Identity and Gender Politics in Contemporary Shakespearean Rewriting

Julia Pascal’s The Yiddish Queen Lear

in European Judaism

Abstract

Julia Pascal’s The Yiddish Queen Lear, a dramatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, merges racial identity politics with gender politics as the play both traces the history of the Yiddish theatre and offers a feminist criticism of Shakespeare’s text. The use of Lear as a source text for a play about Jews illustrates that contemporary Jewish engagements with Shakespeare are more varied than reinterpretations of The Merchant of Venice. Identity politics are employed in Pascal’s manifestation of the problematic relationship between Lear and his daughters in the form of a conflict between the play’s protagonist Esther, who struggles to preserve the tradition of the Yiddish theatre, and her daughters who prefer the American cabaret. Gender politics are also portrayed with Pascal’s use of a strong woman protagonist, which contributes to the feminist criticism of Lear as well as subverting the stereotypical representation of the domestic Jewish female figure in other dramatic texts.

British Jewish playwright Julia Pascal has written two adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays, The Shylock Play (2009, based on The Merchant of Venice) and The Yiddish Queen Lear (1999, based on King Lear), in which she discusses Jewish history in Europe and in the US respectively. It is relatively uncommon to associate Shakespeare with Jewish concerns other than with regard to his widely discussed representation of Shylock. However, by engaging with another Shakespearean play, Pascal displays that contemporary Jewish responses to the playwright are not limited to the discussions of Merchant alone. In terms of the use of themes such as ‘(political) disillusion and defeat [that are more central to Lear] than any other play by Shakespeare’,1 Lear constitutes a viable source for Pascal’s adaptation, which also deals with the theme of disillusionment by portraying a group of Yiddish theatre actors that witness the loss of interest in the Yiddish theatre specifically in New York between 1939 and 1941.

In this particular ‘Shakespearean Experience’,2 as Charles Marowitz calls such indirect adaptations of Shakespeare that do not replicate the source material, Julia Pascal does not directly employ the characters or the plot of Lear; yet the fact that she uses Lear as the source text is obvious. It is clear that the play draws on the father–daughter relationship in Shakespeare’s work (re-envisioned as that of mother and daughter), and the tragic structure of the source text is mostly retained.

The following plot outline of Pascal’s play illustrates the unmistakable similarities with Shakespeare’s Lear. The play stars a female protagonist Esther as the equivalent of Lear, and she has conflicts with her three daughters as he does, albeit the reason for the conflict here rests on a disagreement over the preservation of the Yiddish theatre. The daughters, as is also clear from the initials of their names (Gail, Rachel and Channele), recall Lear’s daughters (Goneril, Regan and Cordelia), and they are also represented with some immoral features like Lear’s daughters, as observed in Gail’s affair with her sister’s husband Irving. However, in contrast to Lear, in which his daughters’ betrayal of him is a family matter, in Pascal’s version, the daughters’ rejection of Yiddish culture constitutes the backbone of the plot. Recalling Lear’s stubborn attitude, Esther is persistent in her belief that Yiddish theatrical culture should be preserved by the younger generation, and again like Lear, she goes through a psychological breakdown, transforming from a famous Yiddish theatre star into a beggar as her daughters choose not to preserve her theatre business. Reminiscent of Lear’s idea of distributing his lands to the daughters, Esther asks her daughters to take care of her theatre, at which point Gail and Rachel instead turn the place into a club. Esther is disappointed and is dismissed from her daughter Gail’s place after which, like Lear, she turns into a miserable wanderer. Consequently, with the eventual death of Esther’s loyal daughter Channele, the counterpart of Cordelia, the affinity of Pascal’s play with the tragic structure of Shakespeare’s work is maintained.

Pascal’s use of this plot structure is not designed simply to revive Shakespeare’s play, but rather to offer a political critique of Jewish history in America and Europe. By representing the concerns of a particular group of people, her work engages with the politics of identity. The function of identity politics in literary reworkings is primarily to subvert previously negative representations of specific groups that share a common identity. Accordingly, by transforming Shakespearean material, Pascal creates a space for an alternative representation of Jewish identity.

Julia Pascal portrays the problems of the Jews as an ethnic group in her play, reminding her audience that they have been subject to discrimination in various parts of the world, and that their theatre, as an integral part of their culture, has also been affected by this discrimination. Pascal’s concern for adapting a Shakespearean play to tell the history of the Yiddish theatre is significant considering the perception that British Jewish writers have not always been so proud of producing literature about topics concerning their identities. As Kerbel argues, ‘when a Jew writes about Jewishness he or she is perceived to be self-serving, parochial and/or hysterical’.3 Conversely, Julia Pascal represents the disadvantages of her own national/ethnic identity in relation to two distinct contexts: the US before and after the Second World War as the background of the plot, and contemporary Britain as the background of the production of the play, since she finds the support of Jewish theatrical activities problematic in this context as well. Pascal’s representation of the decline of the Yiddish theatre in contrast to the rise of the modern American entertainment industry may render the problem limited to the US context; however, she also makes a point about the identity of the Jew in Britain, especially with regard to the lack of theatre work in the country that offers topics about Jewish experience: ‘In the English theatre, I have long been aware that Jewish culture is seen as “not mainstream”’.4 Pascal also complains about the lack of means that would make it possible to convey this tradition to the following generations in Britain: ‘When my plays have been staged, many parents have approached me asking if I know how their child could be taught about modern Jewish theatre … Sadly, there is nowhere I can point them’.5 This statement illustrates the fact that Pascal is giving voice to the actual problems of her own context concerning British Jewish cultural practices through a fictional early twentieth-century American setting in her Shakespearean rewriting. By presenting the young Jewish generation’s lack of interest in the Yiddish theatre in her play, Pascal actually criticizes the Jews of her own day for not working enough to preserve this tradition. In ‘Yiddish and the Jewish Identity’, Barry Davis argues that ‘the second generation, the children of the immigrants … came to view Yiddish as quaint, sentimental, old-fashioned and backward looking’.6 This statement can be aptly used while discussing Esther’s daughters Gail and Rachel as stereotypical representations of ‘the Ghetto Girl’ used in traditional Yiddish dramatic works to represent the younger generations of Jewish girls that aspire to become like the modern American women.7 The representation of the younger Jewish generation that does not hold on to its cultural past becomes even more vital when considered in relation to Pascal’s discontent with contemporary Jews who do not provide support for the preservation of Jewish cultural practices including the theatre. She voices her objection: ‘Although many Jewish benefactors generously give to welfare, few extend their beneficence to Jewish cultural projects. Are they afraid of being seen as “too Jewish”?’8 Like such figures in Pascal’s statement, Esther’s daughters are also indifferent to the decline of the Yiddish theatre in the play. When Esther intends to hand the theatre and the money she has made from it to her daughters, Rachel says she would like to ‘invest it in a club’ and Gail agrees with this idea by saying that it will be ‘something well-managed, not your crazy schemes’,9 referring to Esther’s old theatre.

In order to represent the decline of Yiddish culture, America, as a multicultural society, constitutes an appropriate context for Pascal’s concern about identity. Pascal is sceptical about the survival of individual aspects of different identity groups in the country, as she regards America as a place where it does not matter ‘whether we are Black, Jewish, Muslim’.10 In this light, she draws attention to the problem of disintegration and loss of practices that are endemic to certain cultures like that of the Yiddish theatre. The representation of the particular group of Jews in her play reflects their success in America in terms of specifically Jewish cultural activities that they have established there. The characters listen to the Jewish American radio, for instance, which indicates the existence of Jewish media in America. In a similar vein, the dress made of the Yiddish newspaper Der Tog put on by Esther as her costume for her daughter’s wedding ceremony is also suggestive of the existence of Jewish publication in the country as well as Esther’s devotion to Yiddish culture, which is juxtaposed with the daughters’ lack of loyalty throughout the play. However, the play’s emphasis is more on the disillusionment of the Jews that is illustrated through various means, such as the song played on the radio, ‘What Can You Mach? S’is America’ by Aaron Lebedeff and Alexander Olschanetsky. The use of this particular song in the play, which tells the story of a Jew who finds it hard to belong in America, sheds light on the conflict between the traditional elderly Jewish characters in the play and the assimilated younger generation with the depiction of Esther’s daughters.

The contrast between the lack of interest in Yiddish theatre in the contemporary period and its popularity in the past illustrates Pascal’s own nostalgia for a period when diversity in identity was celebrated. Considering this nostalgia especially in terms of the Yiddish theatre in America, the prominence of the Yiddish theatre for a certain period in history needs to be acknowledged to understand the disillusionment concerning this issue. It is stated that between the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, Yiddish theatre became a significant cultural institution as many Jews attended these theatres in the New York City ghetto.11 Joel Berkowitz also describes the previous popularity of Yiddish theatre as ‘a pulsating, vital entity of adoring fans, actors … magisterial playwrights, and fascinated visitors’.12 By portraying the play’s protagonist Esther in the image of Esther Rachel Kaminska, a famous actor on the American Yiddish stage, Pascal depicts Esther’s misery alongside the young actors in her company in a way that mirrors the actual decline of this theatrical tradition. This gradual shift that affected the theatre culture of the day is best explained in relation to the history of the Jews in a global context because, clearly, the persecution of the Jews in Europe and the younger generation’s increased social integration into the dominant American culture had an impact on the acceptance of their cultural practices. Prager explains the influence of the history of the Jews in Europe on the reception of the Yiddish theatre elsewhere:

Modern Yiddish literature and its sister, the modern Yiddish stage … struggled heroically to discover their own true voices, and, having learned to sing confidently in almost every register, the world finally listening with respect, were virtually silenced by the Nazi and Stalinist Molochs.13

In order to address the problem of persecution of the Jews as a global one, much as Pascal’s play talks about the problems of the Jews in the early twentieth century, it also points to the discrimination against the Jews in various historical epochs and locations. For instance, Annie, an actor in Esther’s theatre, reminds the others of the repetitiveness of Jewish history, mentioning their expulsion from England during King Edward’s reign and the fact that they were driven from France by the Crusaders.14 Drawing on Wistrich’s observation that ‘there has been no hatred in Western Christian civilisation more persistent and enduring than that directed against the Jews’,15 the mention of historical persecution of the Jews contributes to the discussion of Pascal’s play in terms of identity politics. All the actors in Esther’s company are Jewish immigrants from Europe, for instance. Annie mentions the experience of the pogroms and the peasants who kept spitting at her as she passed them on the streets when she first moved from Poland to America.16 Considering the fact that another actor, Joseph, cannot find a job due to his Jewishness, it becomes clear that antisemitism also continues up to their day. Feeling alienated from their recent American context, they express their feeling of nostalgia for their home countries, although they do not possess a certain sense of belonging and do not see much hope there either. The association of identity politics with Pascal’s play is also apparent in the decision to cast Ruth Posner in the production of the play at Southwark Playhouse in 1999. As ‘a real-life survivor [who] escaped from the Warsaw ghetto’,17 the deliberate choice of casting Ruth Posner in the role of Esther renders the play’s political undertones more evident and enhances the authenticity of the play by conflating the actual experiences of the actors with that of the fictional characters; this decision serves to remind viewers that what is acted on the stage is closely related to actual historical experiences.

Pascal’s play also lends itself to reading in terms of gender politics, both as an adaptation of Shakespeare from a female point of view and as a work in its own right with its depiction of strong female characters. In this play, Pascal brings national identity and gender politics together as the representation of gender contributes to appreciating her concern for a particular representation of Jewish identity. Initially, with the representation of a female protagonist as a recreation of the strong male figure of Shakespeare’s Lear, Pascal makes a point about the treatment (or lack of treatment) of female characters by Shakespeare, and the representation of Jewish female characters in other dramatic works. As she argues, ‘looking at a Queen Lear rather than a King gave me the chance to explore a non-traditional Jewish family … from the female point of view’.18 It is known that the Yiddish theatre portrayed powerful female characters on the stage. In particular, Esther Rachel Kaminska, whose story is central to understanding Pascal’s play, is famous for personifying such strong roles as ‘the glamorous Queen, or the brilliant Diva [that] represented new, positive, and very divergent versions of Jewish femininity’.19 Apparently, Pascal appreciates the representation of gender achieved years ago on the Yiddish stage, and in her imagining of Esther’s character, she intends that ‘the Yiddish Queen Lear, does not represent the cliché of the young beautiful Jewess’.20 Esther’s characterization according to Pascal’s imagining of a strong Jewish woman, and her criticism of the stereotypically subservient Jewish female figure, are reflected in the fact that Esther is a popular and knowledgeable director who forcefully asks the actors auditioning for her theatre to act properly and informs them about the acting methods of the Russian director and actor Meyerhold.

Shakespeare’s Lear has often been subjected to feminist criticism for the obvious reason that Queen Lear is excluded from the plot. As Julie Sanders comments about rewritings that prioritize transformations of characterization in their source text, ‘Many appropriations have a joint political and literary investment in giving voice to those characters … oppressed or repressed in the original’.21 In contemporary adaptations of Shakespeare’s plays by women writers, the introduction of missing mothers subverts ‘the prevailing patriarchal practices in literature and male dominance in culture and society’.22 To point out the ambiguity around the absence of the Queen in Lear, in Pascal’s version, Esther does not talk much about the whereabouts of her daughters’ fathers. The relation of Shakespeare to Pascal’s play in terms of gender politics is also evident in Esther’s criticism of Shakespeare during a scene at the beginning of the play centred around auditions for Hamlet. As she has difficulty in finding a proper male actor for the role, she complains, ‘if only Shakespeare had written Hamlet for women’,23 implying she would find appropriate women actors for the role much more easily as women were dominant and successful on the Yiddish stage. By criticizing Shakespeare’s depiction of male characters as more prominent than female ones, Pascal also makes a comment about the centrality of the female actors in the development of the Yiddish theatre. In this sense, Prager’s more general statement including the role of female characters in Yiddish literature supports Pascal’s point: ‘Yiddish literature was primarily, though by no means exclusively, a literature for women’.24 Considering the fact that as early as 1898, there was a rewriting of Lear with the title The Jewish Queen Lear by Jacob Gordin on the Yiddish stage, Pascal’s engagement with gender politics conveys nostalgia for the representation of strong female figures in traditional Yiddish drama.

To conclude, with a discussion of Jewish female identity, Pascal’s Yiddish Queen Lear exemplifies a powerful formal and thematic deconstruction of Lear. Although gender and ethnic identity may not be the central topics of Shakespeare’s Lear, by appropriating the motivations of Shakespeare’s characters and intentions of the source text, Pascal’s transformation uses the play for an alternative purpose – obviously one unintended by Shakespeare – to explore the history of the Yiddish theatre. As Shakespeare’s plays were popularly adapted for the Yiddish stage in the past, Pascal’s revision of the Shakespearean material also functions as a homage to the Yiddish theatre.25 Additionally, the fact that her play follows the three-handkerchief structure of traditional Yiddish drama that consists of ‘a birth, a marriage and a death’26 means that The Yiddish Queen Lear also serves as a revival of the Yiddish theatre conventions on the contemporary British stage. Given these points, Pascal’s play, which has been performed twice in Britain (first at Southwark Playhouse in 1999, then at the Bridewell Theatre in 2001), represents a cultural and global take on Shakespeare that broadens the extant interpretations of his play with its emphasis on identity and gender politics as explored through the history of the Yiddish dramatic tradition.

Notes
1

Peter Holbrook, ‘The Left and King Lear’, Textual Practice 14, no. 2 (2000), 343–362.

2

Charles Marowitz, Recycling Shakespeare (Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1991).

3

Sorrel Kerbel, Jewish Writers of the Twentieth Century (London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2003).

4

Julia Pascal, ‘Millennial Longings’, Jewish Quarterly 52, no. 4 (2005), 10–11.

5

Julia Pascal, ‘Creating Space for Jewish Theatre’, Jewish Quarterly 50, no. 3 (2003), 73–76.

6

Barry Davis, ‘Yiddish and the Jewish Identity’, History Workshop 23 (1987), 159–164.

7

Sharon Power, ‘Yiddish Theatre Actresses and American Jewish Identity’, Shofar: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Jewish Studies 30, no. 3 (2012), 84–107.

8

Pascal, ‘Millennial Longings’, 11.

9

Julia Pascal, The Yiddish Queen Lear; Woman in the Moon (London: Oberon Books, 2011).

10

Julia Pascal, ‘Braithwaite, Silverstein and Shah’, Jewish Quarterly 44, no. 2 (1997), 19–30.

11

M.G., ‘Jewish Theatre Issue: An Introduction’, The Drama Review: TDR 24, no. 3 (1980), 2–4.

12

Joel Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage (Iowa: Iowa University Press, 2005).

13

Leonard Prager, ‘Shakespeare in Yiddish’, Shakespeare Quarterly 19, no. 2 (1968), 149–158, here 149.

14

Pascal, The Yiddish Queen Lear, 63.

15

Robert S. Wistrich, ‘The Devil, The Jews, and Hatred of the “Other”’, in Demonizing the Other: Antisemitism, Racism and Xenophobia, ed. Robert S. Wistrich (London: Routledge, 2013), 1–15, here 1.

16

Pascal, The Yiddish Queen Lear, 26.

17

Sonia Massai, ‘Preface’, in The Shylock Play (London: Oberon Books, 2008), 7–11, here 7.

18

Julia Pascal, ‘Introduction’, in The Yiddish Queen Lear, 7–11, here 8.

19

Power, ‘Yiddish Theatre’, 101.

20

Julia Pascal, ‘“I Want to Create a European-Jewish-British Theatre Where Women Have a New Role”: An Interview with Julia Pascal’, Gender Forum 7 (2003), 32–50.

21

Julie Sanders, Adaptation and Appropriation (Oxon: Routledge, 2016), 98.

22

Marianne Novy, Transforming Shakespeare: Contemporary Women’s Re-Visions in Literature and Performance (Hampshire: Palgrave, 2000).

23

Pascal, The Yiddish Queen Lear, 18.

24

Prager, ‘Shakespeare in Yiddish’, 151.

25

Some important Yiddish dramatic adaptations of Shakespeare include Jacob Gordin’s The Yiddish King Lear (1892), Mirele Efros or The Jewish Queen Lear (1898); Isidore Zolatarevsky’s The Yeshiva Boy (1899) as a rewriting of Hamlet; Nokhem Rakov’s The Oath on the Torah or the Jewish Romeo and Juliet (1903); and Boris Thomashefsky’s The Pretty American (1910) as an appropriation of The Taming of the Shrew.

26

Pascal, ‘Introduction’, 8.

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Contributor Notes

Özlem Özmen is a PhD candidate in the Department of English Language and Literature at Hacettepe University. She studies contemporary rewritings of Shakespeare’s plays.

European Judaism

A Journal for the New Europe