Jewish Studies Maurice Schwartz
by
Edna Nahshon
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 May 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199840731-0186

Introduction

The actor-manager Maurice Schwartz (b. 1888–d. 1960) was a towering figure of the modern Yiddish stage. Born Moshe Schwartz in Sudilkov, a small town in the Ukraine, Schwartz came to America in 1901, and within a few years he launched a successful acting career. In 1918 he founded the Yiddish Art Theatre (Yidish Kunst Teater), a New York City-based company that was devoted to the sophisticated production of quality drama in Yiddish. At the time, the idea of a Yiddish art theater was in the air, promoted by the cultural elite of the American Jewish immigrant community, who were dissatisfied with the prevalence of what they termed shund (trash), namely popular escapist melodramas and operettas. Schwartz produced, directed, and starred in most of his productions, his name practically synonymous with that of his company. The Yiddish Art Theatre was widely recognized as a prestigious communal institution. It gained critical acclaim and international renown and, despite the rapid Americanization of the Yiddish-speaking community in the U.S., it managed to remain active (albeit with some hiatuses) until the mid-1950s. Schwartz’s inexhaustible energy, unflagging commitment to his mission, and astute managerial skills made this longevity possible in the face of growing financial and sociological odds. All told, the Yiddish Art Theatre staged nearly two hundred plays. The repertoire included works by major Yiddish playwrights and by major Russian and European dramatists. In the 1930s the repertoire became almost exclusively Jewish in content, offering depictions of the Old World of eastern Europe, plays directly or implicitly related to contemporary concerns, and dramas about Jewish historical personalities and events. Plays based on I. B. Singer’s novels—The Brothers Ashkenazi (1931), The Family Carnovsky (1931), and Yoshe Kalb (1932)—were particularly well received. The latter proved a sensational success and drew unprecedented interest at home and abroad. Schwartz’s productions had reputations as unabashedly theatrical—full of color, movement, emotion, and pathos. This theatricality gained the admiration of many Anglo critics, notably Brooks Atkinson of the New York Times. Schwartz was a gifted character actor. While always the star of his productions, he also surrounded himself with top talent. Notable performers associated with his theater include Ludwig Satz, Jacob Ben-Ami, Celia Adler, Stella Adler, Jacob Buloff, Paul Muni, Bertha Gerstein, and many others. Schwartz also worked with top-notch musical directors and stage designers. His collaboration with Boris Aronson, later one of Broadway’s most celebrated set designers, is particularly striking. A standout experiment was their 1926 revival of Abraham Goldfaden’s musical farce The Tenth Commandment as an avant-garde extravaganza produced for the opening of Schwartz’s new playhouse, an elegant neo-Moorish construction built on Second Avenue and Twelfth Street in New York City. The playhouse is the only surviving Yiddish theater on Second Avenue, an entertainment area that was the nerve center of the American Yiddish theater. Schwartz also had a career in Yiddish films. He starred in four, all based on stage productions produced by his Yiddish Art Theatre: Yisker (1924), Broken Hearts (1926), Uncle Moses (1926), and Tevye (1939). He both directed and cowrote the latter. It is considered his best and most lasting cinematic work. Schwartz also played secondary parts in several less consequential English-language films. Hundreds of articles and reviews on Schwartz and his theatrical productions were published in the Yiddish and English press of the time. However, the only book-length monograph on Schwartz is Bialin’s Moris Shṿarts un der Idisher Ḳunsṭ ṭeaṭer (New York: Farlag Biderman, 1934). Written for a popular readership, it tends toward the hagiographic and, as suggested by its date of publication, covers only part of Schwartz’s career. An excellent source for factual information on Schwartz’s theater work is Volume 3 of Zylbercweig’s Leksikon fun yidishn theater (New York: Farlag Elishevam, 1931), as well as Volume 7, which has remained unpublished. Though there exists no comprehensive volume devoted to Schwartz, several book chapters and essays that focus on particular aspects on his enterprise are available. This bibliography consists of three subsections. Section 1, Books, lists chapters or book sections that discuss the overall career of Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theatre. Section 2 lists Articles that focus on specific productions and on the physical aspects of the Yiddish Art Theatre playhouse. Section 3, Film, is devoted to Schwartz’s Yiddish films, notably Tevye (1939), which has earned special attention because it is based on the play by Sholem Aleichem, whose Tevye stories were the basis for the immensely popular musical Fiddler on the Roof.

Books

The books mentioned here offer comprehensive surveys of the Yiddish stage. Consequently, the chapters cited present over-all portrayals of Schwartz’s theatrical activity and cover his forty-year career on the Yiddish stage. Because of their wide scope and extensive nature, they position his work within the wider context of the various trends of the Yiddish theater in America and the gradual evolution of the artistic tastes and linguistic skills of his audience. Some spotlight such specific aspects of Schwartz’s work as the ideal of an art theater, the repertoire of Schwartz’s theater (notably major stage successes), his collaboration with scenic designers, and his relations with the Hebrew Actors Union.

  • Bernita, Ruth von. How the Wise Men Got to Chelm: The Life and Times of a Yiddish Folk Tradition. New York: New York University, 2016.

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    The author discusses Schwartz’s production of The Wise Men of Chelm (1933), a folk comedy written by Aaron Zeitlin (pp. 11–17).

  • Lifson, David S. The Yiddish Theatre in America. New York: Yoseloff, 1965.

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    Written when many of the Yiddish theater people were alive and could be interviewed, the book surveys the various Yiddish art theaters in America, both amateur and professional. Chapter 9, “Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theatre” (pp. 313–395), is devoted to Schwartz the man, his career as director and producer as well as actor, and his effect on Yiddish theater. The reader is advised to consult the comprehensive index for additional tidbits on Schwartz.

  • Nahshon, Edna. “Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theater Movement.” In New York’s Yiddish Theater: From the Bowery to Broadway. Edited by Edna Nahshon, 150–171. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016.

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    This award-winning book offers a panoramic view of the American Yiddish stage and includes numerous photos. Chapter 5 is devoted to Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theatre. The book was produced in conjunction with the exhibition by the same name held at the Museum of the City of New York in 2016, curated by Edna Nahshon.

  • Nahshon, Edna. “Maurice Schwartz Presents The Dybbuk.” In Dybuk Na pograniczu dwoch swiatow. Edited by Mieczysław Abramowicz, Jan Ciechowicz, and Katarzyna Kręglewska, 157–173. Gdansk, Poland: Muaeum Narodowe w Gdansku, 2017a.

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    In Polish with English translation. A more extensive version in Hebrew (by the same author) also appeared as Al Na Tegarshuni, iyunim khadashim be’Hadybbuk (Tel Aviv: Safra, 2009). Nahshon focuses on the first production of the renowned play in America, which was staged in the wake of its 1920 production in Warsaw and preceded the celebrated 1922 Habima production. Schwartz’s staging of the play is seen as a precursor to Yoshe Kalb, Schwartz’s 1932 mega-hit.

  • Nahshon, Edna. “1947: A Season for Shylocks.” In Wrestling with Shylock: Jewish Responses to The Merchant of Venice. Edited by Edna Nahshon and Michael Shapiro, 140–167. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2017b.

    DOI: 10.1017/9780511845789.008E-mail Citation »

    The essay discusses three productions/adaptations of the Shakespeare play, including Schwartz’ Shylock and His Daughter (1947). An essay devoted entirely to the production by Nahshon appeared in Hebrew (“Talking Back to Shakespeare in Yiddish: Shylock and His Daughter [1947].” Zmanim 99 [2007]: 46–53). The author discusses the 1947 production of Shylock and His Daughter as a post-Holocaust work.

  • Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater. New York: Harper & Row, 1977.

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    The book offers a highly readable history of the Yiddish theater as a global phenomenon. Chapter 7, “The New Repertory,” includes mentions of Schwartz’s participation in the development of literary, intellectually ambitious Yiddish plays. Chapter 10, “Twentieth-Century America,” includes a discussion of Schwartz’s role in the Yiddish theater between 1930 and 1960, particularly his Yiddish Art Theatre. Chapter 13, “Yiddish Theater since the War,” includes some information on Schwartz tours in London, South Africa, and Latin America. Reissued by Syracuse University Press in 1996.

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