Robert Brustein on the tradition of Yiddish theater

Robert Brustein entertained at the M.V. Hebrew Center on August 26. — Photo by Ralph Stewart

The main room of the Martha’s Vineyard Hebrew Center was filled with receptive listeners last Thursday, and a smiling Robert Brustein, playwright, producer, theater critic, educator, and West Tisbury summer resident, seemed instantly relaxed. As he put it, he was among family.

Although reading a prepared presentation, “Puttin’ on the Spritz,” Mr. Brustein, 83, set an informal tone as he outlined the Jewish presence in theater and film. (“Spritz” refers to Jewish performers tendency to spray when pronouncing certain words.)

In his full, commanding voice, he began with a quick review of the development of the secular Yiddish theater, an outgrowth of the plays traditionally performed during religious holiday of Purim in the 1700s. The plays, considered too profane to be held in synagogues, dramatized the story of the Book of Esther and used other stories from Jewish scripture to the dismay of the fundamentalist orthodoxy.

Inserting familiar Yiddish words and humorous asides – all enjoyed by his audience – Mr. Brustein, a member of The American Theater Hall of Fame, skimmed through the development of Jewish theater and Jewish performers from the late 1800s to present.

He described the popularity of the Second Avenue Theatre, the influence of Shakespeare on Jewish playwrights, and the work of Clifford Odets (“Awake and Sing”), and Arthur Miller’s (“Death of a Salesman”), whose characters represented the Jewish-American family.

In New York City, the Yiddish theater district was centered on the Lower East Side – Second Avenue. In 1903, The Grand Theater, New York’s first Yiddish theater, was built, and in addition to the vaudeville acts and movies, original plays, musicals, and adaptations of Shalom Aleichem, translations of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Tolstoy and Shaw were performed there. Yiddish theatergoers were familiar with the plays of Ibsen, Tolstoy, and even Shaw, long before these works played on Broadway.

Actor Jacob Adler, whose family created a theatrical dynasty, played the title role in Jacob Gordin’s “Der Yiddisher King Lear” (The Yiddish “King Lear”), and was one of those who crossed over to Broadway with his portrayal of Shylock in a 1903 production of “The Merchant of Venice.”

Mr. Brustein is eminently qualified on his subject. As a participant in the final days of New York’s Second Avenue Yiddish Theatre, (he performed in English), he has first-hand knowledge of the people, places, and material that contributed to the tradition of Jewish theater.

Mr. Brustein is a former dean of the Yale School of Drama (1966–1979), founder of Yale Repertory Theatre and the American Repertory Theatre (2002), Senior Research Fellow at Harvard and a Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Suffolk University.

Mr. Brustein own plays include, “Shlemiel the First,” (1994), based on the stories of Isaac Bashevis Singer and set to traditional Klezmer music, “Nobody Dies on Friday,” “Spring Forward, Fall Back,” and three plays based on Shakespeare: “The English Channel,” “Mortal Terror,” and his latest, “The Last Will.”

Who better to offer the audience behind-the-scenes stories about the feud between Lee Strasberg and Stella Adler, both powerful forces who developed opposing methods for teaching acting, and about Strasberg’s and playwright Arthur Miller’s competition for influence on Marilyn Monroe.

His talk included tidbits about well-known Jewish performers (when applicable he told their pre-celebrity birth names). The list included Boris Thomashefsky, a popular leading man in the 1900s, Molly Picon, the Marx Brothers, Zero Mostel, the Borsht Belt comedians, stage and film stars Danny Kaye, the great Mel Brooks (“He turned all of human history into a Jewish joke”), Gene Wilder, Woody Allen, and past and present Jewish television stars: Sid Caesar, Carl Reiner, John Stewart, and Larry David.

As he concluded, Mr. Brustein looked at his audience and smiled. “Well, You get the picture,” he said, “or should we say, the family snapshot. We are the creations of what has come before. We remain perpetually in debt to our ancestors. May the tradition continue forever, quarrels, reconciliations, scream ups, break downs, big bear hugs, and wet Jewish kisses.”