YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  ANGELS ON EARTH                                                 

ANGELS ON EARTH1, by Chone Gottesfeld

(Yiddish: Malokhim oyf der erd)



“This ingenious and extremely hilarious comedy might take for its text the following verses from the Bible: 'And it came to pass, when men began to multiply on the face of the earth, and daughters were born unto them, that the sons of God saw the daughters of men that they were fair; and they took them wives. . . .

The Nephilim were in the earth in those days, and also after that, when the sons of God came in unto the daughters of men, and they bore them children' (Gen. vi. 1-2, 4). But this comedy is more than a sermon on what happens to angels when they are exposed to the charms of the daughters of Eve and the wicked ways of the sons of Adam. If ever a play held 'the mirror up to nature' and showed 'the very age and body of the time his form and pressure,' the present play does it. And it does so with infectious humor and without once indulging in the deadly vice of preaching."

"Angels on Earth" was staged by and at the Yiddish Art Theatre, on Broadway and Twenty-Eighth Street, New York City, on 3 December 1929. The play is a "Hell and Earth comedy" with a prologue, seven scenes and an epilogue. It was written by Chuno Gottesfeld, with incidental music by George Tueller. The play was directed by Maurice Schwartz; settings and costumes were by Boris Aronson; the dances were arranged by Charles Adler.

photo: Playwright Chone Gottesfeld.

Along with Maurice Schwartz, the cast included (in alphabetical order): Judith Abarbanel, Bina Abramowitz, Stella Adler, Anna Appel, Boris Auerbach, Biltchinsky, Sonia Cutler, Lazar Freed, Saul Fruchter, Berta Gerstin, Michael Gibson, Samuel Goldenburg, H. Green, Joseph Greenberg, Guriloff, Jacob Mestel, Jacob Nader, Samuel Paturzhanzky, Petchanick, Gershon Rubin, Mark Schweid, Pincus Sherman, Morris Strassberg, Louis Weisberg, John Wexley, Hyman Wolkoff and Boaz Young.

Dancers, cabaret guests, stock buyers, guests in the theatre, etc., were played by the students of the Dramatic School of the Yiddish Art Theatre: Sohn, Beltchinsky, Sheron, Lieberman, Fruchter, Tolant, Petchanick, Auerbach, Fogel, Bear, Abramsky, London, Glickman, Guriloff, Rich, Leber, Halperin, Futogen, Einbinder, Young, Field, Schneider, Nader, Itzkowitz, Brenner, Spiegel.

So, here is the synopsis of Gottesfeld's "Angels on Earth". Time -- The Present. A lapse of six months between the fourth and fifth scenes.

The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated within parentheses:



Dr. Mars (Mark Schweid) gives a public demonstration of a new invention of his, an extraordinary radio apparatus which makes it possible for inhabitants of the earth to observe what is going on in the other world, and in particular to see and hear their departed ones. Being in good humor because his wife has just presented him with twins, he is willing to let the audience survey the other world for less than the regular rates. On getting enough customers he proceeds with the demonstration, and in a trice we are transported to the other world -- naturally to Hell, the only place persons of our sinful age may expect to go when they die.

Hell is no longer what it used to be. It has been modernized. Gone are the traditional horrors of Hades; instead of being tortured, those consigned to the infernal regions nowadays enjoy every pleasure imaginable. The old become young, the ugly beautiful, the poor rich, and life is an endless round of enjoyment. The dead eat and drink and dance and play all kinds of games and make love to their hearts' content; they sleep forty-two hours a day; they attend shows, concerts, baseball games, prize fights, debates, lectures --the only torture left in Hell -- and listen to the radio, which brings them not only the music of the spheres, but also of the earth. Why, they even have "Jewish Hour" down there. For these startling innovations in Hell the credit is due to two angels, Shamsiel (Maurice Schwartz/Lazar Freed) and Zafziel (Samuel Goldenburg/Jacob Mestel), who also provide the endless entertainments.

The first scene is a beauty parlor. Here we see Grandma (Bina Abramowitz), who when alive used to sell pickles on the lower East Side, stylishly dressed and having her nails manicured by a young girl (Sonia Cutler), who charges nothing for her services. And when Grandma departs, the manicurist's sweetheart (John Wexley) enters and soon shows us that he has not forgotten the earthly ways of a man with a maid.

The scene now shifts to one of Hell's innumerable amusement halls, each built to accommodate ten persons. The first to arrive are Moses (Morris Strassberg) and Israel (Pincus Sherman). When the ushers (Hyman Wolkoff and Biltchinsky) ask them for their tickets, they indignantly remind them that they have perpetually reserved seats. Presently they are joined by a fresh arrival from New York (Joseph Greenberg), where he was a customer peddler. His chief vice while on earth, he confesses to Moses and Israel, was making love to housewives in order to get them to buy his wares. Mr. and Mrs. Soskin (Michael Gibson and Anna Appel) enter next. Mr. Soskin recognizes the peddler as one who back on earth once offered to elope with her, if only she would buy a vacuum cleaner from him. The peddler fears her husband's wrath, but in the new Hell husbands are not jealous. Grandma arrives, leaning on the arm of her escort, a dashing young fellow.

Music begins to play, whereupon the peddler proceeds to eat a sandwich, as he used to do on similar occasions back in New York. Mendel Flam (Jacob Mestel), the stage manager, appears and in preposterously stilted language announces the program of the entertainment. First comes a ballet from Goldfaden's musical comedy, "The Tenth Commandment," as produced by Maurice Schwartz. Then Sarah Bernhardt appears in a scene from Gordin's "Mirele Efros." Snatches of the "Jewish Hour" of Station WMCK are heard next, but the audience does not seem to care for the fare that hour offers. Thereupon Flam introduces Hell's most popular stage artists, Shamsiel and Zafziel. The angels sing a duet and then proceed to address the audience. They recite the many reforms they have introduced whereby Hell has become a most delightful place, and enjoin all present not to reveal this fact to their living relatives when they appear to them in dreams, lest the earth be overrun with sin. At this point the speakers are interrupted by a telephone message from the archangel Gabriel, who commands them to get ready at once to fly to the earth and repair to New York. The earth, and especially New York, is full of sin, and they must try to reform it. Shamsiel and Zafziel beg to be excused from so disagreeable a mission, but neither their pleas nor Grandma's threats to go on a hunger strike are of any avail. Thereupon the two angels fly to the earth in an airplane. 



The home of Milk (Gershon Rubin), an insurance agent. We see him and his friend Water (Lazar Freed/Mark Schweid), the proprietor of a cafeteria, eating sandwiches. This is all they have to eat as their wives, Fannie (Berta Gerstin) and Annie (Stella Adler) respectively, are too busy attending bridge parties, automobile and dog shows to do any cooking. The two husbands bewail their lot, which has lately been aggravated by the intrusion into their lives of two strange men, the one a teacher of singing and the other a piano teacher, named respectively Fiddle (Maurice Schwartz) and Lyric (Samuel Goldenburg/Lazar Freed) (who are none other than Shamsiel and Zafziel in human guise). Fannie and Annie dote on these men who Milk and Water keep on urging each other to put a stop to so scandalous a situation and to assert their rights as husbands. Milk, true to type, does not overlook the main chance, and between commiserations tries to sell Water an insurance policy. Water agrees to take out one if Milk will drive Fiddle out of his house and promises on his part to do the same to Lyric. Exit Water and enter Fannie. Milk, whose name bespeaks his courage, tells Fannie that Water has just told him he had ejected Lyric from his home. Fannie is all indignation and reviles her husband when he ventures to defend his friend.

Milk leaves for the barber shop. As he goes out, Annie enters and eyes him angrily, her husband having told her that Milk had just driven Fiddle out of his house. She and Annie compare notes and suspect that their husbands are up to something. Annie leaves, and presently Fiddle enters and inquires after the whereabouts of Milk, he and Lyric having always exhorted Fannie and Annie not to permit their husbands to go out alone. He feels reassured when he learns that Milk has gone for a shave. But his composure soon forsakes him when Fannie begins to make overtures to him and he declares that a man ought to shave himself. He heaves a sigh of relief when Milk returns. The latter insults Fiddle, which causes Fannie to fly into a rage. Fiddle defends Milk, which leads Fannie to upbraid her husband all the more for offending so good a man. Milk is implacable and shouts that either Fiddle will leave the house or he will do so himself. Fiddle is ready to go, whereupon Fannie threatens to commit suicide. Milk knows she is bluffing, but Fiddle promises not to go away. Thereupon Milk leaves the house in disgust.

Annie and Lyric enter and Annie tells of a similar scene between her and her husband which likewise ended in the latter leaving her. While the two enamored women exchange confidences, the angels in disguise, fearing lest they succumb to the temptations of the flesh and share the fate of the fallen angels, the Nephilim, vow never to leave each other, as two are stronger than one. For further strength they chant the angels hymn. Milk and Water come in and make peace overtures to their wives, but the latter declare that they will father go to work than go back to their prosaic husbands: Milk and Water leave, this time for good, it being understood that they are to divorce their wives. After a whispered conference Fiddle and Lyric tell. Fannie and Annie that they need not go to work. Instead, they, the two angels, will give up their music and become factory workers, support Fannie and Annie, and set up a home where the four of them will live together.


Fannie and Annie, like the Canadians Mounted, got their men. Having been divorced by their husbands, they married Fiddle and Lyric respectively. But to their chagrin, their new husbands, who in every other respect are all one could desire, do not in one vital respect behave after the manner of husbands. In short, the marriage in each case has not been consummated. As a last resort they try to awaken their husbands' interest by arousing their jealousy. Accordingly, they invite for dinner at their home Lucus (Izidor Casher) and Hammer (Louis Weisberg), two butter and egg men from Washington, D.C., with whom they have struck up an acquaintance at Rockaway. In their husbands' presence Fannie and Annie "neck" with their guests, but the moment Fiddle and Lyric step out to fetch some beer at the neighborhood speakeasy, they become staid and frigid. This leads Lucus and Hammer to suspect that they are being made the victims of a badger game and various complications follow. But finally the misunderstanding is cleared up and all sit down amicably to dinner.


Fiddle and Lyric arc alone in their bedroom, for in fulfillment of their vow never to leave each other's side, they sleep together. Fiddle sighs because Fannie and Annie are still out with Lucus and Hammer, though it is now 3 A. M. Both angels are homesick for Hell. Fiddle fears he will never see dear old Hell again, for he has sinned. Pressed for an explanation by Lyric, he confesses that the night before, driven by desire he entered his wife's bedroom and gazed at her and Annie's loveliness. He further confesses that he felt terrible pangs of jealousy when Fanny and Lucus were kissing. Lyric exhorts him to be strong and suggests that they sing again the angels hymn. At this point the laughing voices of Fannie and Annie and their gentlemen friends are heard outside.


Fannie, Annie, Lucus, and Hammer are having a snack in the dining room and recounting their adventures that night in various cabarets. Lucus and Hammer are reluctant to leave, thinking that this is no fitting end for such a perfect day, but when they find that they must go, they each try to snatch a kiss by way of parting. A cry is heard and Fiddle and Lyric rush into the room in their pajamas. At the sight of the enraged husbands, Lucus and Hammer flee. And the two angels yield to the charms of their wives. 



0ur angel heroes, having chosen to follow the way of all flesh, do so thoroughly. They become fathers as well as husbands, and also have mistresses. They leave the shop and become businessmen, realtors. On one of their lots in New Jersey they strike oil, and at once set up a corporation in competition to the Standard Oil Company. The principal stockholders are Fiddle and Lyric, Lucus and Hammer, and Milk and Water, the last two owning fifty percent of the stock.

As the curtain rises we see Fiddle and Lyric installed at a wayside gasoline station which also serves as the headquarters of the new oil corporation. The two are so engrossed in business that they have no time for their wives, and when the latter complain, they advise them to go to bridge parties, automobile and dog shows.

Lucus and Hammer enter and bring word that Senator Lucus is willing to pay a quarter of a million dollars for a fifty-percent interest in the concern. The only way this could be done is to buy back the stock which Milk and Water hold, and for which they paid only $5,000. But as Milk and Water refuse to part with the stock, they must recover it from them by hook or crook. Accordingly Lucus suggests that Milk and Water be invited to a party at a Harlem cabaret that evening, on the pretext that this was the birthday of Fiddle and Lyric, and that they be asked to bring their shares with them. Once in the cabaret, it would be an easy matter to put knockout drops into their drinks and rob them of their stock. Lyric protests, but Fiddle, who has shed all traces of his former angelic nature, approves of the plan.


At a Negro cabaret in Harlem. When the party is seated at the table, Fiddle by mistake puts the knockout drops into the glasses of Lucus and Hammer, instead of those of Milk and Water. When Lucus and Hammer fall unconscious, Milk and Water suspect foul play, and guessing that the drops were intended for them rather than for the actual victims, they summon the police.


In prison, where Fiddle and Lyric are awaiting their trial. Both are despondent and Fiddle expresses doubt that there is a God, for if there were a God, would He have permitted them to come to such a pass? Fannie and Annie come to visit their husbands. Both say that their former husbands, Milk and Water, are now enormously rich and are willing to take them back. Accordingly Fannie and Annie ask their present husbands to give them their freedom, which the latter promise to do. After the women leave, Fiddle is heartbroken at the loss of Fannie. Lyric implores God to forgive him and his fellow angel their transgressions and to take them away from this wicked world; but Fiddle is most reluctant to leave the earth. At last a voice from heaven is heard saying that the prayer of Zafziel (Lyric) has been granted, and that an airplane will soon come to fetch them back to Hell, where they will be judged for their deeds while on earth.


The scene now shifts to Hell. The archangel Michael is presiding at the trial of Shamsiel and Zafziel (Fiddle and Lyric). Mendel Flam is the prosecuting attorney, and Mrs. Soskin is counsel for the defense. After counsel for both sides state their cases, Grandma and the others present plead for the accused angels. Finally Michael calls upon the accused to speak for themselves. Fiddle speaks first and outrages all his friends by saying that come what may, he will always insist that life on earth is more interesting than life in Hell, however reformed. Accordingly, he implores Michael that he be transformed from an angel into a man and sent back to earth. And strange to say, Lyric now rises and makes the same request on behalf of himself. Grandma and the others soundly berate the renegade angels. Finally Michael renders judgment. In view of the fact that Lucus and Hammer have recovered, and that Milk and Water have married, not Fannie and Annie, but Gentile women, he grants the pleas of Fiddle and Lyric and decrees that they cease to be angels and become men pure and simple, and that they be sent back to earth at once. 

Executive Staff: Martin Schwartz, Manager; Oliver M. Sayler, English Press Agent; Leon Hoffman, Yiddish Press Agent; Lewis Kasten and Irving L. Cone, Treasurers, Anne Bordofsky, Manager Subscription Dept. Stage Staff: Boris Aronson, Scenic Director; Jacob Mestel and Ben-Zion Katz, Stage Managers; Joseph Schwartzberg, Librarian; George Tueller, Musical Director. Technical Staff: William Mensching, Master Carpenter; Chris. Logan, Master Electrician; Rudolph Pfeiffer, Master Properties; Israel Misbin, Superintendent.


1 -- Maximilian Hurwitz. Playbill for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "Angels on Earth",  Introductory notes, 1929. Courtesy of YIVO. 





Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

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