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The  Prompter  on  the  Yiddish  Stage

an article written by  theatre historian
B.    GORIN    IN    THE    Independent

The occasional American visitor who drops into the Jewish theatre is so overwhelmed with surprise to find good acting and often plays by the best modern authors on the Bowery where art is usually seen through the fumes of beer and whiskey -- that he fails to notice the difficulties under which the Jewish actor has to labor.

Unlike the most American actors who play in the same piece and the same role for months and sometimes for many seasons -- the Jewish actor very often has to appear every two or three weeks in a new play and sometimes a piece does not live over the first performance. It must also be considered that a week in the Jewish theatre jargon means three performances, Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. When a new play is relegated from the evening performances to the matinees, of which there are two -- it is generally taken as an indication that the play will soon vanish from the poster; these three evening performances as well as the two matinees constitute in fact the full theatrical week of the company. On the other nights of the week there are so-called "benefit" performances played by the same company. These benefits are taken by different organizations for replenishing their treasury, for purposes of charity, educational undertakings, etc. There is generally a different play at each of those performances as the managers of such undertakings have a right of selection from the repertoire of the company and as the repertoire is a large one and each tries to pick out something that was not played for a long time so as to assure the success of the undertaking, it follows that the actor has to play in a different play five times a week, matinees included, aside of the three principal evenings when the company's new drama is produced. Under such circumstances it is almost impossible for the actors to study his role properly; sometimes the actor is compelled to appear before the footlights ere he has had sufficient time to learn the contents of the drama in which he is to play a role. All the rehearsals of a play under the best circumstances are made within one week's time, but this is only so far as new plays are concerned; as to the old plays which are produced during weekdays -- no rehearsals are made whatever, and the actor necessarily has to wholly rely upon the prompter.

This reliance upon the prompter is often the source of the most comical situations in the Jewish theatres though the general public has not the least suspicion that something has gone wrong upon the stage. Sometimes the prompter is not prompt enough to make out a word, especially if he happens to be a Galician and the word is of Russian origin or vice versa, and sometimes the actor fails to catch a word for the same reason, and the scenes that follow border on the ludicrous.

Some years ago one of the Jewish theatres reproduced an old and very popular play which almost all the theatre-goers knew by heart. But it so happened that one of the actors had never before appeared in it or seen it performed. Of course, no rehearsal was made for this single exception. In that play there is a scene where one of the characters in the play entrusts his money to the care of a very reliable person and suddenly finds out that he is on the verge of bankruptcy. Of course, he loses no time in going to the man and demanding the return of his money. The other flatly refuses to comply with his demand and he is supposed to make such a violent scene that he falls stricken dead.

The actor shouted, stamped his feet and made violent gesticulations -- the prompter seeing that he did not know what he was about prompted -- "Die!" But the actor did not hear him. "Croak!" the prompter urged with rage. The actor continued to live. "Get an apoplectic stroke!" The actor remained standing. "Faint!" The actor still stood. "Drop dead!" "Die a violent death!" "Perish!" The actor stood and could not understand why this shower of abuse was poured upon his poor head by the prompter.

The second actor who played in this scene, a well-known "star" on the Jewish stage, said in a low voice:

"He will not die today, the dog!" He wetted his fingers in his mouth and coming up to the first actor he touched his chest with the finger and said: "This time he will die!" And this time he did fall down and die.

Another time -- during a scene of a so-called "historical opera," a priest had to stab the king. The stage in that scene was packed with actors and actresses, chorus girls and supernumeraries, as in all the "thrilling" scenes of such performances. When the moment for the stabbing arrived the prompter said:


The priest ran at the actor who stood opposite him and stabbed him.

"Not that one! Not that one!"

"Not him!" repeated the actor who had already lost his head, and not losing any more of his valuable time he stabbed another.

"Ah, not him, the king!"

The priest having parted with his wits altogether, stabbed whomsoever he could get hold of.

"The king! Stab the king!"

The priest ran up to the king and stabbed him, but this was the young king, the good king who should have remained alive, not the old, bad king whom the priest had to dispatch for his iniquities.

"Not him! Not him!"

The priest was now sure that the one whom he had to stab was not the king and he threw himself on everybody, stabbing without discrimination right and left the actors, supernumeraries and choristers, and hearing after each time the  words "Not him! Not him!" he murdered everybody on the stage except the old king who remained alive after all others were slaughtered.

Another and even more ludicrous incident happened with an actor who also did not know his role in the least. In one of the scenes he had to die, but he did not know exactly when, so he arranged with the prompter that when the moment for him to die arrived the prompter should let him know by waving his hand and he would fall dead.

Unfortunately an innocent little fly spoiled this nicely arranged transaction; this fly somehow found its way into the prompter's box and nothing would suit it as a resting place but the prompter's nose -- with the usual impudence of a fly it did not even inquire how far he had got on with the play -- and he was very far from the death-scene, and not only did it sit upon his nose but it treated him with a good bite. Enraged at the fly's persistency the prompter lifted his hand and struck the fly and -- a wonderful thing happened -- the fly remained alive and well, but the blow felled an actor upon the stage; the poor fellow thought it was the signal for him to die.

"Not yet, not yet!" the prompter whispered. "Not yet?" the dead actor asked in a very low voice and immediately arose from the dead.

The fly had, as it seems, understood the comical position in which it had placed the prompter and liked the situation so well that it continued to circle round and round his nasal appendage until he had entirely forgotten every precaution, and when the fly again bit him so hard that he saw stars, he struck the bitten spot, thinking to hurt the fly and the newly resurrected actor once more fell to the ground as dead as a door-nail, and again the prompter whispered, "Not yet! There is time yet!" And again the half-distracted actor had to "arise from the dead."

But when the right moment to die for the dead-alive actor really arrived and the prompter waived his hand -- he stood like a statue and did not know whether he should heed the signal or not.

Such are the oddities of the Jewish stage.







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The Museum of the Yiddish Theatre is a division of the Museum of Family History.


Background photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.
B. Gorin article courtesy of the Menorah magazine, Vol. 38, Jan.- Jul. 1905.

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