Theatre was
supported by governmental aid, thus liberated from the need to make
money like a grocery store. "People in the arts shouldn't have to
think about profit. Their main concern should be spiritual, to
present high quality plays"” (Schwartz 24 Dec. 1941).
Over the years, Schwartz would beat the same
drum about this deplorable fact of American theatre life, a cry few
would heed. His Jacob-like tussle over money—how to amass it for a
production and keep it from frittering away as play after play took
a nosedive, then facing the legal and ethical consequences of
repaying what he’d borrowed—would drain much of his time and energy.
Often, he’d glance with a jaundiced eye at his co-religionists,
especially those with fortunes or in positions of power. “Temples
spend big money for Jewish centers, sports areas, swimming pools,
but no one is ready to support theatre. It’s a luxury that has to
support itself” (Schwartz 24 Dec. 1941).
To add to Maurice’s woes, Wilner had
tightened the purse strings after The Golden Chain folded. He
had little money to assemble the next play. If for any reason it
proved to be a dud, he doubted if there would be a third play, and
if he and the Irving Place Theatre would survive.
During the previous summer, flushed with the
adrenalin injected by Teyve, Schwartz bought another play
from Mrs. Sholem Aleichem, who was understandably pleased to sell it
to him. The Bloody Joke was the piece’s original title, and
concerned the exchange of identities between two students, one
Jewish, the other a Russian Gentile. Siomka Shapiro switches places
with Ivanov for a short while to prove how difficult it was to be a
Jew in Czarist Russia, given the many indignities and persecutions.
Hard to Be a Jew was the play’s new name, and for it, I.D.
Berkowitz did an exceptionally fine adaptation. Schwartz expected
another huge winner. “The play filled us with enthusiasm, and it
seemed to me that it could be the bridge between Second Avenue and
the Irving Place Theatre. It will attract not only theatre-goers
from Washington Heights, the Bronx and Long Island, but also from
Suffolk,Norfolk, Ridge and Pitt Streets” (Schwartz 24 Dec. 1941).
Obviously,Schwartz was now thinking more like a theatre manager in
Manhattan and not Moscow, box office oriented, understanding as
never before what his tenuous hold on the Irving Place depended
Although the play required a month of
rehearsal, they had no more than a week. Maurice told Anna that
she’d be seeing even less of him and girded himself for an
indefinite stretch of meals eaten on the run, and countless
problems. He gave heart, soul, mind and body to the task, which was
in truth a supreme labor of love, heaven and hell in the same place.
Schwartz distributed the roles with infinite
care and complete awareness of his actors’ capabilities. He chose
Muni to play Ivanov, the Christian who pretends to be a Jew.
Maurice’s faith in the quirky but brilliant actor had grown
geometrically over the last season and in the ill-fated The
Golden Chain. Undoubtedly, Weisenfreund would do a superlative
job in his first major role. But Muni balked and fought his boss
doggedly about abandoning his small parts. Instead, he begged
Schwartz for the role of David Shapiro. Maurice declined; he’d
decided to play old Shapiro himself.
Not in false modesty, Muni claimed that he
was a plain actor, not fit for fame. He accused Schwartz of trying
to get rid of him by assigning a larger part. Schwartz was
dumbfounded: “He couldn’t comprehend that my intentions were good,
that it would advance his career. He had no idea what a great future
awaited him in Yiddish Theatre. An actor can’t know his potential
unless he takes the opportunity to use it” (Schwartz 31 Dec. 1941).
Muni’s misgivings were totally unfounded, as
the play garnered nothing but the highest acclaim. The ‘sensation’
that Maurice had touted in the Yiddish press the year before proved
to be the real thing in Hard to Be a Jew. The lad out of
Yiddish vaudeville in Chicago received a barrage of plaudits, led by
Abe Cahan, who declared that “Muni’s name should be inscribed in the
Golden Book of Yiddish Theatre” (Schwartz 31 Dec. 1941). (Of
course, no such book existed, Cahan often going overboard when
With the success of Hard to Be a Jew,
Maurice had buoyed and thrilled the entire Jewish population of New
York, except, this is, his father. Isaac Schwartz had seen his son
perform only once in Teutonic Hall in Brooklyn. But the patriarch
wasn’t sufficiently moved to come see his son act in Kessler’s
playhouse, or with his own troupe. Rose, on the other hand, had
never missed a play during his seven years at the Second Avenue and
two on Irving Place. “She loved to sit in the theatre, reveling in
me, and telling the women around her that so-and-so with the round
beard or the lopsided whiskers is her son, Moishe. [. . . ] Her only
complaint was that God hadn’t blessed her with a grandchild”
(Schwartz 3 Jan. 1942).
And never would, as Anna and Maurice had no
children in Rose Schwartz’s lifetime. They did however adopt two
orphans, a brother and sister, in 1947, when he was in his late 50’s
and old enough to be their grandfather.
Either because of pressure from Rose or
Maurice’s growing fame, Isaac made the journey from Brooklyn to
Irving Place, to pass judgment on his son in the role of David
Shapiro. And a worthwhile experience it was for the loving father
and devout Jew, who had great reticence about expressing that love
to a son who’d given him so much heartache and so little joy because
of his peculiar occupation. “With Hard to Be a Jew I not only
strengthened the theatre and won the affection of the press and the
better theatre audience, I also won my father’s belief in me”
(Schwartz 3 Jan. 1942).
On Armistice Day, the Irving Place Theatre
presented Fatima by Itzhak Katzenelenson, the first Yiddish
playwright to have his work performed by Habima in its maiden season
in 1918, in Moscow. Rounding out the month, Schwartz ran Arthur
Wolf’s Yankel the Coachman. In early December, Maurice
experimented with an evening of three one-act plays—Arthur
Schnitzler’s The Last Masks (about an artist who cruelly uses
his personal relationships as subject matter); Sholem Aleichem’s
Advice, adapted by Berkowitz; and the latter’s own creation
Landsleit. On the 28th of that month, Schwartz
utilized Gordin’s seldom performed The Tree of Knowledge, not
among the finest of his work. Three days later, on the last day of
1920, he dredged up Bisson’s Madame X, the play that had
brought him back to New York for a one-night shot at the Thalia.
It wasn’t until the middle of January that
the Irving Place came up with another hit, Meshtchania (The
Middle Class), a wicked satire on the Russian
petite-bourgeoisie. Written in 1901, it was Maxim Gorki’s first
play. Though not a Jew, the famous Socialist “more than any other
writer, portrayed Jews in a positive manner. He was interested in
Yiddish Literature and was personally acquainted with Yiddish
writers and often did favors for them when he could” (Schwartz 3
No matter the success with the Gorki piece,
Schwartz needed a hit as never before. Relations with Wilner were
rapidly going to pot, exacerbated by the competition at the Garden
Theatre, though its tenant, the Jewish Art Theatre had its own
excess of serious problems, chief among them the squabble between
Louis Schnitzer and Jacob Ben-Ami. The flash point was Mrs.
Schnitzer, who demanded top roles in all the theatre’s productions
by virtue of being the boss’s wife. She’d refused to compete for
them like every other player. Gone before the start of the 1920-1921
season were Gershon Rubin and Celia Adler, neither able to abide the
haughty Henrietta Schnitzer. In midseason, Ben-Ami left, to work for
the energetic Broadway producer Arthur Hopkins, who’d been involved
with George M. Cohan and Sam Harris.
Even with Rudolph Schildkraut brought in to
fill Ben-Ami’s shoes, the flame had gone out of the Jewish Art
Theatre long before season’s end, and it was no more. Over the
years, its legend has grown to a kind of Camelot in the minds of
Yiddish purists, an ideal too utopian to have ever truly functioned
in the workaday world of satisfying mass tastes, and performers with
the healthy taint of personal aggrandizement.
With the demise of the Jewish Art Theatre,
its members scattering, its playhouse dark and unused, Schwartz and
Wilner should have patched up their differences and made a go of
their partnership. Another situation arose however that made an
accommodation impossible, if indeed there was something at this
juncture worth saving. One of the actresses in Meshtchania
was a young and very pretty woman named Jenny Vallier. A Gentile,
she “had no great love for the Jews. Above all, she was filled with
her husband’s poison. He was a German Junker, who would have enjoyed
eating a Jew for breakfast and topping it off with a dozen Jews for
dinner” (Schwartz 7 Jan. 1942).
Audiences adored Jenny; the critics couldn’t
praise her enough. Their titular head, Abe Cahan, personally
congratulated Maurice for bringing so refined talent to the Yiddish
stage. When the Wilners realized what a treasure Schwartz had found,
they immediately set about cultivating her friendship and her Junker
husband’s. During the courtship that followed, Schwartz learned that
Jenny’s very impressionable mind had been turned against him by Max.
The possibilty also existed that Wilner had secretly arranged for a
Vallier claque to cause disturbances during Maurice’s moments
onstage, the object being to drive him into the wings.
Soon, the Irving Place Theatre became
repulsive to Schwartz. He considered a permanent exit, then leasing
another playhouse for the 1921-1922 season, thus walking away from
what had become, for all practical purposes, his home. He’d often
arrive at dawn and remain long past midnight to deal with the myriad
of problems associated with even the most modest production. He
hadn’t the stomach nor the inclination for petty theatre politics,
the kind that drove Celia from the Jewish Art Theatre. “I was only
interested in one thing: a theatre where I could come to express,
where I could direct good plays with talented actors” (Schwartz 7
The Irving Place Theatre was no longer that
sanctuary, the holy place he’d envisioned. Disconsolate, Schwartz
went to his attorney to arrange cutting his ties to Wilner, before
Max could destroy him, using Jenny Vallier as his tool. After much
back-and-forth negotiations between the disputing parties, it was
decided that Wilner would buy him for $3200, not the $4000 he’d
invested. Maurice wasn’t given cash, but a promissory note signed
personally by Max and Stella. In spite of this and their monumental
conflicts, Schwartz didn’t hate Max. “I couldn’t forget that he was
the first who believed in me and gave me the opportunity to play
Yiddish Theatre on a higher level” (Schwartz 7 Jan. 1942).
It should be noted that Ben-Ami had expressed
the very same sentiment about Schwartz.
During his last weeks at the Irving Place,
Maurice, as best he could, went about the serious business of
presenting plays. On January 27th, he produced Jacinto
Benavente’s Eyes of Fire. Benavente was a playwright much
admired by Schwartz, his pieces being bright, witty, with substance,
and very popular in London and on Broadway. Almost single-handedly,
Benavente had brought to the Spanish stage all the winds of change
blowing across Europe for half a century. A writer of over 200
plays, he’d won the Nobel Prize in 1922. Unfortunately, Eyes of
Fire didn’t gain the Yiddish audience nor the critical acclaim
at the Irving Place that it deserved.
Schwartz completed the season and his
association with Wilner by offering Simeon Yushkevich’s A Poor
Man’s Dream. Like Chekhov, Yushkevich was a medical doctor who
never practiced, who wrote instead. One of those Yiddish playwrights
encouraged by Gorki, he came to America in 1921, becoming, among
other interests, a contributor to the Day.
All in all, the Irving Place Theatre had
presented about 15 plays for the 1920-1921 season. Two-thirds were
within the Yiddish repertoire, while the rest came from world
literature. Given his problems with Wilner, Muni and Jenny Vallier,
it’s a wonder he’d been able to accomplish this much. When at last
the season came to an end, Schwartz had to face the appalling fact
that he and David Kessler had something else in common, besides
their love of good theatre: Wilner had managed to get rid of both of
them, discarded like broken pieces of equipment. Maurice was
profoundly sorry to go. After all, he’d poured, without measure, so
much work, health and love into the premises. “I left the theatre
with a pair of suitcases crammed with plays, and a promissory note,
but quite a different person from when I’d come to it. As poor as I
was, I was a millionaire because of the faith and love of the
theatre world inside me” (Schwartz 7 Jan. 1942).
Schwartz would also walk away with a vast
store of theatre savvy packed in his brain, and the respect of many
in the profession. In three extraordinary years, he’d learned to
direct and to comprehend what elements made up a good piece of
theatre. He wouldn’t be leaving alone, as most of his crew had
pledged to follow him wherever he led. Sooner or later he’d set up
shop again, gather his investors, then present the brand of theatre
they’d happily join for nothing more than union minimum.
On the horizon however, gigantic and
insoluble problems loomed, which few in Yiddish Theatre had ever
considered. With the newly-elected Harding administration, came the
Emergency Immigration Act, signed on May 19th, 1921,
restricting immigration to the United States. The Act limited those
coming to the New World from Europe to three percent of that
nationality in America at the time of the 1910 census. The total
number to be admitted was capped at 355,000. Aimed at Southern and
Eastern Europeans, the act decimated the flow of Jews that had once
funneled through Ellis Island, many of them future audiences for
Three years later, The National Origins
Act, born of post-war isolationism and fear of Socialist contagion,
lowered even further the influx to two percent of the foreign-born
from that particular country living in the U.S. at the 1890 census.
In the year before the first Act in 1921, over 119,000 Jews arrived
in America. In 1925, the year after the second Act, only 10,000 were
admitted. As much as any internal problem on Second Avenue—and they
were legion--, these two pieces of blatantly discriminatory
legislation would eventually prove fatal to Yiddish Theatre.
A fresh start with a resurgence of vitality,
Schwartz rapidly dismissed the wear and tear on his psyche to greet
the shiny bright season of 1921-1922, primed as never before to
pursue his dream. Over the summer, Maurice had been busily preparing
on two fronts, besides his normal routine of touring the provinces.
He desperately needed a playhouse in Manhattan no later than early
August. Theatres were in extremely short supply, none being
constructed since the war’s end, building contractors finding more
profit in other commercial and residential structures.
Proctor’s on Broadway and E. 28th
Street was available, and Schwartz eagerly began negotiating for a
lease. But before one was finalized, Maurice received a note from
Tex Rickard to stop by for a chat about the Garden Theatre. It had
recently been vacated by Ben-Ami’s troupe, its members scattered to
the four winds of Yiddish Theatre. Schwartz had always liked the
location and its superior acoustics, its intimacy. Perhaps he was
also intrigued knowing that his only serious competition had made a
mess of things there, failing after only two years of fine offerings
but poor management.
On the spot, Richard decided to lease the
Garden to him. The tough, no-nonsense promoter put his one-and-only
offer on the table: a seven-year lease at $24,000 annually, with
only a $1000 security deposit. Then and there, Maurice signed the
agreement. When word of the deal spread throughout the Yiddish
Theatre world, there was the general consensus that Schwartz had
bitten off much more than he could chew. The cognoscenti in the
offices of the Forward and the Day, the wise men who
took their bagel and coffee at the Café Royale, and the various
patriotten, predicted certain bankruptcy. If Ben-Ami and
Schildkraut couldn’t make it at the Garden Theatre, what chance had
a brash, over-extended, part-fraud like Maurice Schwartz?
A playhouse guaranteed, Schwartz went about
gathering a company. First off, he scurried to Philadelphia, where
Celia had gone after having put up with imperious Henrietta
Schnitzer for far too long. Again Maurice spun his pure gold
scenario of better theatre to her, but this time he pointed out,
without money-hungry Max Wilner limiting him. And again she bought
the concept and returned to New York. With the Jewish Art Theatre
but a distant memory, Schwartz had the pick of the finest Yiddish
actors on the planet. He recaptured Anna Appel and Jehiel
Goldschmidt. Added Bima Abramowitz, Julius Adler (not of the famous
clan), Julius’s wife Amelia, and Bessie Mogulesko. As promised, his
old crew had come onboard, the one that had promised to follow him
everywhere. Noted by his absence was Muni Weisenfreund, who’d moved
down a few blocks and a few notches in stature by going to work for
Joe Edelstein at the Second Avenue Theatre, now under his control.
Muni did musicals with Bessie Thomashevsky, and Maurice appealed to
Joe to kindly return the mercurial actor. Muni however was drawing
fantastic crowds so of course Edelstein refused.
Schwartz had a theatre, an expanded troupe
of the very best players, and as daunting as securing both had been,
he had to scale yet another mountain. “Opening a theatre is no small
matter. I had to install decorations and lighting, bring the theatre
into a better state. For that, money was needed. Taking over a
playhouse is like erecting a building” (Schwartz 10 Jan. 1942). The
Schnitzers had left nothing behind when they quit the premises,
removing the sets, the scenery, the lighting fixtures, and every
stitch of moveable equipment, including the stage curtains.
Maurice had left Wilner with no cash, only
paper. His ace-in-the-hole, his savior, was Meyer Golub, Anna’s
brother-in-law, who “had a heart as big as the island of Manhattan”
(Schwartz 10 Jan. 1942). Golub was in the liquor business and had
done quite well for himself. He didn’t hesitate offering Maurice the
princely sum of $10,000 to jumpstart the season, with additional
jolts that would raise the loan to $23,000. More experienced,
annealed by his association with Max and the troubles arising from
it, Schwartz incorporated himself, becoming the Classic Theatre
Corporation, its chief officers himself and Anna. His brother
Martin, good with numbers and dealing with people, was installed as
theatre manager. Schwartz also gave a name to his greatly enlarge
troupe: the Yiddish Art Theatre. It certainly suited his aims. And
perhaps he was also trying to capitalize on the defunct Jewish Art
Theatre and its reputation. For the next 28 years the Yiddish Art
Theatre would be inextricably associated with Maurice Schwartz, the
two entities becoming one, even when in later years there was no
physical location for the part that wasn’t Schwartz, when it had
shrunken to reside solely in Maurice’s heart and mind.
Over the summer of 1921, Schwartz was also
furiously reading plays he might later bring to life. At the time,
the Vilna Troupe was creating a world-wide sensation with its
wonderfully original The Dybbuk, under the direction of David
Herman. The author, Solomon Rappoport, who wrote under the name S.
Ansky, was a playwright, an agrarian Socialist and a folklorist.
He’d headed an expedition for the Jewish Historic-Ethnographic
Society of St. Petersburg, traveling with recording devices (as Bela
Bartok had done in his native Hungary seeking out folk music),
trying to capture and preserve Jewish legends of the backwater
hamlets of the Ukraine and Belorussia. Tales about a ‘dybbuk’ are
rife in Jewish legends, as well as appearing in the Cabala: an evil
spirit that roams the earth until it finds a home. This spirit is
that of a young person who has prematurely died, its soul returning
to inhabit another’s body.
The play concerns the fate of a young couple
promised to one another at birth by the two fathers. Happily, they
also fall in love as adults, but the girl’s father marries her off
to a rich suitor. The boy, beside himself with grief, seeks solace
in the Cabala, then dies. The wedding goes on, but during the
ceremony, the girl faints, and out of her mouth emerges the voice of
her dead lover. He demands his rightful bride. The dybbuk in her
must be exorcised. But in the rabbinic court, during its mystical
proceedings, she suddenly dies, her soul then uniting with the boy’s
for all eternity.
Schwartz knew, as he knew theatre
intimately, that he had to have The Dybbuk for his splashy
grand opening of the Yiddish Art Theatre. Every instinct told him
this would be his greatest triumph ever. Ansky was dead, but Maurice
negotiated with Chaim Zhitlowsky, Ansky’s authorized agent in
America, for the five-year royalty arrangement. “I devoted myself
to the production with great energy. I wanted to be as successful as
the Vilna Troupe had been, perhaps even more so” (Schwartz 14 Jan.
1942). His players, over 20 in number for this lavish but tasteful
production, caught his fervor and gave their utmost during the
rehearsals. The composer Josef Cherniavsky wrote a hauntingly
beautiful score. The set designer, Alex Chertov, did exceptionally
in his first professional assignment. Celia Adler took the role of
Leah, the possessed bride. Schwartz played two distinctly different
roles, as the young sweetheart Chonon, who dies in Act One, and
Azrielke Miropoler, the sage rabbi, who doesn’t appear until Act
Three. “I liked both roles, but the role of Chonon was more
important to me. It’s a truly tragic role that contains the
poeticism of Shakespeare” (Schwartz 14 Jan. 1942).
Opening on September 1, 1921, The Dybbuk
had to face enormous competition not only from shund theatre,
but also from its mainstream counterparts, the Broadway stage and
the movies, to where much of the Yiddish public was going for its
amusements. Marilyn Miller and Leon Errol were at the New Amsterdam
in Sally. The Ziegfeld Follies was attracting droves to the
Globe. Rudolph Schildkraut and Eva LeGallienne were sell-out hits in
Molnar’s Liliom, and at the Booth, George Arliss was
appearing in The Green Goddess. At the movies, Douglas
Fairbanks was mesmerizing in The Three Musketeers, while
impossibly handsome William Farnum starred in Perjury at the
Park Theatre, the price of admission a tolerable 50 cents.
The New York Times , in its first full-length
review of a Schwartz production, went overboard with praise. Wrote
its reviewer: “The trial before the rabbis is the strongest and most
compelling scene that has been seen on this stage, which has
witnessed many remarkable scenes [. . . ] The first act in the old
synagogue has a Rembrandtesque quality that is extraordinarily
vivid” (Block 21 Sept. 1921).
At the Yiddish Art Theatre, the play was an
important artistic and commercial hit and ran for 18 weeks. Much of
the handsome profit went to repay Meyer Golub. Although most Yiddish
drama critics applauded Schwartz for his first presentation of the
season, there were those die-hard anti-Schwartzites who found
serious fault, comparing unfavorably his version with the Vilna
Troupe’s. Too realistic, they declared, and not as moving (Zohn
Certainly Schwartz could have milked The
Dybbuk for many more weeks, likely for the entire season on
weekends, the big money-making days, “but it’s simply repugnant for
me to run the play for so long, even though in the middle of the
week, we took to playing repertory. We longed for fresh material, a
new play, a new role [. . .], to experience the fervor of a theatre
premiere” (Schwartz 14 Jan. 1942). Though he played to sold-out
houses, Maurice dismantled the sets and plunged into the next
production. He had a comfortably fat bank account and was driven to
try something daring and original. During the week, while The
Dybbuk continued to draw well, he presented a Moshe Nadir work,
The Last Jew. The production received terrible notices. Alter
Epstein of the Day was especially caustic: “Perhaps the
author wants to tell us something in dramatic form. Perhaps some
theme enchanted him, but he wasn’t able to turn it into something
important, worthwhile [. . .]” (11 Nov. 1921).
With no one to answer to—and better yet,
with sufficient money sitting in the bank—Maurice undertook with
great elan an enlarged revision of the previous season’s one-act hit
Landsleit, by I.D. Berkowitz. The compact comedy about a
Ukrainian Gentile who visits his Jewish countryman in America, and
falls in love with an unmarried sister, was expanded to three acts.
Schwartz played the Gentile, Jehiel Goldschmidt the Jew, and Bima
Abramowitz the Jew’s wife. Berkowitz attended each rehearsal and
enjoyed himself tremendously. Everyone in the production agreed that
the enlarged piece would be the grandest success, especially
Maurice. “The play is fully realized, with true-to-life characters.
The humor is like fresh water from a well. I.D. Berkowitz can paint
people. He also knows the stage. His dialogue is never stale”
(Schwartz 14 Jan. 1942).
The customers thought otherwise.
Landsleit fell like a bird shot out of the sky, a total flop.
Maurice found himself consoling Sholem Aleichem’s devastated
son-in-law with pearls of wisdom gathered over the years. He said
that no one can truly tell about the fate of a play; it’s all a big
gamble, and really, actors like himself were the worst predictors
because they concentrate only on their own role, ignoring the work
as a whole.
H. Leivick, whose real name was Leyvik
Halpern, was another Yeshiva product who exchanged the strict
orthodoxy of Judaism for the strict orthodoxy of Socialism. Exiled
to Siberia, he escaped and landed in America before The Great War
temporarily shut down immigration. Here, he alternated for most of
his life between playwriting and paperhanging. It was Maurice
Schwartz who introduced Leivick to the Yiddish Theatre audiences
with his first play, Rags. Only Schwartz was willing to take
a chance on a complete unknown, and with a story about a strike that
takes place inside a rag factory. He considered it “the first
important contribution to the Yiddish Art Theatre of a play about
American life” (Schwartz 17 Jan. 1942). The rest of the troupe
wasn’t as enthusiastic. They considered the piece weak and boring.
Some of them devised all manner of excuse not to accept parts. And
those who consented, never really expected the clumsy work to be
Rags opened on December 6, 1921, with
a reluctant cast of 20, including all the theatre’s ace players
except Celia Adler. Alex Chertov did the grim factory settings. The
true core of the play is the familiar conflict between a European
father and his Americanized son, a theme of poignant relevancy then,
as the second generation came to adulthood. All its scenes take
place in the rag factory, a site painfully familiar to Maurice, the
son of a rag factory owner, and perhaps one of the reasons he loved
the piece. That evening, the benefit audience was moved at first by
the vast gulf between father and son. But in the third act, when the
ragpickers go out on strike for a mere 50 cents a day raise, then
slink back for fear of losing even their small pittance of a salary,
the audience broke out in laughter. What should have been desperate
tragedy was perceived of as delicious comedy.
Schwartz was irritated. What was so funny
about the old ragpickers’ humiliation, the men no more than rags
themselves demanding so very little? He glared out at the audience
of self-satisfied, middle-class Jews, who were making good wages,
living in fine homes and driving the latest cars. They were vastly
different from those who’d once slaved in sweatshops and would
understand the pathos of workers for whom half a dollar meant the
difference between just getting by and slow starvation.
“They didn’t like the play,” some of the
troupe whispered to Maurice during their final bows. Later, they’d
remind him that he’d been amply warned of such a negative reaction.
What the fledgling Yiddish Art Theatre didn’t need, in their
collective wisdom, was a play about grubby old men toiling away in a
factory. The first reviews were equally as negative. After some
serious and tortured consideration, Schwartz consigned Rags
to the middle of the week, hoping to keep it alive somehow while
trying to save the day with their next production, Prince Lulu,
by Leon Kobrin. The title conveys little of its contents: a serious
comedy about a cantor who would rather be a Broadway musical star.
Meanwhile, Rags ran in tandem with
Prince Lulu, the former’s audience continuing to laugh in the
third act, during the strike scene. Then the cast was thrown into
near panic, when on a Tuesday morning it was learned that Abe Cahan
would be attending that very evening. The worst was feared. If he
witnessed a Jewish audience audience laughing at men on strike, the
powerful force majeure might condemn the play altogether,
sealing its fate. Nervously, the players went through their paces on
Tuesday evening, even though Maurice expressed the attitude that so
powerful a champion of the unions as Cahan would find much to his
liking. After all, the entire history of the Jew in America was
condensed into this oddly beautiful work.
During the troubling third act, an epiphany
came to Schwartz on stage, a solution to that grating laughter from
the smug crowd. At the crucial moment, Maurice, as the Americanized
son who sides with the workers, discarded the Leivick text and
improvised his own. Instead of accepting the bitter herbs of a
failed strike, he now urged the workers to continue it and not
surrender. Not a laugh in the audience that evening. Instead, a
thunderous ovation. Even the normally poker-faced monarch of the
Yiddish press leaped to his feet and cried ‘bravo.’ After the cheers
died away and the crew had taken its bows, Maurice told them: “It’s
our fault that they laughed. Leivick and I are to blame” (Schwartz
24 Jan. 1942).
Joe Schwartzberg, the prompter, wrote the
change into the script, and ever after it was performed this way.
In his reviews in the Forward—two,
spaced a few weeks apart--, Cahan could hardly contain himself. He
heaped dollops of sweet honey on everyone concerned with Rags,
initiating a stampede at the box office, and Maurice had no choice
but to run the production every day, including weekends. Prince
Lulu had to be curtailed and Kobrin, a respected and established
playwright by now, was understandably incensed.
Critics for the English-speaking press
were no less generous in their reviews. Wrote one: “This is an
attempt to reach at impalpable and elusive spiritual values in human
beings, and it calls for a great artistic scrupulousness, and a
fluent and strong imagination. Both of these Leivick has, and a
great prepossesion for the theatre besides” (Drucker 29 Jan 1922).
But due to Abe Cahan’s huzzahs, the run of
Rags had to be curtailed. The Forward editor made the
unprecedented move of publishing the entire play in its pages.
However, it wasn’t a play to be read, but acted, that shone only in
performance. Following its spread in the Yiddish newspaper, ticket
sales took a nosedive, the audiences declining, until Maurice had to
replace it. On January 11, 1922, he mounted Andreyev’s The
Thought, based on the short story by his favorite Russian
writer. The plot concerns the revenge inflicted on a rival who has
married the woman they both love. Very Poe-like, is its obsessed,
highly neurotic narrator.
During the first week of February, Maurice
tried a Sholem Asch play, The Dead Man. Asch was the
first Yiddish writer to gain a universal readership. In 1906, he
wrote the notorious (for its time) God of Vengeance, which
was declared sacrilegious when Kessler did it at the Thalia. The
drama was closed down in 1923 with Schildkraut in the lead on
Broadway, in an English-language version.
Jonah Rosenfeld’s strikingly modern short
story Competitors had caught Maurice’s attention for its
unusual plot of a highly dysfunctional family, in which the mother
goes out to work, and the father, a scholar, remains at home to look
after the children. The eldest child, a daughter of ten, vies with
her father for control of the household. The insightful,
psychological nuances are superb. Rosenfeld adapted his short story
for the Art Theatre, the play opening early in March. It was
moderately successful. Come April, Schwartz produced another Fishel
Bimko piece, Oaks, adapted from his first attempt at drama,
On the Shores of the Vistula. Written in 1914, the play deals
with the intense struggle between a father and a son over the
affections of the same woman. In 1924, Eugene O’Neill wrote
Desire Under the Elms, with a similar plot. O’Neill may have
seen or overheard talk about the Bimko play and borrowed freely.
More likely, he had in mind the Phaedra/Hippolytus legend as
originally written by Euripides.
Schwartz completed his remarkable third
season in May, sailing courageously into a Chekhov work never before
done in America and performed only once in England, a full year
before the Moscow Art popularized it. In Maurice’s hands Uncle
Vanya became Uncle John, perhaps because of the Red scare
gripping the nation. Contrary to many critics’ charge that Schwartz
simply had to hog the spotlight, he neither acted in the play nor
directed it, having little to do but oversee the production. Leonid
Snegoff, a respected actor and director, was brought in to stage the
work and play the title role.
To many Yiddish Theatre scholars, this
initial season at the Garden Theatre marked the real start of
Schwartz’s Art Theatre. For the two seasons under Wilner’s mercenary
control, Schwartz had been forced into many unwise and hasty
decisions. But he’d also been permitted to take risks and learn from
sad experience, to establish a pattern he’d been able to follow here
at the Garden, and adhere to afterward. The parameters he’d set for
the Yiddish Art Theatre formed a troika of the finest Yiddish
classics such as Gordin’s masterpieces, the best in modernists
represented by Leivick, Bimko and Asch, and the world-renown,
non-Jewish dramatists such as Andreyev and Chekhov.
To these critics wearing the blinders of
preconceived orthodoxies, who valued strict ideological conformity
over splendid theatre, Schwartz would forever be a mystery, an
unreliable opportunist at worst, a stumbling pragmatist at best.
“From the variety of types of plays Schwartz produced [. . . ], it
might be surmised that he was either an experimenter in the theatre
arts, or was eclectic in his selectivity, or protean in meeting the
everchanging fortunes endemic to the world of theatre” (Lifson
From a study of the man and his work, and
his astounding longevity in the face of overwhelming obstacles, the
answer must be that he was all three and probably more, the more
being his uncanny ability to make come alive whatever he applied his
talents, zest and intelligence to, unsparingly, and with little
regard for monetary gain.
Duly impressed by the public’s response to
Rags, Schwartz opened the 1922-1923 season with Leivick’s
Andersh. The title means ‘different’, and different was its
hero, returned to his life after the war, a Jewish businessman who
comes home expecting to find everyone and everything changed because
of the horrific international slaughter. Finding instead, that
nothing and no one has, that the conflict was only a momentary
quaver that has been absorbed and forgotten.
“The cast is amazingly well-chosen and
unwaveringly good,” pronounced the New York Times, in an
otherwise luke-warm review that also found “scenes of exceptional
vividness and pathetic, humorous charm” (26 Sept. 1922).
But like Americans in general, the Yiddish
clientele had become ‘alrightniks,’ not interested in the past. The
entire nation it seemed had become addicted to the gyrations on the
dance floor and on Wall Street. The Roaring Twenties had become the
nation’s fast-hurtling vehicle to wealth and happiness eternal. The
past was only some outworn skin to be shed at will.
Surprising everyone except his wife, Muni
Weisenfreund had returned to Maurice’s fold for another season. He’d
grown disenchanted with Edelstein’s Second Avenue Theatre and making
a buffoon of himself by playing superannuated roues and oversexed
counts, though he did it with verve and grace. Indeed, Muni was
secretly happy to rejoin his former employer, though he honestly
felt that Maurice was jealous of him and the wildly cheering and
stomping ovations that followed his every performance. At
Edelstein’s, he made good money and proved to himself that he could
be a commercial success. “But he had the feeling that everything he
did as an actor had to say something, total up, add dimension to the
audiences’ lives and to his own” (Lawrence 88).
Muni’s return should at lease in part
demolish the canard that Schwartz couldn’t tolerate actors in his
troupe as powerful as himself, a supreme egotist who refused to be
outshone on the same stage. Celia Adler had also come back the year
before. In fact, many of the especially capable actors either
remained with him for decades, or would come back time after time,
for a season or two, or more, drawn not only by the superior quality
of the plays selected, but because of the brilliant creative light
he threw off and the radiant heat he generated.
Reciprocally, Maurice was only too happy to
sign up Muni for another year, troublesome and finicky though the
latter was. He handed Weisenfreund the list of plays slated for the
new season. And it was a breathtakingly ambitious assortment from
the same three categories that was fast becoming his trademark.
Three works by Sholem Aleichem, two by Hirshbein, and an assemblage
by the younger Yiddish playwrights he’d been bringing along. As far
as world classics were concerned, the Art Theatre would be
performing Gorki, Strindberg, Shaw, Ibsen, that clever reprobate
Oscar Wilde, and the savagely funny Nicolai Gogol. Twenty-four plays
were definitely scheduled, with a few others, just in case.
The Inspector General by Gogol has
been called the greatest play ever written on Russian soil. With
diabolic needling, it attacks bureaucratic corruption and
incompetence, not only in Czarist Russia, but everywhere. For this
gem, Schwartz went outside himself, beyond Yiddish Theatre,
importing Vladimir Viskovsky of Moscow’s famed Theatre Korsh as
director. Perhaps Schwartz felt over his head, with so exalted a
Russian treasure, and needed one of Gogol’s own countrymen to
properly present the piece, as the year before, he’d turned to the
foreign Leonid Snegoff for Uncle Vanya.
Fifteen: Innocents Abroad
The third and somewhat truncated season at
the Garden Theatre began on August 31st with Sabbatai
Zvi, by J. Zhulovsky. The story of a false messiah was based on
fact. Zvi (or Zebi) was born in Smyrna in 1626, a Cabala student who
turned to asceticism and was rumored to have had the ability to
effect miracles. After the brutal Chmielnicki massacres in Poland,
European Jews yearned for a savior to rescue them from intolerable
oppression. Eventually rising to prominence as the sought-after
rescuer of the Jews, Zvi was seized by the Sultan in Constantinople,
who imprisoned him for a short while, then offered the supposed
miracle worker the choice of conversion to Islam or death. Choosing
life, Zvi was then vilified as an apostate by the entire Jewish
world and shunned.
The Zhulovsky work, translated by Joel Entin
and Moishe Katz, was given extra special treatment by Schwartz, with
settings by Samuel Ostrowsky, music by Alexander Olshanetsky and
dances by Russian ballet master Alexander Kotchetowsky. Over 30
actors were employed and almost that many extras, to act as Turkish
soldiers, slaves, servants and dancers.
Schwartz had gone all out to ensure a
running head start for the season. It was the first historic Jewish
play he produced. Indeed, many Yiddish Theatre savants pinpoint
Sabbatai Zvi as the start of Maurice’s love of high-class
spectacle. It was to become one of a dozen or so standards he’d
repeat whenever the Art Theatre would go on tour, a sure
Moving in this direction, Schwartz would cut
down on the number of plays he would present in a season, including
the international dramas. In his initial season at the Irving Place
Theatre, he did over 30 works. For the current year, he scheduled
less than ten.
While Zvi ran for many weekends,
Maurice introduced America to Andreyev’s The Seven Who Were
Hanged, to be given during the week. The original short story
was a harrowing tale about the execution of seven Czarist prisoners,
some thieves and murderers, the others political activists. The time
was 1905, during the first attempt to overthrow the Russian
monarchy. Though seven were hanged, the cast numbered 40, Schwartz
utilizing this method to maximize his cast and to attract the
largest audience possible for whom more was more.
Beggars by Leivick, though a fine
read and a sharp treatise on the philosophy of begging, fell flat.
Consisting of 35 tawdry characters hanging around, unemployed,
complaining about life, it opened on the weekend of November 20th.
One reviewer found the play totally unrewarding. “Beggars is utterly
sordid, unrelieved by the slightest touch of nobility, which
sometimes can redeem even the lowest conditions” (Deering 30 Nov.
Fading quickly, Beggars was replaced
by Bread, Dymov’s riotous comedy about organized labor
practices, and two bakers from Russia, who emigrate to America and
run into problems that test their friendship. While Bread ran
on weekends, Maurice tried out another Benavente work, Dolls
(Hombrecitos), written in 1903. At the end of its short run,
Schwartz reverted to that most elementary of Yiddish playwrights,
Avram Goldfaden, with The Two Koomy Lemels. “Goldfaden
is an eternal well. The French never tire of Moliere [. . .] and
Jews never tire of Goldfaden” (Schwartz 14 Feb. 1942). Schwartz
however felt that Goldfaden had never been utilized to the fullest.
He knew he could do better and overhauled the play, giving it
features never before imagined. He pored over the text, studied the
music. He gave a new spin to both.
The play’s background is rooted in the
Haskala movement that echoed—decades later—the 18th
Century Age of Reason, which had liberated religion, politics,
social life and morality in Christian Europe. Old forms of thinking
broke down, especially in England and France, and their
reverberations took form in Jewish Europe as the struggle between
Orthodox religion and a more modern approach. In the schism, most
Jewish intellectuals and artists sided with the progressive
In The Two Koony Lemels, this
intense conflict manifests itself in the story of a marriage
arrangement between a prominent rabbi’s daughter and another noted
rabbi’s son, Koony Lemel, a half blind, limping, stutterer. Chayele,
the bride-to-be, loves Max, her tutor, an enlightened young man. In
order to safely court his beloved, Max comes to Chayele’s house
disguised as Koony, hence the two of them. The plot thickens and
boils over, until concluded, to almost everyone’s satisfaction.
Schwartz’s particular spin was not to treat the cripple as an object
of derision, but to invoke the audience’s sympathy, while at the
same time, maintain the original work’s highspiritedness. “The
audience was impressed by the way we presented the play and gladly
paid the $2.50 for a ticket [. . .] We succeeded in transforming a
play presented numerous times before and offered it in a completely
different light” (Schwartz 14 Feb. 1942).
During the season, with the Hebrew Actors
Union blessing, Maurice opened a rudimentary school to attract new
talent. He gathered would-be actors to participate as extras in
crowd scenes, paying them a paltry $10 a week, but giving them the
chance to learn their craft through direct observation and
on-the-job training. These novices first took an exam, then were
selected for training, and would appear in minor roles, or, if
needed, step into major roles with little or no notice. Most quit
after a while, unable to handle the rigors of theatre conditions, or
the low wages. The arrangement worked well for Maurice and for the
students who remained. Some rose through the ranks to become
regulars, such as Ben Zion Katz, Michael Rosenberg and Zvi Scooler.
Schwartz’s interest in new talent went back
to 1918, with his offer to establish a club of 100 young theatre
aspirants. The club was actually formed in 1923 under the title
‘Folks Farband Far Kunst Teater.’ Membership was a dollar a year,
which entitled the participant to a 25 percent discount in tickets
and subscription to the Yiddish Art Theatre (Lifson 437). Most of
those attracted were leftwingers, who were openly opposed to
Schwartz’s methods and choice of material. Maurice was not
unsympathetic to their political outlook, but never considered
theatre as the proper vehicle. To him, theatre was an end in itself,
and any message imparted secondary, if at all.
Under the heading of no good deed goes
unpunished, Maurice instituted Sunday morning lectures at his Garden
Theatre about the plays he was producing. At these gatherings, the
leftists, the critics and other theatre mavens would caustically
condemn him for producing commercial theatre, as if paying salaries,
expenses and trying to show a profit, was some horrible crime
(Lifson 437). These were the same carpers who sniped at him
unmercifully over the years, holding him to a higher standard than
anyone in Yiddish Theatre. Not long after, the left-leaning members
broke away completely, forming their own, often successful, company,
the propagandist ARTEF.
Cheap labor had become a necessity for
Schwartz, as his casts burgeoned and other costs skyrocketed during
the inflationary 1920’s. An example of Schwartz’s labor problems,
which were to become a given of his theatre existence: Sabbatai
Zvi was conceived as a drama with music. The play required a
full orchestra. When The Seven Who Were Hanged followed it in
October, a problem arose, as the piece didn’t call for music. The
musicians complained that it was far too late in the season to find
employment elsewhere, and demanded to remain in place at the Garden.
Schwartz paid them for an extra week of idleness and no more. A
strike resulted. The union rule specifically stated that those hired
at the start of the season must be kept on until its end. Dismissal,
except for extraordinary reasons, was forbidden. A committee was
formed to mediate the dilemma, and it cost Maurice a significant sum
to undo the strike.
Blood Laughter, by Ernest Toller,
opened on February 14, 1924. It was based on the playwright’s
Hinkemann, written in a Bavarian prison, where he was serving a
15-year sentence for his part in the 1919 communist-led revolution
in Munich. Like Andersh, it concerns an ex-soldier returned
home—in this case to a bankrupt Germany—permanently damaged. But
where Marcus in the Leivick piece is spiritually wounded, the German
is physically unmanned, the symbolic counterpart of what was done to
Germany by the Versailles Treaty.
The Art Theatre’s last scheduled play was
Karen Bramson’s The Eternal Lie, due to open on April 14th.
Bramson was a popular Danish playwright, and she constructed her
piece around a love triangle. Its subtext concerned the question of
whether it was moral to destroy a person’s happiness with a
distasteful truth. Reminiscent of Ibsen’s The Wild Duck, the
play wondered if ignorance was truly bliss. But late that winter,
Schwartz received an exciting offer to tour Europe the following
spring and summer, instead of trodding the boards to those
Yiddish-American outposts as usual. The visit would be the very
first by a Yiddish ensemble based in the United States to perform in
England and on the Continent. It would also prove to the world that
Schwartz and his remarkable Art Theatre had arrived, had become
world artists, on the same stratospheric level as the Moscow Art
Theatre. To the bargain, he had a repertoire with which he could
dazzle the entire western world, an array of awesome works he’d
introduced and made classics of.
The invitation to perform abroad had come
from the Anglo-Yiddish manager Moshe David Waxman, though Schwartz
was not terribly impressed meeting the foppish man, noting his natty
clothing and excessive hairdo. Waxman showed him telegrams from
London theatre-owners, expressing great interest in the Yiddish Art
Theatre. Maurice couldn’t resist. “Actors are plagued by the desire
to travel. They are like gypsies. They would like to be all over.
They look forward to meeting new people, to playing successfully for
them, to traveling on boats and trains” (Schwartz 18 Feb. 1942).
Most of all, Waxman had aroused in him a
deep nostalgia for London. He couldn’t help recalling how as a mere
child, he’d been separated from his mother and spent two
Dickensonian years, trawling the streets of Whitechapel. Now a man
of some notoriety, he longed to see again where he’d risen from, and
to show Londoners how far one of their own (if only briefly) had
come. How could anyone resist this enticing scenario? “I will have
the chance to play Yiddish Theatre in the city where I was once a
beggar” (Schwartz 18 Feb. 1942).
When Reuben Guskin learned of Schwartz’s
plans, he tried to dissuade his friend and adversary from taking yet
another hazardous venture into alien territory. This was no mindless
excursion among the Gentiles, Maurice assured him, alluding to the
fiasco at the 48th Street Theatre. They would be among
their own, with friends. “Our reputation will increase. We’ll show
the entire world that our theatre is a jewel” (Schwartz 18 Feb.
1942). Grudgingly, the union president gave his blessings, but only
after Maurice promised that the Art Theatre would complete its
schedule for the season. Guskin had his members to protect.
To honor his commitment: the Bramson work,
Schwartz went to the Arch Street Theatre in Philadelphia, and hired
Paul Baratov to manage the Garden in his absence. Baratov—later he
would change his first name to Ben Zvi—had been an international
star in Eastern Europe. Besides managing, he would take a part in
The Eternal Lie and other productions. Left behind as well would
be Leonid Snegoff, Julius Adler, Yudel Dubinsky and Anatol
Vinogradoff, to ably hold the fort.
To Maurice’s great fortune, the Democratic
Party asked to sublease the Garden Theatre for its summer caucus
while preparing for the upcoming Presidential election in November.
The $10,000 charge would provide for all the expenses of getting to
London and then some. Or so Maurice calculated. In London,
Schwartz’s emissaries rented the Scala Theatre for a whopping $3000
a week, for a total of six weeks. For the expedition abroad,
Schwartz took a troupe of 20, including three managers, the
decorations, costumes and paraphernalia for a dozen plays, and his
own electric generator for the elaborate lighting arrangements used
in the productions.
Sometime during the hectic spring of
preparations, Sidney Goldin, an old acquaintance and budding Yiddish
filmmaker, came to Maurice with a tasty deal. He wanted to shoot
Yiskor with Schwartz and his company while they were in Vienna.
In short order, Harry Sackler, the playwright agreed to do the
More than 1000 (Schwartz’s estimate) friends
and admirers gathered at the dock, where the S.S. George Washington
was loading for the voyage. Among the boarding actors were Mr. and
Mrs. Muni Weisenfreund. Schwartz had asked him and his wife Bella to
join the Art Theatre on its European jaunt. It would also be the
first time back for Muni, who was born in Lemberg, Poland. Aboard
the liner, the rancor and bruised egos of both men evaporated in the
salt air and ocean sun. Over the seven-day journey, the company
rehearsed in the Grand Salon some of the plays they’d be doing.
After one session, Muni cornered Maurice. “I want to apologize. I’ve
been thinking of you as a son of a bitch. But I’m the bastard. I’m
the pain in the ass” (Lawrence 99).
Also in a conciliatory mood, Schwartz
admitted some of his own faults and promised to make amends. He
swore that every actor would get equal billing, to begin with. But
the rapprochement dissolved soon after the troupe disembarked, and
they glimpsed the marquee of the Scala, in the ritzy West End of
London. ‘Maurice and Company’ was how it read, with the names of the
cast listed alphabetically in small letters, Weisenfreund’s name at
the very bottom, “down where the dogs pee on it” (Lawrence 99).
Over the next few weeks, the two men would snipe at one another,
until Muni suddenly quit, taking Bella with him on a long European
Waiting on the London pier, over 500 English
Jews milled about the gangplank, the result of Moshe David Waxman’s
publicity efforts. Maurice and Anna were whisked away to the Cecil,
one of the city’s poshest hotels, while the rest of the company was
taken to the Whitechapel, the standard second-class watering hole
for visiting Yiddish performers. The next morning, the dailies were
replete with stories planted by Waxman about the London vagrant
who’d made good in America, and his troupe, here in town, at the
Scala, ready to open with Sabbatai Zi. Advanced ticket sales
for the premiere were excellent so far, but beyond that rather
anemic. Waxman had a ready explanation: the troupe had arrived
during Passover, when London Jews traditionally shunned all forms of
entertainment. This, Schwartz refused to accept, and badgered Waxman
to try reversing the custom. Waxman then arranged a press
conference, where Maurice’s early life was injected as promotional
material, to pump up lagging sales at the box office. A campaign was
organized, very American in tone, to find the kind policeman who’d
directed him to the bakery. Unfortunately, the man was dead, but
after a media blitz, his sister was found.
At a public ceremony that was more photo-op
and media stunt, Schwartz presented the woman with a gift worth
about $25. All the hype for just one member of the troupe (even if
he was the boss and its main attraction) annoyed the other 19
members of the Art Theatre. It was the hated star system over again,
and it riled them no end. Schwartz knew at once that he’d made a
terrible mistake, and he belatedly invited the group to the
ceremony. “When the actors came, I saw their angry faces and
understood their attitude. Our enterprise wasn’t for one person.
They were also being feted, but it was a case of too little, too
late” (Schwartz 25 Feb. 1942).
The Yiddish Art Theatre began rehearsals
under mutinous conditions, never letting Maurice forget his shoddy
treatment of them. Meanwhile, their $10,000 nest egg was fast
shrinking. He cursed Waxman for deceiving him, but chided himself
more for believing the man’s hot air. However, détente was achieved
soon after, between Schwartz and his players, and on April 18, 1924,
Sabbatai Zvi opened at the Scala. Supreme actors, each and every
one, they worked through their animosities, united by a single goal:
the theatre. Opening night was a gala affair, attended by such
notables as the daughter of Prime Minister MacDonald, and those
fabulously rich Anglo-Jewish families, the Sassoons and the
Montefiores. The English, famous for their reserve, didn’t applaud,
not once, between acts, the way unbuttoned New Yorkers would.
Instead, they saved it until after the final curtain, and rose as
one to cheer for two whole minutes. Afterwards, the entire cast was
invited by a Parliament member for tea on the terrace of the
From then on, the Yiddish Art Theatre
could do no wrong. The press, both English and Yiddish, lauded its
every play, each performance. The homes of the wealthiest were open
to them. One not-so-wealthy English Jew, Chaim Weizmann, visited the
troupe at the Scala and recommended they play in Jerusalem. “I
listened with enthusiasm to this interesting personality, and
developed a strong desire to learn Hebrew and eventually visit
Israel” (Schwartz 28 Feb. 1942).
Though many Englishmen attended the Scala,
the Yiddish Art Theatre kept losing money. The problem was the high
cost of doing business in Britain, compared to its cheap theatre
prices. London wasn’t New York. The highest paid London worker
earned about $20 a week. Business was excellent; they broke all
records at the Scala, but when expenses exceed income, as Mr.
Micawber noted, the result is misery. Schwartz worried over the
erosion of the Art Theatre’s bankroll and he abandoned any hope of
making money. His object now was to limit his losses. The truth was,
he was flat broke, nothing left to take them to Paris. In
desperation, Maurice remained in London an additional two weeks,
hoping to earn passage money to France. He booked the Prince of
Wales, a cheaper theatre, but with little profit in the end. Feeling
almost as impoverished as he had 20 years earlier, Maurice asked for
and received a $2500 loan from a prominent Anglo-Jew (which he was
to return a year later).
They left London in the middle of June, and
characteristically, Schwartz didn’t bemoan the large deficit he’d
incurred. “The material losses were nothing compare to the love and
kindness we were treated with” (Schwartz 4 Mar. 1942). At the time,
he fretted, complained, lived in anguish, trying to make ends meet,
falling further behind each day, borrowing from a stranger and yet,
in retrospect, he could shrug off the quotidian terrors and take the
long, philosophical view. Maurice was patently no businessman, but
then few artists are.
“Paris: the city of enchantment and glamour.
France: the country of liberty, equality and brotherhood. Who didn’t
wish to be here at least once in life? The magic city with its broad
boulevards, where people sit in coffeehouses and drink wine and
listen to music” (Schwartz 7 Mar. 1942). They arrived nearly broke,
only $10 of the loan remaining. The French press and representatives
of every major Jewish organization were waiting at the train, but
very formally, and even a tad cold compared to the English.
The Paris Theatre held only 600 seats, which
when filled brought in no more than $380. Its stage was too small
for the elaborate sets Schwartz had lugged from America, but despite
the obstacles and lack of funds, the Art Theatre was resoundingly
successful. In addition, Schwartz met the leading intellectuals and
artists of Europe, among them the poet and writer Zalman Schneour,
who penned the novel Noah Pandre, about a Jewish ruffian.
Schneour could have been taken for some Italian prince: tall,
elegant, with intensely dark eyes and a neat black beard.
As in London, the Art Theatre’s income hardly
covered outgo. Schwartz rapidly fell in debt to his actors, an
intolerable situation he’d pay for dearly after they were back in
the States. Money woes made Schwartz’s two weeks in Paris long and
tormenting. Often, he and the troupe had to depend on the kindness
of others, better-off French Jews and American visitors, to treat
them to dinner. Thrilled when he’d arrived in Paris weeks before, he
was even more elated leave. Like many a would-be conqueror, he left
Vienna was also a city of art, music, gaiety
and first-class restaurants, but with Germanic stolidness.
Schwartz’s advance man had booked the tradition-encrusted Karl
Theatre on the Praterstrasse for their performances. It was Vienna’s
leading opera house, where the music of Strauss, Kalman and Franz
Lehar had delighted the Austrians. The Karl had a large stage,
suitable for the Yiddish Art Theatre’s more gaudy productions.
Schwartz felt better about this and took it as an omen of better
times to come.
For filming Yiskor, the Schonbrunn
had been rented. Formerly one of Emperor Franz Josef’s castles, the
Schonbrunn had become a movie studio after the war, and was
surrounded by magnificent gardens, where between scenes, the actors
could meander and inhale the scents of roses and muguet. During
their short stay in Vienna, the troupe worked exceptionally hard:
evenings at the Karl, days before the cameras at the castle. They
were well-paid, and in American dollars. Maurice used many of his
own players for the film, integrating them with Austrian actors such
as Oscar Beregi, Fritz Strassny, and the particularly lovely Dagny
Schwartz cavalierly offered a preamble for
what was to happen on the film set. “It’s customary in Hollywood
that the leading man and the leading lady playing together at being
in love, end up actually being in love” (Schwartz 25 Mar. 1942).
But he never thought it would happen to him. He had a wonderful
wife, who was as well a business partner and friend with whom he
shared everything. And really, he had no time for dalliances, busy
night and day, not a moment to himself. A man with staggering
Dagny Servaes initiated the affair in the
film, and in real life. She was a tall, ebony-haired, soulful
beauty, and a fine actress. They were thrown together, on set and
off, doing their scenes, then being transported together to and from
the Schonbrunn. The affair to Charlotte Goldstein Chafran, a future
and exquisite leading lady at the Art Theatre, who knew him well,
said that Schwartz had come of age without ever having the
opportunity to change from boy to man. “So the romanticism he should
have experienced growing up remained forever trapped in his psyche,
unfulfilled forever, demanding expression and release, and a
companion of his youth to share it with. Anna couldn’t fulfill this
role. There was nothing of the girl in her [. . .]She couldn’t play
in the park with him” (Chafran 28 June 1999).
With Dagny, he’d found his playmate, and in
a limited way, experienced what is labeled, in more recent times, a
midlife crisis. Demonstrating little resistance, Schwartz drew
closer to Dagny, until he realized that nothing good would come of
his infatuation for the beautiful Austrian actress. A brief, sweet
moment in time, but it was over before it had really begun. The film
and the plays completed, it was time to go home to prepare for the
fall season at the Garden. In his mind, he’d already departed
Vienna, and was knee-deep in the new presentations, in New York, the
most exciting city in the world to him.
Three years later, in the autumn of 1927,
Max Reinhardt brought his company to Manhattan to do A Midsummer
Night’s Dream and other pieces he was famous for. Dagny Servaes
was part of the troupe. There is no evidence that she and Maurice
saw one another then or ever again.