Museum of the Yiddish Theatre

   
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The Yiddish Art Theatre
189 Second Avenue, New York, NY
This production opened on October 24, 1940.

"ESTER'KE"
by Aaron Zeitlin, music by Sholom Secunda

 

This review was written by Hillel Rogoff for the Yiddish Forward newspaper, and it appeared in the October 25, 1940 edition. Here is the English translation:


I don't know how much historical truth there is to the legend about this Polish King Kazimierz, who fell in love with a young Jewish girl, the daughter of a bar owner, whom he brought to his palace and made her his queen. It is possible that the legend was completely fabricated or is only partially true. The drama that Aaron Zeitlin built around the legend is at least artistically true and historically based. The main thing in Zeitlin's work is not the drama of the person, Ester'ke, also not the tragedy of Ester'ke's family, but the much bigger, broader drama -- the eternal conflict between the peasants and nobility in Poland, and that it is the Jews who are the main victims. The action of the play occurs in the fourteenth century, however the problem posed by the play has not been solved to this day. That's why the drama for us is as fresh as it is interesting, as if it would have been built in the course of a day.

The love of the king for Ester'ke is purely human. She is young, beautiful and full of life. He is already in his middle years, a weary, disappointed and bitter person. His family life is poisoned with political intrigues. He longs for a romantic love that will make him forget, even for a moment, the difficult, harsh reality in which he lives.

Zeitlin paints the romance between the king and the girl with a romantic eye and with poetic colors. In Ester'ke there comes a struggle for her soul. On the one hand, she admires the splendor and brilliance of the royal palace; on the other hand, she cannot leave her home, her father, her elderly grandmother and her groom-to-be, the yeshiva boy, Gabriel'ke, and not even the country peasants who lie down all day and night in her father's pub. If she would have been able to decide for herself what to do, she would have stayed at home and married Gabriel'ke, though because of his piety he has treated her coldly and in a foreign way. But she is forced to go to the king. She does it with mixed feelings of joy and fear. The tenderness and love with which the king receives her makes her forget her fear and longing for home. She falls in love with the king with the whole romance of a young girl.

In the background of this quiet, poetic romance between the king and Ester'ke, there plays out a great political drama that shakes Poland and brings disaster on the Jews. King Kazimierz wants to create a new Poland, remove the peasant from the swamp of ignorance, poverty and slavery. He wants to develop city industries that would give the peasants the possibility of leaving the village and finding work in a more civilized environment. He knows that in such an undertaking the Jews can help him a lot. He is really looking for their friendship, their support. He loads one Jew into his palace: one of them he makes his treasurer, the overseer of finances. He gives the Jews rights and protects them from hatred and plots.

In his endeavors, the king comes into conflict with the clergy class, the great landowners who live off the toil of the peasants. They tremble because of the economic reforms of the king, because they know that this will weaken their dominion over the peasant and cut into the profits that they squeeze out of this unfortunate, darkened village.

The fighting begins in conflicting palaces and high-ranking government circles. The queen is drawn into the battle. She sympathizes with Kazimierz's enemies because her family interests are the same as theirs. In addition, she has a personal motive. The king had driven her out of his palace twelve years earlier and sent her to a castle in a faraway city. She feels deeply offended as a woman and is upset as a member of the aristocracy.
 

The climax of the battle is reached when the king brings Esther to the palace. And this is no accident. Esther's arrival acts as a spark in the exploding material that has accumulated in previous years. During the time of her exile, the queen did not give up hope that the king would return to the "good way" and bring her back home. But now that he had exchanged her for a yidishke, she tore it completely out of her heart and shut herself in without the burden of his enemies. An obstruction is created by the central priest of the court. The priest, who has been tormenting him all these years for his sins, now also sees that he is "a loser," and instead of continuing to rebuke him, the priest sends his curse onto the King and his beloved.

The princes' leaders lead the uprising, shouting that the king had been bitten by a Jewish girl, and that the Jewish devil has entered the palace. There is a plague in the country from which thousands of peasants are dying. This also falls into the hands of the perpetrator. They tell the peasants that the Jews are to blame for the plunder, that they have poisoned the wells, and that they have dared to do so because they know that they have the protection of the bewitched king. In the battle between the king and the princes, the Jews are the victims. At last the king comes out the conqueror. The leaders of the uprising are killed. The queen is locked back in a castle. The priest of the court is stabbed. But before that happened, thousands of Jews had lost their lives. Esther's entire family is murdered in a cruel way. The only one who is saved in her ex-groom-to-be, Gabriel'ke.

The drama is compiled from a series of scenes --some take place in pubs by Esther's house, some in the King's palace, and some on the country roads. There are poetic scenes, dramatic scenes and quiet, melodic scenes. All are executed intelligently, exaggerating with an artistic taste. Rarely is an image displayed from which one wants to turn a blind eye. I point this out because unfortunately this is not the case with most plays of this kind, even in Schwartz's Art Theatre.

The Jews do wear beards and payot and long sleeves, but they do not look wild, and they behave nicely and pleasantly. The intriguers, the leaders of the conspiracy, the priest of the court and the queen, do not call forth any abomination to themselves. They defend their point of view with good, intelligent language. They behave with weirdness, just as one would expect from people of high nobility. The queen even arouses sympathy for herself, because her situation is really tragic, and when she talks about her sufferings, her criminal and corrupt connections are forgotten for the time being.

Everything in the play is calculated for an intelligent public; the language, the character portrayals, the conception of the motives in this conflict, and the action and the playing of the actors.

All of the roles, from the smallest to the greatest, is performed with artistic responsibility and understanding. In the most difficult and important role, the role of Ester'ke, the young Miriam Riselle stands out. In the first scene, when she is at home with her father, she is carefree and happy ... With her beautiful, noble and graceful face and figure, with her musical voice, she creates not only the type, but also the atmosphere that the moment demands, as in the following scenes when she comes out to play romantic and dramatic moments. There she is not always popular.

Samuel Goldinburg, in the role of the king, is always impressive and persuasive. His makeup is excellent, and in his action there is both the royal pride and the warmth and sympathy for the well-understood people.

Maurice Schwartz is a piece of a puzzle in the play. He plays the role of "Alten Lekh," an old peasant, a Shabbes goy, for the Jewish family in the bar. With the action of the play, the Alter Lekh has less to do, nevertheless one sees him on the stage very, very often, and when he is on the stage more attention is paid to himself than should be, according to his place in the action. I must also say that many times I did not understand what he was talking about. I suspect the role has been a bit "fixed" in order to make it more important than it deserves to be. But whomever listens to the play, Schwartz, as always, sees well. He is a Shabbes goy to the bone.

Purely artistic is Luba Kadison, in the role of the queen. It would be difficult to carry out a better performance of this role. This can similarly be said bout Abraham Teitelbaum in the role of the court priest Baritshko. Both, the queen and the priest, are bad, corrupt types, but thanks to the way they are played, they make an impression as human beings with convictions and strong character. And so they must be. Otherwise, they would not have been able to occupy such important places in the great national drama of their time.

Mark Schweid plays a role that is never seen in modern plays, the role of the court gar. This role belongs to the old, classical works, and it should be played according to the classical pattern. Mark Schweid knows how to do things.

The other larger and smaller roles are well played by Leon Gold, Goldie Lubritsky, Anna Hollander, Lucy German, Izidor Casher, Max Lerner, Misha Fiszon, Morris Krohner, Muni Serebrov, Misha German, Louis Hyman, Anna Appel, Anatol Winogradoff, and Isidore Hollander.

Every scene is completely furnished, and the costumes make an impression of authenticity. Also several fine songs and melodies were sung, which were composed by Sholom Secunda.

 

 

 

 

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