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GOD, MAN AND DEVIL1, by Jacob Gordin

(Yiddish: Gott, mentsh un tayvl)

“The theme of 'God, Man, and Devil,' Gordin's most famous play, is as old as the Fall of Man. It portrays the eternal struggle between God and Satan, the latter not the repulsive devil of popular belief, but the proud, haughty, unbending Spirit described by Milton in 'Paradise Lost,' the Spirit that would rather 'reign in hell than serve in heaven.' The plight of man, caught between these two titanic adversaries, is like that of a football between two rival players. Skillfully interwoven with this Jobian or Faustian motif are two minor motifs. One is the struggle between capital and labor which first began to manifest itself in the Russian Jewish Pale of Settlement toward the dose of the nineteenth century, the time when the action of the present play is supposed to take place. Another is the age-old story of the man who, upon suddenly growing rich, discards the wife with whom he lived contentedly in the days of his poverty and marries a younger one, only to find himself too engrossed in business to pay her any attention, and of the young bride who adored the man while he was poor and idealistic and who now pines away because the man she has married is no longer the man she formerly knew and venerated. Dubrovna, the scene of the play, is a small town in the province of Mohilev, Russia, which for the past two centuries has been a leading center for the manufacture of Jewish praying-shawls."1

God, Man and Devil" is described as being a drama in three acts and four scenes. Gordin's play was revised and directed by Maurice Schwartz, and it opened at the Yiddish Art Theatre, 114 East 14th Street, Near Union Square, NYC, on 21 December 1928. It was first staged by the same troupe in New York on 6 November 1919.


photo: Jacob Gordin, playwright.
From Zylbercweig's "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre", Vol. I, 1931.

The 1928 cast of this production of "God, Man and Devil" included (in alphabetical order): Celia Adler, Irving Belchinsky, Miriam Elias, Robert Frank, Lazar Freed, B. Gantz, Michael Gibson, Isidore Glickman, Joseph Greenberg, Abraham Kubansky, Sam Liner, Edward Mintz, Abraham Morevsky, Michael Rosenberg, Gershon Rubin, Louis Schindler, Maurice Schwartz, Pincus Sherman, Liza Silbert, Morris Strassberg, Anna Teitelbaum, Boris Weiner, Louis Weisberg and Hyman Wolff.

Here then is the synopsis of Jacob Gordin's "God, Man and Devil". (The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is in parentheses):


Briefly, the story of "God, Man, and Devil" is as follows: Hersh (Dubrovner, played by Lazar Freed), a learned and godly scribe, who ekes out a bare pittance by writing scrolls of the Law for synagogal use, lives in contented poverty with his childless wife, Pese (Miriam Elias), his two nieces and wards, Frayda (Celia Adler) and Zippa (Anna Teitelbaum), and with his old father, Lazar (Gershon Rubin), a retired badkhan, or wedding bard and jester. Hersh leads an extremely ascetic life, the only pleasure he sometimes permits himself is playing sacred hymns on his violin, for which he is adored and secretly loved by Frayda. Hersh's best friend is Hatzkel Drachma (Morris Strassberg/Abraham Morevsky), a poor and unschooled weaver of praying-shawls, between whose only son Mottel (Joseph Greenberg) and Frayda a match is proposed. As the curtain goes up, the Drachmas (Doba, the wife, played by Liza Silbert) come to visit Hersh, and the two families prepare to hold a treble celebration: In the first place, this is the fifth night of Hanukah, the eight-day Feast of Lights commemorating the Maccabean victories; in the second place, Hersh has just completed the writing of a scroll of the Law; in the third place, Mottel and Frayda are about to become engaged.

They are interrupted by the intrusion of Uriel Masik (Maurice Schwartz), who is none other than Satan in human guise: come to corrupt the godly Hersh. Believing that a Jew nowadays could not be led away from God by suffering, as in the case of Job, nor by the desires of the flesh, as In the case of the non-Jew Faust, he proceeds to tempt Hersh with gold. He represents himself as a dealer in lottery tickets, and after much persuasion, aided by the others present, overcomes Hersh's scruples and sells him a ticket on trust. And not content with having aroused In this godly man a lust for gold, he sows other seeds of evil by whispering to him that it is against Rabbinic law for a Jew to live more than ten years with a barren wife like Pese, and that he ought to divorce her and marry his young and beautiful niece Frayda.

Sure enough. Hersh wins the 50,000 ruble prize in the lottery, becomes rich, embarks upon large business ventures in partnership with Masik, who has become his adviser and inseparate companion, and under whose influence the degeneration of his character proceeds apace. He divorces Pese, with whom he has lived contentedly for twenty-two years, and marries Frayda, while giving her less attractive sister Zippa in marriage to Mottel. He neglects Frayda, whose grief at his changed attitude finally affects her mind. He becomes disrespectful and even brutal toward his aged father. He establishes a modern, steam-run plant for the manufacture of praying-shawls, thereby ruining his best friend, Hatzkel, and other weavers, who are forced to become hands in his factory, where they are mercilessly exploited until they are driven to revolt. Masik rubs his hands in glee and believes that at last he has beaten God; but he gloats too soon. Wealth has not been able to change Hersh's essential nature nor to obliterate the effects of his former education and past life. And when Mottel, the only son of his best friend in former days, meets with a fatal accident at the factory in Hersh's presence, the latter, who, since he be carne rich, has never known a moment of true happiness, awakens and realizes what a mess he has made of his own life and that of all around him. Bankrupt of life, he sees no escape from the blind alley he has strayed into save by way of death, and accordingly he hangs himself with the very prayer-shawl which is stained with Mottel's blood.

When Masik discovers that Hersh has committed suicide, he comments bitterly: "So even the power of gold is limited. Money may mislead; it cannot annihilate the Man in man. I have lost again."

Scenery by Mordecai Gorelik; painted by Alex Chertov; Costumes by Zuni Maud and Yosel Cuttler; Music by Joseph Brody. Executive Staff: Joseph M. Grossman, Leon Hoffman, Managers; Mae Strassberg, Treasurer. Stage Staff: Joseph Schwartzberg, Librarian; Ben-Zion Katz, Stage Manager. Technical Staff: Alex Chertov, Scenic Artist; Herman Grossman, Master Carpenter; David Gold, Master Electrician; George Nemser, Master Properties; I. Mishin, Superintendent.

1 -- Maximilian Hurwitz. Playbill for the Yiddish Art Theatre's production of "God, Man and Devil", 1928. Courtesy of YIVO.





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

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