YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  JACQUES BERGSON                                                 

JACQUES BERGSON2, by Victor Felder


At the time of its production by Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre on 30 October 1936, “Jacques Bergson" was a new play in two acts and fifteen scenes by Victor Felder, and it was translated from the French by Jacob Nadler.

The production took place at the Forty-Ninth Street Theatre, Forty-Ninth Street, W. of Broadway in New York City.


photo: Maurice Schwartz, in the leading role in "Jacques Bergson", 1935. 
Photograph courtesy of the New York Times (via ProQuest).

There was a controversy as to whether the author of this play, Victor Felder, was simply a nom de plume of Maurice Schwartz. According to author Martin Boris, in his unpublished biography about Maurice Schwartz: "There is some controversy over the play Schwartz brought back with him from Paris. Jacques Bergson was supposedly written by Victor Felder, a French playwright. Everything points to Felder actually being none other than Maurice Schwartz, hiding behind yet another stick figure. Indeed, Schwartz was an experienced dramatist, three of his complete manuscripts slumbering in YIVO’s archives, including 'The Cloud', the play he’d written for Celia Adler when they were together in Philadelphia. There is sufficient evidence pointing to Schwartz and Felder being one in the same. On December 5, 1936, Maurice received a letter from the U.S. copyright office in Washington, D.C., denying his application to register Jacques Bergson, 'an unpublished dramatic composition [which] gives as the author Victor Felder, a citizen of France. Is not Mr. Felder the author of the original version? It is understood that the copy deposited is not the original version, but a Yiddish translation and adaptation for the Yiddish stage' (Bouve, 5 Dec 1936). On the surface, it appears that there is no original copy of the Felder manuscript, because there is no original Mr. Felder. And yet, the play that opened on October 31, 1936, credited Jacob Nadler with the translation from the French. Nadler was a real enough person, a bit player at the Art Theatre, who spoke not a word of French. But real or trumped up, Felder’s name appeared in the credits, his play directed by Schwartz, who took the main role, followed by his core of steady players. William Schack liked the piece, comparing it to previous Art Theatre selections and complimenting Maurice for 'one of the most full-bodied performances of his career' (Times, 31 Oct 1936). Schwartz played the right-wing Jewish father of two socialist sons during the turbulent 1930s in Paris. American Jews however seemed less than sympathetic over the plight of French Jews. The play ran for eight uninspired weeks, then was replaced on Christmas Day by something completely different, Jacob Prager’s ''The Water Carrier. (Prager would perish later with fellow playwrights Mark Arnstein and Alter Katzine in the Warsaw Ghetto.)"2

This Yiddish Art Theatre production had the following cast: Maurice Schwartz, Alex Tenenholtz, Zvi Scooler, Herschel Bernardi, Anna Teitelbaum, Berta Gerstin, Lazar Freed, Anna Appel, Judith Abarbanel, Michel Rosenberg, Aaron Kier, Anatole Winogradoff, Bronia Newman, Samuel Lehrer, Louis Hyman, Morris Silberkasten, Charlotte Arnon, Solomon Krause, Wolf Goldfaden, Max Friedlander, Ben Besenko, Wolf Goldfaden, Robert Harris, Rosetta Bialis and Eva Franklin.

Workers, Chalutzim, Fascists, Police, played by the Studio Group: D. Alexander, A. Golub, E. Rubin, I. Sanik, M. Toby, B. Metz, J. Buxbaum, H. Hochstein, L. Siegel, Z. Freedman, I. Herman, E. Freedlander, L. Bialy, B. Basin, Miriam Nuvia.

The action takes place in Paris. Time: The present.

So, here then, is the synopsis of Felder's "Jacques Bergson". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is listed in parentheses):



Jacques Bergson (Maurice Schwartz), a widower for fifteen years, toils untiringly at the bar in his small cafe in Paris to save every sou for the education of his children. He is a typical French petit bourgeois, proud of his fatherland and of Napoleon, whose portrait hangs conspicuously in his home. A Republican and anti-Communist, he is at odds with his eldest son, Philippe (Alex Tenenholtz), who has become a radical. His second son, Anatole (Zvi Scooler), who is about to be graduated as a jurist, is his chief solace. It is the father's dream that some day the boy will become President of France.

A veteran of the world war, Jacques Bergson has a wooden leg to show for his bravery in the trenches. And it is because he is above all a Frenchman, that he has taken no interest in the Jewish life of the community, a precedent established by his sires before him. Both his daughter, Marianne (Anna Teitelbaum), and his youngest son, Michel (Herschel Bernardi), do not share this viewpoint and there is a studied estrangement. But it is Louise (Berta Gerstin), the housekeeper who has mothered his brood, who manages to maintain a semblance of family life.

The rise of Nazism has caused an influx of refugees from Germany. Anatole, touched by their misery, helps ameliorate their pitiful condition through social service work. Thus he meets Gertrude (Judith Abarbanel), refugee daughter of the distinguished Professor Hertz (Lazar Freed). He shares the bitterness of Gertrude's position and finds a growing hatred toward the smug, complacent Susanne (Charlotte Arnon), his wealthy fiancée, and toward her uncompromising banker father (Morris Silberkasten). The sudden awakening that life's cruelties to others has made him a Socialist has also made his engagement to Susanne an impossibility.

Anatole, at a time when his father is having a party in honor of his graduation, is arrested for his part in a street brawl with Fascists who are provoking disorders against the German immigrants. Gertrude notifies Bergson of the arrest and the startled father demands the release of his son by virtue of the sacrifices he has made on the battlefield for the fatherland. The police release Anatole, but the youth, instead of coming to his own party where his rich fiancée awaits him, escorts Gertrude to her home. The dazed Bergson accompanies them.

Here the father see a number of refugees assembled in Professor Hertz's apartment. Each bears his own tragic burden. One insists that salvation lies in Palestine; a second prefers America, while a third argues that the League of Nations should espouse their cause; they are German citizens and entitled to their rights as human beings. Anatole finds solace in the thought that France will shelter these unfortunate refugees. Bergson insists that his son leaves the apartment. Anatole departs, but once in the street, he scouts the idea of meeting his rich fiancée; he prefers to stay with the poor refugees. Crushed by this pronouncement, the desperate Bergson tells of his toils and sacrifices to educate him, so that one day he might become a man of high office. Indeed, he cites his own tragic life, the bitterness that has been his since the death of their mother, but the tears are in vain. Fiercely he curses the Nazis for having driven these alien Jews to Paris, thereby wrecking his life. Angrily he pounds at Professor Hertz's door, shouting "Open foreigners! A French citizen calls you to account for having robbed him of his hope in life!"

Philippe, at work against his will in his father's cafe, manages to hold communist meetings in the old man's absence. Bergson learns of the secret meetings in his shop and summarily dismisses his son, further engendering the hatred of the boy. Meanwhile, Michel's youngest son becomes interested in the Chalutzim (pioneers) who are training to go to Palestine where they can have their own fatherland. Bergson is perplexed and cannot understand such alien feelings in his son: He calls upon Michel to remember he is a Frenchman, but the boy is inspired only by the thought of a Jewish homeland. To add to poor Bergson's burden, Marianne, his daughter, announces she is going to marry out of her faith and wants the father's consent to a church wedding. Thus the conflict between the father and children grows sharper. And as the curtain descends upon the first act, Bergson is hopefully writing to the President of France to advise him how to bring peace and tranquility to his home.   


Happily married to Gertrude, Anatole's party puts him up as a candidate for Parliament. Comes then news of Arab riots in Palestine. Even their homeland is to be denied them now, and Professor Hertz asks: "Whither shall we go? Whither shall we wend our way? Where shall we lay our weary bodies?" The only answer is a pistol shot fired by a refugee driven by despair to suicide.

The Popular Front has united the two, Philippe and Anatole, in the battle for social freedom. The Rightist Republican party is the only one Jacques believes in, and Susanne's banker father and Marianne's fiancée, Gravel (Wolf Goldfaden), prevail upon him to agitate against his sons and turn his cafe into a Rightest center to combat his revolutionary sons. Jacques is no orator; but in simple words that come from his heart, he appeals to his neighbors not to vote for those who have robbed him of his children. He does not know Karl Marx, but he does know that he has alienated his children from him. Both sons enter and try to impress upon their father that he is fighting for the forces of darkness. He orders them to leave his house; the freedom of Napoleon is the only freedom left him and he will fight to the last for the Republic. A Fascist yells out, "Both father and sons are accursed Jews!" and hurls a stone at Jacques, who falls to the floor with a deep gash in his head. The sons lift up their old father and try to revive him. Anatole arouses him -- with these comforting words: "Open your eyes, father; a new France is being born!"

The Chalutzim, deprived of the possibility of going to Palestine, are desperate. Pessimism pervades their hearts. These young people want to live, and labor on their own soil, but the Arab rioter, knife in hand, insists that the doors of the land be closed to Jews. Michel brings them money and food. He has lost his heart to the Chalutzim. Their revived hope finds expression in national dances and songs.

Jacques' injured head is healing up, but the stone has left an everlasting mark, He now views life in a different light; no longer will he fight on the field of battle. Gertrude brings him the news that Anatole and Philippe have both been elected to Parliament. She begs him to make peace with his sons. Michel asks him for permission to go to Palestine and become a Chalutz there. Jacques gives his consent. He cannot go there himself -- he wants his ashes to rest beside his wife's grave on French soil. On hearing the band of the victorious Popular Front strike up a march, he asks for his old uniform and goes off to parade with his sons in the march of freedom.  

Settings by Robert Van Rosen, music by Maurice Rauch. Directed by Maurice Schwartz. Produced by The Ensemble Players, Inc. Executive Staff: Martin Schwartz and Leon Hoffman, Managers. Nat Dorfman, English Press Agent. Gertrude Wagner, Cashier. Technical Staff: Ben Katz, Stage Manager. Abe Mitnick, Carpenter. Joe Burdin, Electrician. Edward Kirtland, Properties. Costumes by Meth & Gropper. Wigs by Zander Bros. Piano by Kramer. Radio by Radio Laboratories. Abraham Weinstein, Lessee. Boris Bernardi, House Manager.

1 -- From the program of the 1930 Yiddish Art Theatre production of "Jacques Bergson". Courtesy of YIVO.

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





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

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