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Joseph Rumshinsky Tells About
Fifty Years in the 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 23: February 16, 1953

Czar Nicholas's priest Iliodor comes to America. -- He brings Yiddish actors and reads a bad play for them.
-- Maurice Schwartz as a younger man.  -- The birth of the Yiddish Art Theatre.

ILIODOR, CZAR NICHOLAS' PRIEST, COMES TO AMERICA

In the time when the news about the Russian Revolution was on everyone's lips, the newspapers announced that the latest priest of the Russian Czar, Iliodor, the follower of Rasputin, arrived in America. Today, as a surprise, Charlie Weinblatt,  the theatre lawyer, brought him to Yiddish theatre, and from the theatre to a Romanian restaurant. He sat with us, with actors, and he told stories, interesting stories. A number of them are not printable, mostly about the exotic, sensational Rasputin.

This was unbelievable. First a couple of weeks back in Russia the Czar resigned, and now already the Czar is out and the Czar's priest, Rasputin's successor, sits with Yiddish actors, taking strength from the Czar and from Rasputin. They don't believe what they heard.

In the middle of the conversation the Czar's cleric confides in us, that he wants to play theatre, and that he indeed has written a play about the latest events in Russia.

We ordered him to read it, and he read to us a terribly awkward thing, written without a scrap of talent. After the reading, Charlie Weinblatt, who was a joker, said to him: "Rabbi Iliodor, nye charasho (No thank you.)"
 

THE GLORIOUS PERIOD OF YIDDISH THEATRE

In the years 1910-1911 in New York, there existed eleven Yiddish theatres. In the province, in virtually every big city, such as Philadelphia, Boston, Cleveland, Detroit, Chicago and Newark, there existed a permanent, large company.

In the province one was paid greater wages than in New York, because every actor wanted to play Yiddish theatre in New York, but the greater wages were made by those who played in the province.

 

Maurice Schwartz as a
younger man.

 

After the season five or six New York companies used to tour the province, virtually all of them doing colossal business. In that time a young actor, Morris [later Maurice] Schwartz, played in the Second Avenue Theatre, under Kessler and Wilner's management.

The young Morris Schwartz already was a good actor and very ambitious. He used to carry booklets under his arm, writing, translating plays. He vibrated with ambition and talent.

David Kessler, the star and manager of the theatre, felt that the young Morris will go far. He was a bit jealous of him, and

David Kessler then proceeded with Samuel Schneier, a very good actor with a fine figure. Schneier was in the style of Morris Moshkowitz. Ray Schneier, his wife, was one of the leading ladies in that theatre.

Although the young Morris Schwartz had then played side, small roles, his talent brought him through all hardships. At that time they staged a musical, German comedy, "Alma, vu voynstu?" ("Alma, Where Do You Live?"), by Adolf Phillip. The comedy had no great success. It was pulled after the first couple of performances. But the young Morris had a scene there, where he imitated the Yiddish stars Jacob Adler, David Kessler, Boris Thomashefsky, Max Rosenthal and still others. With his slimmer, thinner figure and burning eyes, and mainly with these imitations of the aforementioned actors, he won over the entire Jewish public, and the play, "Alma, Where Do You Live?", became a great success, due to Morris Schwartz's imitations.

His imitations became the talk of New York. In every shop, home, in the streets, they talked about the young Morris Schwartz. His great success did him no good in the theatre, because the jealousy in Kessler intensified. But the manager, Kessler's partner, Max Wilner, saw in the young Morris a future, great power. And Wilner protected him, so he would suffer less.

Wilner went so far that he took to rejecting his star, partner and stepfather David Kessler, due to Morris Schwartz.

The discord and frequent quarrels between the two partners, David Kessler and Max Wilner, became repetitive and stronger. Once it was strikingly evident.

Once David Kessler and Max Wilner were heard screaming and fighting. One even heard chairs flying. The screams became louder and louder, especially the throwing of the benches.

 

The whole company gathered around the room where the beatings and the screams came from. But the door was closed. They were afraid that one of them would become a cripple from the blow, until the actors, with the help of a couple of healthy stage workers, broke through the door and opened it.  There they found Maurice Schwartz, sitting quite comfortably, reading a newspaper. They asked him, where were David Kessler and Max Wilner, and he answered in a cold-blooded manner: "How do I know? I've been here for over an hour." They immediately knew that he alone played the entire beating scene and entirely copied both voices, Kessler's and Wilner's.

As he was not allowed to play important roles, in the summer, we together took over the roof garden of the Second Avenue Theatre.

I then was the music composer , although in the same situation as Maurice Schwartz, although I then already had written music to several successful plays. But all were in surrounding, smaller theatres. I felt happy that I was able to pour out my musical soul on the roof garden, and the young Morris Schwartz was jealous of the stars at the time, mainly of David Kessler, and he played all the first and most important star roles, to which he was not allowed winter.

I enjoyed myself that summer on the roof garden as a true composer, and Morris Schwartz enjoyed himself as a shbstars star.

Among the frequent visitors to the roof garden, there came an attractive, healthy, elegant young woman. She used to come often and by herself. Her appearance caught the attention of the entire locale. I used to give Schwartz a wink from the orchestra, that she was already here. Once I said to him: "My heart tells me that she will be Mrs. Schwartz." In a short time she became the only wife of Morris Schwartz.
 

THE YIDDISH ART THEATRE

The Yiddish Art Theatre was born of itself. Maurice Schwartz, the builder of the "Yiddish Art Theatre," even did not dream that he would be able to create an art theatre. He was enthusiastic to play good theatre, but it should be a theatre where no shund plays should dare to enter. About this he was even to afraid to think about it.

In the year 1918 the manager Max Wilner, with Maurice Schwartz as a partner and star, took over the Irving Place Theatre, the former German theatre. Schwartz was taken and determined to play better and different Yiddish theatre. This could be seen from the composition of the company: Jacob Ben-Ami, Ludwig Satz, Jechiel Goldschmidt, Celia Adler, Anna Appel, and even more important, serious actors.

His first play at the Irving Place Theatre was "Der man un zayn shotn (The Man and His Shadow)," by Z. Libin. Although they played the play a little better, quieter, with more direction than in Kessler's Second Avenue Theatre, the play nevertheless was not satisfactory enough for the public, and not for Maurice Schwartz. However, they felt in the air that it is something different, a new way, a new tone.

Maurice Schwartz then searched for and searched for his happiness in foreign gardens ... He staged "Mrs. Warren's Profession," by Bernard Shaw; "Uriel Acosta," by Karl Gustow; "The  Robbers," by Schiller. But this was the fruit of a foreign garden, until he staged Peretz Hirshbein's "Dos farvorfene vinkl (The Faraway Corner)." The play, "The Faraway Corner," was for the Yiddish Art Theatre what Anton Chekhov's "The Cherry Garden" was for the Moscow Art Theatre. They saw a new kind of Yiddish theatre. The contents, the direction, the place for acting -- everything together is far, far away from the old Yiddish theatre.

"The Faraway Corner" laid the foundation for the Yiddish Art Theatre. Years earlier Peretz Hirshbein founded a company in Russia, and went on to play in his repertoire, among which, "The Faraway Corner" was one of his repertoire. It is likely that years before Boris Thomashefsky bought from Peretz Hirshbein the rights to play "The Faraway Corner." But at that time when he played his "Torah'le," "Pintelekh," and "Dos bintl grins," would such a fine idyll, such as "The Faraway Corner," positively fail.

Maurice Schwartz arrived with the play, "The Faraway Corner," at the right time. This Yiddish theatre then was rife for such a play. Then they had already played plays by Sholem Asch, David Pinski, Osip Dymow. People embraced "The Faraway Corner," like with a jewel. The play lasted more than three months, because they did not go away, but ran to see "The Faraway Corner."





 

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