The Yiddish ‘Hamlet’ by Israel Zangwill

Story type: Literature


The little poet sat in the East-side cafe looking six feet high. Melchitsedek Pinchas–by dint of a five-pound note from Sir Asher Aaronsberg in acknowledgement of the dedication to him of the poet’s ‘Songs of Zion’–had carried his genius to the great new Jewry across the Atlantic. He had arrived in New York only that very March, and already a crowd of votaries hung upon his lips and paid for all that entered them. Again had the saying been verified that a prophet is nowhere without honour save in his own country. The play that had vainly plucked at the stage-doors of the Yiddish Theatres of Europe had already been accepted by the leading Yiddish theatre of New York. At least there were several Yiddish Theatres, each claiming this supreme position, but the poet felt that the production of his play at Goldwater’s Theatre settled the question among them.

‘It is the greatest play of the generation,’ he told the young socialists and free-thinkers who sat around him this Friday evening imbibing chocolate. ‘It will be translated into every tongue.’ He had passed with a characteristic bound from satisfaction with the Ghetto triumph into cosmopolitan anticipations. ‘See,’ he added, ‘my initials make M.P.–Master Playwright.’

‘Also Mud Pusher,’ murmured from the next table Ostrovsky, the socialist leader, who found himself almost deserted for the new lion. ‘Who is this uncombed bunco-steerer?’

‘He calls himself the “sweet singer in Israel,”‘ contemptuously replied Ostrovsky’s remaining parasite.

‘But look here, Pinchas,’ interposed Benjamin Tuch, another of the displaced demigods, a politician with a delusion that he swayed Presidential elections by his prestige in Brooklyn. ‘You said the other day that your initials made “Messianic Poet.”‘

‘And don’t they?’ inquired the poet, his Dantesque, if dingy, face flushing spiritedly. ‘You call yourself a leader, and you don’t know your A B C!’

There was a laugh, and Benjamin Tuch scowled.

‘They can’t stand for everything,’ he said.

‘No–they can’t stand for “Bowery Tough,”‘ admitted Pinchas; and the table roared again, partly at the rapidity with which this linguistic genius had picked up the local slang. ‘But as our pious lunatics think there are many meanings in every letter of the Torah,’ went on the pleased poet, ‘so there are meanings innumerable in every letter of my name. If I am playwright as well as poet, was not Shakespeare both also?’

‘You wouldn’t class yourself with a low-down barnstormer like Shakespeare?’ said Tuch sarcastically.

‘My superiority to Shakespeare I leave to others to discover,’ replied the poet seriously, and with unexpected modesty. ‘I discovered it for myself in writing this very play; but I cannot expect the world to admit it till the play is produced.’

‘How did you come to find it out yourself?’ asked Witberg, the young violinist, who was never sure whether he was guying the poet or sitting at his feet.

‘It happened most naturally–order me another cup of chocolate, Witberg. You see, when Iselmann was touring with his Yiddish troupe through Galicia, he had the idea of acquainting the Jewish masses with “Hamlet,” and he asked me to make the Yiddish translation, as one great poet translating another–and some of those almond-cakes, Witberg! Well, I started on the job, and then of course the discovery was inevitable. The play, which I had not read since my youth, and then only in a mediocre Hebrew version, appeared unspeakably childish in places. Take, for example, the Ghost–these almond-cakes are as stale as sermons; command me a cream-tart, Witberg. What was I saying?’

‘The Ghost,’ murmured a dozen voices.

‘Ah, yes–now, how can a ghost affect a modern audience which no longer believes in ghosts?’

‘That is true.’ The table was visibly stimulated, as though the chocolate had turned into champagne. The word ‘modern’ stirred the souls of these refugees from the old Ghettos like a trumpet; unbelief, if only in ghosts, was oxygen to the prisoners of a tradition of three thousand years. The poet perceived his moment. He laid a black-nailed finger impressively on the right side of his nose.

‘I translated Shakespeare–yes, but into modern terms. The Ghost vanished–Hamlet’s tragedy remained only the internal incapacity of the thinker for the lower activity of action.’

The men of action pricked up their ears.

‘The higher activity, you mean,’ corrected Ostrovsky.

‘Thought,’ said Benjamin Tuch, ‘has no value till it is translated into action.’

‘Exactly; you’ve got to work it up,’ said Colonel Klopsky, who had large ranching and mining interests out West, and, with his florid personality, looked entirely out of place in these old haunts of his.

Schtuss (nonsense)!’ said the poet disrespectfully. ‘Acts are only soldiers. Thought is the general.’

Witberg demurred. ‘It isn’t much use thinking about playing the violin, Pinchas.’

‘My friend,’ said the poet, ‘the thinker in music is the man who writes your solos. His thoughts exist whether you play them or not–and independently of your false notes. But you performers are all alike–I have no doubt the leading man who plays my Hamlet will imagine his is the higher activity. But woe be to those fellows if they change a syllable!’

Your Hamlet?’ sneered Ostrovsky. ‘Since when?’

‘Since I re-created him for the modern world, without tinsel and pasteboard; since I conceived him in fire and bore him in agony; since–even the cream of this tart is sour–since I carried him to and fro in my pocket, as a young kangaroo is carried in the pouch of the mother.’

‘Then Iselmann did not produce it?’ asked the Heathen Journalist, who haunted the East Side for copy, and pronounced Pinchas ‘Pin-cuss.’

‘No, I changed his name to Eselmann, the Donkey-man. For I had hardly read him ten lines before he brayed out, “Where is the Ghost?” “The Ghost?” I said. “I have laid him. He cannot walk on the modern stage.” Eselmann tore his hair. “But it is for the Ghost I had him translated. Our Yiddish audiences love a ghost.” “They love your acting, too,” I replied witheringly. “But I am not here to consider the tastes of the mob.” Oh, I gave the Donkey-man a piece of my mind.’

‘But he didn’t take the piece!’ jested Grunbitz, who in Poland had been a Badchan (marriage-jester), and was now a Zionist editor.

‘Bah! These managers are all men-of-the-earth! Once, in my days of obscurity, I was made to put a besom into the piece, and it swept all my genius off the boards. Ah, the donkey-men! But I am glad Eselmann gave me my “Hamlet” back, for before giving it to Goldwater I made it even more subtle. No vulgar nonsense of fencing and poison at the end–a pure mental tragedy, for in life the soul alone counts. No–this cream is just as sour as the other–my play will be the internal tragedy of the thinker.’

‘The internal tragedy of the thinker is indigestion,’ laughed the ex-Badchan; ‘you’d better be more careful with the cream-tarts.’

The Heathen Journalist broke through the laughter. ‘Strikes me, Pin-cuss, you’re giving us Hamlet without the Prince of Denmark.’

‘Better than the Prince of Denmark without Hamlet,’ retorted the poet, cramming cream-tart down his throat in great ugly mouthfuls; ‘that is how he is usually played. In my version the Prince of Denmark indeed vanishes, for Hamlet is a Hebrew and the Prince of Palestine.’

‘You have made him a Hebrew?’ cried Mieses, a pimply young poet.

‘If he is to be the ideal thinker, let him belong to the nation of thinkers,’ said Pinchas. ‘In fact, the play is virtually an autobiography.’

‘And do you call it “Hamlet” still?’ asked the Heathen Journalist, producing his notebook, for he began to see his way to a Sunday scoop.

‘Why not? True, it is virtually a new work. But Shakespeare borrowed his story from an old play called “Hamlet,” and treated it to suit himself; why, therefore, should I not treat Shakespeare as it suits me. The cat eats the rat, and the dog bites the cat.’ He laughed his sniggering laugh. ‘If I were to call it by another name, some learned fool would point out it was stolen from Shakespeare, whereas at present it challenges comparison.’

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‘But you discovered Shakespeare cannot sustain the comparison,’ said Benjamin Tuch, winking at the company.

‘Only as the mediaeval astrologer is inferior to the astronomer of to-day,’ the poet explained with placid modesty. ‘The muddle-headedness of Shakespeare’s ideas–which, incidentally, is the cause of the muddle of Hamlet’s character–has given way to the clear vision of the modern. How could Shakespeare really describe the thinker? The Elizabethans could not think. They were like our rabbis.’

The unexpected digression into contemporary satire made the whole cafe laugh. Gradually other atoms had drifted toward the new magnet. From the remotest corners eyes strayed and ears were pricked up. Pinchas was indeed a figure of mark, with somebody else’s frock-coat on his meagre person, his hair flowing like a dark cascade under a broad-brimmed dusky hat, and his sombre face aglow with genius and cocksureness.

‘Why should you expect thought from a rabbi?’ said Grunbitz. ‘You don’t expect truth from a tradesman. Besides, only youth thinks.’

‘That is well said,’ approved Pinchas. ‘He who is ever thinking never grows old. I shall die young, like all whom the gods love. Waiter, give Mr. Grunbitz a cup of chocolate.’

‘Thank you–but I don’t care for any.’

‘You cannot refuse–you will pain Witberg,’ said the poet simply.

In the great city around them men jumped on and off electric cars, whizzed up and down lifts, hustled through lobbies, hulloed through telephones, tore open telegrams, dictated to clacking typists, filled life with sound and flurry, with the bustle of the markets and the chink of the eternal dollar; while here, serenely smoking and sipping, ruffled only by the breezes of argument, leisurely as the philosophers in the colonnades of Athens, the talkers of the Ghetto, earnest as their forefathers before the great folios of the Talmud, made an Oriental oasis amid the simoom whirl of the Occident. And the Heathen Journalist who had discovered it felt, as so often before, that here alone in this arid, mushroom New York was antiquity, was restfulness, was romanticism; here was the Latin Quarter of the city of the Goths.

Encouraged by the Master’s good humour, young Mieses timidly exhibited his new verses. Pinchas read the manuscript aloud to the confusion of the blushing boy.

‘But it is full of genius!’ he cried in genuine astonishment. ‘I might have written it myself, except that it is so unequal–a mixture of diamonds and paste, like all Hebrew literature.’ He indicated with flawless taste the good lines, not knowing they were one and all unconscious reproductions from the English masterpieces Mieses had borrowed from the library in the Educational Alliance. The acolytes listened respectfully, and the beardless, blotchy-faced Mieses began to take importance in their eyes and to betray the importance he held in his own.

‘Perhaps I, too, shall write a play one day,’ he said. ‘My “M,” too, makes “Master.”‘

‘It may be that you are destined to wear my mantle,’ said Pinchas graciously.

Mieses looked involuntarily at the ill-fitting frock-coat.

Pinchas rose. ‘And now, Mieses, you must give me a car-fare. I have to go and talk to the manager about rehearsals. One must superintend the actors one’s self–these pumpkin-heads are capable of any crime, even of altering one’s best phrases.’

Radsikoff smiled. He had sat still in his corner, this most prolific of Ghetto dramatists, his big, furrowed forehead supported on his fist, a huge, odorous cigar in his mouth.

‘I suppose Goldwater plays “Hamlet,”‘ he said.

‘We have not discussed it yet,’ said Pinchas airily.

Radsikoff smiled again. ‘Oh, he’ll pull through–so long as Mrs. Goldwater doesn’t play “Ophelia.”‘

‘She play “Ophelia”! She would not dream of such a thing. She is a saucy soubrette; she belongs to vaudeville.’

‘All right. I have warned you.’

‘You don’t think there is really a danger!’ Pinchas was pale and shaking.

‘The Yiddish stage is so moral. Husbands and wives, unfortunately, live and play together,’ said the old dramatist drily.

‘I’ll drown her truly before I let her play my “Ophelia,”‘ said the poet venomously.

Radsikoff shrugged his shoulders and dropped into American. ‘Well, it’s up to you.’

‘The minx!’ Pinchas shook his fist at the air. ‘But I’ll manage her. If the worst comes to the worst, I’ll make love to her.’

The poet’s sublime confidence in his charms was too much even for his admirers. The mental juxtaposition of the seedy poet and the piquant actress in her frills and furbelows set the whole cafe rocking with laughter. Pinchas took it as a tribute to his ingenious method of drawing the soubrette-serpent’s fangs. He grinned placidly.

‘And when is your play coming on?’ asked Radsikoff.

‘After Passover,’ replied Pinchas, beginning to button his frock-coat against the outer cold. If only to oust this ‘Ophelia,’ he must be at the theatre instanter.

‘Has Goldwater given you a contract?’

‘I am a poet, not a lawyer,’ said Pinchas proudly. ‘Parchments are for Philistines; honest men build on the word.’

‘After all, it comes to the same thing–with Goldwater,’ said Radsikoff drily. ‘But he’s no worse than the others; I’ve never yet found the contract any manager couldn’t slip out of. I’ve never yet met the playwright that the manager couldn’t dodge.’ Radsikoff, indeed, divided his time between devising plays and devising contracts. Every experience but suggested fresh clauses. He regarded Pinchas with commiseration rather than jealousy. ‘I shall come to your first night,’ he added.

‘It will be a tribute which the audience will appreciate,’ said Pinchas. ‘I am thinking that if I had one of these aromatic cigars I too might offer a burnt-offering unto the Lord.’

There was general laughter at the blasphemy, for the Sabbath, with its privation of fire, had long since begun.

‘Try taking instead of thinking,’ laughed the playwright, pushing forward his case. ‘Action is greater than Thought.’

‘No, no, no!’ Pinchas protested, as he fumbled for the finest cigar. ‘Wait till you see my play–you must all come–I will send you all boxes. Then you will learn that Thought is greater than Action–that Thought is the greatest thing in the world.’


Sucking voluptuously at Radsikoff’s cigar, Pinchas plunged from the steam-heated, cheerful cafe into the raw, unlovely street, still hummocked with an ancient, uncleared snowfall. He did not take the horse-car which runs in this quarter; he was reserving the five cents for a spirituous nightcap. His journey was slow, for a side street that he had to pass through was, like nearly all the side streets of the great city, an abomination of desolation, a tempestuous sea of frozen, dirty snow, impassable by all save pedestrians, and scarcely by them. Pinchas was glad of his cane; an alpenstock would not have been superfluous. But the theatre with its brilliantly-lighted lobby and flamboyant posters restored his spirits; the curtain was already up, and a packed mass filled the house from roof to floor. Rebuffed by the janitors, Pinchas haughtily asked for Goldwater. Goldwater was on the stage, and could not see him. But nothing could down the poet, whose head seemed to swell till it touched the gallery. This great theatre was his, this mighty audience his to melt and fire.

‘I will await him in a box,’ he said.

‘There’s no room,’ said the usher.

Pinchas threw up his head. ‘I am the author of “Hamlet”!’

The usher winced as at a blow. All his life he had heard vaguely of ‘Hamlet’–as a great play that was acted on Broadway. And now here was the author himself! All the instinctive snobbery of the Ghetto toward the grand world was excited. And yet this seedy figure conflicted painfully with his ideas of the uptown type. But perhaps all dramatists were alike. Pinchas was bowed forward.

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In another instant the theatre was in an uproar. A man in a comfortable fauteuil had been asked to accommodate the distinguished stranger and had refused.

‘I pay my dollar–what for shall I go?’

‘But it is the author of “Hamlet”!’

‘My money is as good as his.’

‘But he doesn’t pay.’

‘And I shall give my good seat to a Schnorrer!’

‘Sh! sh!’ from all parts of the house, like water livening, not killing, a flame. From every side came expostulations in Yiddish and American. This was a free republic; the author of ‘Hamlet’ was no better than anybody else. Goldwater, on the stage, glared at the little poet.

At last a compromise was found. A chair was placed at the back of a packed box. American boxes are constructed for publicity, not privacy, but the other dozen occupants bulked between him and the house. He could see, but he could not be seen. Sullen and mortified he listened contemptuously to the play.

It was, indeed, a strange farrago, this romantic drama with which the vast audience had replaced the Sabbath pieties, the home-keeping ritual of the Ghetto, in their swift transformation to American life. Confined entirely to Jewish characters, it had borrowed much from the heroes and heroines of the Western world, remaining psychologically true only in its minor characters, which were conceived and rendered with wonderful realism by the gifted actors. And this naturalism was shot through with streaks of pure fantasy, so that kangaroos suddenly bounded on in a masque for the edification of a Russian tyrant. But comedy and fantasy alike were subordinated to horror and tragedy: these refugees from the brutality of Russia and Rumania, these inheritors of the wailing melodies of a persecuted synagogue, craved morbidly for gruesomeness and gore. The ‘happy endings’ of Broadway would have spelled bankruptcy here. Players and audience made a large family party–the unfailing result of a stable stock company with the parts always cast in the same mould. And it was almost an impromptu performance. Pinchas, from his proximity to the stage, could hear every word from the prompter’s box, which rose in the centre of the footlights. The Yiddish prompter did not wait till the players ‘dried up’; it was his role to read the whole play ahead of them. ‘Then you are the woman who murdered my mother,’ he would gabble. And the actor, hearing, invented immediately the fit attitude and emphasis, spinning out with elocutionary slowness and passion the raw material supplied to him. No mechanical crossing and recrossing the stage, no punctilious tuition by your stage-manager–all was inspiration and fire. But to Pinchas this hearing of the play twice over–once raw and once cooked–was maddening.

‘The lazy-bones!’ he murmured. ‘Not thus shall they treat my lines. Every syllable must be engraved upon their hearts, or I forbid the curtain to go up. Not that it matters with this fool-dramatist’s words; they are ink-vomit, not literature.’

Another feature of the dialogue jarred upon his literary instinct. Incongruously blended with the Yiddish were elementary American expressions–the first the immigrants would pick up. ‘All right,’ ‘Sure!’ ‘Yes, sir,’ ‘Say, how’s the boss?’ ‘Good-bye.’ ‘Not a cent.’ ‘Take the elevated.’ ‘Yup.’ ‘Nup.’ ‘That’s one on you!’ ‘Rubber-neck!’ A continuous fusillade of such phrases stimulated and flattered the audience, pleased to find themselves on such easy terms with the new language. But to Pinchas the idea of peppering his pure Yiddish with such locutions was odious. The Prince of Palestine talking with a twang–how could he permit such an outrage upon his Hebrew Hamlet?

Hardly had the curtain fallen on the act than he darted through the iron door that led from the rear of the box to the stage, jostling the cursing carpenters, and pushed aside by the perspiring principals, on whom the curtain was rising and re-rising in a continuous roar. At last he found himself in the little bureau and dressing-room in which Goldwater was angrily changing his trousers. Kloot, the actor-manager’s factotum, a big-nosed insolent youth, sat on the table beside the telephone, a peaked cap on his head, his legs swinging.

‘Son of a witch! You come and disturb all my house. What do you want?’ cried Goldwater.

‘I want to talk to you about rehearsals.’

‘I told you I would let you know when rehearsals began.’

‘But you forgot to take my address.’

‘As if I don’t know where to find you!’

Kloot grinned. ‘Pinchas gets drinks from all the cafe,’ he put in.

‘They drink to the health of “Hamlet,”‘ said Pinchas proudly.

‘All right; Kloot’s gotten your address. Good-evening.’

‘But when will it be? I must know.’

‘We can’t fix it to a day. There’s plenty of money in this piece yet.’

‘Money–bah! But merit?’

‘You fellows are as jealous as the devil.’

‘Me jealous of kangaroos! In Central Park you see giraffes–and tortoises too. Central Park has more talent than this scribbler of yours.’

‘I doubt if there’s a bigger peacock than here,’ murmured Goldwater.

‘I’ll write you about rehearsals,’ said Kloot, winking at Goldwater.

‘But I must know weeks ahead–I may go lecturing. The great continent calls for me. In Chicago, in Cincinnati—-‘

‘Go, by all means,’ said Goldwater. ‘We can do without you.’

‘Do without me? A nice mess you will make of it! I must teach you how to say every line.’

‘Teach me?‘ Goldwater could hardly believe his ears.

Pinchas wavered. ‘I–I mean the company. I will show them the accent–the gesture. I’m a great stage-manager as well as a great poet. There shall be no more prompter.’

‘Indeed!’ Goldwater raised the eyebrow he was pencilling. ‘And how are you going to get on without a prompter?’

‘Very simple–a month’s rehearsals.’

Goldwater turned an apoplectic hue deeper than his rouge.

Kloot broke in impishly: ‘It is very good of you to give us a month of your valuable time.’

But Goldwater was too irate for irony. ‘A month!’ he gasped at last. ‘I could put on six melodramas in a month.’

‘But “Hamlet” is not a melodrama!’ said Pinchas, shocked.

‘Quite so; there is not half the scenery. It’s the scenery that takes time rehearsing, not the scenes.’

The poet was now as purple as the player. ‘You would profane my divine work by gabbling through it with your pack of parrots!’

‘Here, just you come off your perch!’ said Kloot. ‘You’ve written the piece; we do the rest.’ Kloot, though only nineteen and at a few dollars a week, had a fine, careless equality not only with the whole world, but even with his employer. He was now, to his amaze, confronted by a superior.

‘Silence, impudent-face! You are not talking to Radsikoff. I am a Poet, and I demand my rights.’

Kloot was silent from sheer surprise.

Goldwater was similarly impressed. ‘What rights?’ he observed more mildly. ‘You’ve had your twenty dollars. And that was too much.’

‘Too much! Twenty dollars for the masterpiece of the twentieth century!’

‘In the twenty-first century you shall have twenty-one dollars,’ said Kloot, recovering.

‘Make mock as you please,’ replied the poet superbly. ‘I shall be living in the fifty-first century even. Poets never die–though, alas! they have to live. Twenty dollars too much, indeed! It is not a dollar a century for the run of the play.’

‘Very well,’ said Goldwater grimly. ‘Give them back. We return your play.’

This time it was the poet that was disconcerted. ‘No, no, Goldwater–I must not disappoint my printer. I have promised him the twenty dollars to print my Hebrew “Selections from Nietzsche.”‘

‘You take your manuscript and give me my money,’ said Goldwater implacably.

‘Exchange would be a robbery. I will not rob you. Keep your bargain. See, here is the printer’s letter.’ He dragged from a tail-pocket a mass of motley manuscripts and yellow letters, and laid them beside the telephone as if to search among them.

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Goldwater waved a repudiating hand.

‘Be not a fool-man, Goldwater.’ The poet’s carneying forefinger was laid on his nose. ‘I and you are the only two people in New York who serve the poetic drama–I by writing, you by producing.’

Goldwater still shook his head, albeit a whit appeased by the flattery.

Kloot replied for him: ‘Your manuscript shall be returned to you by the first dustcart.’

Pinchas disregarded the youth. ‘But I am willing you shall have only a fortnight’s rehearsals. I believe in you, Goldwater. I have always said, “The only genius on the Yiddish stage is Goldwater.” Klostermann–bah! He produces not so badly, but act? My grandmother’s hen has a better stage presence. And there is Davidoff–a voice like a frog and a walk like a spider. And these charlatans I only heard of when I came to New York. But you, Goldwater–your fame has blown across the Atlantic, over the Carpathians. I journeyed from Cracow expressly to collaborate with you.’

‘Then why do you spoil it all?’ asked the mollified manager.

‘It is my anxiety that Europe shall not be disappointed in you. Let us talk of the cast.’

‘It is so early yet.’

‘”The early bird catches the worm.”‘

‘But all our worms are caught,’ grinned Kloot. ‘We keep our talent pinned on the premises.’

‘I know, I know,’ said Pinchas, paling. He saw Mrs. Goldwater tripping on saucily as Ophelia.

‘But we don’t give all our talent to one play,’ the manager reminded him.

‘No, of course not,’ said Pinchas, with a breath of hope.

‘We have to use all our people by turns. We divide our forces. With myself as Hamlet you will have a cast that should satisfy any author.’

‘Do I not know it?’ cried Pinchas. ‘Were you but to say your lines, leaving all the others to be read by the prompter, the house would be spellbound, like Moses when he saw the burning bush.’

‘That being so,’ said Goldwater, ‘you couldn’t expect to have my wife in the same cast.’

‘No, indeed,’ said Pinchas enthusiastically. ‘Two such tragic geniuses would confuse and distract, like the sun and the moon shining together.’

Goldwater coughed. ‘But Ophelia is really a small part,’ he murmured.

‘It is,’ Pinchas acquiesced. ‘Your wife’s tragic powers could only be displayed in “Hamlet” if, like another equally celebrated actress, she appeared as the Prince of Palestine himself.’

‘Heaven forbid my wife should so lower herself!’ said Goldwater. ‘A decent Jewish housewife cannot appear in breeches.’

‘That is what makes it impossible,’ assented Pinchas. ‘And there is no other part worthy of Mrs. Goldwater.’

‘It may be she would sacrifice herself,’ said the manager musingly.

‘And who am I that I should ask her to sacrifice herself?’ replied the poet modestly.

‘Fanny won’t sacrifice Ophelia,’ Kloot observed drily to his chief.

‘You hear?’ said Goldwater, as quick as lightning. ‘My wife will not sacrifice Ophelia by leaving her to a minor player. She thinks only of the play. It is very noble of her.’

‘But she has worked so hard,’ pleaded the poet desperately, ‘she needs a rest.’

‘My wife never spares herself.’

Pinchas lost his head. ‘But she might spare Ophelia,’ he groaned.

‘What do you mean?’ cried Goldwater gruffly. ‘My wife will honour you by playing Ophelia. That is ended.’ He waved the make-up brush in his hand.

‘No, it is not ended,’ said Pinchas desperately. ‘Your wife is a comic actress—-‘

‘You just admitted she was tragic—-‘

‘It is heartbreaking to see her in tragedy,’ said Pinchas, burning his boats. ‘She skips and jumps. Rather would I give Ophelia to one of your kangaroos!’

‘You low-down monkey!’ Goldwater almost flung his brush into the poet’s face. ‘You compare my wife to a kangaroo! Take your filthy manuscript and begone where the pepper grows.’

‘Well, Fanny would be rather funny as Ophelia,’ put in Kloot pacifyingly.

‘And to make your wife ridiculous as Ophelia,’ added Pinchas eagerly, ‘you would rob the world of your Hamlet!’

‘I can get plenty of Hamlets. Any scribbler can translate Shakespeare.’

‘Perhaps, but who can surpass Shakespeare? Who can make him intelligible to the modern soul?’

‘Mr. Goldwater,’ cried the call-boy, with the patness of a reply.

The irate manager bustled out, not sorry to escape with his dignity and so cheap a masterpiece. Kloot was left, with swinging legs, dominating the situation. In idle curiosity and with the simplicity of perfectly bad manners, he took up the poet’s papers and letters and perused them. As there were scraps of verse amid the mass, Pinchas let him read on unrebuked.

‘You will talk to him, Kloot,’ he pleaded at last. ‘You will save Ophelia?’

The big-nosed youth looked up from his impertinent inquisition. ‘Rely on me, if I have to play her myself.’

‘But that will be still worse,’ said Pinchas seriously.

Kloot grinned. ‘How do you know? You’ve never seen me act?’

The poet laid his finger beseechingly on his nose. ‘You will not spoil my play, you will get me a maidenly Ophelia? I and you are the only two men in New York who understand how to cast a play.’

‘You leave it to me,’ said Kloot; ‘I have a wife of my own.’

‘What!’ shrieked Pinchas.

‘Don’t be alarmed–I’ll coach her. She’s just the age for the part. Mrs. Goldwater might be her mother.’

‘But can she make the audience cry?’

‘You bet; a regular onion of an Ophelia.’

‘But I must see her rehearse, then I can decide.’

‘Of course.’

‘And you will seek me in the cafe when rehearsals begin?’

‘That goes without saying.’

The poet looked cunning. ‘But don’t you say without going.’

‘How can we rehearse without you? You shouldn’t have worried the boss. We’ll call you, even if it’s the middle of the night.’

The poet jumped at Kloot’s hand and kissed it.

‘Protector of poets!’ he cried ecstatically. ‘And you will see that they do not mutilate my play; you will not suffer a single hair of my poesy to be harmed?’

‘Not a hair shall be cut,’ said Kloot solemnly.

Pinchas kissed his hand again. ‘Ah, I and you are the only two men in New York who understand how to treat poesy.’

‘Sure!’ Kloot snatched his hand away. ‘Good-bye.’

Pinchas lingered, gathering up his papers. ‘And you will see it is not adulterated with American. In Zion they do not say “Sure” or “Lend me a nickel.”‘

‘I guess not,’ said Kloot. ‘Good-bye.’

‘All the same, you might lend me a nickel for car-fare.’

Kloot thought his departure cheap at five cents. He handed it over.

The poet went. An instant afterwards the door reopened and his head reappeared, the nose adorned with a pleading forefinger.

‘You promise me all this?’

‘Haven’t I promised?’

‘But swear to me.’

‘Will you go–if I swear?’

‘Yup,’ said Pinchas, airing his American.

‘And you won’t come back till rehearsals begin?’


‘Then I swear–on my father’s and mother’s life!’

Pinchas departed gleefully, not knowing that Kloot was an orphan.


On the very verge of Passover, Pinchas, lying in bed at noon with a cigarette in his mouth, was reading his morning paper by candle-light; for he tenanted one of those innumerable dark rooms which should make New York the photographer’s paradise. The yellow glow illumined his prophetic and unshaven countenance, agitated by grimaces and sniffs, as he critically perused the paragraphs whose Hebrew letters served as the channel for the mongrel Yiddish and American dialect, in which ‘congressman,’ ‘sweater,’ and such-like crudities of to-day had all the outer Oriental robing of the Old Testament. Suddenly a strange gurgle spluttered through the cigarette smoke. He read the announcement again.

The Yiddish ‘Hamlet’ was to be the Passover production at Goldwater’s Theatre. The author was the world-renowned poet Melchitsedek Pinchas, and the music was by Ignatz Levitsky, the world-famous composer.

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‘World-famous composer, indeed!’ cried Pinchas to his garret walls. ‘Who ever heard of Ignatz Levitsky? And who wants his music? The tragedy of a thinker needs no caterwauling of violins. Does Goldwater imagine I have written a melodrama? At most will I permit an overture–or the cymbals shall clash as I take my call.’

He leaped out of bed. Even greater than his irritation at this intrusion of Levitsky was his joyful indignation at the imminence of his play. The dogs! The liars! The first night was almost at hand, and no sign had been vouchsafed to him. He had been true to his promise; he had kept away from the theatre. But Goldwater! But Kloot! Ah, the godless gambler with his parents’ lives! With such ghouls hovering around the Hebrew ‘Hamlet,’ who could say how the masterpiece had been mangled? Line upon line had probably been cut; nay, who knew that a whole scene had not been shorn away, perhaps to give more time for that miserable music!

He flung himself into his clothes and, taking his cane, hurried off to the theatre, breathless and breakfastless. Orchestral music vibrated through the lobby and almost killed his pleasure in the placards of the Yiddish ‘Hamlet.’ He gave but a moment to absorbing the great capital letters of his name; a dash at a swinging-door, and he faced a glowing, crowded stage at the end of a gloomy hall. Goldwater, limelit, occupied the centre of the boards. Hamlet trod the battlements of the tower of David, and gazed on the cupolas and minarets of Jerusalem.

With a raucous cry, half anger, half ecstasy, Pinchas galloped toward the fiddling and banging orchestra. A harmless sweeper in his path was herself swept aside. But her fallen broom tripped up the runner. He fell with an echoing clamour, to which his clattering cane contributed, and clouds of dust arose and gathered where erst had stood a poet.

Goldwater stopped dead. ‘Can’t you sweep quietly?’ he thundered terribly through the music.

Ignatz Levitsky tapped his baton, and the orchestra paused.

‘It is I, the author!’ said Pinchas, struggling up through clouds like some pagan deity.

Hamlet’s face grew as inky as his cloak. ‘And what do you want?’

‘What do I want?’ repeated Pinchas, in sheer amaze.

Kloot, in his peaked cap, emerged from the wings munching a sandwich.

‘Sure, there’s Shakespeare!’ he said. ‘I’ve just been round to the cafe to find you. Got this sandwich there.’

‘But this–this isn’t the first rehearsal,’ stammered Pinchas, a jot appeased.

‘The first dress-rehearsal,’ Kloot replied reassuringly. ‘We don’t trouble authors with the rough work. They stroll in and put on the polish. Won’t you come on the stage?’

Unable to repress a grin of happiness, Pinchas stumbled through the dim parterre, barking his shins at almost every step. Arrived at the orchestra, he found himself confronted by a chasm. He wheeled to the left, to where the stage-box, shrouded in brown holland, loomed ghostly.

‘No,’ said Kloot, ‘that door’s got stuck. You must come round by the stage-door.’

Pinchas retraced his footsteps, barking the smooth remainder of his shins. He allowed himself a palpitating pause before the lobby posters. His blood chilled. Not only was Ignatz Levitsky starred in equal type, but another name stood out larger than either:

Ophelia .. .. .. Fanny Goldwater.

His wrath reflaming, he hurried round to the stage-door. He pushed it open, but a gruff voice inquired his business, and a burly figure blocked his way.

‘I am the author,’ he said with quiet dignity.

‘Authors ain’t admitted,’ was the simple reply.

‘But Goldwater awaits me,’ the poet protested.

‘I guess not. Mr. Kloot’s orders. Can’t have authors monkeying around here.’ As he spoke Goldwater’s voice rose from the neighbouring stage in an operatic melody, and reduced Pinchas’s brain to chaos. A despairing sense of strange plots and treasons swept over him. He ran back to the lobby. The doors had been bolted. He beat against them with his cane and his fists and his toes till a tall policeman persuaded him that home was better than a martyr’s cell.

Life remained an unintelligible nightmare for poor Pinchas till the first night–and the third act–of the Yiddish ‘Hamlet.’ He had reconciled himself to his extrusion from rehearsals. ‘They fear I fire Ophelia,’ he told the cafe.

But a final blow awaited him. No ticket reached him for the premiere; the boxes he had promised the cafe did not materialize, and the necessity of avoiding that haunt of the invited cost him several meals. But that he himself should be refused when he tried to pass in ‘on his face’–that authors should be admitted neither at the stage door nor at the public door–this had not occurred to him as within the possibilities of even theatrical humanity.

‘Pigs! Pigs! Pigs!’ he shrieked into the box office. ‘You and Goldwater and Kloot! Pigs! Pigs! Pigs! I have indeed cast my pearls before swine. But I will not be beholden to them–I will buy a ticket.’

‘We’re sold out,’ said the box-office man, adding recklessly: ‘Get a move on you; other people want to buy seats.’

‘You can’t keep me out! It’s conspiracy!’ He darted within, but was hustled as rapidly without. He ran back to the stage-door, and hurled himself against the burly figure. He rebounded from it into the side-walk, and the stage-door closed upon his humiliation. He was left cursing in choice Hebrew. It was like the maledictions in Deuteronomy, only brought up to date by dynamite explosions and automobile accidents. Wearying of the waste of an extensive vocabulary upon a blank door, Pinchas returned to the front. The lobby was deserted save for a few strangers; his play had begun. And he–he, the god who moved all this machinery–he, whose divine fire was warming all that great house, must pace out here in the cold and dark, not even permitted to loiter in the corridors! But for the rumblings of applause that reached him he could hardly have endured the situation.

Suddenly an idea struck him. He hied to the nearest drug-store, and entering the telephone cabinet rang up Goldwater.

‘Hello, there!’ came the voice of Kloot. ‘Who are you?’

Pinchas had a vivid vision of the big-nosed youth, in his peaked cap, sitting on the table by the telephone, swinging his legs; but he replied craftily, in a disguised voice: ‘You, Goldwater?’

‘No; Goldwater’s on the stage.’

Pinchas groaned. But at that very instant Goldwater’s voice returned to the bureau, ejaculating complacently: ‘They’re loving it, Kloot; they’re swallowing it like ice-cream soda.’

Pinchas tingled with pleasure, but all Kloot replied was: ‘You’re wanted on the ‘phone.’

‘Hello!’ called Goldwater.

‘Hello!’ replied Pinchas in his natural voice. ‘May a sudden death smite you! May the curtain fall on a gibbering epileptic!’

‘Can’t hear!’ said Goldwater. ‘Speak plainer.’

‘I will speak plainer, swine-head! Never shall a work of mine defile itself in your dirty dollar-factory. I spit on you!’ He spat viciously into the telephone disk. ‘Your father was a Meshummad (apostate), and your mother—-‘

But Goldwater had cut off the connection. Pinchas finished for his own satisfaction: ‘An Irish fire-woman.’

‘That was worth ten cents,’ he muttered, as he strode out into the night. And patrolling the front of the theatre again, or leaning on his cane as on a sword, he was warmed by the thought that his venom had pierced through all the actor-manager’s defences.

At last a change came over the nightmare. Striding from the envied, illuminated Within appeared the Heathen Journalist, note-book in hand. At sight of the author he shied. ‘Must skedaddle, Pin-cuss,’ he said apologetically, ‘if we’re to get anything into to-morrow’s paper. Your people are so durned slow–nearly eleven, and only two acts over. You’ll have to brisk ’em up a bit. Good-bye.’

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He shook the poet’s hand and was off. With an inspiration Pinchas gave chase. He caught the Journalist just boarding a car.

‘Got your theatre ticket?’ he panted.

‘What for?’

‘Give it me.’

The Journalist fumbled in his waistcoat pocket, and threw him a crumpled fragment. ‘What in thunder—-‘ he began. And then, to Pinchas’s relief, the car removed the querist.

For the moment the poet was feeling only the indignity of the position, and the Heathen Journalist as trumpeter of his wrongs and avenger of the Muses had not occurred to him. He smoothed out the magic scrap, and was inside the suffocating, close-packed theatre before the disconcerted janitor could meet the new situation. Pinchas found the vacated journalistic chair in the stage-box; he was installed therein before the managerial minions arrived on ejection bent.

‘This is my house!’ screamed Pinchas. ‘I stay here! Let me be–swine, serpents, Behemoth!’

‘Sh!’ came in a shower from every quarter. ‘Sit down there! Turn him out!’ The curtain was going up; Pinchas was saved.

But only for more gruesome torture. The third act began. Hamlet collogued with the Queen. The poet pricked up his ears. Whose language was this? Certainly not Shakespeare’s or his superior’s. Angels and ministers of grace defend him! this was only the illiterate jargon of the hack playwright, with its peppering of the phrases of Hester Street. ‘You have too many dead flies on you,’ Hamlet’s mother told him. ‘You’ll get left.’ But the nightmare thickened. Hamlet and his mother opened their mouths and sang. Their songs were light and gay, and held encore verses to reward the enthusiastic. The actors, like the audience, were leisurely; here midnight and the closure were not synonymous. When there were no more encore verses, Ignatz Levitsky would turn to the audience and bow in acknowledgment of the compliment. Pinchas’s eyes were orbs straining at their sockets; froth gathered on his lips.

Mrs. Goldwater bounded on, fantastically mad, her songs set to comic airs. The great house received her in the same comic spirit. Instead of rue and rosemary she carried a rustling green Lulov–the palm-branch of the Feast of Tabernacles–and shook it piously toward every corner of the compass. At each shake the audience rolled about in spasms of merriment. A moment later a white gliding figure, moving to the measure of the cake-walk, keyed up the laughter to hysteria. It was the Ghost appearing to frighten Ophelia. His sepulchral bass notes mingled with her terror-stricken soprano.

This was the last straw. The Ghost–the Ghost that he had laid forever, the Ghost that made melodrama of this tragedy of the thinker–was risen again, and cake-walking!

Unperceived in the general convulsion and cachinnation, Pinchas leaped to his feet, and, seeing scarlet, bounded through the iron door and made for the stage. But a hand was extended in the nick of time–the hand he had kissed–and Pinchas was drawn back by the collar.

‘You don’t take your call yet,’ said the unruffled Kloot.

‘Let me go! I must speak to the people. They must learn the truth. They think me, Melchitsedek Pinchas, guilty of this tohu-bohu! My sun will set. I shall be laughed at from the Hudson to the Jordan.’

‘Hush! Hush! You are interrupting the poesy.’

‘Who has drawn and quartered my play? Speak!’

‘I’ve only arranged it for the stage,’ said Kloot, unabashed.

‘You!’ gasped the poet.

‘You said I and you are the only two men who understand how to treat poesy.’

‘You understand push-carts, not poesy!’ hissed the poet. ‘You conspire to keep me out of the theatre–I will summons you!’

‘We had to keep all authors out. Suppose Shakespeare had turned up and complained of you.’

‘Shakespeare would have been only too grateful.’

‘Hush! The boss is going on.’

From the opposite wing Hamlet was indeed advancing. Pinchas made a wild plunge forward, but Kloot’s grasp on his collar was still carefully firm.

‘Who’s mutilating the poesy now?’ Kloot frowned angrily from under his peaked cap. ‘You’ll spoil the scene.’

‘Peace, liar! You promised me your wife for Ophelia!’

Kloot’s frown relaxed into a smile. ‘Sure! The first wife I get you shall have.’

Pinchas gnashed his teeth. Goldwater’s voice rose in a joyous roulade.

‘I think you owe me a car-fare,’ said Kloot soothingly.

Pinchas waved the rejoinder aside with his cane. ‘Why does Hamlet sing?’ he demanded fiercely.

‘Because it’s Passover,’ said Kloot. ‘You are a “greener” in New York, otherwise you would know that it is a tradition to have musical plays on Passover. Our audiences wouldn’t stand for any other. You’re such an unreasonable cuss! Why else did we take your “Hamlet” for a Passover play?’

‘But “Hamlet” isn’t a musical play.’

‘Yes, it is! How about Ophelia’s songs? That was what decided us. Of course they needed eking out.’

‘But “Hamlet” is a tragedy!’ gasped Pinchas.

‘Sure!’ said Kloot cheerfully. ‘They all die at the end. Our audiences would go away miserable if they didn’t. You wait till they’re dead, then you shall take your call.’

‘Take my call, for your play!’

‘There’s quite a lot of your lines left, if you listen carefully. Only you don’t understand stage technique. Oh, I’m not grumbling; we’re quite satisfied. The idea of adapting “Hamlet” for the Yiddish stage is yours, and it’s worth every cent we paid.’

A storm of applause gave point to the speaker’s words, and removed the last partition between the poet’s great mind and momentary madness. What! here was that ape of a Goldwater positively wallowing in admiration, while he, the mighty poet, had been cast into outer darkness and his work mocked and crucified! He put forth all his might, like Samson amid the Philistines, and leaving his coat-collar in Kloot’s hand, he plunged into the circle of light. Goldwater’s amazed face turned to meet him.

‘Cutter of lines!’ The poet’s cane slashed across Hamlet’s right cheek near the right eye. ‘Perverter of poesy!’ It slashed across the left cheek near the left eye.

The Prince of Palestine received each swish with a yell of pain and fear, and the ever-ready Kloot dropped the curtain on the tragic scene.

Such hubbub and hullabaloo as rose on both sides of the curtain! Yet in the end the poet escaped scot-free. Goldwater was a coward, Kloot a sage. The same prudence that had led Kloot to exclude authors, saved him from magnifying their importance by police squabbles. Besides, a clever lawyer might prove the exclusion illegal. What was done was done. The dignity of the hero of a hundred dramas was best served by private beefsteaks and a rumoured version, irrefutable save in a court of law. It was bad enough that the Heathen Journalist should supply so graphic a picture of the midnight melodrama, coloured even more highly than Goldwater’s eyes. Kloot had been glad that the Journalist had left before the episode; but when he saw the account he wished the scribe had stayed.

‘He won’t play Hamlet with that pair of shiners,’ Pinchas prophesied early the next morning to the supping cafe.

Radsikoff beamed and refilled Pinchas’s glass with champagne. He had carried out his promise of assisting at the premiere, and was now paying for the poet’s supper.

‘You’re the first playwright Goldwater hasn’t managed to dodge,’ he chuckled.

‘Ah!’ said the poet meditatively. ‘Action is greater than Thought. Action is the greatest thing in the world.’

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