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Bertha Kalich in "The Kreutzer Sonata"

Lives in the Yiddish Theatre

From an article in the Sun,
a New York newspaper, dated Sep. 16, 1906.



Tragedy in Manner of the Great Russians
Atmospherically Staged and Consummately Played

photo: Bertha Kalich as Miriam in The Kreutzer Sonata", 1907.
Courtesy of the NYPL Digital Gallery.

It is one of the calamities that the version of Jacob Gordin's "Kreutzer's Sonata" which is, artistically, by all odds the more interesting should have had the wind of publicity taken out of its sails by the rival production. It could scarcely otherwise have escaped being recognized as one of the most striking and novel occasions of this or any recent dramatic year.

That the Yiddish colony in the Bowery has a dramatic life of its own, which is native to itself, authentic and of a very high quality, both literary and dramatic, has been long known. Ten years ago in a magazine article I ventured the opinion that the plays of Gordin and his confrères were more deeply vital in theme and abler in treatment than anything we had yet had from the playwrights of Broadway, and that the acting of Adler and Thomashefsky and their companions--Kalich is of a more recent date--was on a par with our very best. The opinion was of necessity a random one, for the language used was at best a corrupt high German and at the worst a polyglot jargon. But now we have at hand the means of a more intimate study. One of Gordin's best plays has been done into English by an American of education and proved dramatic ability, Langdon Mitchell, and is acted by the foremost Yiddish emotional actress, Bertha Kalich, who created her part in the original.

Of direct appeal to the merely American public there is not much in the plays of the new Bowery. Or, rather, they are in their very nature alien and antagonistic to it. Our drama is the expression of a busy and prosperous public that looks to the theatre for amusement that will distract it. Our Yiddish population is the offspring of the deepest economic and social unrest of the most distressed of European nations; its traditions are those of Tolstoi and Gorky, with a kindred infusion from the great Norwegian. What it looks for in the theatre is not only amusement, but that deeper enjoyment of pure drama and tragedy. One of Adler's most popular pieces, Gordin's "Der Wilde Mensch," centers in the lustful and murderous exploits of an idiot--a sexual degenerate. One of Thomashefsky's plays, the title and author of which have escaped me, is a realistic study of the cadet system of the East Side, centering on the downfall of the wife of a business man. For a public that is ignorant of Tolstoi's "Powers of Darkness" and Gorky's "Night Refuge," and knows Ibsen's "Ghosts" only to abominate it, such pieces have little meaning; but to the playgoer who is able to detach himself from the prejudices of his time and his environment they are full of interest and stimulation.

"The Kreutzer Sonata" has only an allusive relation to Tolstoi's novel of the same name. It is the foible of the Yiddish playwright to glorify his work by borrowing for it a title of greatness. Adler's "King Lear" and Thomashefsky's "Romeo and Juliet" are so called only because they present the themes of filial ingratitude and romantic love between scions of warring families. Adler's Lear is of the Jewish proletariat and Thomashefsky's Romeo is the son of a factional rabbi. And likewise the heroine whom Kalich impersonates is no more than a woman subjected to the sexual will of a husband she abominates.

The characteristic feature of the play, and the one that should have given it its title, is the fact that it is a study of a family of Russian Jews in process of Americanization--a highly significant and timely theme. The story begins in Russia, where the authority of the parent is absolute, and its crucial acts take place in America, where the children are asserting their right to live for themselves and to themselves. The heroine is a counterpart of Rachel Neeve in Mr. Jones's "The Hypocrites"--a young girl of the people betrayed by a sincere passion for a Russian aristocrat. The English play moves on the plane of melodrama to a happy outcome; but the Yiddish play is a study of disordered social conditions with a tragic end.

Miriam's lover is prevented by his traditions of casta from marrying her and kills himself. Her patriarchal father maintains the dignity of the family, as he thinks, by bribing a cur of a musician, Gregor, to marry her and appear before the world as the father of her child.

In Russia, no doubt, the expedient would have succeeded in maintaining the semblance of respectability; but the family moves to New York, and in the freer conditions here its hideous and unnatural folly becomes manifest. Gregor prospers in his profession and, cur that he necessarily is, becomes arrogant with prosperity. Exasperated by the sight of the illegitimate son, he bullies and beats him, and, repelled by Miriam's natural distaste for him, he seduces her younger sister Celia--demoralized by the freedom of the life about her, which her previous condition of subjection has unfitted her to understand. Miriam's fall from virtue has cut her off from her father's regard, and the new life, of which she cannot become a part, estranges her from the rest of her family. She even gives up her son, partly to get him away from her husband's tyrannies, and partly because the boy is the one member of the family who loves and is loved by her father. Finally, in a dramatic scene, she discovers how matters stand between her husband and her sister, and, goaded into a fury of rage and despair, shoots them both.

As a piece of dramatic writing the play is in the main admirably simple, logical and true. The examples of Tolstoi and Ibsen have not been in vain. As a social study it is at once trenchant and sympathetic. The independence and irreverence of the demeanor of American children, so tragic in its effect upon the lives of the leading characters in the play, is treated with the true detachment of the dramatist, and with abundant humor. The character of Miriam is nowhere sentimentalized, her sin nowhere palliated; but it is pictured with the true dramatic sympathy, and, in so far as the logic of morality and the theatre will permit, is generous, devoted, noble. For myself I should have preferred it if Miriam had killed not her sister and her husband, but herself. Passionate and intense she is; but nothing in her previous conduct has prepared one to find her recklessly violent. The tragedy of the story was hers, and hers should have been the death. But this is the only flaw, if it be a flaw, in a play of great conviction and power, intellectual and emotional.

The somberness of the main theme is throughout relieved by a series of humorously studied characters. One of these is Miriam's young brother, a good-hearted and generous lad who becomes a willing convert to the American hustle for dollars and the American humor of exaggeration, both of which are portrayed with delicious observation and vivacity. Another is a middle-aged musician who begins by abominating the musical union, develops into an enthusiastic labor leader, and ends by being master of his own "conservatory" and scorning all mere workmen. In his "History of Yiddish Literature in the Nineteenth Century," Prof. Wiener of Harvard treats the playwrights of the Bowery with curt contempt, and forestalls the downfall of the school before the ever-increasing demand for comic relief. It may be pointed out that the art of the Bowery is necessarily a popular art, and that not only in purveyors of melodrama, but in Shakespeare and Calderon as well, popular art has always dealt in comic relief. Furthermore, this comic relief of Gordin's is not only excellent of its kind, but is an integral part of the whole, without which the play would be imperfect as a social study.

Mr. Mitchell's adaptation is a work of discretion and finesse. Judging by a necessarily imperfect recollection of the original as it was produced some years ago at the Thalia, I should say that it has been considerably shortened. If so, the play has gained condensity without any material loss of clearness, either as to the story or as to its intellectual import. The production is deliciously atmospheric throughout--by comparison with the general run of such pieces, marvelously so. One of the actors, Jacob Katzman, is from the Thalia company. Another, Jennie Reiffarth, is from the local German stage.

Mme. Kalich appears at better advantage than she has hitherto done in the English language. Her speech has only a slight accent, which helps rather than hinders the illusion, and her personality and temperament seem as if made for he part. She is stately and simple, with a pallid, gracious, distinguished beauty that goes far to justify her sobriquet as the Yiddish Duse. Her moments of patient suffering she infuses with an intensity of sorrow all the more poignant because it is nobly self-restrained. Her final outburst of violence has the passion of one of the furies, and with it a beauty so austerely composed as to be almost sculptural. Whether her powers are of any great variety may be doubted; but in this play she rises to a height that is seldom equaled and, as it seems to me, never surpassed.


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