A LIFE ON THE STAGE By Jacob Adler
Translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld
403 pages, $30
By the time America entered World War I, there were 22 Yiddish theaters in New York City, and frequent Yiddish productions in major American cities from Boston to Chicago. This incredible flowering of theater in a language born in the ghettos and desolate villages of Eastern Europe was in no small part due to the drive and talent of Jacob Adler, the son of an Orthodox family in Odessa and the patriarch of an acting family that included his wife, Sara Adler, and his children, Luther and Stella Adler.
"A Life on the Stage" is his granddaughter Lulla Rosenfeld's translation from the Yiddish of a serialized chronicle written by her grandfather when he was 60 years old for the Yiddish newspaper Die Varheit (The Truth). The memoir, which covers Adler's childhood in czarist Russia, his struggles as an actor in Russia and then in London, and his emergence into international fame in New York, was written between 1919 and 1925, ending just before his death early in 1926.
Although the writing is overblown and tends to sentimentalize events and glorify Adler's own role in the development of Yiddish theater, the book as a whole is informative and often touching. What we see here is not only his life in the theater -- fascinating in its own right -- but also the context in which Adler and his colleagues tried to live and work. Because he tends to downplay and take for granted the poverty of prerevolutionary Russia and the violence of antisemitism and pogroms, we see and feel his situation all the more deeply. "A Life on the Stage" is thus a book that says as much between the lines as in the printed words themselves.
The story of a child who felt called to the stage is familiar enough; what is unusual is Adler's persistence in the face of Russia's hostility toward his people and their language, his family's disapproval, the constant in-fighting among actors and producers, and a taste by his public -- poorer and uneducated Jews -- for melodramas and coarse comedies that he himself thought worthless. Through it all, performances in hamlets where the stage was erected in a barn or the stable, frigid cities where the police had to be bribed or Orthodox rabbis appeased, Adler imagined a theater to rival the great companies of Europe, where the classics could be performed to an audience who would appreciate good work "on a new and better level."
Jacob Adler achieved his great success later in life thanks in large part to the perennial difficulties in his homeland, and especially to Czar Alexander III's edict in 1883 forbidding Yiddish theater "throughout the length and breadth of Russia." Forced to leave a city and a country he loved, Adler found receptive audiences in London.
It wasn't, however, until Adler and his small contingent emigrated to New York that he and Yiddish theater finally came into their own. It was in New York that he starred in "The Yiddish King Lear," played Shylock in "The Merchant of Venice" and Iago in "Othello." By 1911, his fame was such that the estate of Leo Tolstoy gave him the first American rights to "The Living Corpse," Tolstoy's recently discovered drama.
Throughout the text, Rosenfeld has added extensive notes that fill in gaps in Adler's story. She is the author of a history of Yiddish theater, and her expertise both as an Adler family member and as a scholar adds immeasurably. Where Adler is coy or elliptical, she is direct and informative, relating dates, places, and people to significant elements in his story.