Jacob Adler A Life on the Stage

ISBN 13: 9780679413516

A Life on the Stage

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9780679413516: A Life on the Stage
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A rediscovery. A lost document of theatrical history written more than seven decades ago is now translated for the first time into English -- the autobiography of the great Yiddish actor Jacob Adler. It is, as well, a history of the Yiddish theater -- for which Adler himself was almost single-handedly responsible--in Russia, England, and the United States.

"The man's size -- I do not refer to his physique -- imposed a sense of peril," Harold Clurman said of Jacob Adler. "Grandeur always inspires a certain shudder at life's immeasurable mystery and might."

Adler's astonishing career as an actor took him from tsarist Russia in the late 1800s to London, and to New York at the turn of the century, where he was applauded and lionized (he was called Nesher Hagodel, "The Great Eagle") in role after role. We see Adler's powerful and revolutionary portrayal of Shylock; his Yiddish King Lear; his Uriel Acosta, from the Yiddish drama set in Spain under the Spanish Inquisition ("A classic dream, a truly great role . . . My soul was full of Uriel"); his great success in Tolstoy's posthumously discovered play, The Living Corpse.

The only son of an Orthodox Jewish wheat dealer, Adler was taught the Talmud by his rabbi grandfather, and introduced to the stage by his theater-loving uncle. We follow Adler from his school days in Odessa to his youthful boxing career, which lifted him out of anonymity, to his apprenticeship with "a hole-and-corner lawyer," to his chance meeting with a group of Yiddish folksingers whom Adler -- now an official of the Department of Weights and Measures -- brings to Odessa, thereby launching the Yiddish theater in Russia.

We see their first performance before a paying audience, their first production in which a woman appears, their first full-length play, called Schmendrick. And then on to the provinces of Minsk, Vitebsk, and Lodz, playing everywhere and anywhere -- in granaries and stables -- with stowaways who sneak up to the roof to watch between the rafters (as Adler says his lines "Birds in the heaven, tell me, pray, where is my beloved?" he looks up to see hens, roosters, and bearded men peering down at him).

We watch as Adler begins to understand the work of the actor, not to imitate but to play the part as he feels it ("The gifted artist will always give it another nuance because he lives it through in himself, in his temperament, in his life experience"). And always, in the background, the large Russian drama -- the assassination of Tsar Alexander II by the revolutionaries; Alexander III's coming to power and overturning the reforms of his father, denying the Jews due process under the law, confiscating their land, shutting down their schools, outlawing their press. Adler recalls the pogroms of his childhood. And, in his adult life, the mobs destroying the synagogues and houses of study, the thousands trying to escape at the railroad station, being pushed back as Adler and the other actors in their fine clothes are taken for Christians, while old men bend low and cry out to them to "save us from death."

We see Adler forced to leave Russia, immigrating to London, facing poverty and worse, with no place to perform . . . finding a theater in a Whitechapel club, and remaining for seven years, playing first to Russian immigrants, then to London Jews.

And coming to America in 1889, taking over the Union Theatre on Lower Broadway, now embraced by the whole population of the Lower East Side.

We watch as Adler is invited twice by the producer Arthur Hopkins to perform his Shylock on Broadway: the cast would be American; Adler would speak in Yiddish (he refused both times until a friend said, "Do it. You owe it to the Gentiles. Let them see how a Jew plays Shylock"). And finally the building of the Grand Theatre at the Bowery and Canal -- the first house specially built as a Yiddish theater for the more than half a million immigrants who came through Ellis Island from 1905 to 1908.

We follow Adler's passions, his three marriages to dramatic actresses -- only the last, Sara, his equal on the stage -- his many affairs, the lives of his children, his friendships, scandals, and rivalries.

His memoir is a revelation of a man and a world. It is brilliantly translated from the Yiddish with commentary throughout by his granddaughter, Lulla Rosenfeld.

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About the Author:

Lulla Rosenfeld is the author of a history of the Yiddish theater. She lived in New York City until her death in 1999.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

My life . . . what was it? To what can it be likened?        

It is gone now, the thousand-headed monster whose din comes to me nightly through the thin wall of my dressing room -- the monster that for forty years has dared me out into the arena, and whose noise, breathing, odor, have since boyhood unnerved me and sent a fever through my blood. It has departed, leaving only darkness and silence.

The applause is over. The curtain has come down for the last time, and to make sure it will not rise again, a wall of asbestos has descended. The theater is dark . . . only a single glare from the middle of the parquet throws a ghostly light over the loges, balcony, gallery. Something cold and infinitely menacing comes from those silent corners.

I stand in a darkened theater, a sixty-year-old actor with a face stripped of its makeup -- that face with the dark circles under the eyes and the two long creases in the cheeks.

My life . . . what was it? To what can I liken it?

Once more I have won the battle. Once more the thousand-headed creature has been tamed, conquered. Once more it has laughed, wept, sobbed, shouted my name over and over until I showed myself, and the shouts turned into a sea of joyous faces and a hailstorm of applause. So many times this has happened, yet how one still longs for it, thirsts for it! And should the applause one night grow cooler by a thousandth, should I see one face without joy, one pair of hands not wildly applauding, I fall straightaway into melancholia, feel I am no longer needed, and turn away from the ungrateful public, asking myself bitterly what it is they want of me, the murderer, and what more I can give them.

Night after night it has been so. Forty years now it has been so.

My life . . . what was it? To what can I liken it? This time my own tragedy, not a tragedy I have learned. This time, my own Faust.

"Life's but a walking shadow," says Shakespeare's Macbeth, "a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more." A dark thought for every man, but darker still for the actor who has his true existence only in his everlasting duel with the public. For if every man's life is no more than a play, the actor's life is no more than a play within the play.

And what of all the rest? All that took place behind the scenes when he was a man like any other? Was all that, too, a show, an illusion, a tale "full of sound and fury, signifying nothing"?

What was it all for, then, and for what was it needed? What is it that flames up in me each night, dies down, and takes fire again on the morrow? What is it in them that catches that fire and burns with it so fiercely, with such joy?

No, my Shakespeare . . . For me, the Jew, your answer is not enough. My life has been no walking shadow, no brief moment. When I measure it with the measure of my feelings, it has been an eternity, an ocean.

Shall I recross the ocean to the far side?

Shall I revisit the graves of my old joys, my old woes?

Among those graves will I find my answer?

Something About My Family

It is a holiday, a festive gathering with many happy people around a great table. Out of that whole great joyous scene comes a face more full of light, more radiant, than all the shining candles. A woman beautiful as a picture, with beautiful, intelligent eyes and a wonderful smile. This is my mother, Hessye. At her side I see a man, short of stature, not at all handsome, but sympathetic and full of magnetism, for his face is clever, his personality lively and interesting. This is my father, Feivel (Pavel) Abramovich Adler.

Another memory -- a less happy one. My parents are walking in the street, and I am walking behind them. No -- I am not walking. I am being carried in the arms of our meshuris, Elie. (Whether my father was rich at that time and could afford such a person, or whether his business required it, is lost now in the sea of forgetfulness. Enough that out of that sea has appeared the figure of Elie, our meshuris.)

This notable little procession is making its way from our house on Ekaterina Street to the great Richelefskaya. Suddenly we hear screams from a house surrounded by a crowd. The screams are coming from the cellar. From the short answers of the onlookers my parents learn that a pair of horses have run over a child, a little boy, and killed him.

I hear this from my high seat in Elie's arms. Elie takes a notion to go into the cellar and see the dead child. I am carried into the cellar, see a bloodied little body, and hear the agonized shrieks of the family. We leave the cellar, and Elie and my parents do not stop warning me. "You see, Yankele, how careful you must be? And if you do not look after yourself, you too will be run over by horses and killed."

For a long time after that I lived in dread of all horses. Nothing, no dog, no devil, no corpse, terrified me as much as a harmless stationary horse. And whenever I passed that cellar on the way to the Richelefskaya I ran for my life, for it seemed to me I still heard the shrieks of that family overtaken by catastrophe.

In those days poor people moved often. I remember best a certain house in Market Street because of its unusually lively, populous courtyard. Although I was a ben yochid -- an only son -- I had no lack of playmates in this court, where a whole colony of little Jews and little Christians all played together.

Apparently, as time went on I lost my fear of horses, for one day I saw a horse and wagon on the street, the carter some distance off, not thinking of his cart. Instantly I sprang into the wagon, grabbed the reins, and was off down the street at a mad gallop.

Why did I do such a thing? First of all, the ride itself -- where is the little boy who could resist such a ride? Second -- and this was the core of it -- my desire (and there was a badness in it too) to play a trick on the carter, get the better of him. "Aha!" I said to myself. "You are not watching your cart? Now I have you!" I brought down the reins with all my might, the wagon tore down the street, and all this gave me terrific pleasure -- a pleasure even stronger when I looked back and saw the carter running after me and shouting, a whole streetful of people beside him. The incident shows my wildness and recklessness as a child.

In the course of my life I have lived through three pogroms, the first of them in the years of my childhood in Odessa. As it happened, the synagogue and the Greek church were on the same street, and every year at Passover the Greeks beat up the Jews and robbed them.

This first "little pogrom" began with a fearful alarm. Screams filled the air. Jews ran by with torn bloody faces, a murderous mob after them. We were saved only because we lived in the house of Rollya the Greek. I watched it all in horror with my parents and others at the courtyard gate.

That year (it must have been about 1862), the Greeks committed much robbery in Odessa. Jews were mauled and maimed, and one very poor man who sold lemons was beaten to death on the street.

For a long, long time the death of that very poor man was whispered and remembered in our home.

As it has now probably become clear, I was born into a simple, poor, Orthodox home. True, it was in the great city of Odessa, we mingled with Christians, and all around us Russian was spoken. Still, it was a Jewish home, and except for the Russian newspapers, Yiddish was our language.
Our family became more observant and pious when my grandfather, Reb Avremele Fridkus Adler, came to live with us. A handsome old Jew, always in a long coat, always with a book in his hand, he filled the house with cleanliness, belief, and peace. Not only my parents but the whole family revered him.

With my father often away on business and my mother occupied with household tasks and other cares, it was he who took me to school, taught me how to read, how to pray, how to make a blessing. He loved me very much, and sometimes when I had been up to mischief, it was the zayde who saved me some well-deserved blows. "Don't beat the child!" he would say. And he would take me away from my angry, excited father.

My grandmother was a fine old Yidene. She had a shop where she sold remnants, but on Friday night she would lock up, come home with the keys around her waist, and make preparations for the Sabbath. Bathed and dressed in their best, she and my mother would set the heavy brass candlesticks on both sides of the great round table, and then stand together and bless the candles. And it was a picture for an artist to see these two beautiful women, one old, the other still young and blooming, each with a hand shielding her face, standing over the little tongues of flame and whispering something -- something so quiet and secret that not a word could I hear, only a sigh and sometimes a tear that dropped to the pure white tablecloth.

With my grandmother I lived well. I spent hours rummaging about in her remnant shop, and as I grew older I was useful to her, too. Every year in August a fair was held in the suburb of Peresyp, and the old lady went there for her galanteries: scarves, kerchiefs, gloves, and other trifles of that kind. I would go with her to the fair and mark down her purchases and expenses. The whole great open-air tumult, the crowds, the chaffering, the delicious things to eat -- all this delighted my childish heart, and in all the world I could imagine nothing finer than the fair at Peresyp.

In spite of our poverty, our house was a happy one. There were joyful holidays, lusty songs around the table, shining radiant faces.

The house was always full of people. On Friday night my father would come home from the synagogue bringing with him a poor man, a maggid, or perhaps a Jew from the Land of Israel. And he and this new friend would sit talking, talki...

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