Sholem Aleichem was a genius, Zero Mostel is a genius. Add the two together and the result ought to be extraordinary, a union of talents and souls, the comic master of a vanishing tradition and the virtuoso of stage expressiveness. But in Fiddler on the Roof,1 a musical play based on Sholem Aleichem's stories, the result is not at all extraordinary. It is disheartening, not least in its skill and charm; commonplace, in all but Mostel's solo entertainments.
Among American actors who but Zero Mostel could play, could be, Tevye the Dairyman? Suppose he rented himself a theater, stood alone on a bare stage and simply read from an English translation of Sholem Aleichem. Suppose, while keeping his “script” intact, he allowed himself to improvise accompanying gesture: to act out the parts, to dance the rhythms, to hum a bit of obbligato, to wriggle his glorious fat body as a mode of italics, to let the jokes emerge from their authentic context and the sadness from the accumulated windings of the stories, to work at his own pace—leisurely, reflectively, with the right variations and coda—and not have to worry that a big production number would soon sweep him off the stage. Suppose, that is, Zero Mostel let his comic gift come into a ripe and unmediated relationship to the gift of Sholem Aleichem. Even if one judged the result in some sense a failure, wouldn't it still be a joy and a wonder?
But what Jerome Robbins has directed, and Zero Mostel acquiesced in, is a tasteless jumble of styles: some in good, others in bad, and therefore the whole in no taste. The “book” provided by Joseph Stein is closer in tone and quality to Harry Golden (sometimes Gertrude Berg) than to Sholem Aleichem, and the production, despite its expensiveness of surface, reflects the spiritual anemia of Broadway and of the middle-class Jewish world which by now seems firmly linked to Broadway.
Sholem Aleichem is deprived of his voice, his pace, his humane cleverness and boxed into the formula of a post-Oklahoma musical: the gags, the folksy bounce, the archness, the “dream sequences,” the fiercely athletic dances. Zero Mostel is exhibited, sometimes brilliantly, but he is also corrupted by the trivial paraphernalia of a “lavish production,” by a book, libretto, and score that through expert professionalism rise to the mediocre, and most of all, by the lack of thoughtful or even thought-out direction, so that part of the time Mostel is trying to realize a character, part of the time to set the house on fire with his inspired antics, and all of the time seems oppressed by an awareness that he has to carry the whole business on his own shoulders. Too many matchmakers have crossed up the union between Sholem Aleichem and Mostel: hack lyricists and composers, a choreographer (Jerome Robbins) whose work has become so slick as finally to be sterile, and a collection of stage people who are adequate to the Broadway side of things but hopelessly ill-at-ease and out-of-tune with Sholem Aleichem. (They dance a freilachs as if they were stomping out a number for Carousel.) Broadway wins—the show could run forever; Sholem Aleichem loses—not the first time in English; and Mostel, whose soul is split between the two, shows himself to be a superb performer but a shaky actor.
Whenever the others leave him alone, Mostel is marvelous. He twirls a finger in the air: and the spirit speaks. He shakes his hips: the earth trembles. He does a bit of gargling cantillation: it seems an equivalent in sound to our deepest fantasies gratified. He soars in the air, jigs, groans, pats his belly, rumbles his throat, pumps his eyes—and motion becomes wit. Yet all this is not enough, for it remains his performance, Zero Mostel enlarging upon his inspired persona. Were he rid of Sholem Aleichem and merely Zero on the stage, well and good. Were he free to plunge into a characterization, the effort would be worth our closest attention. But here, in this Broadway prison, he is caught between two worlds, two scales of value, two Mostels. He can neither do his stuff without interference nor submit to the enormously difficult requirements of Sholem Aleichem. Caught between the sinuous dancing and the flat-chested tunes, between his inclination to flare off entirely on his own and a cast that scatters in a dozen stylistic directions (from TV “situations” to Yente Telebende), Mostel is driven to something which strikes one as unnatural: he works too hard.
Marianne Moore once spoke of Ireland as the greenest land she'd never seen; Anatevka in Fiddler on the Roof is the cutest shtetl we've never had. Irresistible bait for the nostalgia-smitten audience, this charming little shtetl is first shown in the style of Chagall—itself a softened and sweetened version, sharply different from Sholem Aleichem—and then prettified still more. It all bursts with quaintness and local color, and the condescension that usually goes along. The condescension is affectionate, though not innocent, for while the creators of this play clearly want to do right by their subject, they must pause now and again, as Walter Kerr has remarked, “to give their regards to Broadway, with remembrances to Herald Square.” For they too work in a tradition, and it is a fatal one: the pressure to twist everything into the gross, the sentimental, the mammoth, and the blatant. And since everyone connected with this play is very sophisticated, they make allowance in advance for all the obvious points of danger: there are quarrels among the Jews, not everything in Anatevka is idyllic, and there even occurs a papiêr-maché pogrom. Yet none of these “touches of realism” matters very much, for the spirit of Broadway proves invincible:
- A scene unfolds in which Tevye's family prepares to bless the Sabbath candles. We get set for some heart-tugging, but all right: it is part of the tradition and can be affecting. Then, to one's astonishment, the candle-blessing is surrounded by four more candle-blessings at each corner of the stage, flickeringly lighted against a background of darkness—and you have a Shabbos at Radio City Music Hall.
- Tevye is confused because his daughters are marying for love. Well and good: it's in Sholem Aleichem too. But then Mostel and the actress who transforms Tevye's wife into a grating Brownsville shrew go off into a feeble wise-cracking song, “Do You Love Me?” At this point I thought Mostel was embarrassed: he should have been.
- There is a wedding dance, done with zest and energy—perhaps a bit too much energy, but let's not be cranky, it's all right. Despite traditional taboos, men begin to dance with women, and all right again. But then, on the Broadway theory that multiplication is the secret of success, the rabbi, played strictly as a lampoon, also begins hopping around with a girl. Which shows that if there was a Jewish hand in this production, there was also a goyisher kop.
- Tevye talks to God: he does it in Sholem Aleichem, and critics rightly make much of this as a sign of the peculiarly intimate relationship between the shtetl Jews below and their Almighty above. Mostel also talks to God, the first time affectingly, but by the seventh or eighth time cloyingly. In Sholem Aleichem's stories, God is a presence to whom Jews can turn in moments of need and urgency; in Fiddler on the Roof He ends up as Zero Mostel's straight man.
And there, I think, is the saddest thing about the play. Incredibly gifted as he is, Mostel cannot finally insulate himself from the sentimentalism and exploitativeness of his colleagues. He uses some of Sholem Aleichem's marvelous lines, but he bears down on them with a crushing weight, to make sure no one in the audience will miss the point; and because he lacks time and setting for true development, he hurriedly transforms these lines into mere gags ripped out of their context.
But come now, isn't all this a bit too serious? After all, it's only a musical, and in a musical you can't expect depth of characterization. Besides, you must allow for certain liberties in “adaptations” . . .
First: “adaptations.” In the name of “adaptations,” butchers rip the heart out of works of art. In the name of “adaptations,” hacks commit manslaughter on the genius of the past. In the name of “adaptations,” Broadway justifies its cynicism, its soulless mechanical skill. A black plague, a flaming curse on “adaptations.”
Second: Sholem Aleichem. Of all the Yiddish writers he is the most difficult to translate. More than any other, he depends on intimate verbal plays and turns, and he writes on the assumption that his readers share a profoundly “inside” sense of his culture. The action in his stories tends to be slight, for everything rests on language, a kind of rippling monologue in which the full range of nuances is available only to the cultivated Yiddish reader. Inherently, then, Sholem Aleichem's stories are not very promising for dramatic performance (the type of reading I suggested earlier is quite another matter). The idea of a musical, which must necessarily discard the richness of texture that is Sholem Aleichem's greatest achievement, seems still more dubious. But let that pass—since, in any case, it will be dismissed as “purism” by all but the few people who know Sholem Aleichem.
What does need to be stressed, however, is that if a play involves the characters, setting, and aura of Sholem Aleichem, we not only have the right, but simply cannot avoid the need, to compare what is done in his name with what he himself did. A historical reference, whether to a real event or to a classic literary work, serves in a play or novel to establish a certain claim of dependence upon the past. In principle there is nothing wrong with this, but once done, it makes inevitable the risk of comparison. If you call a play Moby Dick, you can't very well present a tug-boat captain on the Hudson River fishing for stripers; and if you “base” your script on Sholem Aleichem . . .
Of course, the kind of criticism I have written serves little purpose. Those who can be persuaded must already know, while those who cannot will be crowding the box-office for months to come. And in the long run it is the response of the American Jewish public which is far more troubling, and important, than any Broadway production.
American Jews suffer these days from a feeling of guilt because they have lost touch with the past from which they derive, and often they compound this guilt by indulging themselves in an unearned nostalgia. The less, for example, they know about East European Jewish life or even the immigrant Jewish experience in America, the more inclined they seem to celebrate it. As their own sense of Jewishness increasingly becomes fragile, more and more they feel—I would say, absurdly—grateful for any public recognition of Jewishness. A politician drops a Yiddish phrase, and they roar with delight. A TV comic slips in a Yiddish vulgarism, and they regard this as a communal triumph. A Jewish businessman makes ten million dollars, and the Yiddish press features this “son of our people.” A play like Fiddler on the Roof exhibits the materials of Jewish family life, and the audience goes wild. What seems to matter in such responses is not the quality or appropriateness of the event that elicits them, but the sheer fact—heartbreaking when you reflect upon it—that some sign of the neglected Jewish past is being publicly displayed.
One understands the anxiety prompting such nostalgia, the nostalgia prompting a lack of critical standards, and the lack of critcial standards prompting a surrender of dignity. But it is unworthy. The most caustic criticism of Fiddler on the Roof—and none of it nearly caustic enough—has appeared in English, while the reviews I have seen in the Yiddish papers could do little more than pick on such details as the dancing between a rabbi and a girl. Trapped in its oppressive sense of isolation, the Yiddish press seems unable to recognize that the play raises far more important issues concerning the dignity of the Jewish tradition and the values of the contemporary Jewish world.
Now it may well be that “Jewishness” as we have understood it is reaching an end and that much is consequently being lost to us. Yet if that is true, or even if we are afraid that it may soon be true, must we engage in this beggar-like gratitude for the kind of popularizations which ought to make us turn our heads in dismay? If there is nothing else to be done, would not even a prideful silence be more appropriate?
In any case, it is now clear that those of us who were complaining ten or fifteen years ago about the neglect of Yiddish culture in America were quite wrong. If a future historian of the Yiddish epoch in American Jewish life will want to know how it came to an end, we now can tell him. Yiddish culture did not decline from neglect, nor from hostility, nor from ignorance. It it should die, it will have been from love—from love and tampering.
1 Produced by Harold Prince and directed by Jerome Robbins at the Imperial Theatre, New York.