Joy of shtetls, sex and suspicious parents

David Pinski's 1906 bittersweet comedy, Treasure


It is a line that carries so much meaning: "I see it is with your daughter I must speak." The Marriage Broker - maker of matches between inventors and society belles, millionaires and the progeny of the very best families - realises that the person wearing the trousers in this family is not the tongue-tied man of the house. It's actually the young woman, diamonds sparkling on her fingers, admiring the swish and sway of her lavish new skirt. So, very sensibly, the Marriage Broker does business with her instead.

This is the turning point in David Pinski's 1906 bittersweet comedy, Treasure. Judke, the disabled son of a dirt-poor gravedigger, has unearthed some gold coins in the graveyard of a Jewish community in the Russian Pale. This can only mean there's more treasure to be found: hundreds, thousands - millions, perhaps. The amount's capped only by how high the townsfolk dare to imagine. There's just one snag: Judke can't remember where he found the coins.

This doesn't stop Tille, the gravedigger's daughter, exploiting the situation to the hilt. She takes the sovereigns and uses them to buy herself a wardrobe worthy of one of the Marriage Broker's most eligible young ingénues. This isn't an act of thoughtless vanity, though, because Tille's got a plan. She's got her heart set on a purchase altogether more fabulous than a silk parasol - a husband, and not just any rich aristo with millions burning a hole in his pocket: he's got to be gorgeous, too.

Tille's gamble pays off. The Marriage Broker, who's previously shunned Tille's ragged, poverty-stricken family, comes calling. From that point on, no one can stop her.

If the turning point for the characters in this sharp, witty satire is the moment the Marriage Broker realises he's met his match - in all senses - in Tille, so this play was also a turning point for me. Yiddish theatre, I realised, is a genre with a real interest in, and affection for, its female characters. Treasure's Tille - and the women in many other Yiddish plays of the period - are not just two-dimensional characters forced to pick from a wilted bouquet of stock emotions (heartbroken hysteria, moony hero worship, unfulfilment curdled into shrewishness) as so many women of British and American drama of the same period are.

Nor are Yiddish theatre's women just echo-chambers for the male characters' egos, or hourglass-waisted golems moulded to a lazy stereotype (loving victim, predatory lover) - a mould in which too many of today's playwrights still cast female characters.

Instead, the women in Yiddish drama tear up stereotypes, vigorously, messily and altogether without refinement, just as the characters in Pinski's Treasure tear up the graveyard.

Tille's the best kind of theatrical protagonist - both flawed and self-analytical, simultaneously impulsive and rational, and very, very funny, all characteristics that you can find hanging in many sizes on the men's side of the period drama costume drama rail, and hardly ever on the women's.

But it's not just David Pinski who writes female roles and experience into the heart of his drama. Yiddish theatre's full of examples of bold, combative women who refuse to accept the path that convention's laid out for them.

One brilliant play that explores female friendship, and love, in the most open-minded way is Sholom Asch's God of Vengeance. In this play, written in 1918, the daughter of a brothel owner falls in love with one of her father's prostitutes. They kiss passionately, on stage, and then elope together. This show toured, without comment, round Eastern Europe for several years. The first night it was put on in Broadway, in 1923, the entire company of actors was arrested the next day and the show lambasted for its "immoral" content.

And then, of course, there's Jacob Gordin's muscular family saga, Mirele Efros, often called the "Jewish Queen Lear", in which a powerful matriarch's authority is challenged by her daughter-in-law. The title character has not inherited her empire, as Shakespeare's Lear does, but has built it herself through hard graft. When she's ousted, she puts up a raw, savage fight, reasoning, shouting and cursing at full throttle. Even in plays which, more conventionally, have male storylines at their heart, the female characters don't give the male protagonists an easy ride. In Gordin's powerful, Faustus-like moral fable God, Man and Devil, the female characters' journeys are given scope, compassionate treatment, and, above all, an honest and non-judgmental interest.

This foregrounding of female experience - all the more radical for being unforced, for simply being a dominant texture in the fabric of so many Yiddish plays - is all the more remarkable because Yiddish theatre didn't even exist before 1876. Its beginnings were inauspicious: a two-act play by a dramatist called Avrom Goldfaden was performed one evening in the beer garden of a café in Romania. No one could have predicted that, 40 years later, the genre would have crossed continents, be as popular in New York as it was in Warsaw, and be exerting a huge influence on Broadway and the development of American musical theatre.

Yiddish theatre's treatment of women is even more remarkable because of the context in which most playwrights and actors had been born and brought up: a rural shtetl culture that was often very traditional, conservative, and sceptical both of sexual freedom and female emancipation.

It wasn't just fictional women, like Treasure's Tille, to whom Yiddish theatre gave opportunities, though; as the madcap, clownish novel Wandering Stars, by Sholom Aleichem, recounts, the touring Yiddish theatre exerted a powerful hold over the real women who came to see their shows. As the novel delights in reminding us, when a theatre troupe descended on a town, it was not uncommon for the following daybreak to be heralded not by the crowing of the village cockerel but by alarmed shrieks and lamentations. Parents were grieving over their daughters' empty beds: the girls would have shimmied out of the window and run off to join the theatre.

Yiddish theatre's radical treatment of women reflects an even more profound facet about the genre: its fearless taking-on of the status quo. The plays, just like the character of Tille in Treasure, are restlessly, fiercely self-critical - they wrestle, again and again, with the questions of who are we; what's beautiful and what's rotten about us; where do we find, and how do we hold on to, the essence of our mentshlekhkayt, our humanity.

The fight for female emancipation in Yiddish theatre goes hand in hand with the fight for freedom - Tille's struggle is, at its heart, not for riches or material wealth, but for the freedom to be seen as a human being, as a mentsch.

''I'll walk along the streets and down the boulevard,'' Tille says, imagining a trip to town decked out in her finery, ''and you'll see the great and the small will stare until their eyes burst.'' This isn't so much about the glint of her diamonds, or the sheen of her silk parasol, or even about being seen as a woman. Rather, it's about being seen, simply - but perhaps most radically of all - as a human being.

This is why Treasure is so resonant for our times - not just because it's a vigorous satire on materialism, and a sometimes funny, sometimes slapstick, sometimes poignant examination of a community forced to own up to its hypocrisy. It's about the struggle of someone who has nothing to be accorded the same rights and respect as everyone else.

And that's an idea that couldn't feel more timely.

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