– Abhishek Sarkar
This paper seeks to examine portrayals of Shylock in the American Yiddish theatre with reference to the evolution of diasporic attitudes within the community it catered to. As a part of this scheme, the paper will consider the case of a famous crypto-Jew or alleged Jew of American theatre at some length before turning to the most famous fictional Jew ever.
In 1951, cashing in on the commercial and critical success of Death of a Salesman, a Yiddish translation of it was produced at the Parkway Theater in Brooklyn. Of course, the clientele for Toyt fun a Salesman would be severely limited by the language, which is derived from several German dialects and contains vocabulary from Hebrew, Aramaic, Slavic and some Romance languages. It is spoken by Jews of central and eastern European origin and is therefore a prominent marker of ethnic and sectarian identity in America. However, while reviewing the Brooklyn production for the Commentary magazine, the actor George Ross claimed, “What one feels most strikingly is that this Yiddish play is really the original, and the Broadway production was merely Arthur Miller’s translation into English.” This comment would strengthen the case in favor of Willy Loman’s Jewishness, and it would be revisited during the Broadway revival of the English original in 2012. Later critics would locate in Linda Loman’s famous speech about Willy — “Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person” – a distinctly Yiddish intonation.
“Loman” happens to be a common surname for American Jews, and speculations about the Loman family’s religious background have been rife since the play’s premiere in 1949. Incidentally, Jewish commentators have been particularly eager to relate the play to the topoi of Jewish experience. Critics Harold Bloom, Leslie Fiedler, Julius Novick, and playwrights David Mamet and Tony Kushner have all identified in the play a bleak exploration of the Jewish immigrant aspirations in America (Freedman).
Miller’s own position regarding the issue has been a varied and complicated one. The chief reason for the speculations as to the Loman’s Jewishness is obviously biographical. According to Julius Novick “Arthur Miller … is manifestly the most eminent Jewish playwright who ever lived (unless you believe the rumor that Shakespeare was a Marrano [i.e. a converted Jew of Iberian origin])” (98). In his autobiography Timebends: A Life Miller recalls attending the 114th Street synagogue in the lap of his great-grand father, and taking Hebrew lessons after regular school. His maternal grandfather always wore a yarmulke (the skull cap of observant Jews) and spoke mostly Yiddish. Moreover, the real life prototypes of Willy Loman were unmistakably Jewish. The most important model for Willy was Miller’s uncle Manny Newman, an underachieving businessman who was disappointed in his two sons and took frequent recourse to fantasy. The precursor to Willy was the character of Alfred Schoenzeit in Miller’s short story “In Memoriam,” based on his father’s employee who committed suicide because of bankruptcy.
However, Miller withheld from the Lomans conspicuous indicators of faith and ethnicity, and in a 1969 interview protested that the question of religious identity was irrelevant to the play. It was only in 1999 that Miller, in an essay to commemorate the play’s 50th anniversary, described the Lomans as “Jews light-years away from religion or a community that might have fostered Jewish identity.” It makes them outsiders, standing “on the sidewalk side of the glass looking in at the clean well-lighted place” (Freedman).
The evolution of Miller’s take on the Loman family’s religion may be heuristically compared with the scheme of diasporic attitudes towards the host culture as theorized by Shirley Geok-Lin Lim for a different community. In this scheme, the first or “pre-ethnic stage” is characterized by nostalgia for the old home and an emphasis on the continuity of cultural ties with it; the second or “ethnic” stage consists in an amalgamation of the old and the new; and the third or “post-ethnic’ stage sees a confident assertion of the diasporic subject’s legitimacy as a hyphenated insider. Although the analogy cannot be complete or optimal, Miller’s denial of the Loman family’s Jewishness may be seen as describing the second or “ethnic” phase where acculturation and assimilation into the host community come at the cost of the earlier affiliations. Likewise, Miller’s latter opinion can be related to the post-ethnic stage of self-assured hybridity.
The point behind this long detour is to illustrate the peculiarity of Shylock’s appeal to a constituency related to both Miller and Willy. Shylock’s is a more restrictive and forbidding case of marginalization in that he does not enjoy the liberty of covering the trajectory from the “pre-ethnic” to the “post-ethnic” phases that would be more pertinent to the 20th- and 21st- century immigrant experiences. The primary premise of the American dream, namely the openness and abundance of economic opportunities for everyone that can lead to startling upward mobility, does not apply even superficially to Shylock’s case. For him, wealth does not translate into enfranchisement and authority, and he labors under a system that is by default rigged against his community. In Novick’s and Miller’s views of the Lomans, their materialistic delusions arise from their bid for acculturation and their self-willed renunciation of their religio-cultural roots. As opposed to this, Shylock’s Jewishness is the basis for his alienation and persecution, and his greatest misery is that he is finally robbed even of the consolation of his religion. Assimilation into the host culture can take only a coercive and incapacitating shape for him, as at the end of the trial scene. Shakespeare’s play, although frequently accused of anti-semitism, portrays Shylock’s career in a way that can match the attractive template of heroic victimhood and find a ready resonance with the travails of the diaspora. The fact that Shylock’s Jewishness cannot be occluded like Willy Loman’s and that his polemical stance is posited on his Jewishness would endear him as a cultural model to the American Yiddish play-goers who were still firmly attached to the “pre-ethnic” stage formulated by Lim. These productions spanning the first four decades of the 20th century have never tried to underplay the sectarian identity of Shylock. On the contrary, their success has depended largely on the extent and nature of Shylock’s Jewishness projected by them. The following account will be based mainly on Joel Berkowitz’s study of American Yiddish theatre.
The first recorded professional Yiddish production of The Merchant of Venice in the USA took place in 1894, although it failed to gain an audience. This can be traced to the lack of organization and of a consolidated clientele for the industry that was yet emerging in New York. The first successful Yiddish production of the play came seven years later, when Jacob P. Adler essayed the role of Shylock at the People’s Theater. The performance text used by Adler drastically altered Shakespeare’s play to make Shylock the central character. Whereas in the original, Shylock is present in only 5 of the 20 scenes, Adler’s Shylock dominated the stage for more than half of the performance. It deleted the Portia-Bassanio and Nerissa-Graziano love-plots to focus on the gravity of Shylock’s tribulations. The performance text also eliminated the whole of Act 5, making the trial scene its striking finale. The title of the play itself was changed to Shylock. The sympathetic rendition of Shylock inaugurated by Charles Macklin in 1741 had by then become widely accepted on the English stages across the Atlantic, and Henry Irving in the late 19th century had famously created a dignified and tragic Shylock through whose point of view the play was presented. Adler claimed to have watched Irving’s performance in London and was deeply influenced by it.
Concurring with Irving, Adler opined that Shylock should be presented as a self-respecting individual of stately demeanor, not the seedy and cringing shark of convention. Adler added another dimension to the character, arising from his own ethnic convictions that were not accessible to Irving. Adler says of Shylock:
He is a patriarch. He is a higher being. And his personality is the accumulated legacy, the gathering force of generations, and it comes through in his language, his deportment, his appearance, his face, and his gait. There is a certain grandeur in this Jew, the triumph born of long suffering, of intellect, of a character raised by two governesses: high traditions and an endless series of spiritual sufferings. (Berkowitz 174-75)
The character type of the Jewish patriarch, who usually came with a long beard and a deep voice, was a tried-and-tested asset in Adler’s repertoire. He had explored it to great success in the title role of a Shakespeare off-shoot, The Yiddish King Lear (1892).
Adler borrowed from Irving one innovation that would become a routine in subsequent Yiddish performances. This was the silent scene where Shylock discovers Jessica’s desertion. In Gareth Armstrong’s play Shylock, Irving’s interpolation is described thus:
The stage is dark. Enter Shylock, alone, holding a lantern aloft. He crosses a bridge, descends the stairs, walks over to his own house. Knocks slowly three times on his door. No answer. He knocks again. A little more urgent, this time. No answer. He raises the lantern to his darkened upper windows and, as the realization dawns, his features register a look of dumb and complete despair. Curtain. Thunderous applause! (49)
Adler added his own touch to the scene as Shylock tears his garment in grief, falls on the ground and lets out a convulsive sigh.
In Act 1, Adler’s Shylock is seen proposing the egregious bond to Antonio as a merry quip and it is accepted in that vein. However, he is left alone at the end of the scene where he signals his deeply calculated malice by making certain silent gestures with his staff and handkerchief. In the scene with Tubal, Adler’s Shylock is overpowered by grief and vindictiveness. He threatens the jeering onlookers with violence and wobbles off the stage clutching his friend. In the courtroom scene, Shylock leaps at Antonio and has to be restrained by others. But he regains his composure, and at the moment of total dishonor and dispossession he leaves the stage with a calm and proud air of disapproval. The Yiddish play paradoxically meant Shylock’s disgrace to be his greatest triumph. Adler explained in an interview that Shylock is not unrealistic enough to hope that the Venetian court would grant him the pound of flesh. Rather, the hyperbolical menace he creates is an end in itself as it registers his protest against the hostile regime. The critic for the American Hebrew grasped this approach, when he observed that Adler’s Shylock while whetting his knife on his sole furtively checked if Antonio was trembling in fear (Berkowitz 197). A couple of years later Adler performed Shylock for a broader audience, reportedly goaded by a Zionist friend. In this production, which toured Philadelphia, Baltimore, Boston and New York, Adler spoke in Yiddish while the supporting roles were in English. The Yiddish press celebrated this event as a cultural triumph, but the response of the American English press ranged from admiration to ridicule.
The next major Shylock in Yiddish was created in 1911 by a European visitor, the actor Rudolph Schildkraut who grew up in Romania and Austria and had a successful career in Germany. In 1905, Schildkraut had starred as Shylock in a German production directed by Max Reinhardt at the Deutsches Theatre in Berlin. The play was a landmark success and it cemented Schildkraut’s stardom. Although he migrated to the US permanently in 1920, his portrait was displayed respectfully at the Deutsches Theatre till 1933, when Goebbels personally ordered it to be taken down and burnt. The American Yiddish press was agog at the news of Schildkraut’s tour because he had triumphed in non-Jewish and non-Yiddish theatres and his performance in Yiddish would be a boost for the self-esteem of the diasporic community. However, his interpretation of Shylock, which was the same as in the continental production, left American Jewish critics largely cold. One critic complained that Schildkraut’s Shylock, unlike Adler’s, was not a gentleman and he was sordidly vindictive and mercenary. Besides, Schildkraut’s physical expression was too vigorous and ferocious, and he would rant freely, pushing his Shylock close to burlesque. According to another critic, Schildkraut turned “the Spanish-Oriental Shylock of the time of the Venetian doges into a worthless Jew from the old market’’ and entirely wiped out the little that is picturesque or imposing about the medieval moneylender. Playwright and critic Leon Korbin came to Schildkraut’s rescue, explaining that he could not produce a sympathetic Jew after the Yiddish audience’s choice since he was too much involved with Shakespeare’s original intention that was necessarily anti-semitic. Schildkraut was alive to the objections, and during the 1920 revival of the play he came up with a more restrained and more intensely Jewish Shylock that fared better with the audience. At the moment he is forced to convert, the later Shylock utters the shema yisroel – ‘‘Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.’’ Like Adler, Schildkraut added his own touch to the scene of Shylock’s desolation. As he was desperately looking for his daughter the stage would be left totally empty. His frenzied footsteps and the slamming of doors would be heard from the backstage. He would also suppress with his hand a curse against his daughter that had reached his mouth, and collapse on a bench before his house.
The next major Shylock in America was not in Yiddish, but had a strong Yiddish connection. It was a touring performance in English by Maurice Moscovitch. He was a Russian-born Jew who had started his career in a Yiddish troupe led by Adler and was at that time based in London. He was a star of the East End Yiddish theatre and had a rather cosmopolitan repertoire, although his attempt at playing Shylock was a disaster. The Yiddish audience of London found the courtroom scene to be totally absurd and they roared out in laughter. Later Moscovitch learnt English for the sole purpose of playing Shylock at the West End, and had a triumphant run in 1920 in this role. However, when the production was brought to the Broadway in 1930 the American Jewish critics were more cautious than elated. English critics had already lauded Moscovitch’s Shylock for being closer to a contemporary Polish Jew than an idealized medieval moneylender. He was proud, fierce, cruel in an icy and businesslike fashion, and totally shorn of dignity. The American Jewish critics were wary that this portrayal would touch a raw nerve with their community just as Schildkraut’s Shylock did, and they also feared an upsurge of anti-semitic sentiments. However, the critic for the Yiddish periodical Tog commended Moscovitch for dispensing with the melodramatic tendencies that were so characteristic of the Yiddish stage.
The last major Shylock of the American Yiddish stage was a conscious product of the Holocaust. He appeared not in Shakespeare’s play but a radical reworking of it that was designed to rectify its perceived anti-semitism. The play was named Shylock and His Daughter or Shylock’s Daughter, and it was based on a Hebrew novel by Ibn Zahav entitled Shylock, the Jew of Venice (1943). The play uses as its point of departure Ibn Zahav’s contention that Shakespeare had no first-hand knowledge of Jews and The Merchant of Venice therefore takes the shape of an egregious libel. The role of Shylock for this production was taken by Maurice Schwartz, a Ukrainian-born Jew and the actor-manager of the New York based company, Yiddish Art Theater. Schwartz had earlier essayed the role in 1930 in an unlikely setting, when he presented three scenes in English on the R.K.O. vaudeville circuit. In an unprecedented move, Schwartz had created Shylock as a genteel, sensitive and peace-loving Jew who nevertheless possessed a core of firmness, and he surprised critics by his hold on the otherwise rowdy audience. Schwartz later went one step ahead and opted for a reworking of Shakespeare’s play probably because he agreed with the critics who commented in the wake of Adler’s and Schildkraut’s performances that the original Shylock can never be made totally acceptable to the Jews.
In Shylock and His Daughter therefore Shylock is positioned as the source and arbiter of morality, while the Christian characters are mostly dubious if not downright treacherous. The play takes place in Venice of 1559, where Shylock is an affluent banker living in a state of uneasy peace with his Christian neighbors and associates. Details of anti-semitism, palpably reminiscent of the Holocaust of the immediate past, punctuate the play. It features a detailed account of Pope Paolo the Fourth’s persecution of the Jews, and Shylock is instrumental in saving several fellow-Jews from being burned at the stake. Shylock’s choice of a match for Jessica is the son of a martyred friend who has himself escaped from the Inquisition. Later, Jessica goes to Rome to plead for the release of imprisoned Jews and she visits the dungeons where they are tortured.
In this play, Lorenzo is Shylock’s manager who seduces Jessica and with the help of his wealthy friend Antonio persuades her to embrace Christianity. In this play, Antonio is married to Portia before the action starts and he takes a loan from Shylock to bail out Lorenzo. The clause about the pound of flesh is entered as a frivolous afterthought, but on losing his daughter Shylock is blinded by a fit of vengefulness and he claims the penalty. In order to emphasize this urge as un-Jewish, Ibn Zahav’s novel shows the Jews of Venice excommunicating Shylock for his blood lust. Shylock still persists in his claim but takes his physician along with him to the court. When Portia’s pleading fails and he is allowed his bond, Shylock breaks down and howls, “I cannot spill blood. I am a Jew.” At this moment the news arrives that Jessica on being barred from reconverting has committed suicide. Shylock is found affirming at the end, “Blessed is the true judge.” In retrospect, the play may appear a bit shrill and overdone in its strenuous attempt to counter Shakespeare, but it had an immediate success with the target audience.
For the rest of his career, Schwartz earnestly maintained the polemical stance underpinning the play. In 1959, the year before his death, when he was offered The Merchant of Venice he summarily rejected it as an anti-semitic play. It may be added here that The Merchant was Hitler’s favorite play, but he was unhappy that Jessica after her blissful union with Lorenzo would pollute the Christian blood line – especially when Jewishness is believed to be matrilineally inherited. So he had Jessica shown as Shylock’s illegitimate daughter by a Christian mother, and thus less problematically admissible into the Christian fold (Armstrong 51). Such instances show that Shakespeare’s fabled universality functions no through cut-and-dried formulae but through his openness to appropriation by competing and contingent discourses.
By this time, the Yiddish theatre of New York was a spent force, and in a decade or so it would be completely extinct. The acculturation of the diaspora had entered a phase when Yiddish was no longer commercially viable as a language of theatre. As Joel Berkowitz states, “It seems in retrospect to be easier to cross the bridge from Yiddish to American culture than to return in the other direction—or perhaps even to remember where the bridge was in the ﬁrst place” (230). In such a scenario, Shylock cannot be appropriated with a visceral effect that would be more in keeping with an early immigrant sensibility.
This paper has been trying to suggest that the Yiddish Shylock and the English-speaking Billy Loman represent two types or phases of immigrant experience in the American context, and that these two characters would appeal differently to different generations of Jewish immigrants. The governing fable for the American Jews in the “ethnic” phase would no longer be one of alienation and cultural resistance as embodied by Shylock; it would be one of tension between material aspirations and cultural roots as seen in Willy Loman with his muted or optional religion. It is therefore not surprising that the Jewish critics and playwrights named earlier, who gesture towards a “post-ethnic” temperament, would approach Death of a Salesman as a readily accessible site for the excavation and reappropriation of Jewish immigrant experience in America. This exercise is equivalent to their immigrant forbears’ approach to Shylock in his Yiddish avatars as an instrument for re-summoning and reaffirming their communal identity. At the same time, the extinction of the Yiddish Shylock need not signal a rejection of Shakespeare’s Jew by Jewish Americans. It rather stands for possibilities of approaching the character in ways other than (but not excluding) the urgently identity-seeking and identity-affirming one. The one stance is not necessarily wiser or sounder than the other – they are of a piece with the complexity and unpredictability of Shakespearean reception across the world.
Armstrong, Gareth. Shylock. London: Players’ Account, 1999.
Berkowitz, Joel. Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2002.
Freedman, Samuel G. “Since the Opening Curtain, a Question: Is Willy Loman Jewish?” The New York Times. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/05/19/us/on-religion-since-the-opening-curtain-a-debate-is-willy-loman-jewish.html?_r=0> (accessed 15 September, 2013).
Lim, Shirley Geok-Lin. “Assaying the Gold; or, Contesting the Ground of Asian American Literature.” New Literary History 24 (1993) 147-69.
Miller, Arthur. Timebends: A Life. New York: Harper & Row, 1988.
Novick, Julius. “Death of a Salesman: Deracination and Its Discontents.” American Jewish History 91.1 (2003) 97-107.