Images of Jews in American Theatre

Jewish pride--and shame--on stage.

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When the Yiddish translation of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman was first performed in 1951, several years after its (English) Broadway debut, some prominent critics remarked that the play seemed more “authentic” in Yiddish. They felt that only the Yiddish dialogue was successful in peeling away protagonist Willy Loman’s all-American Everyman façade, revealing his true interior pintele yid (“little Jew”).

Willy Loman was not the only crypto-Jewish character on the American stage in the mid-20th century. Indeed, throughout the century, American Jewish playwrights refined or disguised certain ethnic elements of their Jewish characters, in order to appeal to a broader audience. But if the last decades of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st are any indication, it seems that more self-confidently Jewish images will continue to be staged in years to come. 

arthur miller's death of a salesman

Fumbling Toward Self-Definition

The earliest popular Broadway play featuring Jewish characters was Abie’s Irish Rose, written by the non-Jewish playwright Anne Nichols. It opened in 1922 and was the longest-running show of its time, with over 2300 performances. In the play, protagonist Abe Levy marries his gentile sweetheart, Rose Murphy–much to the initial dismay of his Jewish mother and father.

Rather than affirming Jewish identity, this play conveyed the message that Jews could “fit in” with the American landscape. At the end, the two warring fathers of the young couple are reconciled when they discover that the newly born twins of Rose and Abe–a boy and a girl–are given respectively the names of their Irish and Jewish grandparents.

More complex Jewish characters emerge in Elmer Rice’s Street Scene (1929). In this play, Abe Kaplan, an old political radical, criticizes American capitalism, goading the bigoted villain Willie to accuse him of holding “un-American” ideals. Meanwhile, Abe’s bookish son, Sam, falls in love with an Irish girl–who happens to be Willie’s daughter. But in this play, the young couple does not stay together. Rice’s play, unlike Abie’s Irish Rose, suggests that even in America there are important differences between ethnic groups–cultural as well as religious–that are not easily bridged even by love.

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Joel Shatzky retired in 2005 after having taught dramatic literature in the English dept. at SUNY, Cortland. He has edited, with Michael Taub, a two-volume reference work on Contemporary Jewish-American Literature and edited a Holocaust memoir by Norbert Troller: Theresienstadt: Hitler's 'Gift' to the Jews.

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