In the 1920's, an age of great ferment in
America, Yiddish theatre was also very much alive and flourishing, some
20 playhouses in operation on Second Avenue and its environs, and in the
hinterlands of Brooklyn and the Bronx. This whirlwind of theatrical
activity ran the gamut, from serious art theatre exemplified by Maurice
Schwartz and Jacob Ben-Ami, to the less highbrow but more crowd-pleasing
melodramas and extravagant musicals. It was the second golden age of
Yiddish theatre, and in the same week an eclectic playgoer might enjoy a
work by Pinski, Hirshbein or Shakespeare in one theatre and a syrupy
musical ending in a riotous wedding in another, without ever leaving the
confines of the Lower East Side.
But as varied as Yiddish stage fare was in
the Twenties, there was yet another form of theatre on Jewish Broadway
that drew a select and appreciative audience to a tiny makeshift
playhouse ensconced in a narrow four-story, red-brick walkup on 12th
Street, between Third and Fourth Avenues. Many would trudge up to the
top loft and view what noted stage designer Boris Aronson labeled the
finest theatre he'd ever seen.
The acting troupe went by the slightly
exotic name of Modjacot Marionette Theatre, and was, by
self-description, the only Jewish puppet theatre in America.
From the nation's very beginning, puppets
were part of the amusements brought by the Spanish Conquistadores and
the early English settlers. Puppet theatre was a favorite of both
George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. After World War One there was a
new surge of interest in marionettes, beginning at the Chicago Little
Theatre on Michigan Boulevard. Soon puppet companies were springing up
in Cleveland, San Francisco, Boston and Pittsburgh. In 1919 Tony Sarg,
an English puppeteer and recent immigrant who'd performed for friends at
his studio in the Flatiron building on lower Broadway, opened at The
Punch and Judy theatre further uptown on 49th Street.
America's greatest puppeteer Remo Bufano
began his career however in 1914, and continued on for 30 years, working
all aspects of the profession, presenting plays by Edna St. Vincent
Millay, Arthur Schnitzler and Edmond Rostand, eventually performing in
the movies and on TV.
One of Bufano's pupils in 1923 was Jack
Tworkow, a 23-year-old Yiddish newcomer from Poland. A decade before
Tworkow had settled in Manhattan, taking drawing classes at the Art
Students' League and at the National Academy of Design. He also learned
the puppeteer's trade.
In his small circle of young artistic
immigrants, Tworkow met two others with similar ambitions and talents,
greenhorns like himself. One of them was Yosl Cutler, an orphan, who'd
come to America in 1911 at age 15 with his older brother. Cutler
thrived in his new home, blessed with skills in painting and writing, to
which he soon added marionettes. In 1922, he made his literary debut in
Abraham Reyzen's monthly journal New Yiddish. There he attracted
the attention of noted playwright and dark humorist Moishe Nadir.
The second artist and puppeteer Tworkow
became friendly with was Zuni Maud, who'd emigrated in 1905, a
14-year-old hopeful from Polish Lithuania. Though deeply educated in
Cheder, Yeshiva and Talmud Torah, Maud followed his true interest and
enrolled in Cooper Union's art program and at the Baron de Hirsch Art
School. Soon he was doing satiric illustrations for The Kibbutzer,
a socialist journal. He was also learning puppetry.
In 1923 Maurice Schwartz, with a keen eye
for new talent, hired the three friends as stage and costume
designers for his Yiddish Art Theatre.
When Schwartz decided to restyle and
update Abraham Goldfaden's The Witch (Di Kishufmakherin)
as the final offering of the 1924-1925 season, he asked Maud, Cutler and
Tworkow to create a Punch and Judy sequence for the marketplace scene.
Though Schwartz -- who also played the lead role -- received great
praise for his imaginative version of the 1879 classic, he was not
pleased with the marionette portion: it was far too small to be seen
from the back rows of the theatre on Madison and 27th Street, where the
Yiddish Art Theatre was lodged that season.
Nevertheless, encouraged by the experience,
the trio decided to expand what they'd created. They spent the
following summer at Zuni's brother's bungalow colony in the Catskills*,
writing sketches, painting backgrounds and constructing an entire world
of puppet characters. Sunny Ray, in Callicoon, New York, near the
Pennsylvania border, was the perfect forge for their labor of love, the
summer home of many leftwing writers and painters who might offer an
opinion or two, a few helpful hints for the upstarts.
The result of this feverish collaboration
was The Modjacot Spiel Theatre, the title an amalgam of their three
names. By the fall they were even more intensely active, rehearsing
their act in the loft of E. 12th Street, and on December 17, 1925, they
opened with King Ahaseurus, a Purim play, the words by Maud and
Cutler, the puppets by Tworkow, the music by Michael Gelbart (a composer
of operettas and music director for The Workmen's Circle School), and by
Moishe Rappaport. In ads placed in The Forward, The Day,
and Frayhayt, they promised to 'provide pleasure for children
from 5 to 93'.
The full and enthusiastic audience rejoiced
that December evening in the comic scenes of the King's stewards
plotting to poison their master; in the clever exchanges between Esther
and Mordecai; in the final triumph of good over evil, which in the
audience's experience wasn't all that commonplace in the real world of
pogroms, low wages, sweatshops and anti-Semitism.
The playgoers -- delighted by the subtle
humor -- couldn't believe how larger-than-life these amusing figures of
wood, cloth and strings were: jughandled ears that wiggled, bushy
eyebrows that lifted in surprise or indignation, whiskbroom mustaches
that twitched. They chuckled at the lovable scoundrels on the tiny
stage, at the shrewish wives, the transparent villains: how they sang,
danced, mugged and whined exactly as their flesh and blood counterparts
did on the live Yiddish stage.
On the same bill were original satires and
parodies written by Cutler and Maud dealing with old world Yiddish
foibles and hypocrisies. Cutler's What Ails You is a rich comedy
of courtship politics, with a daughter's yearning for a husband pitted
against her father's resistance to the suitor's demand for a sizable
Included also in the evening's entertainment
were plays by Moishe Nadir and Abraham Reyzen. Other numbers were
and Cutler adaptations of various Purim plays, Biblical subjects which
for millennia, until the 1850's, were the only form of theatre permitted
by Jewish religious authorities.
Arguably, Modjacot's most successful number
was Ansky's The Dybbuk, reworked as a parody that was both gentle
"This theatre," wrote David S. Lifson in his
classic work, The Yiddish Theatre in America, "became a center of
attraction for cultural-minded Jews from all over the world."
Asch and Maurice Schwartz were frequent visitors and loyal supporters.
Yiddish newspapers of all stripes were lavish in their praise of the
marionette theatre on E. 12th Street.
year brought changes to Modjacot. Its repertoire had expanded to
include original operettas and works by other Yiddish writers such as
Sholom Aleichem and new satires and parodies by Cutler and Maud.
But the Fire Department began harassing them over occupancy limit
excesses and other fire code violations.**
Modjacot was forced to move in May 1926 to 95 Second Avenue, where the
seating and stage were larger and only one flight up, though the rent
was considerably more, an exorbitant $166.50 a month, with two months
rent held as security.
Shortly after, Jack
Tworkow left the group
because of ideological differences with Maud and Cutler. The least
political of the three, Tworkow was unhappy with the choice of material
selected and the socialist spin put upon it. He was more interested in
art theatre, the play itself, and not in using Modjacot to present an
obvious political agenda.
Modjacot became Modicot with the exit of
Jack Tworkow, the J in his name going with him. He went on to create
set designs for The New Playwrights' Theatre, a slightly less radical,
more play-oriented troupe that included such luminaries as John Dos Passos, John Howard Lawson and Em Jo Basshe. According to Elmer Rice,
the group "attracted little attention and had no discernible influence
upon the drama or upon the theatre. After two or three abortive
seasons, the organization was disbanded."
Tworkow journeyed on, working during
the Depression and until World War Two for the W.P.A's Federal Art
Project. In the early '40's, he devoted his considerable talents to
designing military hardware. In 1945 he returned to painting, winning,
over the next 35 years, many awards and honors, among them serving as
chairman of Yale's School of Art and Architecture. He died in
Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1982, a long and productive life to his
Tworkow's departure from Modjacot (now
Modicot), Cutler and Maud continued performing for another year at the
Second Avenue location. Occasionally they took other assignments, one
of them designing costumes for Schwartz's production of Gordin's God,
Man and Devil in December 1928. In addition, Yosl Cutler
contributed various articles to Yiddish journals. He also wrote a
continuing column for Frayhayt and for a children's publication.
In 1929, Modicot abandoned its location to
tour America first, then Europe, a three-year stint during which they
visited London, Paris, Antwerp, Vilna, Warsaw, finally ending up in
Soviet Russia. Each stop along the way they were enthusiastically
Back in America, the pair split up, Zuni
Maud nearly vanishing from the New York theatrical scene, except for a
stab at a one-man show of his paintings. The exhibition proved to be a
failure, and Maud then devoted most of his time to painting for himself
at Sunny Ray, the family bungalow colony in the Catskills. He died in
Yosl Cutler remained active. He
continually wrote articles for magazines and plays, both from a leftist
point of view. He composed numerous songs such as Happiness With His
Jewess and Mishka. In 1934, his book "Muntergang" --
which he also illustrated -- was published. Cutler continued his
life-long interest in puppet theatre, writing and performing at The
Workers' Laboratory on Irving Place.
Yosl Cutler met a tragic
end. Early in 1935, he put together a test film of his puppetry, hoping
to interest Hollywood in a marionette version of The Dybbuk. On
June 11th of that year, on his way west, he was killed in Indiana, in an
automobile accident. It was reported that over 10,000 people attended
Of course, Modicot is gone, merely a
footnote at best to the glorious history of a Yiddish theatre that has
also vanished, a tiny speck of the brilliant comet that once flashed
over Second Avenue. But in their day both glowed brilliantly, ample
evidence of what wonderful diversity Jewish talent and creativity had to
offer its people and the entire nation.
* - Hershl Hartman suggests that "Maud's Catskill place was not a
bungalow colony, but a hotel or resort. Its name was Zumeray, a
bilingual play on words. In Yiddish, it was a newly-created neologism
that translates as 'summerness.' In English, Summer Ray. It is likely
that either Cutler or Moyshe Nadir -- both masters of word play --
came up with the name. (Nadir's pseudonym means 'Moyshe, here you go,'
and is bilingually wed to nadir -- the low point.)"
** - Hartman suggests also that "the closing of the 12th St.
location was not due to overcrowding, but to the content of the
plays, both pro-communist and sexually liberated. The landlord
appealed to a magistrate, who ordered the closing. The Fire
Department may have been the instrument."
Further note from Hershl Hartman: "The article implies that Zuni
Maud retreated to Zumeray as an artist/hermit. In fact, in the
late 1940s and early 50s, he was a very frequent visitor at the
East 12th St. editorial offices of the Morgn Frayhayt
('Freiheit' in the article) -- Morning Freedom, then the
communist Yiddish daily newspaper. He would hang out with his
buddies S. D. Levin (on staff) and humorist Sam Liptzin, a
frequent contributor. I was a cub reporter there at the time,
the only native-born Yiddish journalist until recent years."