“The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk”

May 21, 2012

Last year, under cover of night, E1 Entertainment let loose DVDs of a pair of rare and fascinating early television dramas.  It is unfortunate that “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk” received so little publicity, since they are at present – apart from Sidney Lumet’s two-part, four-hour staging of “The Iceman Cometh” – the only commercially available segments of Play of the Week.

Play of the Week was perhaps the grandest outpost of the FCC-mandated Sunday afternoon cultural ghetto of the fifties.  Most of its productions were feature-length, and they attracted top-tier talent.  The two episodes here were likely chosen not because they represent the very best of Play of the Week, but instead to appeal to a cultural niche.  Even for the goyim among us, though, they are of considerable interest.

Both DVDs contain helpful liner notes by the brilliant J. Hoberman, the recently, scandalously laid-off Village Voice film critic (and a specialist in Jewish cinema).  Hoberman details the history of the two properties, both of which derived from modern theatrical adaptations of late nineteenth or early twentieth century works, contextualizing them within the oeuvres of the original writers, within Yiddish culture, and within the New York theater of the fifties.  But the two Play of the Weeks are also worth examining as examples of the talent-heavy event productions that flourished briefly in the late fifties and early sixties, the period in which videotape displaced live transmission as the technological mode by which anthological television was shown.

“The World of Sholom Aleichem” was adapted by Arnold Perl, who would go on to become one of the most talented and uncompromising writer-producers working in sixties television.  But the secret author of the piece was the blacklist.  Perl and most of the show’s repertory cast had been blacklisted, and would remain unemployable on the networks for many more years.  Play of the Week was able to hire them only because it was an independent, unsponsored production.  (Using blacklisted talent was still a courageous move on the part of the producers, Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman, and upon its broadcast “The World of Sholom Aleichem” became a predictable magnet for right-wing froth-at-the-mouthers.)  The successful 1955 stage version of The World of Sholom Aleichem had probably saved Perl from professional oblivion, since his most substantial pre-blacklist work had been done in a medium (radio) and later for a television company (Bernard Prockter Productions, which had used Perl as a story editor on Treasury Men in Action and Big Story) which were long defunct by the time the blacklist crested.

Perl’s mature, post-blacklist work tends to fall into one of two categories – the blunt, accusatory rhetoric of his leftist passion plays for East Side / West Side (including the Emmy-nominated “Who Do You Kill,” about the fatal consequences of urban poverty and institutionalized racism) and the eccentric, quasi-existentialist black comedies he wrote for The Chrysler Theater.  “The World of Sholom Aleichem” harnesses both of these impulses, and the distinctive tension between them may represent Perl’s primary stamp on material that was not, of course, his own.

Indeed, the “world” of Mr. Aleichem (a nom de plume for Solomon Rabinovich) is very loosely defined.  Perl’s decision to include a piece by a different writer, Y. L. Peretz, in between two actual Aleichem works is already a bold assertion of editorial control.  “Bontche Schweig,” in Hoberman’s phrase “an allegory of proletarian passivity,” follows a much-abused nobody (Jack Gilford) through the gates of heaven; exhorted by the angels to finally speak out for himself, Schweig at last makes the humblest request imaginable.  The expert timing of the long build-up and quick reversal in this mordant, loaded vignette is worthy of early Woody Allen, although I think the true topper to Peretz’s punchline came not from Perl but from one of his contemporaries, Ernest Kinoy, when he took “B. Schweig” as his pseudonym.  (“Schweig,” just to explain the joke, is Yiddish for “silent.”)

As Hoberman notes, the first segment, “A Tale of Chelm,” diverges broadly from Aleichem’s original fable, in which a tailor is driven to economic ruin and madness by the inexplicable sex changes of his goat.  Perl, abetted by the casting of the comedic actors Zero Mostel and Nancy Walker, turns the Aleichem story into almost a Hebrew Honeymooners, a farce of home and community that offers an earthly explanation for the bovine’s gender reassignment and makes room for much of the kind of verbal wit that one associates with “Jewish humor.”  By contrast, the final story, “The High School,” has no humor at all.  Perl expresses his didactic streak in this nearly hour-long piece, which casts Goldbergs matriarch Gertrude Berg in a rare straight role.  An East Side / West Side for the turn of the century, “The High School” methodically chronicles a father’s acceptance of the merits of higher education for his teenaged son, and then the family’s lengthy and appalling struggle to triumph over the quotas that excluded Jews from most institutions of learning.

If “The World of Sholom Aleichem” was executed by a writer of some distinction and a journeyman director – Don Richardson, who slid quickly from The Defenders to Lost in Space after a move to Hollywood – then “The Dybbuk” reverses that equation.  Its source, a play by S. Ansky, was adapted by Joseph Liss, a minor writer who toiled amid the legendary talents who emerged from The Philco Television Playhouse and Studio One.  But the director of “The Dybbuk” was Sidney Lumet, already (at thirty-six) an Academy Award-nominated feature director and soon to leave television behind for good.  Looking nervous and struggling to remember (or read) his lines, Lumet appears at the beginning of “The Dybbuk” to explain his personal investment in the material: his father starred in a production of the play in 1927, which also happened to be the first play Lumet saw in the Yiddish theater.  His presence on camera reminds us that the director was a bigger star than anyone in his cast save the ingenue, Carol Lawrence, who was then playing Maria on Broadway in West Side Story.  (Don Richardson may have been just as personally invested in “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” but no one was going to give him a chance to tell that to the world.)

“The Dybbuk” captures Lumet’s television style at its apex, and the show is of interest primarily as a kind of auteurist snapshot.  Regardless of his personal (and ethnic) connection to the material, Lumet was, in some ways, an odd match for “The Dybbuk.”  Lumet was one of the cinema’s great rationalists, and despite its folkloric trappings “The Dybbuk” is essentially a ghost story, one that culminates with incidents of demonic possession and exorcism.  It’s easy to imagine someone like John Frankenheimer (who had staged “The Turn of the Screw” on Sunday Showcase a year earlier) devising clever trick shots and turning the show into a look-what-we-can-do-on-videotape extravaganza.

Lumet, true to his nature, de-emphasizes the paranormal elements.  There are no special effects in “The Dybbuk.”  When the spirit of the doomed Channon (Michael Tolan) appears on screen, he simply rises from behind a mound of dirt or, in the moving final scene, stands in the gloom, a row of tall candles acting as the bars between him and the corporeal world.  Lumet orchestrates the demonic possession simply by having Lawrence, playing the possessed, and the off-screen Tolan speak in unison.  The effect of the male and female voices blending is disturbing, even when the actors slip out of synch with one another.

Despite its subject matter, “The Dybbuk” evinces a certain distaste for the supernatural.  The wizened elder (Ludwig Donath) who narrates the play – initially unidentified as he addresses the audience directly, this character later turns out to be the community’s rabbi – refers to the Kabbalah as “a mountain of foolishness.”  The Kabbalah is what gets Channon in trouble; Hoberman describes his sudden death as punishment for blasphemy, but I think the cause, in Lumet’s staging, remains more ambiguous.  Lumet cuts away from Tolan, staring upward and addressing God, just before he falls.  Channon’s mortal distress in this split second is so hard to discern that it comes as a surprise when his body is discovered some time later.   Could Frankenheimer have resisted a lightning bolt here?  It is as if Lumet cannot bear either the melodramatic or the metaphysical implications of a vengeful god.

Lumet’s staging of that moment is unexpected and effective, but his restraint works less well in other sections of “The Dybbuk.”  Lumet puts his faith in the text and the performers; his only repeated visual flourish in “The Dybbuk” is a camera crane, which he uses imaginatively at times (pulling up to a heavenly point of view, for instance, during Channon’s final speech to God).   But the first act is talky and confined (to two rooms in a synagogue), and Lumet’s stiff compositions and timid camera placement cannot sustain the nearly forty minutes of expository Torah instruction and kibitzing from Channon’s fellow students (Stefan Gierasch, Jerry Rockwood, and Gene Saks, all charming and funny) that pass before the play’s tragic romance is activated.  “The Dybbuk” doesn’t come alive, as it were, until Channon’s soul enters Leah’s body.

Lumet sets up what I think is a deliberate clash of performance styles in “The Dybbuk,” using his actors to delineate a line between reason and emotion.  While the actors playing the Jewish elders remain contained, the pair playing the young lovers – Tolan and Lawrence – give expressive, Method-styled performances.  Lumet stages their first meeting almost entirely with voiceover, as they stare at each other across a room, forbidden by social custom from interacting for more than a moment.

The two actors generate real heat in this scene – if they didn’t, “The Dybbuk” would collapse completely at this point – and later Tolan’s intensity as he turns to the Kabbalah is mesmerizing.  (Tolan rightly considered this one of his best performances).  The final exorcism of the dybbuk again defies the conventions of the genre.  In his boldest directorial choice, Lumet stages it as a modern dance piece, choreographed by Anna Sokolow and beautifully executed by Lawrence.

Lumet insists on precise, minimalist work from all of the older actors – Ludwig Donath and Michael Shillo as the rabbis and especially Theodore Bikel, who, as the father of the bride and the target of the spirits’ anger, gives perhaps the most unadorned performance of a generally flamboyant career.  The Judaic Van Helsings who dominate the second half of “The Dybbuk” feel like transplants from a later era of genre filmmaking.  They affect the same implacable, matter-of-fact approach toward the unknown as Nigel Kneale’s Professor Quatermass or The Exorcist’s Father Karras and Father Merrin.  (The Dybbuk’s incongruously doubled voice also anticipates Linda Blair’s growling demon voice in the Friedkin film.)  The rabbis pore over the ancient texts and debate the finer points of theology like scientists testing a thesis; then debate with the disembodied like lawyers in a (literal) trial; then finally perform the exorcism like surgeons probing for a tumor.  The possession of Leah, though clearly a paranormal event, does not inspire fear.  Rather, it is a social problem that must be solved through careful consideration and concerted action.  Upon a text rooted in ancient myth – Ansky derived “The Dybbuk” from Hasidic folklore he collected on an ethnographic expedition through the Ukraine – Lumet casts a modern and somewhat secular gaze.

If “The Dybbuk” remains in some ways a remote, flawed work, it may be because the strands of logic and emotionalism set up by Lumet (who structured many of his films, beginning with 12 Angry Men, along the same schematic lines) often seem to coexist rather than cohere.  As Hoberman points out, Lawrence’s West Side Story association provides a key subtext for “The Dybbuk.”  The Romeo and Juliet template of star-crossed lovers is present in the Ansky play; it is a universal idea amid an ocean of specific cultural references, and Lumet seizes upon it. Lawrence’s dark beauty, which dominates the climax, appears to have been his chief inspiration.

The doomed romance in “The Dybbuk” serves as an entry point into a show that, like “The World of Sholom Aleichem,” does not pander to gentiles.  Both shows deploy on-screen narrators – Sam Levene as Mendele the Bookseller in “Sholom Aleichem” and Donath in “The Dybbuk” – who make a token attempt to explain Yiddish culture to the uninitiated, but many of the finer points will be lost on non-Jews.  The axiom that television was parochial enough in the fifties to permit ethnic art like The Goldbergs, but quickly turned homogeneous once the cross-country cable was connected, is probably too simplistic.  Still, Play of the Week, with its proto-PBS diagram for highbrow quality television, was a defiant exercise in courting a niche audience long before the days of the cable multiverse.

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7 Responses to ““The World of Sholom Aleichem” and “The Dybbuk””

  1. Patrick Mehr Says:

    Sholom Aleichem’s autobiography, From the Fair, is now available as an eBook from Plunkett Lake Press: http://www.plunkettlakepress.com/ftf.html

  2. Brian Says:

    Excellent piece of work.

    And it’s nice to see something about MIchael Tolan.

    Thanks.

  3. Mark Speck Says:

    Agree with the above comment about Michael Tolan…is he still with us?

  4. Larry Granberry Says:

    I may be mistaken, but weren’t the producers of Play of the Week the same ones who did the excellent American Film Theater series in the 1970′s? If so, there was some excellent work done there also (in particular Frankenheimer’s film of “The Iceman Cometh,” which featured Robert Ryan’s last performance).

    • Stephen Bowie Says:

      Yes, Ely Landau, later of the AFT, was the executive at WNTA who conceived Play of the Week and made it happen, although he wasn’t credited on-screen (at least not on either of these shows). The credited producers were Henry T. Weinstein and Lewis Freedman on “The World of Sholom Aleichem” and Worthington Miner and Freedman on “The Dybbuk.” Bob Rafelson, incidentally, was the story editor during the first season.

  5. Todd Mason Says:

    At least a few PLAY OF THE WEEK productions are out in the BROADWAY THEATER ARCHIVE dvd series from Kultur.

  6. Stephen Bowie Says:

    Indeed … including some big ones that I still haven’t seen, like “The Master Builder.”

    Sadly, the Broadway Theater Archive’s paper materials were wiped out with the World Trade Center … although, thankfully, the tapes were housed elsewhere:


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