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

Chapter Twenty: "Need Breaks Iron."
Chapter Twenty-One: "We Shall Have Many Years Ahead of Us."
Chapter Twenty-Two: "He Was a Little Afraid of Buloff."
Chapter Twenty-Three:
"An Exit Made More in Sorrow Than Anger."

Chapter Twenty: “Need Breaks Iron.”

                        If Maurice endured the anguish of once more being without a home to call his own, a base of operations for the Art Theatre, it wasn’t for long. Charley Groll, through his many contacts in the entertainment industry, and with the help of Edwin Relkin, a hyperactive Yiddish Theatre manager, helped obtain a capacious playhouse at 114 E. 14th Street, between Second and Third Avenues. The City Theatre had begun life as a vaudeville and movie house, but also presented live theatre. It was a perfect location, above a number of intersecting subway lines, and boasted the kind of huge stage that Maurice had fought for with Louis Jaffe, but never got. Schwartz let his imagination run riot over what he could do with so enormous a playing field.

                        For a season that was reduced from 40 weeks of a decade earlier to about 35 and often less, Schwartz had much to consider before consenting to the terms of the lease. Hardly more than a pauper after the previous season, at low spiritual tide in March, his resolve returned full blown, even if rich backers like Jaffe and Lifshitz were nowhere in sight.

                        “ ‘Need breaks iron’ is a Jewish proverb. I decided to directly approach theatregoers and appeal for their help. Why not introduce a subscription plan the way it’s done in the Theatre Guild? Why not make sure the Art Theatre has a membership that can become an insurance policy for its existence?”  (Schwartz 24 Mar.1945).

                        That old, undying pipe dream: it had never stopped rattling around in his head like a gerbil on a treadmill since the very inception of the Irving Place Theatre. He’d tried it out then, in a limited way, and again on Second Avenue, but with poor results. Back then, it would have been icing on the cake. Now, in such a changed environment, with so much roiled water under the bridge, public support had become an absolute necessity. Expanding his original concept (which wasn’t original), he placed ads in the Yiddish press, promoting a detailed and imaginative discount plan involving subscription cards in various denominations, from a dollar to $100. The discounts on tickets and other benefits were proportional to the card’s value. The $100 card, for example, entitled its owner to free admission to every premiere.

                        “My appeal brought immediate results. We collected $8000 in the first weeks. Thousands of patrons came to our office on Second Avenue to register. Some sent as much as $100 in cash through the mail”  (Schwartz 24 Mar. 1945). After the numbers had been tallied, Schwartz estimated that more than 11,000 had joined. Listed in the first playbill of the season opener, were 150 honorary members of the Art Theatre, the $100 variety. Among them were the banker Otto Kahn, the playwright H. Leivick, and a host of labor leaders.

                        Maurice signed a ten-year lease, to commence October 1st, 1928 and expire June 30, 1938. The rent would start at $67,500 a year and escalate to $110,000. The landlord, William Fox, the movie mogul, demanded and received a security deposit of $25,000. With a much larger hall to fill, and a vast stage at his command, Schwartz selected Sholem Asch’s Kiddush Hashem to open the City Theatre. Sanctification of the Name, is the play’s rough English translation, and was an expansion by the author of his short story about the Chmielnicki Massacre of 1648, one of the most horrific episodes in Jewish history, with over 100,000 Jews slaughtered.

                        With funds made available through the subscription plan, he went about the happy hell of fleshing out the Asch piece. “I hired a troupe of the best actors. I didn’t spare any expense for sets and costumes. Kiddush Hashem had to be grandiose at any cost”  (Schwartz 28 Mar. 1945). Maurice worked with Asch on the dramatization, and also directed the play. Joseph Achron provided the music, Sam Ostrowsky the sets. Charley Adler (Jacob’s son) choreographed the dances. Available and avid to work with Maurice again, were many former members of the Art Theatre:Goldschmidt, Abramowitz, Baratov, Michael Rosenberg, Lisa Silbert, Lazar Freed, Celia Adler and Anatol Vinogradoff. However, Anna Appel and Bertha Gersten had made other commitments for the ‘28-’29 season, though each returned the following year. More than 60 actors were used in the production, 40 individually listed in the playbill, the rest unheralded: extras who were Cossacks, Polish soldiers, Ukrainian peasants, nobles, children and choir singers. These unsung performers were products of the acting school Schwartz had previously organized.

                        His imagination unbound, Schwartz instilled a technique he took credit for: the revolving stage, though it originated in Japan in the 17th Century, a product of Kabuki Theatre that was brought to Europe in 1896 by the German stage designer Lautenschlager. Schwartz’s device was manipulated electrically and “could be turned left or right; scenes were shifted at lightning speed [. . .]”  (Schwartz 28 Mar. 1945). A stickler for perfection, and goaded by the higher stakes of running the City Theatre, Schwartz went to extremes to make certain that everything was exactly so. He drove the crew unmercifully from early morning to sundown.

                         All Maurice’s uncompromising attention to detail, the hard work and the long hours of drilling his cast, paid off, as Kiddush Hashem opened on September 14th and was a tremendous success. He felt justified in choosing so elaborate a spectacle, in spending so freely. In the introduction to his review, Brooks Atkinson wrote that “most of us are eager to see the artistic integrity of a local Jewish Art Theatre preserved against growing obstacles. The literature  and the acting talent of the Jewish Theatre are rich. Even if we remain ignorant of the language, we can enjoy the ardor and the poetry of their more racially representative productions”  (30 Sept. 1928). About the play itself, Atkinson was less appreciative, finding the work rather flabby, the lighting poor, the makeup sloppy, the direction unfocused. And yet, perhaps more as a commentary on the dearth of worthwhile material Uptown than on the City’s production, The Times critic declared that “nothing on Broadway this season approaches the grandiose conception of Sholem Asch’s epic drama”  (30 Sept. 1928).

                       Originally, Schwartz’s plan was to run a work for six weeks only, in order to provide a full agenda for his subscribers, who were after all the Art Theatre’s engine. But with the start-up costs of mounting Kiddush Hashem so exorbitant, he decided to extend the run an additional three weeks. It was taking in $15,000 each and every week. In late October, while the Asch piece was still thrilling the weekend crowd, Maurice filled in the weeknights with a revival of Rags, absenting himself however from its production. He hired Avrom Morevsky, of the Vilna Troupe to direct and star in the Leivick play. Ten days later, on Thursday, November 1st, Schwartz interrupted Kiddush Hashem to put up  The Great Fortune, the Sholem Aleichem work first offered in 1922, under the title The Big Lottery.

                        One week later, the Asch play still on hold, Maurice produced a piece he’d been rolling over in his mind for ages, Chekhov’s The Cherry Orchard. The stated reason for its mounting was the Moscow Art Theatre’s thirtieth anniversary. A limited run of two weeks was scheduled. Once again, Schwartz deferred to the Russians on this most Russian of plays, by hiring Leo Bulgakov to direct. Bulgakov had been a Moscow Art Theatre member, but was talked into defecting by Morris Gest, during its 1923-1924 swing through America. After his one-play stint at the Art Theatre, Bulgakov would go on the produce and direct a host of Broadway plays.

                        Next came the creaky, ancient God, Man and Devil despite the warnings of financial failure from the Art Theatres two managers, Leon Hoffman and Joseph Grossman. Maurice reread the Gordin classic and did some heavy tinkering, “eliminating boring monologues, and enhancing the dramatization [. . .]. I decided to create a new format for the interesting play, adding a third act, subdividing it into two parts”  (Schwartz 4 Apr. 1945). To the surprise of everyone but Maurice, the reconstituted play received great notices and made money, running well from late December to the end of February the next year.

                       Not every risk Schwartz took that season paid off. On January 3rd, he sidetracked God, Man and Devil to try Shakespeare’s Othello. A substantial part of the gamble was the Yiddish patron’s distaste for the creator of Shylock, a slur on the Jewish people, if there ever was one. A second hazard lay in bringing back Boris Glagolin, whose The Gardener’s Dog had been such a turkey the season before. Mark Schweid did the translation, Charley Adler the choreography, and Alex Chertov the settings. Giuseppe Verdi’s music was employed. Ben Zvi Baratov played the Moor, while Schwartz took the meatier, more complex role of Iago, which must have been a jolt to those detractors who claimed that Schwartz would only play heroes. Celia Adler was a radiant Desdemona.

                        The Times expressed surprise at Glagolin’s interpretation: “It has been subtly translated back into something much nearer the spirit from which the English tragedy was derived [. . .]. It is Shakespeare with a new tempo, a color which is ultimately foreign to the art of the British islander”  (4 Feb. 1929). A bit too ingenious was Glagolin’s staging. He demanded the use of a real lake onstage and a real gondola in it. Maurice had once before taken his lumps for using an authentic lake during the 1924 fiasco The Devil Knows What. However, Glagolin was most persuasive and got his way. In the role of Rodrigo, Joseph Greenberg (who would become Joseph Green, the Yiddish movie producer) became so unnerved in the gondola, that he came close to capsizing it during a performance. It was little surprise that Othello sank at once, the way Greenberg nearly did, Schwarz immediately beaching the production.

                        On Friday evening, February 15th, Harry Sackler’s Major Noah was attempted. Mordecai Manuel Noah had been a real person, one of the most colorful figures in Jewish-American history. As a visionary (pre-dating Theodore Herzl), Noah strove to establish a colony to be called Ararat, on Grand Island in the Niagara River near Buffalo, New York. The enclave would be a training site and proving ground for Jewish pioneers, who would then settle Palestine as a Jewish state. As history, Major Noah, the person, was fascinating stuff. As theatre, the play proved to be a dud, and two weeks later Maurice moved on to an entirely different and more theatrically rewarding piece. He centered on the 1888 Sholem Aleichem novella Stempenyu, which Schwartz adapted without the assistance of I.D. Berkowitz, who’d left America for good to spend the rest of his life in Palestine.

                        The resulting play, Stempenyu the Fiddler, a warm, romantic comedy about the violin-playing leader of an itinerant band of musicians. During one of his gigs, Stempenyu, married to a shrew, falls in love with a beautiful woman, who is the discontented wife of a rich but dull man. Lazar Freed took the lead role, while Schwartz played second fiddle to the fiddler, as the boring husband. In the production, Maurice used the revolving stage to its utmost, presenting two totally disparate scenes almost simultaneously—an intimate wedding in tandem to a shtetl crowded with celebrants. Maurice’s use of split-second lighting shifts contributed greatly to the revolving stage’s success.

                          Following the play’s heady run, the season ended. As usual, it had been an interesting time in the narrow confines of Yiddish Theatre and in the wider circle of American life. Herbert Hoover had been elected President in November, to complete Republican domination of the 1920’s. Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a dynamic though crippled patrician, had been chosen Governor of New York. On February 14, 1929, the day before the opening of Major Noah, seven members of a rival mob were machinegunned to death in a Chicago garage. This event came to be known as ‘The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.’ On a more cultural note, the year 1928 was notable for the publication of four American classics—A Farewell to Arms, Look Homeward Angel, The Sound and the Fury, and Dodsworth. The Pulitzer Prize for drama that year went to Eugene O’Neill for Strange Interlude, produced by the Theatre Guild. Gershwin’s ‘American in Paris’ premiered in Carnegie Hall, and among the films New Yorkers flocked to was The Love Parade, with Jeanette MacDonald and Maurice Chevalier. Mickey Mouse made his first appearance that seminal year, in Steamboat Willie, and Fanny Brice, in her screen debut in My Man.

                       As an actor and director, Schwartz was quite pleased with his accomplishments that season at the City Theatre. Kiddush Hashem and Stempenyu  had been wonderful bookends for the rest of the mostly forgettable fare. As Zohn has indicated: “Schwartz realized with these [two] productions he had the advantage of reaching wider audiences—the more intelligent as well as the broad masses; the students of the modern stage as well as the followers of the old school. In these compromises, Schwartz was rather successful”  (184).

                        Less laudatory and more critical of Schwartz’s increasing affinity for massive productions, was Celia Adler. To her, Kiddush Hashem proved that “Maurice had finally succumbed to the same easy path taken by all the other Yiddish managers, surrendering to baroque ostentation [. . .]”  (Lifson 358).

                        Artistic satisfaction aside, Schwartz, the producer, was woefully dismayed by the Art Theatre’s lack of a healthy bank balance by the end of April,1929. Its income had been the largest ever, averaging $13,000 a week. Expenses however were greater—an old story for Maurice—and he was forced to break his lease, and walk away from the large and commodious City Theatre, with its fantastic revolving stage and other amenities. He realized too that his $25,000 security deposit would be forfeited.

                        Again theatreless, Maurice wondered where the Art Theatre would be next season, if there would even be a next season. He’d have to face the problem later, but for the present, he had a few lovely months before him. Instead of the usual summer circuit tour, he’d be going to California, where New York Jews had gone in search of a different kind of gold, the kind made in the movie business. The trek across the continent ate up the Art Theatre’s small reserves. Engagements along the way, in Chicago, Omaha, Denver, and a gaggle of other towns, hardly replaced what the transportation charges were.

                         California at last, with San Francisco being the first stop in that mythic place. The troupe of regulars and the few single-season players he’d hauled west, opened with Kiddush Hashem. For Jews once-removed from the Lower East Side, and not that long ago, the audiences were cold and unresponsive. Completely Americanized. Hastily, the Art Theatre moved on to Los Angeles, a city “whose life is regulated by the movies. People run after their own shadows but never catch them”  (Schwartz 14 Apr. 1945). Giving it his best shot, Schwartz opened with Tevye the Milkman, at the Mayan Theatre. In the opening night audience, were the most recognizable movie stars on the planet, not to mention the first-rate film directors, producers, and writers. “Some of them brought along their Gentile wives. The story of Chava’s becoming an apostate was not a pleasant reminder [. . .] Some left the theatre in tears, with a heavy heart”  (Schwartz 14 Apr. 1945).

                       The company trotted out other Art Theatre favorites, all of which the Angelinos enjoyed far better than audiences in San Francisco. The first week in this improved climate, the Art Theatre took in $18,000. The euphoria wasn’t to last. Paul Bern, a producer at MGM, had come to the Mayan a few times, and asked to be introduced to Maurice in his dressing room. The visit resulted in an offer by Bern: a seven-year deal for Schwartz only, $12,000 to begin with, and regular increases to follow. (The same Paul Bern married his protégé Jean Harlow in July, 1932, and was found dead three months later in his own bedroom, under mysterious circumstances.)

                         A California sun, the relaxed, congenial life, the constant aroma of flowers blooming everywhere, but mostly the chance to live an unharried life, worked heavily on Maurice. He imagined a future filled with nothing but acting, without the terrible constraints of New York Theatre sucking the marrow from his bones. Imagined not having to submit to a Max Wilner or a Jacob Rovenger, no more a Reuben Guskin to negotiate with, an Abe Cahan to cringe before, a landlord to face each and every month, no actors to cajole or bully. And yet, for all his machinations, ending up in the red, season after season. It was so very tempting, so flattering to be courted by Hollywood, where the furious conversion to sound had created an insatiable demand for actors with good voices—and at unheard of salaries. How could he not agree to a screen test?

                        But nothing is a secret in a one-industry, paranoid town like Hollywood, and the troupe soon learbned of MGM’s wooing of their boss. Schwartz gathered them together, told them that he had no intention of deserting them to become a movie star like Paul Muni. Instead, he’d apply the Hollywood gold to support his true love, to enable the Art theatre to carry on, no matter the losses. The truth may never be known as to his true motives, but for many in the Art Theatre, especially those not promised a contract by Schwartz for the next season, it was obvious that he had sold out for the easy money of emoting before a camera for the American masses, instead of before an audience of fast-vanishing Yiddish patrons. Had the same opportunity been offered to any one of them, would there be the slightest hesitation?

                        At the same time, another misfortune befell Schwartz. His second week in Los Angeles was a poor one because of a heat wave that drove everyone to the beaches. Schwartz was able to pay only half-salaries. Naturally, he’d make good when they were all back in New York. Each had a prepaid, first-class ticket to Manhattan. However, the fire he’d lit unintentionally by taking the screen test, flared up over the cut in pay. One troupe member (never identified) lodged a complaint with the Los Angeles Labor Commissioner. Most likely, the same frightened malcontent placed a call to the LA Times, and its evening edition ran a story and a photo about the contre temps, accusing Maurice of signing for big bucks with MGM, while stiffing his employees.

                         Maurice was mortified. He’d had labor problems like any other Yiddish Theatre manager, but they’d been confined within the microscopic Yiddish Theatre community. In the most serious one, in 1924, after his return from Europe, the public had sided with him. Now, out of his natural element, he was being vilified by the city’s largest newspaper for all the world to see and relish: Jews scraping among themselves, the greatest of all sins.

                           In the morning, Schwartz rushed to Paul Bern’s office to try and undo the damage. The producer had a copy of the Times on his desk. In disgust, but wordlessly, he tapped the paper with a pencil. “Had the office an open grave, I would have jumped in. I was filled with shame. My eyes began to tear, but my lips remained sealed. I stood there paralyzed”  (Schwartz 18 Apr. 1945).

                          Under the circumstances, Los Angeles being a strong labor town, said Bern, it was best to put their movie deal on hold.

                        The formal hearing on the charge was set for 2 PM that afternoon. Schwartz was there early, and one by one his players began arriving, some of them his friends for over 20 years. They offered regrets at what they’d done in the name of union solidarity. They took seats in the rear of the hearing room, so as not to endure Maurice’s piercing glances. A reporter for the Times showed up, increasing his humiliation. With Anna and Martin flanking him, the hearing began before the Los Angeles Commissioner of Labor. The only question on Schwartz’s mind was how would they be able to face him after the ordeal was over?

                         The commissioner asked the actors if they had tickets back to New York. Yes, they replied. He asked then how many weeks’ salary were they paid this year. Martin answered: 43 weeks. ‘Case dismissed,’ was the commissioner’s decision after taking the actors to task for the meaningless charges.

                         Screen test and the renewed prospect of a movie contract notwithstanding, Maurice packed up and left for New York. To which playhouse and what kind of a season, he had no idea. He was willing to let bygones be bygones with his regulars, for the sake of the new season and its challenges. “The theatre and quality acting is for me always the first priority. I’d rather put up with a capricious actor with talent, than a nice actor without”  (Schwartz 21 Apr. 1945).

Chapter Twenty-One: “We Shall Have Many Years Ahead of Us.”

                        When they assembled in New York for the first rehearsal of the 1929-1930 season, the Los Angeles incident had been all but forgotten in the accelerated pace of putting together the opening show. The residual effects of the unpleasantness had taken its toll nevertheless. Maurice had to take phenobarbital to calm his nerves, and digitalis to treat a heart that beat too irregularly, a heart he claimed was emptied of anger towards the troupe that had ganged up against him. At once, he began shopping for a playhouse. He couldn’t go back to the City Theatre. At the end of last season, he’d left on bad terms with William Fox, the landlord. Fortunately, he found a new residence for the Art Theatre at Proctor’s Fifth Avenue Theatre, which wasn’t on Fifth, but on Broadway and 28th Street. The season opener would be Jew Suss, by Lion Feuchtwanger, from his novel written in 1921, but unpublished until 1925 in Germany, where it became an instant bestseller.

                        After settling in at the Fifth Avenue, Maurice renewed his old friendship with Samuel Goldenburg, a superior actor he’d known since the Kessler days. Schwartz could use an actor like Goldenburg; he had Muni’s stage presence, Ben-Ami’s power, and Buloff’s infectious charm. Sam was offered the main role in the piece, which he accepted without hesitation. Schwartz contented himself (though only at first) with the part of Duke Karl Alexander, in this murky drama of an 18th Century German principality. Ambition, lust for power, and byzantine intrigue—evident in Jew and Christian alike—infuse the work. Suss is based on the mercurial Wurttemberg court Jew, Joseph Suss Oppenheimer, who is a riveting character, from opening scene until the finale, when he is led off to his execution.

                        In addition to Goldenburg, Schwartz applied the talents of Mark Schweid, Morris Strassberg, Lazar Freed, and the returning actresses Anna Appel and Berta Gersten. It should be noted that Stella Adler, Celia’s half sister, played her first role for the Art Theatre. She would remain two seasons before moving on.

                       The season opened late, on October 19th, because of a serious labor dispute. Theatre managers were demanding a 30 percent cut in salaries, so that theatre tickets might be made as cheap as the movies. Strikes were threatened by both sides, until a compromise was achieved. The Times mentioned the play’s general unpleasantness,but raved about the presentation. “Mr. Schwartz has again assembled a capable company. He gave two excellent performances last evening, the first in the character of the lascivious duke in whose court the intrigues of the play develop, and secondly, as the director of the production—even, well-timed and well-executed throughout”  (29 Oct. 1929).

                        Justifying Maurice’s faith in the actor, Samuel Goldenburg was singled out in the Times’ unsigned review for his excellent portrayal of the court Jew. But beneath Maurice’s apparent generosity in handing over the plum role to his friend, lurked a darker aspect of the man. Schwartz came to want the part and exercised his right as producer to take it away from Goldenburg, over his heated objections.

                        Another Chone Gottesfeld play was put on to cover the weekdays, opening Tuesday, December 3rd, while Jew Suss ran well on weekends into January. Angels on Earth was a refreshing contrast to the darkly turbulent piece, and opens in a very pleasant but corrupt Hades. Then it shifts to an even more lushly sinful Manhattan, where two of Hell’s resident angels have been assigned to rid it of evil. Instead, the angels, played in broad, campy style by Schwartz and Goldenburg, go into business and become husbands, fathers and millionaires. Commented the Times: “All this on the stage of the Yiddish Art Theatre is the drollest sort of lunacy, emerging in a sort of excited commedia  dell’arte treatment. With the assurance of good vaudevillians, Mr. Schwartz and Mr. Goldenburg play it for all it’s worth [. . .]”  (11 Dec. 1929).

                        No season at the Art Theatre would be complete without a Sholem Aleichem bauble. On January 7, 1930, Wandering Stars was presented. The 1911 novel, on which the play is based, is about the riotous misadventures of a traveling company of Yiddish actors during the primitive Goldfaden days. Schwartz adapted the novel in three acts and 18 scenes, even if ineffectively, according to most critics, one of whom noted the play’s inability “to warm the romantic glow it sought to attain, remaining a succession of insufficiently fused fragments in themselves”  (Times 25 Jan 1930).

                        With Leivick;’s Chains in February, the Art Theatre redeemed itself, if not to the paying customers, then with the critics: “It is one of the few Yiddish plays of the season in which the English-speaking world can take pleasure,” enthused the Times critic  (23 Feb.1930). The story is centered in a Siberian prison circa 1905. Leivick knew the subject first hand, having spent many years there as a guest of the Czar. Despite the fine play, the exciting acting, the handsome mounting and rave reviews, Chains was a box office cripple.

                        The wind gone out of his sails, Schwartz presented only Ibsen’s Ghosts and Toller’s Bloody Laughter in March, then closed the Fifth Avenue, after a mere 24 weeks. The problem of making ends meet had become so desperate that Maurice had to put his players on part salary. To prevent the union from shutting the Art Theatre earlier that winter, he was forced to sign an agreement with Guskin to permit the partial salaries, but only if Maurice consented to a member of the cast, on the summer tour, collecting the entire proceeds and paying full current salaries from it. The balance (less traveling and advertising expenses) would then be applied to the money owed, until the debt was paid in full. Should the tour for some reason not take place, Schwartz would be personally liable for the obligations, and whatever Maurice might earn , in any capacity, on or off the Yiddish stage, would go directly to Guskin, to boil down  what was still owed.

                       The tour never panned out. On Friday, October 29th of the year before, the Stock Market crashed, resulting in an immediate loss of almost nine billion dollars. All those paper millionaires, who’d gotten that way by buying on 10 percent margin and pyramiding their holdings to dizzying heights, soon became actual paupers after Black Friday. Before long, one-quarter of the American work force was unemployed. Not only did the Art Theatre fall on hard times, the entire industry suffered too, as did every aspect of American life. Declared William Schack: “Yiddish Theatre is in a bad way. Two minor house [. . .] have closed their doors. Maurice Schwartz and his troupe, the chief exponents of the upper levels of the dramatic art in Yiddish, put on only four new plays this season and have already shut up shop”  (Times 30 Mar. 1930).

                        Maurice had closed the Fifth Avenue owing his people a tidy sum. He couldn’t simply wipe the slate clean and start over the next season, as managers in the past would routinely do, before the Hebrew Actors Union came into its own. He probably wouldn’t have even if he could. It was one thing for investors like Lipshitz to lose; such is the nature of capitalist enterprise. But the actors needed every penny to live on, and his people had been with him for years, almost family, even if they hadn’t behaved as such in California. To solve his dilemma, Maurice did something he swore he’d never do again. He girded himself for a return to Broadway. Vaudeville, no less. He would do excerpts from The Merchant of Venice—three snippets only, with Shylock the central figure.

                        Shylock on Broadway: it wasn’t an original concept in Yiddish Theatre. Jacob Adler had given the first performance of The Merchant in his native tongue in 1901, at the People’s, on the Bowery. Two years later, under Arthur Hopkin’s aegis, the Eagle attempted the role Uptown, at the 58th Street Theatre, in Yiddish, while the rest of the cast performed in English.

                         Maurice had struck a deal with the RKO vaudeville chain to play its Keith circuit, including the crown jewel of its collection, the Palace Theatre, which “had always invited the most important artists to perform vaudeville acts—the Barrymores, William Gillette, and even Otis Skinner performed abridged plays [. . .]” explained Schwartz, as if to legitimize his defection once again from Yiddish theatre.  (2 May 1945). To be fair to Maurice, his back was to the wall.He had debts, obligation, and his own expenses to cover. He demanded and received $3500 a week, because his chief rival, Molly Picon, was being paid that amount for working the Loews Theatres. Schwartz calculated his costs for the six actors who’d be working with him,  and the costumes and sets, at $1000 a week. What remained would go to Guskin to honor his contract.

                        April, 1930, was a busy, exciting month for Maurice, beginning on a Wednesday evening, the 12th, at the RKO Franklin in the Bronx. Then on to the Kenmore, on Flatbush and Church Avenues. On Sunday, the 19th, Schwartz played the Palace, giving a 30-minute performance, composed of three parts from The Merchant of Venice—the opening scene, the section where Jessica leaves her home, and, the most dramatic moment of the play, when the wronged Jew demands his pound of flesh. Sharing the bill with him was Horace Heidt and his Californians (an orchestra), radio tenor Peter Higgins, singer/dancer Nina Olivette, and six other acts.

                        The condensed Shylock was a successful tour de force for Maurice. “ My conception of the role was not that Shylock was a bloodthirsty usurer who sharpened the slaughterer’s knife to obtain a pound of meat [. . .] I created a Jewish merchant from that era who bore the yoke of exile upon his shoulders”  (Schwartz 5 May 1945) The English-language press applauded the bravura performance. Wrote the Times: “It is a passionate, furious portrait that he creates, but precise and controlled in diction and held closely to the rhythm of the prose”   (21 Apr. 1930).

                         After the Palace, Schwartz went on to the RKO Coliseum, the 81st Street, and the Albee in Brooklyn. Encouraged by the responses of Jew and Gentile alike, Maurice told his agent to book the act throughout the East and Midwest. The tour was never made. Perhaps the novelty had worn off, doing two and three shows a day of the same slices of The Merchant, with no large casts to ride herd on, and absent the thrills and terrors of constantly opening a new play. Sometime during the spring of 1930, an offer had come from Adolph Meade, an impresario in Bueno Aires, to appear as a guest star on the Yiddish-Argentine stage, a very tempting offer, as many Yiddish-American players had already made the trip and were well-received. “Buenos Aires was portrayed to me as the finest Yiddish Theatre city in the world [. . .].There, Jews go to theatre with love and gratitude. They attend as families, with their children and grandchildren”  (Schwartz 9 May 1945).

                         The statement of course reflected Maurice’s on-and-off disillusionment with his home audiences. Year after year, he’d presented brilliant tapestries, only to have it all go unrewarded and unappreciated. His unrequited love would eat at him as the years passed and the seasons grew less profitable.

                        In Buenos Aires, representatives of both the Jewish and the Argentine press were waiting for him and Anna. The reception was very Latinish in its warmth and effusiveness. Never before, in any of his foreign jaunts, had he experienced such an outpouring of affection. To the Schwartzes, the Argentine capital seemed more Parisian than Los Angeles had been the year before. Except in one crucial area: “In no country in the world did I see so many young people in Yiddish Theatre as in Buenos Aires. Mothers would take their infants into the playhouses [where] they became avid enthusiasts in diapers”  (Schwartz 9 May 1945).

                        Maurice decided to open with Tevye the Milkman. The play had been done to perfection shortly before by Buenos Aires’s own star, Rudolph Zaslowski. It then became Schwartz object to outshine the local hero, as in the old days on the Bowery when Adler, Thomashevsky and Kessler would strive to best there rival in the same role. The people of Argentina may have been warm and inviting, but their playhouses were not. Even the finest Buenos Aires theatre was unheated and dank, and Maurice came down with a monumental cold and a high fever. After a few rehearsals at the Nueva Theatre, he had to take to his bed. A day before the opening, he was still there. But fortune smiled, and he recovered in time for the premiere.

                        “In the Nueva, a great excitement and tumult resounded. I have never before encountered such a holiday mood. This reminded me of the patriotten era in 1901 and 1902, in the galleries, where the noise was like in a steel mill”  (Schwartz 16 May 1945). The first-nighters were quite enthusiastic, and Maurice gave a fine rendition of the hapless milkman. Next morning, the reviews were extraordinary.

                        Schwartz and his company toured the larger cities of Rosario, Cordova  and Santa Fe, to the same over-the-top crowds. Almost perversely, these receptions strengthened his resolve to carry on as before in America, even to dream of an international Art Theatre that would travel the world, visiting even the most remote Jewish enclaves. “If you can find an enthused theatre crowd 6000 miles from New York, it means that Yiddish Theatre still has a future. We have to respect our audience and respect ourselves. We still have many years ahead of us to play Yiddish Theatre”  (Schwartz 19 May 1945).

Chapter Twenty-Two: “He Was a Little Afraid of Buloff.”

                        The season opened inauspiciously on September 24, 1930, the first day of the Jewish New Year, with only three premieres, none of them especially noteworthy. During the first full year of the Great Depression, Yiddish Theatre in general drifted dangerously close to dissolution, its course a swirling uncertainty, with few actors being in the same companies or playhouses as the season before. As yet, the Art Theatre hadn’t made its usual entrance with a production that would set the Jewish world abuzz, and Schwartz’s steady players, left behind while he and a select handful traipsed around South America, were forced to make other arrangements.

                        While the managers scratched and strove to prepare the season, Maurice was winding down his stay overseas, restored to new heights by the reception received wherever he took his troupe. Thus inflated, he sent a message via the Jewish Telegraph Agency, that he wouldn’t be returning to America until and unless some organization or some group, assume financial responsibility for the Art Theatre. He would no longer endure another season in New York consumed by money worries. He was prepared to set up permanently in the more friendly Buenos Aires, and remain the toast of its large and deserving Yiddish audiences and critics.  (Times 17 Aug. 1930).

                        Needless to say, in this worst of times, no one came forth to present Maurice with a proposal. Before long, he knew that he’d overplayed his hand. Waiting for some Prince Charming, he’d already missed out on securing a Manhattan theatre for the season. Equally as vital, he’d not been around to work deals with the organizational benefit managers, who, by now, had become the dog-wagging tail of Yiddish Theatre. Attempting to salvage a portion at least of the coming season, Maurice cabled the manager of the Gibson Theatre in Philadelphia, consenting to terms there for a year’s lease. He’d have to gather up what he could of an acting ensemble, with so many of his regulars otherwise engaged.

                        Except that early in September, the Second Avenue Theatre became available, and after a flurry of transatlantic cables crisscrossing the ocean, a deal was worked out with Joe Edelstein, its current owner. The Art Theatre would be back on Second Avenue after all, at the very playhouse David Kessler had built for himself, and where Maurice had been his apprentice. But the Gibson’s manager wasn’t about to release Schwartz from their contract, and Reuben Guskin had to be called in to mediate the dispute. He informed Maurice that a valid agreement existed and must be honored. This thorny mess was resolved by the union leader, who induced Schwartz to pay $1000 in cash and the full proceeds of an Art Theatre performance to the Gibson, in return for his release from the contract.

                       On September 19th, the Schwartzes and the nucleus taken to South America, set sail for New York and an uncertain future. What he knew for sure, was that a killing schedule lay ahead, with six weeks of intense labor, before he could open with Asch’s The Witch of Castile. To be followed, in no fixed order, by three mainstream classics—Chekhov’s Ivanov, Moliere’s Tartuffe, and Schiller’s The Robbers. And from the Yiddish repertoire—Asch’s Uncle Moses,  Kiddush Hashem, and God, Man and Devil.  This was quite an optimistic agenda for so condensed a season, but hope and energy had blossomed gorgeously in the South American climate. Rumors of an economy in shambles and spiraling downward, seemed to him only the blatherings of spineless Chicken Littles, who’d been scared silly by what had happened on Wall Street.

                       After weeks of non-stop activity, that included marathon rehearsals often lasting ten hours at a clip, The Witch of Castile opened on October 25th. Three of Maurice’s steadies were back with him: Joseph Achron for the music, and Chertov and Ostrowsky for sets and costumes. Among the actors Schwartz managed to corral, was Joe Buloff, in the prime role as a pope. “In hands other than those of Joseph Buloff,” one Times reviewer wrote, “Pope Paul might have been nothing but a figure of papier mache, but Buloff endowed him with a silent strength. Here is an actor whose every gesture and movement is eloquence itself”  (25 Oct. 1930).

                       Of course, Maurice realized that his ‘discovery’ wasn’t long for the Art Theatre, still smarting over the defection of Muni Weisenfreund. That Buloff had grown disenchanted with Maurice is attested to by Joe’s wife, Luba Kadison. “While his respect for Schwartz as a producer, director, and actor was considerable, he felt the strain of a natural rivalry between two leading men. As for Schwartz, I think he was a little afraid of Buloff. He seldom addressed him directly, using me to convey messages. With me, he was invariably polite, and even chivalrous”  (Kadison  67-68).

                       Schwartz conceded that it had been a tactical blunder to open with The Witch of Castile, because of its similarity in theme to Kiddush Hashem, the former being a drama of religious persecution by the Roman clergy, after a young, Jewish woman is rumored to be the reincarnation of the Virgin Mary. Perhaps as well, the doings on stage too closely resembled what was taking place in Germany, orchestrated by the latest Haman. The Witch did poorly, and Maurice’s current partner, Joe Edelstein, was incensed. The crafty theatre manager, who cared nothing about a play’s substance, but only about its effect on the cash register, grew so disgusted with his stubborn partner, that he stopped observing even the smallest amenities between them. To be fair to Edelstein, it must have been exasperating for him to see that the young, brash actor he’d stolen away from David Kessler during the 1914 season, hadn’t gotten any wiser, after two decades in the business.

                       Cutting his losses (he’d certainly become adept at that), Maurice swiftly went to the next item on his menu, Uncle Moses. Results were far better. Opening on Friday evening, November 29th, the play had been adapted from a novel serialized in the Forward, always a sure-fire guarantee of success on the Yiddish stage. Like Leivick’s Rags, the play has a sweatshop setting, but is in fact as much a character study of an older man infatuated with a young woman, as it is a class struggle piece. Though the Times didn’t go overboard in its review, it nevertheless deemed the Asch play “a fairly entertaining rather than a gripping play”  (29 Nov. 1930). The Yiddish press was far more laudatory, and once again the cash flowed into the Art Theatre’s coffers. This was all it took to make Joe Edelstein civil again to Schwartz. He exclaimed: “This is a play with humor. The public laughs, cries and applauds. If you always produced [. . .] these kinds of plays, you’d have lots of gold”  (Schwartz 23 May 1945).

                         As nothing good lasts forever, or even long in Yiddish Theatre, the cordiality between the two men was gone by the first week of December, destroyed by labor problems. Theatre managers and the Hebrew Actors Union got into one of its periodic donnybrooks over wages. The managers, Schwartz included, demanded a 40 percent cut to reflect the horrendous state of the national economy. In the poorest theatrical season in memory, it was patently impossible to cover operating expenses. On December 8th, as the result of an implacable stalemate, all nine Yiddish theatres closed, throwing over 700 men and women out of work, none of them willing or able to accept any reduction in salary.

                        As spokesman for the managers, Maurice told the press: “Present conditions make it necessary for us to cut our prices, and in order to do this, we had to seek a general reduction of wages in all departments of each house. We placed the matter before the various unions and made the situation clear”  (Times 8 Dec. 1930). A compromise was reached after two weeks of intense negotiations and a darkened Second Avenue. Wages were reduced from 10 to 25 percent, but not soon enough to rescue Uncle Moses. Interest built up through word of mouth, and from favorable reviews in the Yiddish press, were insufficient to get the momentum rolling again. The play limped along, finally closing in early January,1931.

                       On the 16th of that month, Maurice opened a play that would be among the most popular in the Art Theatre’s bag of tricks, Kobrin’s Riverside Drive. Many years had elapsed since Schwartz last offered a Kobrin piece. The transitional, post-Gordin playwright was no longer in vogue. The play’s theme had become trite: the intergenerational friction between the immigrant and his American-born offspring. Though the Times was sympathetic to the sociological situation presented, the constant harping on it by Kobrin and his director, Schwartz, weakened the play. Schwartz, the actor, was applauded, “turning in one of the warmest performances he has given in a long time”  (6 Jan. 1931).

                       The Man With Portfolio, which opened on Lincoln’s birthday, February 12th, was the final new play of the shortened season. Less than half the number Maurice had contemplated, while his ship steamed towards America, had actually come to fruition. The work is a drama of the then-contemporary Soviet Union, and had neither song nor dance, but sported a cast of 18 tried and true actors, including the Buloffs --Joe as a coarse blackmailer, Luba playing a fascinating, fast-rising, young apparatchik. The author, Alexei Faiko, was a Soviet writer of semi-expressionist plays, meant to counter the easy sloganism of most Communist tracts. No mere mouthpiece for the party line, he was somehow permitted to present his plays during the worst days of the Stalinist purges, despite an unflattering portrayal of life in the Worker’s Paradise. To the Times, the piece seemed turgid and flawed. “If some of  [Faiko’s] meaning does come through, if the play does command one’s attention despite its bare intellectual development, it is because of the sensitive performance given it by the Schwartz troupe”   (12 Feb. 1931). The Times also reported that a full house, replete with an enthusiastic audience, enjoyed the work.

                        Writing what had the feel of an obituary for Yiddish Theatre that season (one of many that would appear regularly, season after season), William Schack found little of value in Schwartz’s attempts. To him, The Witch of Castile was tedious, Uncle Moses not particularly insightful, and The Man With Portfolio never fully developed. But, if it was any consolation to Schwartz, the journalist wrote: “If there was nothing even approximately great in any of these plays, there is scarcely anything worth mentioning in the 20-odd productions put on at the popular theatres”  (Schack 17 May 1931).

                       On the Broadway stage, the crop was equally as lean. Between the Augusts of 1930 and 1931, 226 productions were mounted, with  an appalling 82 percent failure rate. Of the 188 flops, 70 had expired after less than a month. Talking pictures was responsible for part of the dreadful season in every branch of theatre, growing ever more popular as a cheap fix for the Depression blues. As a direct result, the number of legitimate theatres declined sharply. Vaudeville was also hard hit, its stock and traveling companies rapidly dwindling.

                        The overall economy fared no better. On December 11, 1930, while Yiddish Theatre had closed its doors because of the strike, the Bank of the United States folded, all 60 branches, and its 400,000 depositors lost their savings. That dismal year, 2300 other banks failed. By the following January, as the nation entered its second year of the Great Depression, five million American workers were unemployed, and many others with jobs were working for as little as five cents an hour. Over 20,000 businesses of all kinds had closed their doors forever.

                        In the last quarter of 1930, of special import to Jews everywhere, the British issued its infamous White Paper, halting immigration of Jews to Palestine, and in Germany, the Nazi Party had won 95 seats in the Reichstag. The world indeed was in a sorry state.

Chapter Twenty-Three: “An Exit Made More in Sorrow Than Anger.”

                        Twice before, Maurice Schwartz had taken French leave from the Art Theatre, to sample the rewards of Broadway, and twice he’d returned, chastened and repentant, swearing never to depart again. A vow broken, for he spent most of the 1931-1932 season Uptown, alone, performing some of his finest Yiddish triumphs in English. It is unclear what event sparked his decision to quit his beloved niche and the incomparable band of players he’d been blessed with, if indeed there was a single reason. We know that he chafed constantly about the lack of proper support from the Jewish community. And he couldn’t help but notice the shrinkage in the number of theatres available. Also, like many a keen-eyed observer of the Yiddish Theatre scene, he had to wonder “if there is an audience for the more ambitious theatre. The majority of the audiences seen nowadays at these playhouses are composed of naïve members of the older generation, and of children who come for the thrill of footlights and the ice cream. Of youth, there is hardly a trace”   (Schack 17 Jan. 1932).

                        If nothing else, Schwartz was a survivor, a skill learned on the streets of Whitechapel. No wonder then, reading the tea leaves, he signed contract with Lee and J.J. Shubert on June 20, 1931, to form a corporation, Modern Players, Inc., primarily to produce an English-language version of Hard to Be a Jew, but not strictly limited to the Sholem Aleichem play. The decision to leave Second Avenue “was an exit made more in sorrow than anger”  (Schack 30 Dec. 1931).

                        Total capitalization of the new corporation was $10,000, half anted up by the Shuberts, (who were in a bad way because of talking pictures and the Depression), and half contributed by Maurice. Terms of the contract stipulated that the Shuberts would be in charge of all financial arrangements with employees, expenditures, receipts and collections for Hard to Be a Jew, and any other play jointly produced. Only Shubert houses were to be used, thereby preventing Schwartz from returning to Yiddish theatre, should nostalgia seize him. Maurice’s duties were limited to acting and directing, a huge lessening of responsibilities he must have at first found salutary, after carrying the entire weight of production on his shoulders for decades.

                        Immediately and reflexly, the schmoozers at the Café Royale, the crowd that hung around the Hebrew Actors Union building on E.7th Street, the writers at the Yiddish dailies, and patriotten of every persuasion, branded Maurice a traitor, as they’d done in the past, after he’d left for the 48th Street Theatre in 1923 and for vaudeville, seven years later. These perpetual antagonists had conveniently closed their eyes to the realities of current Yiddish Theatre. Molly Picon had fled the scene for an extended tour of Europe. The superior comic actor Ludwig Satz had followed her to France, where he hoped to learn the lingo and debut on the Parisian stage. And Boris Thomashevsky had already committed to Broadway, appearing at the Selwyn in the English-language musical, The Singing Rabbi.

                        Hard to Be  a Jew opened at the Shuberts’ Ambassador Theatre on W.48th Street, on Wednesday, September 23rd, retitled  If I Were You, a change Schwartz claimed was a concession to Lee Shubert, who believed that the original name would sharply curtail the audience.The translation into English, ironically enough, was done by Tamara Berkowitz, Sholem Aleichem’s granddaughter, and whose father had been Schwartz’s adapter of the Yiddish legendary figure for the Art Theatre. Only one of Maurice’s crew came north with him, Judith Abarbanell, with whom he was having an affair, his first known romantic relationship since Dagny Servaes. He would have to deal with a fresh crop of non-Yiddish players, to mold them into shape, despite the lack of a common history he might draw from and rely on.

                         The Art Theatre’s favorite English-language critic, Brooks Atkinson, was there on opening night, but decimated the play in the first sentence of his review: “By all that is holy in our transfiguring art of Broadway, this comedy translated out of the Yiddish of Sholem Aleichem, is childish and transparent, lacking the knockout punch necessary to our enlightened drama”  (23 Sept.1931). If I Were You ran for 10 weeks, first at the Ambassador, then later at the Comedy Theatre, an earlier Shubert property, on 41st Street.

                           In early December, Lee Shubert moved Schwartz a second time, to the 49th Street Theatre, for an English-language production of Bloody Laughter, which had been introduced to America by the Art Theatre in 1924. With Germany reaping the harvest of post-war chaos and disillusionment in the form of Nazism, the play seemed especially timely. Though he trashed Bloody Laughter, Atkinson was more solicitous of Schwartz: “He has strength, eloquence and magnetism. He can fuse the scattered details of a scene into some sort of meaningful form [. . .] When Mr. Schwartz finds a play that suits his temperament and his personality, English-speaking audiences will realize that he has something to give”   (Times 5 Dec. 1931).

                         Maurice’s third collaboration with the Shuberts, the Rolland costume drama Wolves, opened on January 6th, 1932, and for the third time, Atkinson savaged Schwartz’s attempts on Broadway: “It is a turgid play in many respects, written for a departed purpose, and it suffers some turgid theatricals during the first half of the evening [. . .] Mr. Schwartz, as the embittered idealist [however] gives a biting, dignified performance”  (Times 7 Jan. 1932). Theatre Arts Magazine concurred, finding the production histrionic and superficial. “Maurice Schwartz has not yet found the play which on the English-speaking stage would give us his full quality as an actor”  (Mar. 1932).

                        The three commercial disasters in succession, over a 22-week period, marked the end of Maurice Schwartz’s brief partnership with the Shuberts, though not his relationship with them in the future. Who initiated the break up is not indicated, though knowing Lee to be a clear-eyed and ruthless businessman, and not inclined to tarry long with losers, it’s safe to say that most likely Maurice was given the boot. Scrapped were plans to present other Art Theatre favorites in translation. Not one to dwell on flops either, Schwartz was back on Second Avenue by April, at the playhouse Louis Jaffe had lovingly raised for him. It was currently known as the Folks Theatre. Maurice chose a work by Florencio Sanchez, a Uruguayan journalist and playwright, who’d worked in Argentina, where Schwartz had probably learned of him during his recent tour. Sanchez was the most important South American dramatist of the early 20th Century. His final piece, Our Children, written in 1907, was adapted by Schwartz as The New Man. It revolves around Dr. Eduardo Diaz, a liberal, whose eldest daughter Mercedes is unmarried and pregnant. Diaz wants he girl kept at home during the confinement, but Mrs. Diaz orders her to marry or enter a convent. Mercedes sides with her father, and the two go off together, to make a new life.

                        Like pigeons returning to their coops, many of Maurice’s actors came back to him, and in a charitable mood, or more likely, because of the harsh economic realities: Schwartz being the only game in town for their specialized talents. Schack wasn’t ecstatic over the homecoming piece, but Women’s Wear Daily took special –if jaundiced- notice of the welcomers: “The theme of the play was hardly as interesting to the large audience as the return of Maurice Schwartz”  (Allen 24 Apr. 1932).

                        With loads of free time on his hands, Maurice kept busy by filming Uncle Moses, a fairly direct transfer of the previous season’s best number at the Art Theatre. A few open scenes were shot on Delancey Street, the balance at Metropolitan Studios, across the Hudson in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Its two directors were Sidney Goldin, who’d shot Yiskor at the Schonbrunn in Vienna in 1924, and Aubrey Scotto, an authentic movie professional, whose best film, I Was a Convict, was shot in 1939 at Republic Studios and starred Barton MacLane. Schwartz reprised his role for Yiddish Talking Pictures, with secondary parts taken by members of his Art Theatre.

                       The film opened on April 20th, 1932, early in the run of The New Man, in three  New York locations—Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx. In general, the Yiddish press approved, and Uncle Moses was a much-needed money earner for Schwartz.

                          On the whole, the 1931-1932  season  had been, like the season before, a frustrating and disappointing one for Maurice. Indeed, his corporate tax return for the year reflected this, showing a loss of over $10,000. As never before, he was fed up with theatre in New York, both Yiddish and mainstream. The load he’d been bearing for so many years, became much too onerous, and he leaped at the chance to flee the City, the United States, as Molly and Satz had, and treat himself and Anna to a holiday--- if going on tour of 15 European cities as a solo act could be considered a vacation. He would be doing monologues, short bites from his best plays, and, for good measure, a few of his own creations: humorous little pieces such as  The Drunken Cantor, Three Politicians, and In the Old Synagogue.

                         Maurice hired the pianist Boris Kogen, and a singer, Viola Philo of the Metropolitan Opera House, to accompany him, at $400 a week each, from May 15th to June 30th. He said his farewells to his Art Theatre contingent and set off for Europe. The overwhelming reaction he found in Paris stunned him: every  evening a sell-out. He was more than elated by the possibility of performing practically solo next year in America, without the awesome responsibility that came with preparing full-scale productions at the Art Theatre. He moved on to Berlin, where he was suddenly immersed in a cold bath of reality. “The Nazi spirit was already the order of the day. Jews were starting to tremble”  (Schwartz 30 May 1945). His manager told him that he’d been unable to rent a theatre, and in the end Schwartz had to settle for a movie house in a seedy section of the city. His audience consisted of Polish and Galician Jews, and Americans living in Germany. “The German Jews refused to come. They were ashamed to see Yiddish actors and refused to mingle with Eastern Jews”  (Schwartz 30 May 1945). Despite being decently received in Berlin, Maurice could taste the poisonous antisemitism unleashed by Hitler, the terror increasing daily. Life for the Jews of Berlin had become tentative and perilous, and he was relieved to conclude his concerts, pack his bags and go.

                        As a theatre practitioner, Maurice had always dreamed of visiting Warsaw. The city was justly famous for its Yiddish activities in literature and music, but especially in theatre. The Vilna Troupe’s production of The Dybbuk ran there for over a year. His reception in the Polish capital was large and very noisy, as was most visits by Yiddish-American actors. Sold-out concerts were usually followed by luscious banquets, at which Warsaw’s finest actors spoke. At these shindigs, Maurice met the cream of its native artists: the Kaminska family of actors (much like America’s Adlers),and Avram Morevsky (who’d worked for Maurice in 1924 at the Art Theatre) and Isaac Samberg, the two querulous top dogs of Warsaw theatre, each at the other’s throat, so like the rivalry that had existed among  Kessler, Adler and Thomashevsky. The highlight of Schwartz’s short sojourn in Warsaw was his concert at the immense Circus Theatre. He claimed a packed house of over 4000, which seems on the face of it, more like poetic license than head-counting.

                        Next stop was Vilna, the Jerusalem of Lithuania, where “even the stones speak Yiddish”  (Schwartz 2 June 1945). First off, Schwartz behaved like any other pilgrim to the holiest Yiddish city in Europe. He visited the house of Elijah, the Gaon of Vilna, the supreme scholar of the Polish and Lithuanian rabbinate, and an outspoken foe of Chassidim. Then to the cemetery, where the Gaon was buried, followed by a few hours at the YIVO building, the world center for Jewish research,

                         In the smaller but just as theatre-friendly city of Bialystok, Maurice gave two concerts and was floored by its booming response. In Grodne and Lubin, he performed but a single concert in each city, in theatres as modern as those in Paris or London, and to hordes of sharp-minded, involved theatre lovers. From there, Maurice and his two accompanists journeyed to Romania, where they were slated to give 12 concerts, the first in Kishinev, site of the infamous massacre of its Jews, and the inspiration for Zolatarevsky’s The Twentieth Century. Regardless, the city appealed to him: its broad, clean, lovely streets, the Russian-style architecture of its homes, its theatre-committed populace, who were delighted that a famous Yiddish actor from America had come to perform for them.

                        In Jassy, where Avram Goldfaden had given birth to Yiddish Theatre, Schwartz was graciously appreciated. One evening, he went to the very playhouse where Goldfaden had put on his first productions. A work by American shund playwright William Siegal, The Galician Wedding was in progress. Maurice and Anna entered, sat down on an old wooden bench, and stared out at a twelve-by-twelve stage. The place was no better than a stable; not a single item seemed to have been replaced since Goldfaden’s day, At the final curtain, Maurice left the theatre in a sad state. It wasn’t much of a leap to compare the miserable condition of Yiddish Theatre’s birthplace to American Jews’ neglect of his Art Theatre, compounded by the deplorable fact that Maurice didn’t even have a playhouse to call his own.

                         Soured by Jassy, the Schwartzes left for Bucharest. Anti-Semitism was so potent there that Maurice couldn’t find a theatre to perform in, but had to settle for a garden. Later that evening, at the Grand Hotel, where they were staying, Schwartz was handed a telegram. It was from his friend Louis Gordon in Manhattan, begging Maurice to hurry up and see Israel Joshua Singer in Warsaw, and nail down the rights to his novel Yoshe Kalb. The Forward had serialized the Polish roman, and it was causing a sensation in New York.

                         Schwartz had met Singer before, on the Polish leg of his tour. He knew the writer’s work, and was impressed with his translation of Sabbatai Zvi. During their short encounter, Singer had mentioned his novel and how suited it was for the stage. But Schwartz had done enough plays about the Chassidim. When he received Gordon’s telegram however, he sent Singer a wire stating that he was coming back to Warsaw to discuss Yoshe Kalb. The gloom of the past few days, from seeing Goldfaden’s postage- stamp size theatre and contemplating his own sorry condition, evaporated in an instance. Like an old firedog responding to the alarm, he dashed out and bought a copy of the novel. Skimming through the first dozen pages, he realized it would be the perfect opening vehicle for next season, and a fine challenge for him to tear apart and reassemble as marvelous theatre. And if this wasn’t reason enough, he gleaned a full-bodied role he could sink his teeth into.

                        Before Schwartz stepped off the train in Warsaw, he had the adaptation worked out in his mind. They met in the restaurant of the Hotel Europa. Singer was already there, seated at a table. For hours, the two men chatted about many things, then at last about Yoshe Kalb. Before much longer, they’d come to an agreement, later to be formalized in New York, where Singer would be next month. The novelist expressed a strong yearning to quit Poland forever, which he described as a tinderbox, ready to erupt with centuries of maniacal hatred for its Jews. After his recent experiences in Germany, Poland and Romania, Maurice couldn’t help but agree with him.



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