YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  SONG OF THE DNIEPER                                                 

dramatized and staged by David Licht (adapted by a novel written by Zalman Shneour)




photo: Maurice Schwartz, Joseph Rumshinsky, Zalman Schneour, and David Licht holding
a copy of "Song of the Dnieper", cir 1946. Courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.


“Song of the Dnieper" is a dramatization in twenty scenes by David Licht, adapted from the novel by Zalman Shneour. It was staged by the author on 25 October 1946 at the Yiddish Art Theatre (formerly the Public Theatre), on 2nd Avenue at 4th Street in New York City.

David Licht directed, the sets were by Samuel Leve; the musical score was composed by Joseph Rumshinsky. The play was produced by Maurice Schwartz.

This was the twenty-seventh season of productions by Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre.


photo: Song of the Dnieper, by David Licht, cir 1946.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library.



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

Menachem Rubin, Charlotte Goldstein, Gustave Berger, Meyer Scherr, Yudel Dubinsky, Moishe Belavsky, Saul Krause, Boris Auerbach, Charles Cohan, Morris Strassberg, Celia Pearson, Isaac Arco, Luba Kadison, Izidore Casher, Maurice Schwartz, Anna Appel, Ola Shlifko, Frances Adler, Jenny Casher, Mark Schweid, Misha Fishzon, Morris Krohner, Leib Kadison, Jacob Rechtzeit, Michael Eisman, Abraham Teitelbaum, Max Steiner and Nathan Kanter.




photo: Maurice Schwartz (rt.), as Noah Pandre,  and Mark Schweid (lt.), as the Rabbi, Song of the Dnieper, by David Licht, cir 1946. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

Here is the synopsis of Shneour's "Song of the Dnieper". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:



In the Ukrainian town of Shklov on the Dnieper River, under the Czarist regime, a Jewish teamster, Noah Pandre (Maurice Schwartz), is distinguished for always springing to the defense of the maltreated as well as for his great physical prowess. Once he saved from certain death the local lady of the manor (Frances Adler), a Gentile woman of breeding and affluence, by stopping the runaway horses of her carriage at the risk of his own life. On another occasion, when a pack of wolves attacked his team of horses, he fought them off single-handedly.

The lady of the manor often entertains him at her house, and there is talk in the town that he might change his religion for her sake.

But Noah Padre falls in love with Mary (Ola Shlifko), the daughter of his employer.

He is eager to fight the evil spirit that often overpowers him and involves him to sinful pursuits. Troubled by his conscience he visits the rabbi (Mark Schweid) one night and begs for guidance. He curses his own great strength, which seems to him the cause and source of his sins. But the old rabbi restrains him from condemning the physical prowess with which he was endowed by Providence. The rabbi reminds Noah Pandre of the biblical Samson and of the new Philistines who rise against the Jews again  and again and oftentimes must be fought on their own terms -- with sheer physical force.

Noah is profoundly impressed by the old rabbi and vows to embark on a life of piety and virtue. His new conduct brings a great and prompt reward. Mary, the girl he loves, accepts his hand in marriage.

On the night of Noah Pandre's wedding, the town of Shklov is ravaged by a fire. The chief-of-police (Isaac Arco) accuses the owner of the stables, where the fire started, of having put the building to the torch in order to collect fire insurance. He lunges forward to beat up the suspect, and as Noah Pandre intercedes to stop the hand of the police chief, a struggle ensues during which one of the epaulets is torn loose from the officer's uniform. Noah Pandre is arrested. At the trial the chief-of-the-police produces false witnesses who testify that Noah Pandre attacked and beat the official. Pandre is sentenced to prison for eighteen months. During the court proceedings, Noah Pandre remembered the admonition of the old rabbi about the new Philistines who rise against the Jews again and again, and oftentimes must be fought on their own terms, with sheer physical force.


While serving his prison term, Noah Pandre learns a great deal about the ways of the world and its struggles from a fellow inmate, Chatze the revolutionist (Abraham Teitelbaum). By the time he is released, the enlightenment he received from his talks with the revolutionist has changed his entire outlook on life. Meanwhile his wife's family had been impoverished. Mary had borne him a child, and the poverty-stricken household is unable to provide the necessary food for it. On his way home from prison, Noah calls first on the rabbi, who receives him as a father would his own son and reveals to him that hard times are in the offing, and that pogroms are to be expected. The rabbi entreats Noah to stand up in defense of his brethren, because his body and soul were endowed with the irresistible powers of a Samson. The rabbi blesses Noah.

At home his wife and her family receive him with joy. But on that very night he learns that a pogrom is about to break loose at the instigation of the police chief. Noah Pandre is resolved to forestall a massacre of his people by risking his own life. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the town have formed an organization for self-defense. The lady of the manor, out of gratitude and affection for Noah, is endeavoring to protect the Jews. She invites the Chief-of-Police to her home and pleads with him not to permit bloodshed. But he is adamant. He has made up his mind to exterminate the race he hates. Noah Pandre arrives at the manor and is about to murder him, but the dexterous Pandre batters the official to death in self-defense.

At dawn the organized Self-Defense awaits the pogrom attack. The Chief-of-Police was to give the signal for the onslaught. But Noah Pandre has already done away with the pogrom leader and has saved his people.

And the sun rises over the town of Shklov from which the fear of massacre has lifted.


New York Post, Tuesday, 29 October 1946, by Richard Watts, Jr.

"Vivid and Colorful Playing in 'Song of the Dnieper"

It cannot be denied that when the English-speaking theatre decided to go in for naturalism, something went out of it. The spectator without a knowledge of Yiddish, who attends a performance of "Song of the Dnieper", finds himself rather in the traditional position of the blind man, who, deprived of his sight, finds his other senses strikingly sharpened. Not being able to follow the intricacies of the dialogue, he can concentrate on details of the production and acting, and the result can be surprisingly rewarding. One reward at the Yiddish Art Theatre last Friday night lay in observing the richness of non-naturalistic acting.

It is not that the playing in the Maurice Schwartz presentation of this dramatized novel of pre-Bolshevik Russia is highly stylized or frantically extravagant. It is merely that Mr. Schwartz's actors enter into their assignments with such delight in the color, the detail, the sweeping gesture, and the resounding phrase inherent in their roles, that their work takes on a fascinating quality of vitality and relish. Each player offers a hearty one-man show of his own that never fails to fit in with the spirit of the occasion.

There is, for example, one actor -- whose name, I believe, is Menachem Rubin -- impersonating an ancient, one-legged veteran of the Czarist army. To see him rise laboriously on his one foot, thrust forward his wooden leg and go into the most elaborate of salutes is to watch a performer giving not only his audience but himself a fine time. When he has a comic line, you don't have to understand it t enjoy the humorous delight that seems to bubble out of him.

Mr. Schwartz

Then there is Mr. Schwartz himself, playing the strong man of the Dnieper village and not being all together comfortable about the more romantic aspects of his role. The word "authority" has almost passed out of the critical vocabulary these days, but when you watch Maurice Schwartz exhorting his fellow villagers standing up for his oppressors in a court room or destroying the pogrom leading Police Commissioner, you know that this is just the quality he brings to his portrayal.

To show what such vividness of detail can add to a scene, there is the episode in which the neighbors celebrate with the hero when he returns to his bride following his unjust prison sentence. To the accompaniment of a stirring theme song which Joseph Rumshinsky has provided, the villagers enter into the festivities with such spirit, such mingling of rejoicing and relief, that the celebration takes on a strangely moving quality of dramatic excitement.

The Play

The last time I had seen Mr. Schwartz's players was in the distant pre-Pearl Harbor days when they were doing "The Brothers Ashkenazi" uptown. Even to one unfamiliar with Yiddish, it was obvious that they were then acting in a play of distinction and dramatic power. My impression is that "Song of the Dnieper" has no such vital quality, that it is a rather undistinguished and easy-gong work which  possesses at best a modest kind of narrative interest.

The most striking thing about its story telling is its insistence that the Jew must resist his oppressors with force and relentlessness, but even that ardent plea is not too passionately made. What is important is that Mr. Schwartz's theatre even in a routine drama brings a welcome note of color and vividness to the stage.

1 -- From the playbill of "Song of the Dnieper", Yiddish Art Theatre, 1946. Courtesy of YIVO.





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

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