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June 15: Maurice Schwartz and the Yiddish Art Theater

June 14, 2015

2011-08-19-tevyechavahA giant of the Yiddish theater as an actor, director, and producer, Maurice Schwartz was born in the Ukraine on this date in 1889. He came to the U.S. at the age of 12 and discovered the Yiddish theater, which was thriving in New York. Schwartz worked for several years as an itinerant actor before landing a contract with David Kessler’s Second Avenue Theater in 1911. In 1918 he founded the Yiddish Art Theater, which purported to elevate Yiddish theater to a more classic and sophisticated plane. The theater thrived, with its own acting school, for four decades. Its most enduring accomplishment came with Schwartz’s promotion of the writings of Sholom Aleichem, whose Tevye’s Daughters Schwartz adapted for stage and then film in 1939. A skilled and soulful actor, Schwartz starred in four Broadway plays and twenty films, mostly silent, in addition to the Yiddish theater stage. In 1959 he traveled to Israel in hope of establishing a Yiddish theater there, but he died the following year at age 70. To see him playing Tevye in the pre-Fiddler on the Roof film adaptation of Tevye’s Daughters, look below.

“Schwartz knew, as he knew theater intimately, that he had to have The Dybbuk for his splashy grand opening of the Yiddish Art Theatre. Every instinct told him this would be his greatest triumph ever. Ansky was dead, but Maurice negotiated with Chaim Zhitlowsky, Ansky’s authorized agent in America, for the five-year royalty arrangement. ‘I devoted myself to the production with great energy. I wanted to be as successful as the Vilna Troupe had been, perhaps even more so’ (Schwartz, January 14, 1942). His players, over 20 in number for this lavish but tasteful production, caught his fervor and gave their utmost during the rehearsals. The composer Josef Cherniavsky wrote a hauntingly beautiful score. The set designer, Alex Chertov, did exceptionally in his first professional assignment. Celia Adler took the role of Leah, the possessed bride. Schwartz played two distinctly different roles, as the young sweetheart Chonon, who dies in Act One, and Azrielke Miropoler, the sage rabbi, who doesn’t appear until Act Three.” —Mapping Yiddish New York