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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years of Yiddish Theatre
 A series of thirty-six articles written by Rumshinsky, over a four-month period, for the Jewish Forward newspaper,
from December 1, 1952, until April 2, 1953. Articles appeared in the Jewish Forward every Monday and Thursday.

Episode 17: January 26, 1953

The German Irving Place Theatre, where they used to play, the famous German actors used to play.
Rudolph Schildkraut plays in the German theatre and becomes well-known as an actor.
-- Thomashefsky engages him for his Yiddish theatre.
-- He creates a furor in "Eikele mazik" by Abraham Shomer.

On 14th Street and Irving Place there is found the Irving Place Theatre (later there was built the Yiddish Art Theatre). In that time it was the German theatre. There they played a fine repertoire. They played classic dramas, lebensbilds, comedies and operettas, but of a fine sort.

There they did not stage any original plays, no spectacles la Broadway, but they played good theatre and without tricks.

The German theatre later became the model for theatre in America. They had the German theatre to learn from.

The greater part of the company was imported from Germany or Austria. They brought over the finest actors from there.

From time to time they also used to bring over a great star from Austria and Germany, such as the famous Zonental and Fass.

The great German actor Rudolph Schildkraut is talked about in the known Yiddish theatre world. They often used to say that under the great Jewish-German stage director Max Reinhardt, there played a great Yiddish actor with the name of Rudolph Schildkraut.

When they became aware that the German theatre brought down Rudolph Schildkraut, the artistic world cooked, and especially in the Yiddish theatre world. Rudolph Schildkraut, they knew, was proud of his Jewish ancestry. It was said that if he wanted to deny his ancestry, one would not know it, because his eyes look like the eyes of a rabbi. It was said that his appearance cried out: "I am a Jew."

Finally Rudolph Schildkraut came. He performed in the German theatre, and the Yiddish actors ran to see him and greatly admired him.

"This is what an actor is," they cried, "He has a voice -- just like God would want to speak!", they said.

His greatest success was made in "Kitchenbaum," where he played seven various roles and characters.

 

Rudolph Schildkraut

 

 

At the end of the production of "Kitchenbaum," Boris Thomashefsky said to me: "I have decided to engage Rudolph Schildkraut for my People's Theatre."

I looked at Thomashefsky and it was clear that this was one of Thomashefsky's exaggerations, but in about a couple of weeks it was advertised in all the newspapers that Rudolph Schildkraut was engaged in the People's Theatre under Thomashefsky's and Edelstein's management.

The Yiddish theatre then already had a Jewish-German actor, Moritz Morrison. But he used to play only in guest productions, and his repertoire consisted of sheer, classical plays, such as "The Robbers" by Schiller, "Othello," "Richard the Third." But Rudolph Schildkraut  became engaged for an entire season, and Abraham Shomer wrote a play for him, "Eykele mazik (The Reformed Convict)," in which he played in mameloshn -- in Yiddish.

Just like Germany was proud of Schildkraut's pure German dialect, so later the Yiddish theatre was proud of Schildkraut's pure, tasteful Yiddish.

Schildkraut succeeded in becoming a German imperial royal actor.

He was raised from below, but rose on the stage like a giant.

He was sharp, wise and at the same time naive as a child.

He played "Shylock" in Berlin three hundred times for Christians, but with Jewish grief and heart. The critics in Germany could not decide in what roles he was greater, in tragic or in comic character roles.

Yiddish actors used to speak to him in German, and he used to answer them in a pure Yiddish.

He used to say that the Americans acted beautifully in the theatre, and the Jews did not play theatre well.

He knew geography well and never knew where he was going.

Max Reinhardt, the famous Jewish-German stage director, used to say that Rudolph Schildkraut can play a big role like the great actors of the world, but none of the great world actors could play so well a small episodic role as Rudolph Schildkraut.

It is worth mentioning an event from Rudolph Schildkraut's first summer in America. He then lived in Rockaway Beach in a hotel. We used to meet often. I listened with pleasure to his wonderful stories. One time, in a morning, when I went to bathe, I managed to pass by the hotel where Schildkraut was living. I noticed that Schildkraut was sitting on the veranda, and his head was buried in his hands.

-- Good morning, Herr Schildkraut!

I greeted him and waited to hear his usual answer, "Good morning, you Yiddish composer!", but how stunned I was when, instead of an answer, I heard him cry, quite simply --- he cried.

I asked him: Herr Schildkraut, what has happened?"

"Don't ask, good friend. Don't ask." He answered, "A great misfortune befell me."

"What misfortune? Tell me!"

He stuck his head deeper into his hands, and with a mournful voice said: "I, Rudolph Schildkraut, have played cards with waiters."

I wanted to laugh strongly from the terrible drama, but seeing his despair and his real tears, I tried to comfort him: "Herr Schildkraut, calm down, this is America, a democratic land! It is a 'melting pot.' Here they all mix together, especially in the Yiddish theatre."

He cried still louder: "What are you saying, by us in Germany -- artists and waiters together?  What are you speaking about, my God? I, an imperial royal actor, have played cards with waiters!

I asked him how the great tragedy had happened, and he told me:

"Well, it is the summer, and they sit and play cards in white shirts. White shirts are worn by everyone, so who could know who they are? The hands, I mean the persons, changed, but quite early, almost in the morning, when we got up from the card table I first then noticed that almost all the players were the waiters from the hotel. Imagine who I played cards with!"

I calmed him down again: "Herr Schildkraut! When you will be in America for two or three years, you will look at everything entirely different."

"No, no!," he shouted, "Not me, not Rudolph Schildkraut, never in my life will I not play cards with waiters, no ...."

I heard his last words out loud. I left him shouting and screaming: "Not me, not Rudolph Schildkraut. Sometimes that will happen."

Three weeks later, having already decided to go into the city to make preparations for the next season, I entered the dining room of the hotel around four o'clock in the afternoon; where Schildkraut was arguing with a young waiter: I heard such a conversation between them:

"Hey, you young person," Schildkraut said to the waiter in a good-natured tone, "You are a crazy guy; last Sunday you won one hundred and twenty dollars. You've packed us in and you're not playing anymore. But where are the fifty dollars you owe me?"

The young waiter smiled and wanted to answer, but Schildkraut beat him [to his response]: "Herr, you young person, I'll see you at the card table, if you play with us again, the fifty dollars you owe me will be wiped out, I'll present it to you."

The waiter replied contently: "Good, Herr Schildkraut!"

"No, no. I don't believe you," Schildkraut said, "Give me your hand that you will continue to play with us."

The waiter gave him his hand.

I saw that both were standing and shaking hands, until I went away, and in my ears I heard the sounds of shouting, mixed with weeping three weeks before, when Schildkraut had shouted: "No, no, never in my life will I play with waiters. Never, not Rudolph Schildkraut!"

The "melting pot," the American melting pot, melted the imperial royal actor in the course of three weeks. He is simply too weak to play with the waiters.





 

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