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Abie’s Irish Rose

Lawrence Bush
May 22, 2017

Abie’s Irish Rose, a play about a young Irish woman and a young Jewish man who marry despite the objections of their families, premiered at Broadway’s Fulton Theater on this date in 1922. It would run for 2,327 performances until October 1, 1927, a record that would not be broken until Hello, Dolly! came to the stage in the 1960s. Abie’s Irish Rose also became a radio series from 1942-44, and was filmed twice, in 1928 (pictured above) and 1946. The playwright, Anne Nichols, saw her work imitated widely and sued one of her imitators, Universal Pictures, for its The Cohens and Kellys, a movie about an Irish boy who marries a Jewish girl. In the case, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit found for the company and determined that copyright protection cannot be extended to character traits. In his legal opinion, Judge Learned Hand offered an excellent summary of the play, which focuses on a concealed marriage, two widower fathers, a priest and a rabbi, and a set of twins: “At Christmas,” wrote Judge Hand, “each [father], led by his craving to see his grandchild, goes separately to the young folks’ home, where they encounter each other, each laden with gifts, one for a boy, the other for a girl. After some slapstick comedy, depending upon the insistence of each that he is right about the sex of the grandchild, they become reconciled when they learn the truth, and that each child is to bear the given name of a grandparent. The curtain falls as the fathers are exchanging amenities, and the Jew giving evidence of an abatement in the strictness of his Orthodoxy.”

“It is doubtful that Ms. Nichols missed any Irish or Jewish stereotypes in creating her representative characters. Neither did she bother with religious practice if acknowledging Jewish or Catholic rituals would interfere with her plot. . . . Ms. Nichols manages to pull off gaffes and ethnic jokes with such a kind heart and gentle manner that it is easy to understand the popular appeal of ‘Abie’s Irish Rose.’ . . . Realism was certainly not the goal as much as idealism and a yearning for a peaceful multicultural society.” --Leah D. Frank, New York Times

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.