YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  A STRING OF PEARLS                                                 

A STRING OF PEARLS1, by Sholem Asch


Here is the cast from the Yiddish Art Theatre production of this play when it opened at the Nora Bayes Theatre in New York City, on December 7, 1925 (listed in alphabetical order):

Julius Adler, Bella Bellarina, Izidore Casher, Miriam Elias, Lazar Freed, Mrs. Goldberg, Emil Hirsch, Abraham Kubansky, Jacob Mestel, Sonia Radina, Maurice Schwartz, Mark Schweid, Philip Sherman, Chaim Schneyer, Leonid Snegoff, Morris Strassberg, Abraham Teitelbaum, Minnie Toller and Boris Weiner.

So, here is the synopsis of Heyse's "King Saul." The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:


The present play, whose peaceful, idyllic beginning contrasts so strikingly with the grim tragedy that soon follows, and whose symbolic ending proclaims triumphantly the brotherhood of man, is a profoundly beautiful war drama. Its aim is not so much to portray war's desolation--although it does this most vividly--as to castigate men for their criminal folly in setting up patriotism as an idol, and thereby violating the divine Commandment, which says, "Thou shalt have no other gods before me." The author, Sholem Asch, is one of the greatest of contemporary Yiddish writers, of whom Isaac Goldberg once wrote that "at his best he has given to Yiddish literature some of its most enduring pages." His novels, short stories, and plays have been translated into many languages, including English. To the American public he is best known as the author of "The God of Vengeance," a play which Max Reinhardt was the first to produce at his famous playhouse in Berlin.


Melech (Maurice Schwartz)--a Jewish patriarch, wealthy, pious, charitable, hospitable, and universally esteemed in the small border town of which he is the leading Jewish citizen--is about to sit down with his household to the Sabbath eve meal, his happiness disturbed only by the absence of strangers in town to whom he might offer his hospitality, especially on this Friday evening, when the fiancé (Lazar Freed) of his youngest daughter (Bella Bellarina) is celebrating the Sabbath under his rooftree. Presently guests arrive (Abraham Teitelbaum, Chaim Schneyer, Jacob Mestel, Mark Schweid and Morris Strassberg). These, however, prove to be not the ordinary kind of guests, but refugees form a nearby town who bring word that war has broken out, and that the military authorities had driven them out of their homes. Soon local Jews rush in to report that troops have arrived in town, and that of the commanding officer (Leonid Snegoff) is asking for Melech. The latter, full of faith in God and in his fellow men, refuses to entertain any worries on the Sabbath and bids all to partake of the Sabbath meal with him. Presently the military commander arrives in the company of a Christian neighbor (Izidore Casher) of Melech's, who has long been coveting the latter's house and fair daughter. Instigated by this neighbor, the commanding officer requisitions Melech's house for his own use, orders Melech to turn over to him all the gold, silver, money and goods in his possession, levies a large contribution in money and provisions upon the Jewish community to be paid within twenty-four hours, and makes Melech responsible for its punctual delivery. And to cap it all, he drafts all the younger Jews present for forced labor.


The next evening finds Melech and his family installed in the basement of his own house. There is a steady stream of Jews who come with their mites. Disregarding the protests of his faithful servant (Mrs. Goldberg), Melech returns their contributions to the more needy Jews, with the result that when the commanding officer arrives to collect the levy, the amount collected proves to be far too short. He threatens to execute Melech, but the aforesaid obliging neighbor, noticing a string of pearls in the pile turned over to the military, which he knew belonged to Melech's youngest daughter, advises him to spare Melech's life if the latter will present the commander with his fair daughter, for whose beauty he vouches. Melech spurns the commander's offer to spare his life on such terms. Once more the officious neighbor intervenes and suggests that Melech is holding out for better conditions and will surely give up his daughter if he is offered both his life and the string of pearls. The commander contemptuously throws the pearls at Melech, and saying that he would soon send soldiers to fetch the daughter, departs.


Melech's faith in God is still unshaken. At his advice, his wife (Miriam Elias) dresses their daughter in the old garments of her great-grandmother and puts ashes and a big hood on her hair to make her look old. Then he himself places the aforementioned string of pearls, likewise inherited from the same pious ancestor, upon her neck and attaches a knife to it which she is to keep concealed, and with which she is to kill herself only when actually face to face with dishonor. The ruse works so well, that when the soldiers come to fetch the daughter, they mistake the latter for a beldame and depart empty-handed. Alas, they were not wholly mistaken, for when, following their exit the big hood is removed from the daughter, if appears that she had in the meantime grown gray and old from fear, whereas her mother weeps while Melech praises the Lord for having at last delivered his daughter from the danger of dishonor. Presently the commanding officer himself arrives and demands that they surrender their daughter. They point to her, but he refuses to believe it. He accuses the Christian neighbor who accompanies him, of collusion with the Jew in a plot to cheat him out of the costly string of pearls and has him arrested. Then he orders all the Jews to clear out of the town within twelve hours.


The homeless Jews are trudging along a road in the dead of the night, going they know not wither. Only the dead and the sick are carried on wagons. The road happens to be hard by the front, where fighting is in progress. Melech grows faint, but refuses the offer of his fellow refugees to place him in a wagon. He bids them all proceed while he sinks on the road. He falls into a trance and has a vision. Soldiers from all the combatant nations appear to him. He hails them as his children and rebukes them for having consented to fight and shed human blood. They defend themselves on the score of patriotism, but he insists that God is higher than all such man-made idols as patriotism, and that He has commanded us, saying, "Thou shalt not murder." Our present affliction, he tells them, is the punishment that God has meted out to us for having violated His divine Commandment; therefore, he urges them, you must each beg the other for pardon and forgiveness. Moved by his words, they do so and clasp hands, whereat Melech jubilates, and blowing a ram's horn, hails the dawn of the brotherhood of man. Attracted by the sound of the horn, a commanding officer appears on the scene, and seeing his soldiers fraternize with the enemy, cries treason. The soldiers leve their guns at him, then all vanish in smoke. Melech opens his eyes and begs his wife, who together with their daughter has remained by his side, to give him his holiday garments.   "For I have heard the call of the trumpet heralding the dawn of the universal Sabbath."


1 -- From the playbill for "The String of Pearls," Yiddish Art Theatre at the Nora Bayes Theatre. Courtesy of the New York Public Library.

2 -- Synopsis prepared by Maximilian Hurwitz.




Photographs courtesy of the New York Public Library.

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