Jewish theatre—plays about and usually by Jews—enters the twenty-first century with a long and distinguished history. To keep this vibrant tradition alive, the National Foundation for Jewish Culture established the New Play Commissions in Jewish Theatre in 1994. The commissions are awarded in an annual competition. Their goal is to help emerging and established dramatists develop new works in collaboration with a wide variety of theatres. Since its inception, the New Play Commissions has contributed support to more than seventy-five professional productions, staged readings, and workshops.
This anthology brings together nine commissioned plays that have gone on to full production. Ellen Schiff and Michael Posnick have selected works that reflect many of the historical and social forces that have shaped contemporary Jewish experience and defined Jewish identity—among them, surviving the Holocaust, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and the lives of newcomers in America, Israel, and Argentina. Following a foreword by Theodore Bikel, the editors provide introductory explanations of the New Play Commissions and an overview of Jewish theatre. The playwrights comment on the genesis of their work and its production history.
This big book pursues a number of ambitions. First and foremost, it illustrates the success of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture's annual New Play Commissions in Jewish Theatre project. Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays testifies to the value of the commissions. As one recipient put it, "Without seed money, there wouldn't be any new plays." Second, in representing the accomplishments of both new and established dramatists, the collection demonstrates the variety of their plays and, of equal significance, the range of theatres that cultivate new work. The book's enterprise does not stop there. This volume forcefully demonstrates what the term "Jewish theatre" has come to mean. The expanded definition often comes as a surprise.
Jewish theatre (sans quotation marks) entered the twenty-first century with all the vigor and aplomb appropriate to a well-established entity. Growing steadily on roots nourished by nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Yiddish theatre, it has acquired, over the last century, an impressive international repertoire. Jewish theatre lacks just one thing: a universally understood definition. It is hard for it to get out of the formidable shadow of its Yiddish antecedents—and there is no reason why it should. Jewish theatre includes Yiddish; how could it not? But although the Yiddish stage lives on in, for example, New York, Montreal, and Buenos Aires, it has for decades now no longer been the only show in town. Since the 1960s with the work of such playwrights as Paddy Chayefsky, Herb Gardner, and Neil Simon, we in America especially have witnessed a markedly proliferating efflorescence of drama about Jews written and presented in the vernacular. (A phenomenon already apparent in the 19-teens in the work of Montague Glass and Aaron Hoffman.) Hence, the term "Jewish theatre" has rightly come to denote all drama and production to which Jews, Jewish history, or the Jewish experience are central.
Jewish plays are written and produced in the language of every country where Jews live. They are widely and routinely produced for general audiences in theatres of every size. That very prevalence may contribute to the issue of definition. Plays by and about Jews have become so mainstream and popular (think Brighton Beach Memoirs or Driving Miss Daisy), their ethnic particularity attracts little special attention. Contemporary Jewish theatrical creativity reflects the profile of Jews in today's liberal, multicultural societies.
Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays addresses another lingering misperception: the notion that all Jewish plays are about family. This is not to deny that family figures prominently in the repertoire. For instance, the plots of Donald Margulies' adaptation of God of Vengeance and Jennifer Maisel's The Last Seder are rooted in familial problems which clamor for attention with equally compelling issues: moral reckoning and societal prejudices in God of Vengeance, the ravages of age and illness and the pain of having to pronounce Dayenu for the end of a treasured ritual observance in The Last Seder, and unconventional lifestyles in both works.
Complexities of this nature figure in a number of recent Jewish plays. In America the stage has come to reflect the chronology and all the prevailing concerns of Jewish life with striking faithfulness and accuracy. A retrospective glance at the twentieth-century repertoire mirrors the confluence of forces that have molded the Jewish experience and shaped Jewish identity in this country and abroad. Plays about immigration, acculturation, and "making it" in America have been succeeded on stage by works that could only have been imagined since the second half of the century's transformative history.
The Holocaust and the Jewish state have acquired huge and recurring presence in all contemporary Jewish art. The Shoah, a subject until recently treated more commonly in European drama, has become increasingly the subject of American plays, sometimes casting its dreadful shadow on scripts about apparently unrelated matters. As two of the works here indicate, the problems of survival have viral endurance. Jeffrey Sweet's The Action against Sol Schumann dramatizes the impossibility of rewriting the past and the painful insufficiencies of trying to make amends, or even explaining their necessity. Sweet's play also includes a subject that, unlike the Shoah itself, is very much a part of contemporary American Jewish life: the experience of children of survivors. Motti Lerner's Exile in Jerusalem recounts the plight of a woman who escaped the maelstrom, only to search in vain for an elusive identity in Israel. The Jewish state itself is the focus of drama that transcends the sweet appreciations of early works, like Milk and Honey, to treat such thorny issues as the coexistence of Jews and Arabs, the subject of Marilyn Felt's Asher's Command.
The plays in this collection represent the ease with which Jewish art crosses borders and languages. A novel in Hebrew (David Grossman's See Under: Love) and a Yiddish classic (Sholom Asch's God of Vengeance) travel gracefully onto the English-language stage, as does A Certain Raquel, based on the Spanish translation of letters written in Yiddish by a Polish woman caught up in the white slave trade in Argentina. The Jewish theatre acknowledges the towering presence of its Yiddish heritage in Elise Thoron's The Green Violin, which pays homage to Solomon Mikhoels, the great actor of the Soviet State Yiddish Theatre. Ari Roth's Life in Refusal conflates issues of Jewish and national identities as a disaffected American Jew, whose job takes her to Russia, is drawn irresistibly to helping refuseniks emigrate.
While these widely varied plays delight on the page, they are meant to be appreciated fully in the venue for which they are written, the theatre. As Michael Posnick explains elsewhere in these pages, all these scripts grew out of the collaboration of their authors with a gamut of the creative people who run theatres and bring drama to life. The range of "greenhouse" theatre companies represented here is noteworthy. They span the country, from San Francisco (A Traveling Jewish Theater, See: Under Love) to Madison, New Jersey (The Playwrights Theatre, The Last Seder). Some of the houses are illustrious (New Haven's Long Wharf Theatre Company, God of Vengeance), Chicago's Victory Gardens Theater (The Action against Sol Schumann); others, less well known. Yet the Jewish Ensemble Theatre of West Bloomfield, Michigan, sent Exile in Jerusalem on its way to productions at the Williamstown Theatre Festival, and in Vienna, Stuttgart, and Ramat-Gan, while Asher's Command, developed at the Rainbow Theatre in Stamford, Connecticut, subsequently appeared in Boston, San Diego, Sanibel, Edinburgh, and London.
Perhaps Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays' most ambitious aim is to suggest with its nine-course tasting menu the abundance and rich variety of the new Jewish repertoire. We hope this selection whets the appetite of readers, theatres, and audiences. And serves as a forshspayz to feasts just waiting to be served and savored.
"Mainstream readers are encouraged to visit the drama bookshelf to locate this intelligent, probing collection filled with vivid examples of how dramatic literature can humanize moral and social dilemmas by embodying them in the personal irritations and intimacies of daily life."
"Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays is a refreshing collection. It refreshes our understanding of contemporary Jewish theatre. The plays are authentic, challenging, and inspiring."
—Leonard Nimoy, film and television actor
"This collection of plays is remarkable for its truthful, open-minded, and nonstereotypical depictions of Jewish life."
—Daryl Roth, producer of five Pulitzer Prize-winning plays, including Proof and Wit, as well as Tony Kushner's Caroline, or Change, and member of the board of directors of the Lincoln Center Theater, the Sundance Institute, and the LAByrinth Theater Company
"Nine Contemporary Jewish Plays offers abundant proof that Jewish theatre is not limited to revivals, but is a field being tilled by many varied and diversely talented playwrights."
—Isaiah Sheffer, Artistic Director of Symphony Space and producer of National Public Radio's Selected Shorts