Israel Zangwill, a ferociously intelligent, passionate champion of multiculturalism, escaped poverty in London’s East End thanks in part to his education at the Jews’ Free School, where he also subsequently taught for a time. He went on to become a writer, political thinker and activist. He was the first to use the phrase ‘the melting pot’ to describe what he also calls ‘God’s crucible’ – America – in this play, endorsed enthusiastically and vocally by then US president Theodore Roosevelt at its 1908 premiere in New York. Now Bitter Pill Theatre produces the first UK revival of The Melting Pot since 1938.
The theatre is a storage room in an LA veterans administration hospital. The date is 11 November 1989 – Remembrance Day. Three veterans of three different conflicts, emblematic of a 20th-century world torn apart by war, represent the soldiers scarred by their experiences in the theatre of war. Sporting poppies, they prepare in this makeshift waiting room to be decorated for valour. Private Leslie R Holloway, who saw service (and unnamed horrors) during World War I, is slumped in a wheelchair when Sergeant John MacCormick Butts breezes into the room in his brash suit. His voice is even louder as he whiles away the time by cheerily proving that his prowess at the piano is equal to his prowess in World War II, accompanying himself reprising rousing ditties from different conflicts, from Keep the Home Fires Burning to Over Here. His best endeavours are not enough to rouse Holloway, however, so it’s a relief when the immaculate, dapper figure of Colonel Walter Kercelik marches smartly into the room, so highly decorated during the Viet Nam War that he’s appeared on the cover of Time Magazine.
What follows is an unravelling that is as unpredictable as it is terrifying, until it becomes apparent what deep psychological traumas all three men have endured. The sort of damage evident in Holloway’s slouched form is disguised by Butts, with his over-cheerful bonhomie, and Kercelik with his extraordinary outward self-control, encyclopaedic retention of facts and glowing efficiency.
What’s the difference between a musical and an opera? One definition might be that in opera the drama is largely generated by the music, in a musical it is largely defined by the text. And of course there are the honourable blends exemplified by Kurt Weill’s Street Scene, adapted from Jewish writer Elmer Rice’s play.
Seeing Street Scene prompted Jason Loewith to attempt a similar musical adaptation based on Rice’s 1923 play The Adding Machine. Joshua Schmidt composed the music, as well as writing the libretto and book together with Loewith for a 2007 American opening.
On the simplest of sets – designer Sebastian Noel’s cabin trunks piled and rearranged to create levels on the set of the play with which it’s in repertoire – and with the audience focusing intently from either side, three young women and two young men begin The Great Divide. They’re telling the story about a New York garment factory fire in 1911 that took the lives of 146 workers, mainly young women and Jewish refugees from Russia. Such is the power of Alix Sobler’s storytelling and the lyrical intensity of director Rory McGregor’s cast that there is little need for much more.
Could Pinksi be the Jewish Gogol? His story certainly follows in the great tradition of The Government Inspector. It makes you wonder if he could possibly know the writings of that 16th-century sceptic Ben Jonson, whose citizen comedies Volpone and The Alchemist also depend on wily antiheroes pulling the wool over the eyes of a succession of greedy, gullible types for whom you have no sympathy at all.
What do The Dybbuk, The Golem and Fiddler on the Roof have in common? Their stories were all originally written in Yiddish. From Franz Kafka to Danny Kaye, the influence of Yiddish theatre is far reaching. Four years before the first professional production in Yiddish took place in a Romanian wine garden in 1876, one of its most influential writers, David Pinski, was born into a cosmopolitan Jewish family in Mohilev, Russia (now Belarus). He moved to Warsaw, Switzerland, Vienna and Berlin before emigrating to New York in 1899, where he lived for 50 years. While there he was an active member of Jewish cultural and political life and was president of the Jewish National Workers’ Alliance from 1920-22, and president of the Jewish Culture Society from 1930-53. Finally, in 1949, the committed left-wing Zionist moved to Israel, where he lived until his death in 1959.
Pinski wrote over 60 plays and there were novels too. His subject matter ranged from stories of the lives, struggles and dreams of the ordinary Jewish folk to Biblical themes, including both King David and King Solomon, their wives, and the coming of a future Messiah.
The January issue of Jewish Renaissance highlighted the life and work of Czech writer Franz Werfel, who played a significant part in bringing the Armenian genocide to the notice of both Europe and America after he came across survivors living in desperate conditions in Damascus in the late 1920s. He also wrote a devastating novel, based on a defiant stand by Armenian survivors, The Forty Days of Musah Dagh. Nonetheless, a century later, the terrible massacres that began in 1915 are still not universally recognized as genocide, to stand alongside the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide in the record of atrocities inflicted by humankind on their fellows.