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The Yiddish ‘Hamlet’
by [?]

‘And I shall give my good seat to a Schnorrer!’

‘Sh! sh!’ from all parts of the house, like water livening, not killing, a flame. From every side came expostulations in Yiddish and American. This was a free republic; the author of ‘Hamlet’ was no better than anybody else. Goldwater, on the stage, glared at the little poet.

At last a compromise was found. A chair was placed at the back of a packed box. American boxes are constructed for publicity, not privacy, but the other dozen occupants bulked between him and the house. He could see, but he could not be seen. Sullen and mortified he listened contemptuously to the play.

It was, indeed, a strange farrago, this romantic drama with which the vast audience had replaced the Sabbath pieties, the home-keeping ritual of the Ghetto, in their swift transformation to American life. Confined entirely to Jewish characters, it had borrowed much from the heroes and heroines of the Western world, remaining psychologically true only in its minor characters, which were conceived and rendered with wonderful realism by the gifted actors. And this naturalism was shot through with streaks of pure fantasy, so that kangaroos suddenly bounded on in a masque for the edification of a Russian tyrant. But comedy and fantasy alike were subordinated to horror and tragedy: these refugees from the brutality of Russia and Rumania, these inheritors of the wailing melodies of a persecuted synagogue, craved morbidly for gruesomeness and gore. The ‘happy endings’ of Broadway would have spelled bankruptcy here. Players and audience made a large family party–the unfailing result of a stable stock company with the parts always cast in the same mould. And it was almost an impromptu performance. Pinchas, from his proximity to the stage, could hear every word from the prompter’s box, which rose in the centre of the footlights. The Yiddish prompter did not wait till the players ‘dried up’; it was his role to read the whole play ahead of them. ‘Then you are the woman who murdered my mother,’ he would gabble. And the actor, hearing, invented immediately the fit attitude and emphasis, spinning out with elocutionary slowness and passion the raw material supplied to him. No mechanical crossing and recrossing the stage, no punctilious tuition by your stage-manager–all was inspiration and fire. But to Pinchas this hearing of the play twice over–once raw and once cooked–was maddening.

‘The lazy-bones!’ he murmured. ‘Not thus shall they treat my lines. Every syllable must be engraved upon their hearts, or I forbid the curtain to go up. Not that it matters with this fool-dramatist’s words; they are ink-vomit, not literature.’

Another feature of the dialogue jarred upon his literary instinct. Incongruously blended with the Yiddish were elementary American expressions–the first the immigrants would pick up. ‘All right,’ ‘Sure!’ ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Say, how’s the boss?’ ‘Good-bye.’ ‘Not a cent.’ ‘Take the elevated.’ ‘Yup.’ ‘Nup.’ ‘That’s one on you!’ ‘Rubber-neck!’ A continuous fusillade of such phrases stimulated and flattered the audience, pleased to find themselves on such easy terms with the new language. But to Pinchas the idea of peppering his pure Yiddish with such locutions was odious. The Prince of Palestine talking with a twang–how could he permit such an outrage upon his Hebrew Hamlet?

Hardly had the curtain fallen on the act than he darted through the iron door that led from the rear of the box to the stage, jostling the cursing carpenters, and pushed aside by the perspiring principals, on whom the curtain was rising and re-rising in a continuous roar. At last he found himself in the little bureau and dressing-room in which Goldwater was angrily changing his trousers. Kloot, the actor-manager’s factotum, a big-nosed insolent youth, sat on the table beside the telephone, a peaked cap on his head, his legs swinging.

‘Son of a witch! You come and disturb all my house. What do you want?’ cried Goldwater.

‘I want to talk to you about rehearsals.’