Page 165 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 50

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Only this time, except for his duets with Mirele, Marcus was
upstaged by the comic and criminal antics of a peddler named
Hotsmakh, one of Goldfaden’s most memorable characters. So
too Goldfaden’s Zionist pitch in
which was little more
than a call to a pastoral life on one’s own land, a-la Abraham
Mapu and Elyokum Zunser.
If Yiddish musical theater was a force for the new — inspiring
choir boys and young ladies from good homes to choose a life
on the stage, their pious parents to issue bans on attending the
theater, and the tsarist government to close down the whole
shebang in 1883 — it was just as surely the crucible of a new
folk culture in the making. Taking Purim and weddings as its
points of departure, the Yiddish theater shamelessly mixed high
and low, pathos and parody, even within a single scene. Building
on the repertoire of the new Yiddish folksingers, the Yiddish
operetta made the love lament and lover’s duet a standby of
every play. Besides the duet, another feature of the Goldfaden
operetta (once his troupe grew large enough) was the rousing
march, especially at the beginning and end. This dovetailed
nicely with the Zionist movement to which he paid allegiance.
Like the Zionists, popular Yiddish playwrights raided the an­
cient and medieval past for its hallowed symbols, heroic names,
and exalted moments to project a new sense of nationhood.
And the favorite message, regardless of the setting, the one
that audiences took with them when they left the security of
the shtetl for the uncertainty of Warsaw, Odessa, London, and
New York, was
Got un zayn mishpet iz gerekht,
no matter what,
“God and His judgment are just!”29 Goldfaden did not displace
the theater that came before him; he swallowed it whole. For
the Jews of the New World, Yiddish folk theater began with
Goldfaden and Yiddish “folksongs” were the ones their favorite
actors performed on the stage.
As soon as they arrived on these shores they discovered a
29. From Absalom’s speech in
Act III, Scene 10, Episode 10. Chana
Mlotek traced this line back to Velvl Zbarzher’s song “Der umtsufridener” (“The
Unhappy One”) and ahead to Gilrod and Meyerowitz’s “Got wn zayn mishpet
iz gerekht” (published 1921). See “Velvl Zbarzher Ehrenkrantz,”
Di tsukunft
(February 1984): 54, n. 14; and
Pearls o f Yiddish Song,
p. 234.