In 1935, an 11-year-old named Sidney Lumet, then performing on Broadway in a hit play called Dead End, was offered the role of the biblical Isaac in a colossal new theatrical production called The Eternal Road. Lumet would grow up to become one of the great American film directors, with more than 40 movies to his name, among them Serpico and Dog Day Afternoon and Network—but at the time, he was a working actor on both the Yiddish stage and on radio who was serving as a breadwinner for his troubled immigrant family.
The story of how The Eternal Road came to be and what it was casts a fascinating light on the worlds of theater, Jewry, Zionism, and political activism in the years before World War II.
The Eternal Road brought together two of Europe’s most esteemed theatrical talents, the director Max Reinhardt and the composer Kurt Weill, both of whom were eager to leave Europe following Hitler’s rise in Germany. Today, Reinhardt is forgotten, but at the time he was one of the grandest figures in entertainment. Weill, now recognized as one of the signature composers of 20th-century popular music, was the more obscure, for his now-legendary Threepenny Opera, created with Bertolt Brecht, had bombed on Broadway in the spring of 1933, closing after twelve nights. The Eternal Road was a massive production with a massive financial investment of half a million Depression-era dollars, a cast of 245 actors, singers and dancers, gigantic sets, and 1,772 costumes.
Things did not go smoothly.
The Eternal Road was not just a show, it was a cause—the brainchild of Meyer Weisgal, a journalist and activist who was one of the leaders of the American Zionist movement. Weisgal had a passion for theater, or, more properly, for pageantry. He had scored an enormous success with a musical pageant at the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair that had celebrated the history of the Jews and their aspirations for a homeland in Palestine.
Set against Hitler’s accession to chancellor of Germany six months earlier, The Romance of a People featured 6,000 performers, including 3,000 schoolchildren and 750 dancers. Following the World’s Fair, Weisgal managed to take the pageant on tour around the nation, raising large sums. Nearly a million New Yorkers made their way to the Kingsbridge Armory in a remote corner of the Bronx for the show, raising almost $500,000 toward resettling German Jews in Palestine. Weisgal’s promotional skills were formidable: Mayor John O’Brien declared a “Jewish Day” for the pageant’s opening, and volunteer pilots flew 25 airplanes in formation over City Hall in celebration. At the armory, anti-Nazi leaflets were passed out. One of the guests of honor toward the end of its monthlong run was refugee Albert Einstein, who had only just arrived in New York.
Pageants like The Romance of a People were prominent in the first half of the 20th century, combining mass spectacle with ritual for political ends of one kind or another. Popular in both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, the pageant-spectacle, with its enormous cast of performers, aimed for audiences to feel as if they were taking part in a new collective identity. Typically, these mass-performance events extolled humble folk battling oppressive forces and enduring sacrifice for the benefit of “the people,” who were shown emerging with renewed faith in their communities and fortified for the challenges of the future. Meyer Weisgal brought the pageant form to the cause of creating a Jewish homeland.
Following the success of The Romance of a People, Weisgal was determined to produce a more artistically ambitious pageant, a “theatrical answer to Hitler” that would draw on the Hebrew Bible and the cultural heritage of the Jews. He sought the renowned Reinhardt, famous for his stagings of classic dramas performed in circus arenas, vast exhibit halls, and outdoor venues, to create what he called the “Theatre of the Five Thousand.”
Reinhardt initially turned him down, writing, “I’m not going to deny my Jewishness, but I can’t put on a biblical variety show” that, as he put it, takes “us from the creation of the world via the dance around the golden calf to every well-known alpine peak of kitsch.” This project, he concluded, was “an opportunity for [Cecil B.] deMille which I could not seize for all of De Millions in the world.”
But Weisgal managed to win Reinhardt over, promising any composer and any writer Reinhardt wanted and offering significant financial relief to the soon-to-be displaced director. Along with Kurt Weill, Reinhardt requested Austrian author Franz Werfel, whose most recent book, The Forty Days of Musa Dagh, had brought the Armenian genocide of 1915–17 to public awareness. That same year, 1933, Werfel had watched his works being heaved on the Nazi bonfires, along with those of Einstein, Freud, and others, as Germany’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, announced that “Jewish intellectualism is dead.” At the very same moment in the United States, Werfel’s Forty Days had rocketed to the top of the bestseller list.
The three artists convened for the first time in 1934 at Reinhardt’s Austrian castle-home, Schloss Leopoldskron, the former residence of the prince-archbishop of Salzburg and later the location used for Captain von Trapp’s villa in the 1965 film The Sound of Music. Reinhardt had refashioned the residence into a breathtaking performance space, where writers, actors, and composers gathered. Planning their New York production, which they dubbed their “theater in exile,” they sat within sight of Berchtesgaden, Hitler’s mountain retreat in Bavaria. In a matter of months, the three artists were in New York developing the production.
Werfel’s pageant tells of a “timeless community” of Jews huddled together in a synagogue where they’ve taken refuge from a pogrom. To give courage as they await their fate during an all-night vigil, the rabbi recounts stories from the Hebrew Bible, which are enacted onstage: Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, the marriage of Jacob and Rachel, Joseph in Egypt, Moses and the Exodus, the loyal Moabite Ruth, tales of the reigns of Saul, David, and Solomon, and more. As the stories unfold, the watchers in the synagogue, identified as the Rich Man, the Pious Man, the Adversary (a skeptic), the Estranged One (an assimilated Jew), and the Estranged One’s Son, ask questions and share their woes and fears.
Staging this gigantic affair was more challenging than any of them imagined, especially once they brought Norman Bel Geddes aboard to design the set. Vetoing Reinhardt’s idea of staging the show in a giant tent in Central Park, Bel Geddes chose the Manhattan Opera House on West 34th Street as the venue. Bel Geddes gutted the building to accommodate the seven-story set, which covered a full acre. Along with 26 miles of electrical wiring for a thousand stage lights, the scenery included a movable mountain rising from below the orchestra to 30 feet above it; the temple of Solomon, with 40-foot columns; and Joseph’s Egyptian palace, with its own 32-foot statues. How to pay for all this? “There hardly existed a Jew in New York with a dollar to his name on whom [Weisgal] had not drawn his Zionist pistol,” recalled Max Reinhardt’s son Gottfried.
Sidney was enthralled by every aspect of the show and its production, including the raising of funds. For years he had watched his father figuring costs, worrying over every penny for his radio and stage productions. The boy caught many of the goings-on among the artistic giants and their financial backers. And he was as curious about what the electricians were up to; he watched with fascination as seven hydraulic elevators were installed at the back of the stage to move the massive sets up and down. During rehearsals, Sidney rode one of the elevators “up to the mountaintop” with Abraham, played by Thomas Chalmers, whom Sidney would direct on television years later. While they rode up, Abraham and Sarah’s tent would be descending on another elevator.
Sidney was hungry to learn how things worked, all the parts and pieces. The Eternal Road offered a lifetime of lessons. For example, when Reinhardt became unhappy with the placement of the synagogue in a small space far above the audience, Bel Geddes hit on the idea of deepening and expanding the orchestra pit—a solution that had the unfortunate effect of absorbing 300 orchestra seats, the most profitable tickets. Sidney recalled this detail in later years, and what happened next: “So they began to dig, and in Manhattan when you dig you hit rock. So they blasted into the rock—right into the rock—water. We had to stop rehearsal and the entire summer was spent with pumps, pumping the East River into the Hudson River.”
The flooded sets had to be entirely rebuilt. This and other technical disasters brought about a 15-month delay in the production that wreaked havoc with union employees and actors, many of whom had to be replaced. Sidney was among those losing wages, and his father urged him to try to retrieve his role in Dead End in the interim. Sidney staunchly refused, not willing to unseat the boy who had taken his place in the show. As Sidney’s father, Baruch, told it in an oral history he recorded decades later in his accented English, Sidney responded, “Oh no! Because I went out of the play to better myself, and another little boy took my place, I should come back and say, ‘Oh, you get out’?” Baruch proudly lingers in his memoir over this memory: “This is something that I will never forget, a beautiful feeling in a child, a consideration, and he refused to go back.”
As the opening night—January 7, 1937—finally approached, Sidney was thrilled by the increasing intensity. The more than 200 performers and stagehands basically lived in the theater for the weeklong technical rehearsal. “Cots were brought in for sleeping; food, coffee . . . people went home only to bathe and change clothes,” Sidney recalled. While Reinhardt was making drastic changes to the sets, including relighting each scene to give it the feel of a different time and place, Weill was revising his music. “His perception changed because of the actors,” Sidney noted. During the “nightmare of the technical week,” Weill continued to revise, “with love and no temperament, which he would have been entitled to.” For Sidney, the memory of Kurt Weill “on hands and knees downstairs in the men’s lounge, the score spread out before him as he recopied orchestrations, will always be with me.”
Weisgal described the opera-oratorio’s opening night:
We had no curtain, all the effects were based on lighting—$60,000 worth of it. When the first lights went on dimly they revealed only the small synagogue, and the Jews, men, women, and children, huddled together in fear—nothing more. Then the chazzan [cantor]—a marvelous singer—began to chant “And God said ‘Abraham . . .’” Slowly the stage began to light up, revealing the depth and height of five broad ascending tiers, and, finally, at the top, the choir—one hundred singers in the robes of angels, a heavenly host. The audience caught its breath and one could hear a collective “A-ah.”
Sidney’s role was significant. For his original part of Isaac, Reinhardt had worked with him to get just the precise combination of confusion and terror into his one line, “Father!” As a result of the production delay, however, Sidney not only outgrew his costume, but his voice changed. Seeing something special in Sidney, Reinhardt recast him in the major role of the 13-year-old Son of the Estranged One, a character whose father has chosen assimilation in the hope that it might save them both from persecution. Throughout the night’s vigil, the child listens closely and comments on the biblical stories, until finally he expresses a wish to “join those men, father, from whose voices arise the beautiful visions.”
Reviewers were bowled over by the pageant, and repeatedly they singled out three sequences for praise: the sacrifice of Isaac, the golden-calf dance sequence, and Sidney’s final speech, which never failed to draw a huge response from the audience. It went like this: After the sequence representing the sacking of the Temple by the Babylonians and the subsequent enslavement of the Jews, the boy, spotlighted alone on the vast stage, with arms stretched wide, declaims:
Messiah…where art thou? Hearest thou not our mother Rachel? She mourns for her children. She has been waiting so long, so very long.…Why does she receive no answer? Her children are being destroyed.…Why did the Temple have to be burned? Why do we experience nothing but sorrow …and forever sorrow? Why just we…?
In response to his plea, “an incorporeal image of mere light,” as the stage direction describes it, appears above the sleeping congregation. Ecstatically, the boy rouses the sleepers to deliver the Angel’s message of redemption—their return to Zion:
Wake up! I see…I hear …I have my answer…Wake up! …Why do you lament?… Are you weary after this night?…I am not weary…. Come, father, come all of you, and follow our Rabbi…. I have seen the Messiah….He is even now on his way…. We must set out to meet him.
The child then leads the congregants in procession out of the synagogue to make their winding way up the five levels of the stage to join the succession of biblical characters, marching onward to where the angelic choir sings. Sidney’s ardent speech and the show’s climactic imagery brought down the house. Max Reinhardt was said to weep openly night after night. One evening President Roosevelt’s mother, the reserved, socially correct Sara Delano Roosevelt, broke down and solemnly kissed Sidney on the forehead as she congratulated the child.
If the Christian-inflected redemption imagery troubled some Jewish viewers, others saw in this conclusion a Zionist parable, the boy representing idealistic youth leading the Jewish people to the Promised Land. Sidney himself recalled, “All of us discussed this ending tirelessly. What was it meant to signify?” Both Werfel and Reinhardt were, as Sidney described them, “Geshmatteh Yiddin” (literally, destroyed Jews); though born Jewish, they had converted to Catholicism. Half a century later, he wondered, “Did the final scene represent the Second Coming? Was the twelve-year-old boy really Jesus? I never asked Reinhardt; I was just thrilled to be playing a big part.”
Theater critics praised the pageant for its appeal to both Christians and Jews, its “universal message.” This entirely missed Weisgal’s intended message, to call attention to Jewish persecution in Europe. Only Time magazine’s reviewer extracted an anti-Nazi theme, “a symbol of solidarity to rally World Jewry to the defense of their fellow Jews suffering the lash of Nazi persecution.”
The lack of an explicit anti-Nazi message in The Eternal Road resulted in part from the different orientations of the three “most famous non-Jewish Jewish artists,” as Gottfried Reinhardt described his humanist father, Max; Werfel, “a zealot of the Roman Catholic Church”; and Weill, a “Marxist-oriented atheist.” There was also the influence of Norman Bel Geddes, Reinhardt’s collaborator in designing the Christian pageant The Miracle in 1924, described by Gottfried as a “Waspish American anti-Semite” unable to conceal his dislike of Jews. Observing a slowdown in ticket sales, Max Reinhardt’s business manager, Rudolph Kommer, hypothesized, “It is perhaps too artsy for New York; for the little Jews it is perhaps not obvious enough, for the big Jews—too Jewish. The Catholics are crazy about it.”
Yet the show’s clouded message accords in some respects with the alloyed responses of American Jews in 1935 to the predicament of their co-religionists in Europe. That was the year Hitler enacted the Nuremberg Race Laws, depriving Jews of their German citizenship. American Jews were unsure how to plead for special attention from an America that didn’t much like Jews to begin with; they feared that calling too much attention to the plight of European Jews would backfire.
A majority of Americans opposed opening the country’s doors to Jewish refugees, and a 1938 poll found that 65 percent of Americans believed that European Jewry was at least partly responsible for its own persecution. Growing louder still was the claim that the Jews were dragging the country into another war in Europe, a staple of isolationist rhetoric. American Zionists contended that Nazism was proof that Jewish nationhood—not assimilation—was the only strategy for survival. The message carried by Sidney’s character in the play was that assimilation did not protect Jews from persecution.
Young Sidney took a different message from the show, as he watched it hemorrhage money, leaving Weisgal penniless and the backers filing for bankruptcy. They were forced to close in May 1937 after 153 performances. As a movie director, Sidney became famous for bringing movies in on or under budget—and on or ahead of schedule.
There was a Broadway bookend for Sidney to this show’s failed alarm bell. Almost 10 years later, after the war, after the revelations of the death camps, Sidney starred in A Flag Is Born, a play excoriating the British for not allowing a greater number of Jews into Palestine during the war, and also pointing the finger at American Jews: “Where were you?”
We want to hear your thoughts about this article. Click here to send a letter to the editor.