Shakespeare, Much Improved?

By Nahma Sandrow
Tuesday, March 22, 2011

One of the few things people think they know about Yiddish theater in America is that once upon a time there was a production, probably of King Lear, advertised as "translated and much improved." Joel Berkowitz's history, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage (2002), quotes the line but never gives an attribution, which suggests that nobody ever actually said it. But someone might have.

Shakespeare in Yiddish is not a Jewish joke. Starting in 1894, a scant two decades after the appearance of the first professional secular Yiddish theater anywhere, Shakespeare in Yiddish was appearing on the American stage. Over the last century, Yiddish-speaking audiences have had access to multiple productions of Lear, Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, and Othello. Less frequently, they have had opportunities to see Richard III, Coriolanus, Julius Caesar, and Macbeth.  Just this past January, the New Yiddish Repertory presented an intelligent Yiddish-language production of The Merchant of Venice at the Center for Jewish History in New York.

The plays were not only translated but also, to varying degrees, adapted. Often the translations were made not directly from Shakespeare's English but from German or from Russian. Adaptations, for better or worse, let the adaptor show what he thought the audience needed to see. So The Taming of the Shrew served as the basis for Boris Thomashefsky's musical comedy Di Sheyne Amerikanerin (The Pretty American Girl).

Shakespeare was not the only playwright recycled by Yiddish dramatists, whose sources ranged freely from Molière and Medea to contemporary Broadway hits. Avant-garde heavyweights like Henrik Ibsen and Maxim Gorky were actually produced downtown in Yiddish before they appeared uptown in English. But Shakespeare, whose work had been unknown to the earliest popular Yiddish audiences, carried an aura of glamor and culture that was especially important to the intelligentsia straining to establish a position for Yiddish among the literatures of the Western nations.

That task was facilitated by certain cultural affinities between Yiddish drama and Shakespearean tragedy. Both bodies of work often focus on family relationships, with their resonances of larger moral, social, and political issues. Hamlet's struggles with his mother and stepfather involve not only the prince but the whole of Denmark. In her insistence on telling the truth, Lear's youngest daughter Cordelia displays a dangerous social virtue that is the very stuff of melodrama, the late-19th-century genre most associated with Yiddish theater at its high point.

There are stylistic affinities as well. Shakespearean plays, like Yiddish plays, are romantic rather than classical. Plot structures do not observe the Aristotelian unities but tend to be messy and sprawling. Elevated passages of high rhetoric mix with low comedy in the demotic; dialogue mixes with music. Small roles, especially for comic grotesques, are almost as juicy as big emotional ones. Although the bard's lyric poetry and verbal wit are often not well served, and ribaldry virtually disappears, on the whole Shakespeare in Yiddish is not that far a stretch.

As for the adaptations, what are now called "staging concepts" sometimes make a smooth fit and can even be startlingly effective. In any case, Yiddish re-imaginings do less violence to their originals than, for example, 17th-century English versions of Lear and Romeo and Juliet with happy endings. No comparable damage is done in reconceiving Hamlet as the son of a respected hasidic rebbe, or Lear's daughters Goneril and Regan as, respectively, a Hasid and a Misnaged (opponent of Hasidism), or Cordelia as a girl who chooses Enlightenment ethics over religious pieties. In one of the several reworkings of Romeo and Juliet, Juliet is separated from her lover because of just such religious differences; the balcony scene is played from the synagogue women's gallery; Romeo, standing below, vows his love by the Eternal Light over the holy ark.

As it happens, The Merchant of Venice was never one of the more popular Shakespeare vehicles in Yiddish; nonetheless, there were several particularly successful 20th-century productions. In 1901, Jacob Adler played Shylock in a translation by Yosef Bovshover, the first Yiddish rendering of Shakespeare to be published in the United States. Adler then performed the role on the uptown stage, speaking his lines in Yiddish while everyone else spoke English. Joseph Schildkraut played Shylock in a different translation in 1920. In 1947, Maurice Schwartz produced a highly popular dramatization of a Hebrew novel entitled Shylock and His Daughter. The recent Merchant at the Center for Jewish History was the Bovshover-Adler script, "further shaped" by producer David Mandelbaum, who played Shylock.

All of these "shapings" of Merchant have served the same imperative. The main plot, concerning the search by the wastrel Venetians for rich wives, is severely compressed in order to emphasize the father-daughter relationship and Shylock as Jew.  Portia has little more to do than declaim her piece about "the quality of mercy." Act V, where the love stories conclude like fairytales, is chopped. Most noticeably, whereas for Shakespeare Shylock is really a minor character (he appears in only five scenes, as part of a subplot that serves as the engine for the love stories and as comic relief), he dominates Yiddish versions. And so does the question of how to portray him. As a representative Jew, should he be dignified, or pathetic? Should he be a figure of authority and class, a hapless victim, or simply a merchant? Is his contract with Antonio for a pound of flesh only a joke, or justifiable revenge for humiliation? For their diverse portrayals of Shylock, Adler was praised for "frenzy," Schwartz for "boldness," and Schildkraut for "restraint and naturalness."

This, too, speaks to the energy and versatility of Yiddish theater, which has traditionally been a treasure house of actors. Even in translation, Shakespeare's roles have given these actors ample room in which to expand. 

Nahma Sandrow is the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater.  She is currently writing the libretto for an opera version of Isaac Bashevis Singer's Enemies, a Love Story, workshopped at the Center for Contemporary Opera, which will premiere at Kentucky Opera in the fall.

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