YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  CHAINS                                                 

CHAINS2, by H. Leivick

(Yiddish: Keytn)

“Chains" is a drama in three acts, by H. Leivick, which opened at the Yiddish Art Theatre, Broadway at Twenty-Eighth Street, NY, on 21 February 1930.

According to author Martin Boris in his unpublished biography of Maurice Schwartz1: "With Leivick's 'Chains' in February, the Art Theatre redeemed itself, if not to the paying customers, then with the critics: It is one of the few Yiddish plays of the season in which the English-speaking world can take pleasure," enthused the Times critic (23 Feb.1930). The story is centered in a Siberian prison circa 1905. Leivick knew the subject first hand, having spent many years there as a guest of the Czar...."


photo: H. Leivick , 1940 (Ale verk fun H. Leivik. New York: H. Leivik Yubiley-Komitet. 1940) .
From Wikipedia.

"In this tremendous, powerful, profoundly beautiful play we are shown the effect which the unspeakable barbarity of Russian prison life in the days of the Czars has upon a group of revolutionary idealists who share the same cell in a Siberian penitentiary. Men of the highest humanitarian ideals, martyrs to a common cause, who even in jail try to live up to their Socialistic principles, inhuman suffering aggravated by enforced living together within the narrow confines of a prison cell, subtly corrupts their nature and plays havoc with their Socialism. For, alas! the chains these idealists wear are not merely the iron fetters on their feet, but the limitations of human nature, the imperfections of our common humanity, the incorrigibility of the old. Adam that is in all of us. Closely interwoven with this theme is another, namely, whether the public good may be promoted at the expense of the individual, -- a question which our author also touched upon in his earlier play, 'Shop.' Still another theme is the ironic one of the underdog turned top-do, -- of the erstwhile rebel and champion of freedom who comes into power and forthwith proceeds to treat dissenters with the same ruthlessness that he himself was treated by the despotic regime he has overthrown. All these themes are harmoniously blended together into one beautiful whole, a symphony in black relieved by profound pity and resignation H. Leivick, the author of this play, writes of Russian prison life from first-hand knowledge. A native of Russia, he was arrested In 1906 for participation in the Socialist and revolutionary movement and, after being kept two years In jail, he was finally brought to trial and sentenced to four years' imprisonment at the Butirsky Penitentiary In Moscow. Upon the expiration of his sentence, he was exiled to Siberia for life. After a year of exile in the Siberian province of Irkutsk, he made his escape (1913) and came to the United States, where he has lived ever since, supporting himself, at least in his early years in this country by manual labor. Today he is universally ranked among the greatest Yiddish poets and playwrights. His best known works are 'The Golem.' which the Habima Players produced in this country three seasons ago, and "Rags"-perhaps the finest play ever written around the life of the immigrant to America --which the Yiddish Art Theatre produced with great success about eight years ago."2 

The participating cast of the Yiddish Art Theatre in this production were:

Maurice Schwartz, Lazar Freed, Morris Strassberg, Jacob Mestel, Boris Weiner, Pincus (Philip) Sherman, Mark Schweid, Michael Gibson, Joseph Greenberg, Gershon Rubin, Izidore Casher, Hyman Wolfkoff, Louis Weinberg, Ben Zion Katz, Samuel Lehrer, Rubin Frank, E. Kogor, N. Metalik and H. Zohn.

Workmen, Guards, Soldiers, etc.: the students of the Dramatic Studio of the Yiddish Art Theatre: Sirota, Petchanick, Fruchter, Kogar, Lieber, Abramsky, Beltchinsky, Turkin, Lieberman, Brenner, Meizel, Stone, Barash, Zohn.

Note: The play deals with the life of political prisoners in Czarist Russia. The action takes place toward the end of 1905 in a cell at a penitentiary in Arctic Siberia.

So, here is the synopsis of Leivick's "Chains" (The name of the actor who portrayed the particular role is in parentheses):



The play takes us back to the stormy days of the abortive Russian Revolution of 1905. and its terrible aftermath of counter-revolution. Eleven prisoners, most of them life-termers, are sharing the same cell at a penitentiary in Arctic Siberia, where they are treated with the utmost cruelty by the warden and the keepers. Of the eleven, eight --Levine (Maurice Schwartz), Joseph (Lazar Freed), Peretz (Morris Strassberg), Gregory (Jacob Mestel), Peter (Boris Weiner), Solomon (Pincus Sherman), Nuki (Mark Schweid), and Singer (Michael Gibson) --are political prisoners, and three -- Grandpa (Gershon Rubin), Zazuli (Izidore Casher), and Koverznikov (Hyman Wolkoff) --are common criminals. The sole bunk in the cell has room only for eighth persons, and so three sleep on the ground under the bunk. The political prisoners, being Socialists, share all their worldly goods --food, tobacco, money, gifts from the folks back at home -- in common, partaking of them in such portions as Peretz, the manager of their communal ménage, sees fit to distribute. Their spiritual leader. by virtue of superior age and personality, is Levine. a man of extraordinary courage, driving force, and determination, who is busy digging a tunnel by which he and his comrades might escape from prison. The suffering of these heroic martyrs is known outside the prison walls, and revolutionary Russia looks upon them as its saints.

But all is not well with these revolutionary saints. Peter, for example. Unable to stand any longer the agony of Siberian prison life, he has petitioned the Czar for a pardon. For this he is branded as a traitor and ostracized by all his comrades save Nuki and Joseph. The half-dead and half-erased Nuki, who rarely emerges from his dark lair under the bunk, has acquired a certain clairvoyance and sense of pity from his own suffering which enable him to understand and sympathize with human frailty and misery. And Joseph, the pessimistic philosopher or the group, see in Peter's action only one more symptom of the moral degeneration of all of them during the two years of their captivity.

Levine announces a change in the plan for their jail delivery. Since it would take months to tunnel their way beyond the prison walls. he intends to extend the tunnel only to a certain little-frequented spot in the prison yard, from which only a few shovelfuls of earth separate them now, and whence they can make their escape that very night over the wall by means of rope ladders. His reason for hastening their escape is that he has learned the miners employed in the neighboring gold mines are about to strike, and so he would like to take the leadership of the strike and convert it into the first step of the social revolution in Russia. Joseph stamps this as a mad adventure and idle dream, but Levine, is adamant and descends into the tunnel.

While Levine is gone, Solomon enters with packages containing victuals, cigarettes and a box of chocolate candy that his father. who has just come to pay him a visit, has brought him from home. He duly turns all these things over to Peretz, who soon discovers that several pieces of candy are missing. Presently Singer detects Solomon munching the missing candy under cover of his blanket. All are scandalized at such behavior and Solomon is publicly disgraced.

At this point a guard brings in another prisoner, the young revolutionist Daniel (Joseph Greenberg), a former pupil of Levine's. With the revolutionary ardor of youth, he refuses to accept a place on the bunk (the place previously occupied by the ostracized Peter) as long as others are forced to sleep on the ground. And sharing the universal reverence in which these revolutionary martyrs are held, he cannot understand their strained relations to one another. Presently Levine returns, but even his presence cannot dispel the prevailing gloom.

Druzhinin (Louis Weisberg), the warden, and a number of armed guards (Samuel Lehrer, Rubin Frank) arrive for a general inspection. All stand at attention except Gregory, who is too sick to rise. When Druzhinin insists that Gregory rise, Levine explains that his comrade is down with fever. For this presumption, Druzhinin orders Levine to be taken to the dungeon and to be flogged. Daniel offers to take Levine's place. At this point Levine prevails upon Gregorv to make a supreme effort and rise. But Druzhinin insists on having a victim, and Daniel is led away to be tortured. When the warden and the guards depart, Levine and his comrades make their escape, leaving behind Gregory, who is too sick to be taken along; Nuki, who does not even want to escape, and the three criminals who dare not join in the flight. 


As Joseph anticipated, the jail delivery proves a failure. All are caught and cruelly punished and returned to the cell, being deprived of all their former privileges. In retaliation, all the political prisoners, including even Gregory declare a hunger strike, in which they are joined by the three criminals. When Grandpa falls on his knees and implores the warden to yield to the demand of the hunger strikers, Druzhinin orders him to be flogged.

Levine pleads with Gregory to pardon him for having abandoned him during the attempted escape, but refuses Peter's plead to be forgiven. Peter repeats his plea to each of the others, only to be repulsed by all save Nuki. When he approaches Singer, who was the first to ostracize him, he discovers him secretly munching a piece of bread. In his bitterness he wishes to avenge himself on Singer by telling the others of his backsliding, but the look of despair in Singer's eye causes him to refrain.

Daniel, half dead from his terrible ordeal in the dungeon, is brought in by a guard and at once joins in the hunger strike. He is horrified when Levine proceeds to disillusion him about the supposed holiness of himself and his comrades. His horror increases when Levine outlines his revolutionary creed, which is that the world has enough of goodness and charity, that what it needs most is change, and that in effecting this change we must halt at nothing, not even at the sacrifice of our nearest and dearest ones. Levine soon belies his own words when he runs to save Peter who has attempted to commit suicide.

Druzhinin, accompanied by guards. returns and forces the common criminals to eat in his presence. He then orders Zazuli to dance for him the "Dance of the Chains." Levine forbids Zazuli to dance; but before Druzhinin has a chance to punish Levine, he receives word that the striking miners, fully armed, are marching upon the penitentiary. Thereupon he and the guards leave hurriedly to defend the penitentiary.

The revolutionary miners capture the penitentiary, though Druzhinin manages to escape. They make Levine their leader, and at his command all the prisoners are set free. In the general excitement. Nuki is almost overlooked. As he is being led out of the cell, he stumbles over the body of one of the slain guards. At the sight of human blood, he cries out that he will have none of freedom purchased at such a price, but he is carried out against his will.  


It does not take long for Zazuli and Koverinikov to come back to the selfsame cell, having been caught plying their old trade, burglary. The evident embarrassment of the revolutionary workers who are detailed to guard them does not escape the notice of the two criminals, who take full advantage of it. But worse embarrassment is in store for these workers and for Singer and Peretz who have been put in charge of the penitentiary, for by order of the revolutionary council, Joseph, Daniel, and Gregory are to be arrested also. The three are accused of defeatism, of opposing Levine's attempt to start the social revolution in the wastes of Arctic Siberia two thousand miles away from a railroad station, and with only two thousand miners to face the superior forces of the Czar sent against them. When Daniel, the first of the three to be arrested is left alone in the cell with Levine, he accuses the latter of being intoxicated with power, to which Levine counters by charging him with being drunk with meekness.

Druzhinin, at the head of a large army, defeats the revolutionary miners. All the prisoners are rounded up and returned to their cells. Druzhinin hits upon a diabolical plan to wreak his vengeance on the rebellious prisoner: he gives them two minutes in which to form in line, at the end of which period he will return and cause the sixth man from the left to be executed; should they fail to fall in line within the given time, he will have them all executed. He and the guards withdraw from the cell, whereupon Levine asserts his former leadership and authority and arranges the line so that he is the sixth man from the left. When Levine is led away to be executed and the rest are ordered to go to bed, Daniel weeps, but Nuki comforts him. "Don't cry, Daniel," he says. "Death is a smile. Death is brightness. I knew it would end thus."

Settings by Charles Stillwell; staged and produced in Yiddish by Maurice Schwartz. Executive Staff: Martin Schwartz, Manager; Oliver M. Sayler, English Press Agent; Leon Hoffman, Yiddish Press Agent. Lewis Kasten and Irving L. Cone, Treasurer Anne Bordofsky, Manager of the Subscription Department. Stage Staff: Boris Aronson, Scenic Director; Jacob Mestel and Ben-Zion Katz, Stage Managers; Joseph Schwartzberg, Librarian; George Teuller, Musical Director. Technical Staff: William Mensching, Master Carpenter; Chris. Logan, Master Electrician; Rudolph Pfeiffer, Master Properties; Israel Misbin, Superintendent.

1 -- Martin Boris, "Once A Kingdom" (unpublished manuscript).

2 -- Maximilian Hurwitz. Playbill for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "Chains", 1930. Courtesy of YIVO. 





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

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