In the endearingly-enigmatic climactic scene of Jim Jarmusch’s brilliantly-weird and weirdly-brilliant Paterson, a mysterious yet undeniably-wise member of the literati proclaims, “Hearing poetry translated is like taking a shower wearing a raincoat.” When the camera flashes to the opened book on his lap, the page contains a poem in both its original language and the reader’s native tongue.
This moment came to mind in the middle of the New Yiddish Rep’s recent revival of Sholem Asch’s God of Vengeance, which provides the rare opportunity to hear this historically-significant play as it was meant to be: in Yiddish. A large amount of the American repertory consists of plays written in other languages, yet a vast majority of their productions rely on English-language translations. Despite often commissioning top tier playwrights to translate, as the quote from Paterson suggests, these versions always lack the abundant yet precise pleasure of hearing these plays exactly as their creators envisioned.
Yet such textual fidelity can of course be a double-edged sword on occasion, and this stuffy revival’s tendency to focus almost exclusively on the timeless – as opposed to the timely – elements of the play often makes it feel like more of a theatrical antique instead of a living, breathing piece of drama. Despite the play’s impressively ahead-of-its-time analytical perspective on countless universal themes from parenting to gender dynamics and of course institutional religion – all of which it explores utilizing the antecedents of subtly transposing Shylock’s storyline from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice through the Ibsenian prism of the generational inheritance of sins – the play’s most fascinating aspect will most probably always be the uproar that the original Broadway production caused due to one of the least fascinating aspects of its content: presenting the first ever lesbian kiss on a professional American stage. It’s almost impossible not to interpret how the play handles its more controversial factors through the lens of the extreme responses it inspired, which Asch most probably had no way of knowing he was about to elicit.
Or perhaps he did in fact expect such an outcry, and thus commented on it in the subtext of the play. Regardless of his intent, the title God of Vengeance can’t help but comment on the punishment inflicted upon the original producers. Though the title most obviously refers to Yahweh – the cruel Jewish God depicted in the Old Testament, the one who tests a father’s faith by falsely convincing him he’ll have to kill his son to express his devotion – the adjectival moniker ends up capable of being applied to a wide variety of subjects in the show, from the father to (religious) forgiveness to the entirety of society and perhaps even connecting to the karmic nature of life (my fascination with the play’s legacy was no doubt amplified by Paula Vogel’s Tony-nominated Indecent from last season, which explores that very subject).
Regardless of my problems with the New Yiddish Rep’s revival, as a Jewish worshipper at the altar of theatre history, these grievances almost pale in comparison to the opportunity to engage with a part of my history known yet rarely experienced. Though this ideal of connecting to an increasingly forgotten corner of the past will not always justify a revival’s existence, sometimes a play AND production’s importance trumps the debatable quality of a theatrical revisitation.
And sometimes they don’t, as evidenced by the New Yiddish Rep’s current revival of Eugene Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, a baldy-relevant play in the age of Trump due to its exploration of the malleability of truth thanks to the harmful effects of groupthink. Though every modern use of Yiddish should be somewhat heralded for trying to preserve a dying language, I’m not sure that alone justifies any theatrical enterprise. Whereas God of Vengeance was written in Yiddish – thus making any revival special that’s performed in its native tongue – Rhinoceros was originally meant to be heard in French. In translating the play for the first time ever into Yiddish, Eli Rosen added little else besides changing the language. Director Moshe Yassur largely followed his lead, straightforwardly staging this oft-revived seminal work without respect to the altered tongue.
Again, the rarity of hearing Yiddish should be celebrated, but is it unfair to want the production to change along with the language? So many of my thoughts regarding the revival of God of Vengeance found in this piece were inspired by placing the play in its original context. Intellectually engaging the audience in a similar way with Rhinoceros would’ve required modifying components of the revival to reflect the alteration of the contextual tongue. The only instance of the production doing so – when a character goose-steps while flashing the Nazi salute, a clear connection to the ghosts of Yiddish past – is by far the most dynamic moment.
The New Yiddish Rep should by no means stick to Yiddish plays (though if they don’t produce them, who will?). But since the company has cornered an invaluable market occupied by no one else in New York, their productions would stand out much more and be true godsends if they specifically speak to Yiddish themes, either directly in the language or indirectly through distinct revivals.