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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 35: March 30. 1953

Dramaturges, playwrights and fixers. -- To fix a play is a skill.
-- To write a play is an art. -- The true dramaturges are deprived of theatre.

THE DRAMATURGE

It is an old rule that if the theatre is to be successful, the main thing is the play. Without a good play, the theatre must close. The main thing is a play with content. The play must have an interesting story; when if doesn't, it may be written by God alone, from the greatest writer, it is not fit.

Sets, scenery, lighting, music -- these are decorations that adorn the plays. Actors, who have to adapt to a play, are extremely important; but the main thing is the play.

One will rarely hear said: Come, let's go see the beautiful decorations; but it is said: let's go see this or that play.

One will rarely, coming home from a theatre, discuss the scenery of a play, but one will hear talk of this or that scene, about the types [of characters], the words of the play.

Going from an operetta or a musical comedy, one sings a fine romance, but everything from the successful play.

All of the trimmings, such as music, sets, lights -- they all help, but only in a good play.

I had two grandmothers: Grandmother Gitl, my father's mother, and Grandmother Sarah, my mother's mother. My Grandmother Gitl was a fantasy; she used to tell beautiful, interesting stories. And there was Grandmother Sarah, who used to sit quietly, spoke modestly and very rarely. And when the children of the street used to see Grandmother Gitl, they used to run after her, that she should tell them stories.

The children crowded around Grandmother Gitl, and Grandmother Sarah unfortunately used to sit by herself.

It is also so with the theatre: there, when there is an interesting play with interesting, exciting content, it is packed, just like with Grandmother Gitl.

 


 

It is known that a play is the soul of a theatre; a play is the first thing that a theatre needs to have. But in the Yiddish theatre a play is the last. One worries about the actors. There are provided actors, musicians, dancers, advertisements, ticket-sellers; but what may be advertised and what may be sold -- this is allowed -- that is -- "the play."

One often reads that this or that Broadway manager has bought a "play," and he negotiates with actors, who could act in the "play,"  also with a theatre where they can perform the "play." But at the Yiddish theatre the main thing -- the play -- the very last.

However, one puts forth the question: Where are our literati, dramaturges, who can so nicely describe life, especially the Jewish life? And it is a rule that the greatest ambition of a writer is that one may perform his play in a theatre.

It is true that to write a good play, the writer should also need to have stage technique. The dramaturge needs to be close to the theatre, have love for the theatre, even the theatre life. Jacob Gordin in his first years was very less familiar with stage technique and the theatre life. However, he learned by being close to the actors and often visited the theatre, where our literati and dramaturges (especially in the later years), when they were far from the theatre, and when they already had written a play. It was without theatre blood, mainly without stage technique.

It also is a rule that a play will not only be written, but "rewritten," or a scene will be rewritten.  But now, when one decides that a play will be performed, one first rewrites it, simply rewriting it to the taste of the advice-giver, so that almost nothing good remains from the original.

As was already said, this has a lot to do with what our Yiddish dramaturges have been doing for the Yiddish theatre. They simply do not want to interject with the advice-givers and opinion makers over their plays.

From the very least surviving dramaturges who have been subject to advice-givers and opinion makers, there are instead dramaturges who become playwright or playmakers. They write virtually to order, after the taste and understanding of their opinion-makers. The playwright has developed a great stage technique, that this and that fix has already become a usual thing for them. They made peace with their fate and did not develop into good playwrights, but they became good fixers. A star knows that this and that playwright is a good fixer, and he will give him a good role -- he could not have gone to him.

Very few writers, great writers possess theatrical language and theatrical blood. There are a very small number of writers who possess this.

There are writers, however, whose most everything they write can be performed on the stage -- even a sketch, a humoresque, because it has theatre language, and every person who the writer portrays pleads: "Get me on the stage."

The Russian composer Bortniansky wrote music three times over Psalms. He used to say that he was still able to write a fourth time, because each chapter of Psalms sings for him alone, and in that chapter he heard music. This is the same with the writer, who possesses theatre language, and its heroes are theatre heroes. For example: Osip Dymow or the humorist Chone Gottesfeld have theatre language and theatre blood. Even their sketches are allowed to be dramatized. From Gottesfeld's humorous things, it can easily become a successful comedy, not for nothing has his healthy comedy "Parnose (Livelihood)" made an incredible success in Israel. From his comedy, "American Chasidim," let's make an authentic, Yiddish musical comedy.

There are writers who have shown that they can write for the stage, and they are passed over, like Sackler and Leivick.

The great writer Bashevis Singer writes romances, which can be transformed into a good stage work, like what has happened with his brother, the genial I.J. Singer. But there is no one who can approach the writers.





 

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