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.

Although there are no overtly Jewish religious elements in Street Scene, Rice's characters reflect familiar Jewish cultural types of the era. Sam is devoted to his studies, and Abe--who is identified in the cast description as a "Russian Jew"--speaks with a Yiddish accent and openly avows his ethnic background. His passionate advocacy for social justice might have also been interpreted by contemporary audiences as a "Jewish" trait.

Another portrait of the Jewish immigrant generation can be seen in Clifford Odets' family drama, Awake and Sing (1934). Ridiculed by his businessman son and scheming daughter, the old revolutionary Jewish immigrant, Jacob, finds common ground with his grandson Ralph. At the end of the play, Jacob commits suicide but bequeaths his life insurance policy to Ralph, so the young man can break away from his materialistic family. The grandfather's gift of money to liberate his grandson to create a new world "not printed on dollar bills" is perhaps one of the unintended ironies of the piece.

Odets' criticism of American materialism and, specifically, the crassness of capitalist society is reflected in Jacob's son, Morty, who flaunts his money and mocks his father's idealism. This portrait garnered criticism from some Jews, who felt Odets was perpetuating Jewish money-grubbing stereotypes. But other Jewish critics admired Odets for not fearing that his honest depiction of Morty, and his scheming wife Bessie, would be a shande far di goyim (a disgrace in front of the Gentiles).

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Ilana Abramovitch

Dr. Ilana Abramovitch was formerly the manager of curriculum at the Museum of Jewish Heritage--A Living Memorial to the Holocaust. She is a writer, ethnographer, educator and co-editor of Jews of Brooklyn (Brandeis University Press, 2002).

Joel Shatzky

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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