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

Chapter Sixteen: "A Season of Major Accomplishments"
Chapter Seventeen: "I Have My Memories"
Chapter Eighteen: "We Made a Mistake in Our Extravaganza"
Chapter Nineteen: "I Signed the Contract With a Broken Spirit"

Chapter Sixteen: “A Season of Major Accomplishments.”

                        The week-long sea voyage home on the Acquitania was a blessing, the chance to sort out his emotions, to encapsulate how he felt about Dagny and bury those forbidden feelings in a far corner of his heart, then move on from the impossible, to what must be done for the coming fall—always the new season to face, to organize, and ultimately conquer. It never ended, the constant cycle, but in this case, the many problems would be a godsend. Maurice had lost a kind of innocence with the Austrian actress, but more pressing was the financial losses he’d sustained on his European tour. The $42,000 (including the $10,000 from the Democratic National Committee) was gone, not to mention the $2500 loan from the London benefactor. And he owed back wages to some of the company from when he'd been penniless in Paris. The animosity he alone had generated with his players in London was probably the largest deficit, and impossible to wipe out.

                        He could use a certain winner with which to initiate the 1924-1925 season, one requiring little preparation. Schwartz opened a month later with The Dybbuk. Included in the cast were Ben Zvi Baratov, who’d proven himself in New York during the European tour, and Muni Weisenfreund, though there’d been so much friction and bitterness between them in England. Muni must have been floored to receive an offer for the season, but along with the contract came three new scripts with especially fascinating roles for him, parts he’d never played before and which would surely stretch his abilities. Unhesitatingly, Muni accepted.

                       Maurice had calculated correctly: The Dybbuk did very well and he was able to return the $2500 borrowed in England, and dig into the pile of debts before him like a mountain of paper.

                        It wasn’t until the last day of September, a full month into the season, that Schwartz presented his first play. Moshke Chasser (Morris the Pig) by I.D. Berkowitz, was adapted by the author from his own short story of 1903. Berkowitz had sworn never to write again for the Yiddish Theatre after the drubbing he received with Landsleit three seasons before But hope springs eternal, especially in the theatre, and there they were, Isaac Dov and Maurice, posing a familiar theme: the depiction of a Russian pogrom. Though the players gathered glowing notices, the play was the deadest of ducks. Three weeks later, on October 1st, Maurice followed with a winning comedy about the theatre, When Will He Die? By Chone Gottesfeld, who not only wrote plays, but was a humorous sketch writer for the Forward.

                        The piece starred Muni in the role of Schnell, a rapid-fire, fast-talking, wise-cracking publicity man, quite common in both Yiddish and English-language theatre. The plot revolves around the antics of Schnell, who attempts to revive a failing play by pretending its author (Schwartz) suddenly dies. The premise here is that dead authors command more attention and interest than live ones. Schnell convinces the writer to play dead, resulting in such funny scenes as a funeral, where the corpse sits up in his coffin and comment on the eulogy.

                        Gottesfeld’s employer, the Forward, led by Abe Cahan, lauded the play, helping to make it a success, but a week later, during a repertory performance of The Big Lottery, the union called a strike, and Schwartz had to close the theatre. “In the presence of a capacity audience [. . .] he announced that his entire cast had forsaken him and had sided with the Hebrew Actors Union in a controversy over back pay due several members of his last year’s cast. It is said that he owes them in aggregate the sum of $6000”  (Jewish Theatrical News 1 Nov. 1924). 

                        Here was his Paris problem coming back to haunt him, part of the ocean of debt he’d been addressing since returning home. And succeeding, until he ran afoul of the union. Not long after, the money was paid and the lights went on once more at the Garden Theatre. The victory was pyrrhic, as “the Yiddish community felt that actors were behaving as immorally as if firemen or schoolteachers or doctors would go on strike. The bread of life was being taken out of their mouths”  (Lawrence 102).

                       The next important production opened on November 24th, an eerie, uncharacteristic play by Hirshbein called The Devil Knows What. Maurice loved the piece and lavished much attention on it. He threw his best performers into the effort, including his trio of the finest Yiddish actresses extant:Anna Appel, Bima Abramowitz and Bertha Gersten. Maurice played Wolf, a strong, handsome, simple-minded woodsman. Muni was given the part of The Mysterious One, a saintly hermit. For this bit of offbeat theatre, Maurice used the loveable bohemian, Yosl Cutler, and his equally quaint pal, Zuny Moud, to design the costumes. Alexander Chertov did the scenery, and a bright, young composer, Sholem Secunda (of ‘Bei Mir Bistu Sheyn’ fame) wrote the music, which was a perfect match to the play’s mysticism.

                         Schwartz also employed a peculiar form of naturalism to express the work’s ethereal quality. Instead of relying solely on Chertov’s scenic illusions, he had an actual lake constructed and utilized on stage. In the next scene, real trees replaced the lake. The play was an overwhelming disaster, the audience terribly confused by its too original originality. It was excessively sophisticated for them, and not what they expected from the pastoral, nostalgic Hirshbein. The Devil Knows What languished for two weeks then expired. The loss, including construction costs for the lake and the trees, ran about $10,000.

                          Shrugging off the perhaps unwise piece, Schwartz moved along to Wolves, a complete change of direction. Romain Rolland, a French historical novelist and essayist, was specifically influenced by the Dreyfus Affair, that once tore France apart. Though Wolves was a definitely a political play, Schwartz didn’t mind the didactic in this case. He believed that, in addition to being fine drama, the work had the effect of making his audience think, of stirring them from its indifference. Designated by some the most unusual play in the Art Theatre’s long history, Wolves opened on December 4, 1924, with an all-male cast. The play’s setting is the French Revolution, and concerns the age-old question of whether a man’s ultimate duty is to country or conscience. The plot is woven around the false accusation of treason against a French officer in the service of Prussia. With flimsy evidence, d’Oryon is condemned to death by a jury of generals.

                       Reported the New York Times: “As has come to be expected at the Yiddish Art Theatre, the acting is excellent, and at times inspired [. . .] Maurice Swartz (sic) and Muni Weisenfreund wear the trappings of the Rolland philosophy without ever becoming the mere parrots of his lines”  (13 Dec. 1924). The play ran for months on weekends only. A comedy filled the weekday slot, In Every House, by B. Gorin, whose real name was Isaac Goido, a staff member at the Jewish Morning Journal.

                        Schwartz’s last big production of the ‘24-’25 season, on March 11th, running until the middle of May, was Goldfaden’s The Witch (Koldunye). It was the first Yiddish play introduced in America, in 1882, and played in Turn Hall, on E. 4th Street. The operetta, written in 1877 and updated by Maurice, had a cast of over 50, including the extras. The story line is a fairy tale about Mirele, whose wicked stepmother enlists a witch to frighten the girl into leaving home, but is foiled by a wandering peddler. Once again, Cutler and Moud provided the costumes, employing as well a technique never before seen on the Yiddish stage. Both men were expert puppeteers, and for the marketplace scene they created a fantastic puppet show. Later, the pair would team up with Jack Twerkov, a painter who would achieve world fame, to form Modjacot (based on their names), presenting adult and children’s marionette entertainment, consisting of clever satires and savage, socialist-oriented skits.

                        All in all, it was, as Zohn described it, “a season of major accomplishments and one of the most fruitful seasons at the Yiddish Art Theatre”  (177).

                        A severe disappointment for Schwartz was the failure of his movie version of Yiskor. It opened in spring at the Loews Premier in Brownsville, Brooklyn, not far from Singer Hall, his first professional playhouse. The critics were almost gleefully sadistic in their reviews.

                        The 1924-1925 season at the Garden may have been bountiful, but it was to be the Art Theatre’s final season there, not from an inability to pay the rent, but because the entire complex housing the theatre was to be torn down to make way for the new headquarters of New York Life Insurance Company. Its demise didn’t signal the end of the Art Theatre, but provided the impetus for a more permanent home. Schwartz was again on the move, and just when he’d established his troupe as a necessity to many Yiddish Theatre devotees and had achieved a small degree of stability.

                        With the wrecker’s ball on the near horizon, Schwartz had to start scrounging for other quarters. Offers came in from the Bowery, from Second Avenue and from Broadway, and other less desirable locations. Schwartz bided his time, considering his options. He had something permanent in mind, profoundly tired of wandering from place to place, tracing a small diaspora within a larger one. It was high time to plant roots. No longer could he tote a theatre and all its equipment around, as he had on his European tour, never mind the excess wear and tear on his crew.

                           Maurice made the necessary inquiries and learned that the cost of constructing the kind of theatre he needed would be a staggering $1,000,000. He had only $1600 in the company account, hardly sufficient for a row of seats, much less an entire playhouse. Nevertheless, he forged ahead, absent the funds, but rich in friends and admirers.

                        Hannah and Louis Jaffe were two of those admirers, Mrs. Jaffe an inveterate Art Theatre patron, Mr. Jaffe, a highly successful attorney, who would become an advisor to the American Jewish Congress and a founder of the Hebrew Free Loan Society of Bensonhurst. The two men met at the Café Royale for an exploratory chat. At once, Maurice laid his cards on the table. “You have to be the Jew who’s destined to build an art theatre in America. It’ll be a profitable enterprise. You erect the building and give me a 21-year lease, and I’ll pay you $75,000 a year in rent, with a $75,000 security deposit to boot”  (Schwartz  8 Apr. 1942). As a show of good faith, Schwartz promised a down payment  of $15,000, never once considering from where it might come. Louis Jaffe listened politely, then asked for a day to think it over.

                        Immediately after, Maurice , with great trepidation, took himself to the State Bank on Fifth Avenue and 30th Street, and asked for the manager, a man he’d never met before. The Yiddish Art Theatre had a spotless record at the bank, not a single bounced check. The manager, a decent enough fellow, knew Schwartz by reputation only, being Gentile and never having seen him perform. Flat out, Maurice delineated his plans for an Art Theatre, using all the narrative skills at his command, concluding with a request for $15,000, to be repaid in 90 days. Schwartz was handed an application form and filled it out. The paperwork done, the manager excused himself, returning minutes later with a bank check for the requested sum. Nervous, sweating profusely, Schwartz relieved his tension by expressing hope that the check wouldn’t bounce. The banker laughed heartily.

                        Before the sun set that day, Schwartz was out scouring for a site. He found the ideal location at the southwest corner of Second Avenue and 12th Street, directly across from the Café Royale. Jaffe disagreed. He wanted the playhouse smack in the middle of Broadway’s theatre district, to show the Gentile world that indeed the Jews had an art theatre. Schwartz rejected the idea. The Art Theatre would be on Broadway alright, Yiddish Broadway, downtown. The arguments flew back and forth, but Maurice stood his ground, and before too long, Jaffe gave in. Soon after, he bought the property.

                        All that stood in the way of beginning construction was approval by St. Marks Hospital. A block from the proposed structure, the small, private hospital had legitimate concerns that construction noises and the rumble of cement trucks might disturb its patients. The hospital board consisted in part of German Jews, who were not kindly disposed towards Yiddish Theatre, whose performers and audience were Polish and Russian Jews, lesser members of the faith .

                        Schwartz fretted and lost sleep over the seemingly Gordian knot, but was saved by a friend, an event and a fortuitous happening. All three combined in the person of Chaim Weitzmann, whom Maurice had met briefly in England, but happened to be presently in Manhattan. Invited to the Garden Theatre, Weitzmann stood after a performance and gushingly praised the achievements of the Art Theatre, remarking that “a good Yiddish play is as important as a charitable institution”  (Schwartz 18 Apr. 1942).

                        After the show, Schwartz told Weitzmann of his problem with the hospital. The remarkable chemist and future first president of the State of Israel, didn't know anyone on the hospital board, but he was friendly with Lewis Marshall. He wrote out a letter of introduction  and a request for his assistance. A brilliant Constitutional lawyer, Marshall had served as a member of the American Jewish delegation to the Versailles Peace Conference, responsible for its resolution concerning Jewish rights in Eastern Europe.

                         Maurice took himself and the letter to Marshall’s office on Wall Street, without much hope of succeeding. When he was admitted to the attorney’s inner office, he handed Marshall the letter. He read it slowly and seriously. After a few seconds, he called the hospital’s attorney. One lawyer to another, Marshall played hardball, demanding the hospital drop its opposition to the construction or else. ‘Or else’ would be a halt to the flow of charitable funds to St. Marks. It seemed that Louis Marshall’s law firm administered the monies. Needless to say, Schwartz left the office with an assurance that construction could proceed unimpeded.

                        The matter taken care of, Maurice turned his attention to dealing with present matters: the problem of where they would be for the 1925-1926 season, while a dream was being realized on the corner of Second Avenue and 12th Street. In 1925, Lee and J.J. Shubert were the two most powerful men in American Theatre. In Manhattan alone, they controlled 24 playhouses, including the Winter Garden, the Jolson, the Booth and the Nora Bayes, on 44th Street, west of Broadway. Without too much dickering, Lee Shubert (possessor of a frozen face and narrow, reptilian eyes) rented Schwartz the Nora Bayes for the following season, in the very heart of the English-language theatre district.

                        The next season’s location arranged, Maurice directed himself to the $60,000 balance he’d promised Louis Jaffe, and the $15,000 loan from the State Bank. Fate provided Schwartz with another angel, in the person of Morris Lipshitz, who adored Yiddish Theatre and had been a Schwartz fan for years. Lipshitz, a furniture manufacturer, came up with a large but unstated sum of money, part of which Maurice used to pay off the bank. While there, he applied for a second $15,000 and got it. The second loan was easier to obtain than the first, seeing he now had a track record. Schwartz regretted not asking for more.

                        The preliminaries with Jaffe over, a rapport cemented, Maurice got down to particulars. He asked for a sweeping stage area to show his actors and material to best advantage. “My intent was professional, his commercial. I had to compromise, because he intended to build a few stores for added income. Instead, we decided to build two smaller stages that could be raised or lowered when we had to change sets. Jaffe promised to do it and I gave him $35,000 toward the security money”  (Schwartz 22 Apr. 1942). As yet, no actual contract had been signed (and wouldn’t be until early in 1926). All Maurice had was a verbal agreement, a receipt for the money he’d already paid, and a letter of intent from Jaffe.

                        A few days later, there was a phone call to Maurice from his attorney. Charles Groll’s voice trembled with excitement. He had a piece of great news and could Maurice come at once to his office? Together, they went to Jaffe’s office nearby, and on the way, Groll told him that Louis had asked to have his letter of intent returned. He was willing to pay a $40,000 bonus for it, as some powerful real estate organization wanted the property. Jaffe claimed that another theatre could be rented for a lot less than the $75,000 Maurice had offered. If necessary, he’d construct a Yiddish Art Theatre on Broadway, at a better location than tired old Second Avenue.

                          Without a second’s hesitation, Schwartz refused to give up the letter, not even for $100,000. He had his heart set on Second and 12th. The two attorneys began working on Maurice to change his mind, deluging him with nothing but sound reasons to take the money and run. “The way Shylock demanded his pound of flesh, I insisted that Jaffe keep his word and build my theatre”  (Schwartz 25 Apr. 1942).

                        Schwartz and his attorney left Jaffe’s office, Groll expressing his disgust, as they walked along the busy street. “You’re out of your mind. You’ll be buried in an unpaid shroud for your stubbornness, like lots of other Jewish actors”  (Schwartz 25 Apr. 1942). After Maurice repeated his refusal to cash in on the letter of intent, Groll shook his head, grumbled and hailed a cab.

                        At home, Schwartz poured out his heart to Anna and his parents. He simply couldn’t sell his soul, his vision, for money. He’d rather strive on as he’d had for years. Rose sided with him, but Isaac—a practical businessman—sided with the lawyers. With $40,000, his son could build a magnificent theatre in Palestine and become a better Jew. To Maurice, his understanding wife sounded the absolutely correct note: to raise an Art Theatre on Second Avenue, amongst his brethren, was worth more than any amount of money.

Chapter Seventeen: “I Have My Memories.”

                        “The season at the Nora Bayes Theatre on Broadway was not a successful one. The actors’ minds were already on the new theatre. They had the mental attitude of people who live in a temporary apartment or a hotel. Everything was done in a hurry”  (Schwartz 24 April 1942). And yet a season was mounted, albeit a short one, with fewer plays than ever, no more than ten, commencing on September 17th and ending early in April. King Saul was the season starter, a Biblical epic in four acts and a prologue that tried to provide some understanding of the tortured relationship between a king growing old and paranoid, and his youthful antagonist, David, the shepherd boy turned warrior.

                        Schwartz was paying the Shuberts $35,000 for the year at the Bayes, which was ample reason to try and uphold the Art Theatre’s tradition of stunning opening plays. Maurice chose a piece by one of the most important writers of the day, the German-Jewish Paul Heyse, who’d won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1910. Maurice played the aging, embittered Saul, with Lazar Freed as his son Jonathan, and another newcomer, Bella Bellarina, as David’s bethrothed. Perhaps as a reward for translating the piece, Mark Schweid, another first-timer, was awarded the role of David. The Times limited its tepid praise to 28 lines.

                         Gone forever from the Art Theatre, was Muni Weisenfreund. He’d had enough of Schwartz (and probably visa versa), and went to work instead for Max Gabel at the People’s Theatre, playing shund once more. A few years later he made the leap to Broadway, then to Hollywood, never to return to Second Avenue.

                         On October 19th, Schwartz put on Shakespeare and Company, garnering even less space in the Times, a mere ten lines without any critical comment. Based loosely on a Harry Kalmanowitz work, it was a romp about a silk manufacturer who writes a play for his actress-wife, co-starring her ex-lover. Listed in the playbill as the adapter is a M. Charnoff. Who is M. Charnoff? was the question of the day, as no one had ever heard of him. In reality, Schwartz was the man of mystery, trying his hand at adapting, a skill he would subsequently often practice, as quality plays by newcomers to the profession dwindled and their need increased.

                        The main effort that month went into a comedy about Jews in early 20th Century Russia, The Man Who Lived on Air (Der Luftmensch), written by Simeon Yushkewitz. The author, a physician in Russia, came to America in 1921. Encouraged by Maxim Gorki to practice writing instead of medicine, he went to work for the Day. His plays illuminated the conditions of Jewish life under the Czar. Luftmensch concerns the particular hardships of Elias Gold, who is prevented by ukase from entering the professions, and must earn his living as best he can, in various shady ventures, gathering his wealth virtually from the air.

                        For this piece, Schwartz was content merely in the lead role, leaving the directorial duties to Snegoff. The meaty play generated little excitement with neither critics nor patrons. Perhaps they all-too-easily compared it to Hard to Be a Jew, which had the same underlying motif. Sholem Asch’s A String of Pearls opened Monday evening, December 7th, with matinees scheduled for Saturdays and Sundays. A stark tragedy, the play deals with a prosperous Jewish family in some unnamed Eastern European village torn asunder by war. Though Asch was a respected Yiddish playwright, and twice before showcased by Schwartz (The Dead Man and Motke the Thief), the play went absolutely nowhere.

                       Toward the month’s end, on December 24th, Maurice ventured far outside both Yiddish and mainstream literature with The Circle of Chalk, by a little-known German historical novelist and translator of Oriental poetry. Alfred Henscke, under the pen name Klabund, created Der Kreidekreis in 1925, from a Chinese folktale about a poor girl who undergoes persecution and suffering, finally becoming the wife of a benevolent emperor. In 1948, Bertoldt Brecht used the Klabund translation to fashion his The Caucasian Chalk Circle, shifting the play’s emphasis to a King Solomon parable about two women in dispute over a baby.

                       Kicking off the new year, Schwartz presented The Dybbuk. Whenever the company needed a financial boost, or had run out of new material, he would dig into his repertoire of sparkling diamonds, of sure money-generators. The effort was generally well-received, especially by Alexander Woolcott, the fabled critic: “The Yiddish Art Theatre production of The Dybbuk is alive to the tingling dramatic value of this extraordinary play”  (6 Jan. 1926).

                       The Art Theatre also dug out Rags in March, with Maurice and Ben Zvi Baratov alternating the role of the son who sides with the strikers in his father’s factory. Among the downtrodden laborers, was Baruch Lumet (father of movie director Sidney Lumet), and Michael Rosenberg, up the ladder from being only an extra in Schwartz’s school for performers.

                        The sparseness of Schwartz’s 1925-1926 menu was partially compensated for by the Art Company’s involvement in filming Broken Hearts in Manhattan.Undeterred by the thudding failure of the movie Yiskor just months before, Maurice somehow got Louis Jaffe to back him in the project. The Jaffe Art Film Corporation was formed, and Schwartz dredged up the creaky old Libin work that had breathed life back into Jacob Adler’s sagging career in 1903. Ironically, Solomon Libin’s Man and His Shadow had opened the first season at the Irving Place Theatre, and once again the great innovator had to take an artistic step back, to rely on the tried-and-true middle ground of Libin’s plays to launch his American film career. Uncertain, treading his way gingerly in a relatively strange medium, he hoped to expand his audience while limiting the risks. Perhaps with Jaffe’s money at stake in the film company and in the Art Theatre under construction, Maurice decided to behave responsibly and with overcaution.

                       Schwartz steeped himself in the film’s direction, in the Bronx and on the Lower East Side, under the most hectic conditions. On Hester Street, there would be hundreds of mostly children showing up each day, causing havoc with the actors. “Their shrieking voices summoned ever new reinforcements from windows, doorways, cellars and stores. It became a surging tide of yelling, howling marchers, who pulled the cameraman by the coattails, walked before his feet, jerked at his machine”  (New York Times 11 Oct. 1925).

                       In Broken Hearts, was a medley of Art Theatre regulars, including Schwartz, Appel, Snegoff and Julius Adler. Also selected by Maurice, was Charles Nathanson (with whom he’d clashed in Philadelphia), and Henrietta Schnitzer, the imperious wife of the financial backer of Ben-Ami’s rebel group in 1919. The screen adaptation was written by Schwartz, with the aid of Frances Taylor Patterson, the very first instructor in cinema at Columbia University. As he’d done in Vienna, Maurice filmed during the day and performed evenings at the Nora Bayes.

                       What Louis Jaffe had hoped to achieve by constructing a playhouse on Second Avenue, was also his goal in moviemaking. “This is the first evidence of our program to elevate Jewish Art on the screen. To present Jewish life as it is in America now, avoiding, and thereby counteracting, gross exaggeration, is the primary aim of the Jaffe Art Film Corporation”  (Jewish Theatrical News 9 Feb. 1926).

                        Good intentions aside, the Libin film was closer to shund than art, the type of treacly mush Schwartz had tried to free himself from when he’d left David Kessler. Maurice futher doctored the script by increasing his own part, and by providing a happy ending. The Times commended Schwartz’s sincerity in directing, but faulted his inexperience. “He dwells far too long on most of the scenes, and frequently gives a variety of ‘shots’ of situations that are hardly worth more than a flash”  (Hall 3 Mar. 1926). The Jewish Theatrical News was less kind: “He bears that painstaking poise which is Maurice Schwartz. Yet, for all that, he is listless, a trifle stunned, a wee bit too careful”  (2 Mar. 1926). Re-edited in 1932, the movie was released as The Unfortunate Bride, with Yiddish and English intertitles, music, and portions in the newfangled device of sound.

                        Engrossing as movie making had been for Schwartz that winter, he had more on his plate to keep him busy. He’d formed a new entity, Anboard Theatre Corporation (combining the first letters of Anna and Bordofsky), to deal with the fast-rising edifice on Second Avenue, soon to be a place as much as a concept. A series of contracts were drawn up and inked between December, 1925 and August, 1926. In one, Anboard and the Louis N. Jaffe Art Theatre Corporation agreed—within 38 pages containing many handwritten additions, corrections and deletions—to the leasing of the structure to be known thereafter as the Yiddish Art Theatre. The specifications were spelled out as to the stage, the dressing rooms, balconies, loges, etcetera, as per the blueprints of Harrison G. Wiseman, architect supreme, who’d also designed the William Fox Studios on 52nd Street, and many Loews movie houses.

                        Approximately 1240 seats were to be installed, subject to construction exigencies. Provision was made for a stage consisting of two platforms with the latest electrical and mechanical devices. Also a counterweight system, sufficient lighting, fire-proof curtains,and dressing rooms furnished with metal dressing tables, proper mirrors, and running water in each dressing room.

                         That tumultuous April was marred by the death during Passover week of Jacob Adler, at the age of 71. His funeral on the 2nd drew over 50,000, flooding the streets of the Lower East Side, and closing its stores and shops for two hours. Services were conducted on the stage of the Second Avenue Theatre. Half a million mourners, it was estimated, had viewed the body lying in state. Many, who’d come to pay their last respects, followed the cortege on foot, over the Williamsburg Bridge to Mount Carmel Cemetery in Brooklyn.

                       Four months later, on August 4th, Anboard signed a document with Maurice’s brother-in-law Meyer Golub and two partners, leasing them the coatroom and refreshment concessions for the new theatre. Their combined rent would be $4500 a year. Also negotiated was a security deposit by Golub and his associates of $15,000. The money was used by Schwartz as part of what he owed Jaffe. Five days hence, Anboard and Maurice entered into a service contract. His salary was fixed at $600 a week for the entire 36 weeks of the Yiddish Theatre season, with a rider permitting him one midweek benefit evening, the proceeds of which would be entirely his. Schwartz also stipulated for himself “the exclusive right and authority to select and designate the plays that shall be produced at the said theatre; to have the sole and exclusive charge of producing such plays [. . .]”   (Contract  9 Aug. 1926).

                        Evidently, Schwartz had learned how to run a theatre with authority, and wasn’t about to cede the least control to such as a Max Wilner, or anyone else who might seek to hamper him in any way. Whatever might happen to Anboard, whomever might gain control, he would still be master of what was produced.

                         The cornerstone-laying ceremony on May 24th, was a major event in the City. The guest of honor was Mrs. Sholem Aleichem. Attending also were Joseph Barondess, the labor leader who’d helped start the Hebrew Actors Union decades earlier; Alexander Gelman, the Assistant District Attorney for Kings County; Dr. Nathan Krass of Temple Emanuel, and the drama critics from the Yiddish newspapers. Among the dignitaries sending congratulations were Governor Alfred E. Smith, Mayor James J. Walker, Chaim Bialik, the dean of Yiddish poets, and Henry Meeker, board president of St. Mark’s Hospital, the man who’d strenuously objected to the theatre’s construction.

                        What might have crossed the minds of many of the celebrants was the passing of Adler, and one of his last letters to the Forward, printed on January 24, 1925. “I have my memories of the Yiddish stage, memories I must set down so that [. . .] the world may know how we built, out of the dark realities of Jewish life, with our blood, with our nerves, with the tears of our sleepless nights, the theatre that stands today as a testament to our people”  (Rosenfeld 350).

                         Perhaps those gathered at the grand occasion were concerned for the future of the kind of theatre Adler stood for, and Schwartz was trying to perpetuate, wondering too if Maurice and Jaffe, in an era of Yiddish’s increasing decline as a language, as a culture, had erected a monument to the past, instead of a vibrant, living palace of art. As patriotten the generation before had watched the construction of the Grand Street Theatre, so their sons observed the rise of the Art Theatre. This time, Maurice was more than a bystander, working closely with Wiseman and Jaffe. Often, changes had to be made to please Louis or Schwartz, or to conform to City building codes. Costs rose above the original estimates by over $100,000. Louis Jaffe didn’t mind, while Schwartz couldn’t help but sweat out the numbers.

                        Maurice’s old concerns, it seemed, hadn’t been assuaged by all the metal and stone and concrete, by the magnificent trappings of the Art Theatre’s new home. While the externals would change from year to year, playhouse to playhouse, his internal geography and the verities of trying to uplift the public while remaining solvent, would remain constant and imposing.

Chapter Eighteen: “We Made a Mistake in Our Extravaganza.”

                        “The greatest day of the Yiddish Art Theatre, the ultimate of a lifelong dream, has arrived. The Yiddish Art Theatre has a permanent home,” wrote Maurice in the program for Goldfaden’s The Tenth Commandment, the operetta with which he’d chosen to initiate the virgin playhouse, despite how miserably everything concerning its construction was going. And was still going on, as opening night neared. They would never be ready for a September premiere. All summer, the bricklayers were trundling their wheelbarrows across the half-completed stage. Carpenters were sawing and hammering. Plumbers laid pipe and soldered joints. This, while Boris Aronson was creating his most unusual sets, and Michel Fokine, the ballet master responsible for the Ballet Russe dance company, was rehearsing his dancers, and Lazar Weiner, the orchestra conductor, tried putting his musicians through their paces.

                       It was complete confusion and as disorganized as Maurice, the strict disciplinarian and control freak, had ever known. His patience, his very sanity, began eroding, as August dissolved into September, September into October. A full quarter of the season was gone, and the doors to the Art Theatre remained sealed shut. What saved him from going berserk was the calming influence of Leon Hoffman, who’d voluntarily accepted the unenviable role of unpaid overseer for the Art Theatre. Technically, the Forward writer was listed as publicity manager, but he would station himself at Schwartz’s side during the Babel-like rehearsals, and guide him through the tempestuous waters, offering sage opinions and dispensing sound advice, but mostly intoning the dulcet assurances that everything would come out very fine.

                        The chimerical date of November 17th was at last chosen to open the Art Theatre. So much remained unfinished, and that fact pressed heavily on Schwartz’s chest and shoulders. A near-breaking point came during the first week of November, as he biliously observed the ghastly choreography of carpenters and dancers on the same stage. Seized by an attack of uncertainty and despair, he craved to shut down the entire operation, or at least postpone it until the following month. What was another few lost weeks compared to what he was enduring? His brother Martin and Hoffman (his faithful Sancho Panza) cautioned against so rash an action, reminding him that they’d already sunk $20,000 into The Tenth Commandment, the costliest production until then in Yiddish Theatre history, and its greatest blunder, should Maurice decide to fold, or even delay, the already delayed opening.

                        “We made a mistake in our extravaganza,” believed the embattled producer. “The first play should have been small, modest, not one that depended on large crowds at the box office. New York Jews actually wanted to see [. . .] the new theatre rather than an extraordinary play”  (Schwartz 2 May 1942). But to present The Tenth Commandment under such impossible conditions, was an invitation to fiscal ruination. Not to however, would have been far worse, even fatal. The unions and other organizations had booked long in advance a large portion of the theatre, and at heavily discounted prices. Granted a full house, there was little chance of clearing a profit on the piece. Even so, the Art Theatre dared not disappoint the benefit managers, who were constantly shopping around, not for the best plays, but the cheapest. He dared not give them additional reason to go elsewhere.

                        Competition that year appeared on all fronts. Molly Picon was a smash in Molly Dolly. On Broadway, Gertrude Lawrence and Victor Moore were starring in Gershwin’s Oh, Kay, and Mae West simpered and strutted in Sex, for which she spent ten days in jail. One former Yiddish Theatre pioneer, Bertha Kalich, was appearing in English in Magda, while Muni made the transition to the mainstream We Americans. Closer to home, competition also was felt from the Habima Theatre, touching down on U.S. soil in 1926, on a tour arranged by impresario Sol Hurok. Trumpeted by English-language and Yiddish dailies alike, the non-commercial, Hebrew-speaking troupe catered to a select few, only the most literate Jews. Though Habima attracted but a tiny audience, it was Schwartz’s constituency the troupe stole from.

                        A more serious threat arose from the Irving Place’s art theatre group formed by the unlikely union of Jacob Ben-Ami and Max Wilner. The former, in an attempt to carry on the art movement he’d initiated with Schwartz in the same location eight years earlier, combined forces with Maurice’s ex-partner, enlisting many of those once dedicated to the Yiddish Art Theatre, among them Goldschmidt, Snegoff and Vinogradoff. Though their efforts were well-received, Ben-Ami and Wilner soon quarreled over policy—as had Max and Maurice—and the unwieldy union broke apart. Ben-Ami would then play for Eva LeGallienne’s Civic Repertory Theatre on 14th Street, where his abilities found a wider audience.

                        The Tenth Commandment had been written by Goldfaden in the waning years of the 19th Century, when he was directing theatre in Lemberg, Poland. The musical farce concerns two business associates who fall under Satan’s sway, and lust after each other’s wife. After a series of Devil-inspired disasters—including death, the descent into Hell, then redemption—the two couples regroup as before they violated the commandment in question, and happily spend the rest of their lives together.

                       The cast Schwartz had gathered for this daring tour de force, revamped by Maurice, was enormous, over 70 players, some taking three and four roles. Celia Adler, having signed on for another year, inhabited Fruma, the pious wife of Peretz, a rich and devout Chassid, who is nevertheless smitten with his partner’s wife. Playing Peretz was an interesting new performer Maurice had imported from Romania. Months before, Celia and Molly Picon had touted to him the virtues of a highly talented couple, Joseph Buloff and Luba Kadison, currently the toasts of Bucharest. They were appearing in Buloff’s retooling of The Singer of His Sorrows, by Ossip Dymov.

                        Ever on the alert for fresh faces to spark up the Art Theatre, Schwartz had initiated correspondence with Buloff early in the summer of 1926. At first Buloff was hesitant about leaving Romania to go work for the Yiddish Art Theatre and its charismatic head. Joe Buloff and Luba Kadison were members of the justly famous Vilna Troupe. Some of its players had already come to America—Luba’s parents among them—after antisemitism had reared its ugly head in Eastern Europe. Schwartz and Buloff were from two diametrically opposite theatrical backgrounds. Joe was formed in the classics, while Maurice rose from the rough-and-tumble school of practical theatre, with no fixed artistic point of view, except the sine qua non of good theatre. In Satamar, in what was then called Transylvania, Buloff at last received a contract from Schwartz with the terms he wanted, and soon after, he and Luba departed for America.

                       Opening night for the newly-headquartered Art Theatre, November 17, 1926, was especially vivid to Brooks Atkinson (who then was J. Brooks Atkinson and at the start of his tenure at the New York Times Drama desk). He mulled about outside the theatre, observing the crush of ticket holders jostling one another, and edging toward the entrance.  “With three policemen at the doors, who seemed to enjoy the spectacle, and a police lieutenant who obviously enjoyed it less, the audience began to squeeze through the doors [. . .]. In the meantime, many of the dignitaries of the town cooled their heels outside or squeezed their stiff shirts in the mob”  (28 Nov. 1926).

                        When Maurice approached the theatre and glimpsed the same bedlam, his eyes welled up in tears. Anna and Martin by his side tried to comfort him, as Leon Hoffman had during the polyphonic rehearsal days of actors’ voices pitted against the irregular beats of hammers and the crescendos of saws. But all the well-meaning soothing couldn’t help Maurice. “There’s a well-known theatre adage that a poor last rehearsal is followed by an excellent premiere. I didn’t believe it. My experience indicated that an excellent rehearsal means an excellent premiere. We were standing in front of an unfinished building. Even the lobby was incomplete, not to mention the box office. It was going to be a disaster, I kept shouting”  (Schwartz 13 May 1942).

                        Inside the theatre, Schwartz recognized many of the invited guests, men and women of prominence in the City, in the nation: Otto Kahn, the Wall Street banker; Daniel Frohman, the Broadway producer; respected writers Fanny Hurst and Edna Ferber; Mrs. Sholem Aleichem; Adolph Ochs, editor of the New York Times; Yiddish playwright Ossip Dymov.

                        Only a miracle would save him.

                        No such miracle was forthcoming. The play that was so clever, so futuristic, so right during the badly-compromised rehearsals, turned out to be a jumbled mess at its first performance. Sets had been improperly placed. Lines were garbled. The singers were out of synch with the orchestra. Moreover, the play began after 9 PM and didn’t end until two the next morning. Long before, the critics had left in order to file their reviews for the morning editions. Along with them, the audience had begun trickling out around midnight, leaving only a tiny band of diehards at the conclusion, more out of loyalty than from an appreciation of the play. True to their calling, the patriotten applauded wildly.

                        Keeping up appearances, Schwartz thanked them for coming, then made a quick exit to face Louis Jaffe, who was the only person in the house in a festive mood. He’d attained his goal; he’d created a theatre which, when completed, would be a Jewish palace. A few hours later, they were poring over the morning papers. The first cut was delivered by the Times: “Like the theatre, the performance is not thoroughly finished. Mr. Schwartz has embellished it with marches, chants, dances, tableaux, comic bits, pieces of buffoonery, and several elaborate settings [. . .]. The performance, in its unfinished state, is rather too long for continuous enjoyment”  (Atkinson 4 Nov. 1928).

                      Abe Cahan’s reaction was far worse. He delivered a fulminous and probably fatal broadside in a lengthy and rambling Forward review that began with kudos about Maurice’s past contributions to Yiddish Theatre. “He is growing and is talented and has artistic skills [. . .] Unfortunately, I have to say that the directing of such a play is the biggest mistake in his most interesting and colorful theatre career”  (19 Nov. 1926). As counterweight to the mostly negative reviews, the one by John Mason Brown acted like a balm to the despondent Schwartz, such bursts of exuberance as “it has vast energy and a blatant, exciting kind of underscoring” and “its writhing devils under the green lights, its trapdoors, its constant use of actors rushing over many perilous levels [. . .] give it that vivid, deep-dyed theatricality which is missing in our quiet, everyday theatre of parlors and kitchens”  (Feb. 1927).

                        The Tenth Commandment swiftly became a cancer to Schwartz and he ended the agony after a five-week run, acknowledging that critics had been under no obligation to consider his many problems in producing the piece. He understood in his brain that every play must be judged according to its merits. Emotionally however, his ego told him differently. Had they only known, they would have been kinder, because he was after all Maurice Schwartz, the hero and shining knight (in his eyes) of quality Yiddish Theatre. But heroes are rarely survivors, and surviving was what Maurice did best. The Goldfaden mess over, he decided to shun further expeditions into the unknown and the untried for a while, and return to the more familiar works of the past. He had rent to pay and salaries to dole out, responsibilities to more than himself.

                        Mendle Spivack by Yuskewitz was just such a more practical attempt at good, but not great, theatre that also paid the bills. On December 23rd, Schwartz premiered the work with himself in the title role, and Luba Kadison debuting in her first appearance on the Yiddish stage in America, along with Buloff in his second. It was an instant hit.

                        The hero is a poor hospital watchman in Odessa, who, after 11 years of marriage to Hannahle, has a first child. But seven days later, the baby dies. This extreme tearjerker had circumstances quite familiar to a large part of its audience, especially the terrible poverty they’d escaped by coming to America. The play did splendidly, where a truly expansive piece of imaginative theatre had failed.

                        On February 10th of the next year, Maurice trotted Rags out of his stable of certain winners, and on March 3rd, he presented his fourth Sholem Asch piece, Reverend Doctor Silver, a serious drama. This is a thoughtful work about redemption and forgiveness, set in a Midwestern American city, the first Art Theatre work with so unusual a locale. Dr. Silver is married to Clara, and can’t believe that she, a rabbi’s wife, is carrying on with Rubinstein, her music teacher. The plot is strongly reminiscent of  The Kreutzer Sonata , but where Tolstoy’s jealous husband kills his unfaithful wife, Dr. Silver assumes full responsibility for the affair and forgives Clara, who then runs off with her lover anyway. A year later, the adulterous wife returns, having been abandoned. Silver takes her back, but loses his congregation because of it. She can’t deal with their disapproval and commits suicide.

                        This American-based play and others to follow, were attempts by Schwartz to capture second- and third-generation Jews who had no emotional ties to the Old World and its history, culture and traditions. Made pragmatic by these realities, Maurice was well aware that he had to move forward while, at the same time, preserving the best of the past.

                        Next, Schwartz tried a shimmering piece with the Russian Revolution as background. Her Crime was written by Moissaye Joseph Olgin, known more for his politics than as a playwright. Editor of the Morning Freiheit, the Yiddish Communist daily, which he founded in 1918, Russian-born Olgin received a doctorate degree from Columbia University in 1918. About the piece: the year is 1919, and the Reds are slowly gaining the upper hand, though the Whites still control the southern portion of Russia. On the perilous border between them, encounters spin out in many forms—intrigue, betrayal, subversion and vengeance, adding spice to a love story not usually associated with fiction, Communist style.

                         In March, Schwartz gave Joe Buloff the chance to demonstrate his directorial talent in The Singer of His Sorrow, the play that had enthralled the Romanians. For this work, Maurice took a backseat, though he did change the title to The Hired Bridegroom to attract an audience more interested in weddings than grief. It was after all a very lyrical fantasy about a fiddler who loves a servant girl. She, on the other hand, loves a card-playing wastrel. The fiddler wins a fortune in a lottery, but deliberately loses it at cards to the wastrel, so that the latter can afford to marry the girl. After reconsidering this noble but outlandish gesture, the fiddler goes mad.

                         When Buloff presented it in Bucharest, the reigning monarch King Carol and his mistress Magda Lupescu (the daughter of a Jewish pharmacist) had loved the work. The piece  evoked no such feelings in New York. “Unfortunately, very few people were interested [. . .] so Buloff’s play ended up a colossal, material failure. The deficit amounted to $15,000, its income the lowest for the entire season”  (Schwartz 3 Feb. 1945).

                           Another Dymov work, Human Dust, was given at the end of  March, a drama in three acts and eleven scenes. Sets were by Boris Aronson and the music by Vladimir Heifitz, a cousin of the more famous Jascha. Buloff and Kadison had supporting parts to the leads played by Celia and Maurice. The setting was the current Manhattan milieu and caught the raw abrasiveness of the Roaring Twenties, its fundamental meanness. The story concerned a roue named Teddy, who impregnates Betty, a young naïve working girl, then leaves her. After the abortion, she meets Joe, who adores her. He’s the conductor on the train she takes to work every day. They marry, then Teddy returns to blackmail Betty over her indiscretion. She shoots him dead. This is Schwartz again, using American-born Jews as characters, giving them American names, placing them in American scenarios. They could have easily passed for Gentiles.

                         And so the season ended, with as many successes as failures, though with little money in the bank, which was almost a given for the Art Theatre. Nevertheless, the company was in a joyous mood, preparing to take flight, become summer birds, off to the invigorating provinces. Compared to what they’d been through during the regular season, this would be like a long vacation.

Chapter Nineteen: “I Signed the Contract With a Broken Spirit.”

                       Visiting the usual Yiddish outposts in America and Canada during the summer of 1927, Maurice couldn’t help but love the freedom of the road. He felt liberated from the grinding necessity of producing one enormous hit after another at the Art Theatre. In Boston, Philadelphia, Chicago, Detroit and Cleveland, and over the border in Montreal and Toronto, expenses were much less, the audiences more receptive, the critics kinder. Besides, he cherrypicked only the certain hits from the Art Theatre’s repertoire, and in those gracious cities, he and his troupe were sumptuously treated, the patrons so very grateful to be visited by theatre royalty. Critics and devotees alike would pack the smaller playhouses and give the cast nightly standing ovations. Later, they would be wined and dined by the local Jewish organizations.

                        Returning to New York in a fine, confident mood, Maurice spent a few restful days at his home in Sea Gate, on Brooklyn’s south shore, firming up the schedule for the coming season. On a delightfully cool August afternoon, two visitors came calling. One was Morris Lipshitz and the other Jacob Rovenger, who’d become the Art Theatre’s General Manager after the end of the almost profitless 1926-1927 season. Lipshitz, who was owed a large fortune by Schwartz, had insisted on installing Rovenger, a hard-nosed, profit-minded, experienced manager. Lipshitz wanted some return on investment in the upcoming year, not an unreasonable request.

                         As one, the money man and the new G.M. demanded that the Art Theatre open the new season with Greenberg’s Daughters, a domestic, American-based drama, aimed at the younger generation. Its author, Jacob Adershlager, was yet another newspaperman turned playwright. A barber originally, he’d free-lanced his experiences to the Forward, then joined its staff, weaving tales about the Jewish poor in Manhattan. Set on the Lower East Side of the ‘20’s, Greenberg’s Daughters depicts the tug of war between shtetl morality and the American ethic. “The play isn’t really trash, but it’s far from Art Theatre standards,” complained Maurice to the two men  (Schwartz 14 Mar.1945). But they insisted and Schwartz was in no position to refuse.

                        Over the summer, as past debts mounted, especially to Lipshitz, who’d grown less an admirer and more a harasser, Maurice’s financial position looked grave. On August 3rd, he’d been forced to give a third mortgage on the house he’d bought for Isaac and Rose. The two encumbrances already on the property were for $7800 and $4000, monies extracted to help finance Maurice’s portion of the new theatre. The third, for $2000, at six percent interest, consisted of eight notes of $250 each, the first payable on October 15th, the others due monthly.

                         Worse than money problems, Schwartz had a more serious matter to be concerned with. His mother’s health was failing: her heart. Seemingly indestructible, the family’s bulwark and North Star, she was beginning to waste away. Her doctor was not optimistic and Maurice fell into a well of despair unlike anything he’d ever experienced before. Like a twig in a raging stream, he let circumstances take him where it will. While Rose hovered between life and death, so did his position at the Art Theatre.

                        His lawyer, Charley Groll, proposed a solution for the financial morass Schwartz had gotten himself into. Maurice would have to surrender the lease for the Art Theatre to a partnership formed by Lipshitz and Roveneger. In turn, the new entity would keep paying Schwartz’s salary of $600 a week. The partnership would also assume the responsibility for the theatre’s other expenses, as well as tear up the IOU given by Maurice to Lipshitz in the amount of $10,000, part of the $15,000 handed over to Louis Jaffe. “I signed the contract with a broken spirit [. . .] I was no longer the owner of the Art Theatre, preserving only my position as director”  (Schwartz 10 Mar. 1945).

                       When the dust finally settled, Schwartz understood that in effect he was in exactly the same untenable position he’d been in with Max Wilner. Though dispirited, he tried to make a go of it with Greenberg’s Daughters. He expected and received scathing notices, the one exception being Abe Cahan’s glowing review in the Forward. Perhaps the playwright’s strong ties to the newspaper had something to do with it.

                       Then in September, during a matinee of the hated piece, before the close of the second act, Maurice halted, immobilized by a terrible premonition about Rose he dare not put into words. “My heart came to a halt. My eyes grew dim. My legs became stiff. I heard a buzzing in my ears. People around me were talking, but I couldn’t make out what they said”  (Schwartz 14 Mar. 1945). Schwartz was led to a chair, where he sat as if in a state of catatonia, until the actors completed the performance without him, improvising. Limp and uncommunicative, he barely noticed Anna Appel, standing in a corner and weeping. He wondered why, and what was the reason he’d suddenly fallen apart? Never before had he done this on stage. The answer, which he knew in his soul, came from Bertha Gersten, who told Maurice to change into street clothes at once, and leave with her. Rose had taken a turn for the worse, and there wasn’t much time.

                       Mechanically, he wiped off his makeup and dressed. Bertha had a taxi waiting and eased him into it. After a maddingly slow ride in the molasses of traffic, they arrived in Sea Gate. The entire family was awash in tears and awaiting him. His older sister took him into their parents’ bedroom, where Rose was lying, her eyes closed forever. “I turned to stone. I didn’t cry. I didn’t faint. I stood there like a statue for a full hour. Then I woke up from my trance and faced the truth: my beloved mother, the most precious person in my life, was no more”  (Schwartz 21 Mar. 1945).

                         Isaac was sitting in a corner by himself, reciting his prayers. Just the week before, he’d returned from Palestine, where he made arrangements to emigrate, he and Rose. Now he’d have to go alone. After the 30-day mourning period, Isaac Schwartz said his farewells to friends and family and left America. His one goal was to be buried in Jerusalem, on the Mount of Olives. Etched indelibly in Maurice’s memory, was the final glimpse of his father, standing unobtrusively at the ship’s railing “attempting to avoid special notice. His gray-white beard had become all white in a very short time”  (Schwartz 21 Mar. 1945).

                       Getting back into the swim of theatre as he soon had to, Maurice went far afield with his next production after Greenberg’s Daughters had closed, in spite of Rovenger’s attempts to keep it alive. The replacement was the 17th Century comedy, The Gardener’s Dog, by Spain’s greatest dramatist, Lope de Vega. For Art Theatre aficionados, this was an unsettling piece of programming. True, Schwartz had long ago dedicated himself to the finest in world literature—the third horse of his original troika—but from the poor attendance of past foreign plays, it might have been assumed that he’d refrain from anything but Yiddish material. Schwartz further amazed everyone by selecting as director, Boris Glagolin, of the Mayakovsky Theatre in Moscow, which was founded in 1922 solely for the purpose of presenting Soviet works of propaganda As in the past, Schwartz seemed to doubt his ability to direct the non-Yiddish classics.

                        Apparently, Schwartz was still very much in charge of selecting the Art Theatre’s material. If Rovenger was boss at this point, the de Vega piece would never have been mounted. Maurice loved this play, its madcap tempo, the bubbly plot and scintillating dialogue. He played Theodore, the handsome, young servant of Countess Diana, who falls in love with him. Theodore instead loves a kitchen maid, but in the three merry acts, all problems are eventually resolved. “In order to look fit for the role, I had to jog for weeks over the sands of Sea Gate, and do other types of exercise”  (Schwartz 7 Mar. 1945).

                        Atkinson wasn’t terribly impressed by the tremendous energy expended and the many original stunts Glagolin employed to keep the action moving apace. He labeled the play “a cross between burlesque and gymnasium, with the actors breathlessly swinging across the parallel bars of the comedy, determined to be funny [. . .]. They are a good deal more amused than the audience”  (21 Oct. 1927). 

                         Seething, Abe Cahan all but forbade Schwartz from running the work. The public was no more receptive, and the play bombed badly. The idea of a gardener’s dog (though there was neither gardener nor dog in the script) confused many a potential ticket buyer. And furthermore, so their logic went, how meaningful or interesting can a play be, written by a Spaniard dead over 300 years? Since the audience ultimately rules, closed down the work after less than a week, to end the rapid drain on the theatre’s limited resources. The flop only exacerbated his relationship with Lipshitz and Rovenger.

                           Later in December, on Christmas Eve, Maurice tried On Foreign Soil, by a playwright listed in the Times as Saint Andrea and by David Lifson, the Yiddish Theatre savant, as Areas De Santos, though nothing can be found about either. The piece dealt with the recurring theme in Jewish Literature of trying to assimilate into a hostile Gentile society. Set in Fascist Italy, the story revolves around a wealthy patriarch trying in vain to preserve his Jewishness, yet take part in the general life around him the Times enjoyed the play and its main player. “In the portrayal of this forlorn man of good, Maurice Schwartz brings us his usual fine performance of understanding and restraint”  (24 Dec. 1927).

                        On January 27, 1928, Schwartz again reached outside the Yiddish canon with Alexander Pushkin, by 19th Century Italian playwright Valentino Carrera. Capturing the tumultuous life of the supreme Russian poet, it first premiered in Turin, Italy, in 1865, instantly becoming a popular favorite. Maurice directed and starred in the title role, with actresses Appel, Gersten, Henrietta Schnitzer, and Anna Teitelbaum as the women in Pushkin’s life.

                        In March, the season forever shrinking, he presented the season’s finale, American Chassidim. The play, a scathing satire by Chone Gottesfeld, was also a mean-spirited attack on the ultra-orthodox branch of Judaism. It is difficult to comprehend what Schwartz had in mind, offering a poison pill about the foibles of the Chassidim, as his own father was of that persuasion, Isaac being the holiest, most righteous man Maurice had ever known. The Times had its own reservations about the play. “Surely Mr. Schwartz, with his years of experience in the theatre, should have sufficient acumen to avoid ridiculing religion. In attempting to do so, the author forgot his destination by spoofing a sect sincere in its beliefs”  (17 Mar. 1928).

                         What is interesting about the work, besides its misguided attack on the ultra-orthodox, was the inclusion in the dialogue of many Americanisms. Schwartz, a devout protagonist of Yiddish, had finally acknowledged the erosion of the language he dearly loved and yielded to the harsh realities of Jewish life in America, in order to preserve his audience. He’d already presented The Reverend Doctor Silver and Human Dust, each with both feet planted firmly in Yankee soil. It was only logical that contemporary Yiddish plays reflect the language as currently spoken. Often, when eternal vows of high purpose conflicted with common sense practicality, Schwartz bowed to the latter, making U-turns and taking detours to achieve his ultimate goal.

                         Throughout the fall and winter, Schwartz suffered enormously, mourning the loss of Rose and constantly at odds with Lipshitz and Rovenger. They wanted strictly lighter fare, garnished with song and dance in each production, regardless of appropriateness. Maurice envisioned his reputation crumbling and complained to Guskin—the court of last resort—who couldn’t help. Schwartz had signed away ownership of the Art Theatre. “I’ll leave—the sets, the costumes, every piece of equipment. I’ll lose the $75,000 security,” he told himself, a desperate man  (Schwartz 17 March 1945).

                         And he did. At the start of Passover and before the official close of the Yiddish Theatre season, he walked away from everything tangible in the playhouse. All that he took with him was his makeup kit, a few personal belongings, and a badly mauled soul. He crossed the Avenue, entered the Café Royale, and took a seat by the window, where he could observe at some distance what he’d walked away from. “What was the Art Theatre but brick and mortar? I’d rather play in a place with only four walls than in a fancy building offering trash”  (Schwartz 21 Mar. 1941).

                          That season, perhaps the busiest in Broadway history, there were 268 productions on the Great White Way, each one having siphoned off parts of Schwartz’s audiences. He gazed out at the naked trees shivering in the raw March cold, perhaps considering these facts, sitting in the café, smoking cigarettes, sipping coffee and nursing his injured psyche. As the trees would eventually bloom, so would he. But for the present, oh how it hurt.



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