I wish I could say I hated it, but I didn’t. It was an enjoyable-enough afternoon at the theater; the songs were snappy and well-performed, the actors were solid – some of them quite good. The set and costumes looked like about what you’d expect from a Fiddler-influenced musical theater presentation – though I thought the lighting was actually quite artful and at times striking and beautiful.
But mostly what I experienced was profound cognitive dissonance. Having left the Jewish world for years and now returning to it with considerable life experience and some sense of distance, I find this romanticization of the past bizarre and unsettling. Not only that, my mind reels at the magnitude of the collective delusion, the manufactured nostalgia and homogenized re-imagining of what was certainly a horrible, horrible world filled with poverty, disease and violence. It is as if August Wilson had written a happy musical adaptation of Roots.
The story of Gimpel Tam is bleak and horrible – a simpleton, like Chauncey Gardener – is relentlessly mocked, teased and tormented by all the inhabitants of his town. When is grandfather and sole protector dies, an unscrupulous matchmaker deludes Gimpel – now a baker – into marrying the town whore who proceeds to upbraid and berate him endlessly while sleeping around and bearing four daughters and two sons, all by different men. Gimpel supports her and the kids, even as she refuses to consummate the marriage, even as he finds her in flagrante delicto on multiple occasions. He divorces her, feels lonely and takes her back, all the time believing her lies that she is faithful and the children are his. On her deathbed she confesses that she deluded him and, broken, he returns to his bakery where a devil coaxes him to piss in the dough to get revenge. The ghost of his wife – blackened and charred by the torments of the afterlife – comes back and urges him not to transgress for fear of what awaits. He refrains from pissing in the dough and lives a little while longer. Soon he dies, to be reunited with his whore wife in the afterlife. I guess to suffer at her hand some more.
This is not happy, musical stuff. This is the stuff that Woyzeck is made of. And Isaac Bashevis Singer was not a Disney author – he was known for writing dark, difficult, morally complicated tales. He was influenced by Knut Hamsun for cryin’ out loud! Singer’s work is literature and deserves to be staged as such – even if in a music-theater form, maybe something a little edgier, darker and more sophisticated? Maybe a little more, oh, contemporary?
I don’t think the issue is Yiddish. Audiences are used to watching shows in different languages – and there’s something about Yiddish and the fact that is, in so many ways, a language of ghosts, that makes listening to it surreal and captivating. It would be interesting to hear it without the stereotypical inflections, spoken in more regular cadences.
I was glad I went and saw the show – not for what it was, though it was enjoyable in its own way. No, I was glad I went because of what it could have been. Maybe it is a matter of distance, maybe a matter of assumptions. The Old World of the Jews was a darker, scarier, more complicated, bleak and nuanced place than it is generally portrayed. And the literature, stories and religious life that came from people who lived that experience deserves more thoughtful consideration.
On a not-totally-but-kind-of-related note, I went to see the movie Let The Right One In – which has got to be one of the best vampire movies of recent vintage. Dark, twisted and ominous, it works as horror film and as exploration of the metaphor of vampirism, the conflation of love and need, the desperation of loneliness, the yearning for power… all kinds of stuff. Good film – go check it out.