This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Show Must Go On *

It took a full two decades before Jews began to formulate literary and theological responses to the murder of European Jewry at the hands of the Nazis and their collaborators. Whether this was because of the despondence of the survivors, the enormity of the tragedy, their fear of raising parochial concerns, or for any of the numerous other reasons that have been proposed to account for the delay-- the fact is that until the mid-1960s, there existed few aesthetic frameworks for expressing and sharing their grief.

Remarkably, some of the earliest known artistic attempts to confront the Nazi horror, from the time when the implementation of Hitler's Final Solution was still in its initial stages, took the form of a traditional genre of Ashkenazic Jewish folklore, the "Purim-shpiel," a dramatic reenactment of the story of Esther. 

Neither of the plays that I will be describing here originated in traditional or religious circles. And yet in two very different settings, the respective authors and their audiences found something in this traditional genre that was strikingly relevant to the twentieth-century catastrophe.

The Yiddish play entitled "Homens Mapole" [Haman's downfall] was staged frequently between 1945 and 1949 to audiences in Paris and other centres in Europe, South America and the United States. It was billed as an avant-garde modernist work, and its audiences were not always limited to Jewish survivors. Its author was a devoted communist from Bialystok named Haim Sloves who had been residing in Paris since 1927 and remained throughout his career an ardent advocate of Yiddish culture. The production in a tongue that had been all but obliterated was hailed by some as a veritable resurrection of the Jewish spirit.

A "biblical opera" entitled "Esther" was broadcast as an episode in the "Columbia Workshop" series for CBS radio in August 1941. It formed part of a trilogy of biblical dramatizations that also included episodes about Samson and Job, and featured original music by Lyn Murray. Its author was one of the most creative figures of the "golden age" of radio drama, Norman Corwin (who at the time of this writing is approaching his 101st birthday and is a lecturer at the University of Southern California). Many of the plays that he wrote or directed in the 1930s grappled with political or social issues. Corwin came from a temple-affiliated Jewish family and, though he was never religiously observant, some of his work is noticeably influenced by biblical and other Jewish values. A poetic passage from his acclaimed 1945 radio play "On a Note of Triumph"--celebrating the Allied victory in Europe--was incorporated into one of the prayer books issued by the American Reform movement.

While Corwin's play stuck quite close to the plot of the biblical text, Sloves' was deeply rooted in the Ashkenazic Jewish Purim-shpiel tradition. This entailed various humorous and anachronistic elements [such as when Haman boasts that he is greater than "Columbus who will one day, God willing, discover new islands"]; as well as occasional allusions to religious sentiments--such as Mordecai's devotion to God and the hopes for supernatural salvation for the chosen people--that ran counter to the personal outlook of its communist author. As late as 1958, after the Stalinist purges of Yiddish culture in the USSR, Sloves was reproving the Kremlin for sending Jewish tourists to the Moscow synagogue and thereby promoting the Jews' real enemies: the reactionary clergy. Corwin's play, on the other hand, is earnest and relatively humorless [though it occasionally tosses in outrageous rhymes such as "You are a very wise fellow, Memucan / If you can't advise me, who can?"], and it is more forthcoming than the biblical story in its readiness to invoke God's name.

In both plays Ahasuerus is portrayed sympathetically as a noble and romantic figure in search of true love, and who is deeply enamored of Esther. In the American radio play, the monarch tenderly asks his prospective queen "Do you think you could love the king of 127 provinces?... But what do you know about love?" stirring Esther to break into a sentimental aria on the theme "love is..." In "Homens Mapole" Haman's resentment of Mordecai is provoked chiefly by the Jew's refusal to aid him in his own attempts to woo Esther.

In both of the plays it was implied that the villain Haman was an archetype of Hitler. This assumption might make sense for a play that was composed during the early years of the war, when it could still inspire hopes that the great dictator would be overthrown before achieving his nefarious goals. However, the continued stagings of Sloves' play after the decimation of European Jewry must have created a stark cognitive dissonance after the latter-day Haman had all but succeeded in his scheme. Actually, the first drafts of "Homens Mapole" had been penned in 1939 and 1940 when the author could still entertain hopes that the fiend would be toppled by a popular uprising (a sub-plot that was included in early drafts of the play, but was downplayed in the post-war version). Even after the war, insofar as the audiences were now aware of the fully horrific extent of the Nazi murder campaign, it is likely that they interpreted the defeat of the Axis and their own survival, in however tiny remnants, as a victory that deserved to be celebrated.

Introducing a motif that would be taken up again by later cinematic versions of Esther (such as the 1960 "Esther and the King" with Joan Collins and the 2006 "One Night with the King"), Sloves included a sub-plot involving the campaigns of Ahasuerus/Xerxes against Greece, whose role is being transparently equated with that of the modern Soviet Union. This device allowed the author to portray Haman as an imperialist conqueror who brought suffering not only on the Jews but on other nations as well, including his own. In "Homens Mapole," the hardships caused by his military adventurism provoked a domestic proletarian revolt.

Corwin's radio play generally remained faithful to the plot, and even to the wording, of the scriptural narrative. And yet there are clear indications that the characterization also drew inspiration from contemporary models. Notably, his Haman exploited the persecution of the Jews as the first stage in his larger megalomaniac ambition:

I'll be king by making a scapegoat race
and kill them off without a trace.
I will seize the crown and conquer the world!

Haman's musical leitmotif, sung to the plodding rhythm of a jackbooted march, goes:

The best way to bolster authority
is to bully a small minority.

The despot and his henchmen refer to Mordecai sneeringly as "swine" or "dog of a dog."

The radio play accepts the rabbinic interpretation that Mordecai's refusal to humble himself before Haman was religiously motivated: "I will bow down only to the living God though death be the price I pay for it." However, it adds some other elements that are absent from the biblical version. Mordecai's hostility to the Grand Vizier is depicted as resistance to a tyrant:

I will not bow down to a man on a horse.
I will not bow down to a crown.
I will never yield to a tyrant's curse
though I burn or hang or drown.

Both plays end by addressing their moral lessons to aspiring future Hamans. Corwin's message is an unsubtle one:

Let this be a lesson to great men who rule and command and lead:
Never trust in men who hate men because of their race or creed.
Let this point a moral that the only truce
with a bully and a bigot is the gallows noose.

Sloves' closing scene, on the other hand, is an absurd folk-dance in the spirit of an old-fashioned Purim-shpiel, as the cast sing out merrily:

Brothers, listen--
We have all the Hamans
all the Hamans deep in the earth
Trala-la and trala-la-la
all the Hamans deep in the earth.

This inane display of doggerel and dancing seems tastelessly frivolous when compared to Corwin's solemn moralizing. On further reflection, however, it might actually be a more effective way of conveying our ultimate recognition that no conventional artistic response could ever be fully adequate for confronting such an unspeakable catastrophe.


This article and many others are now included in the book

For Signs and for Seasons
For Signs and for Seasons

published by

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

[*]
  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, March 11, 2011, p. 15.
  • For further reading:
    • Aronowicz, Annette. "Haim Sloves, the Jewish People, and a Jewish Communist's Allegiences." Jewish Social Studies 9, no. 1. New Series (2003): 95-142.
    • ---"Homens mapole: Hope in the Immediate Postwar Period." Jewish Quarterly Review 98, no. 3 (2008): 355-388.
    • --- "The Downfall of Haman: Postwar Yiddish Theater between Secular and Sacred." AJS Review 32, no. 2 (2008): 369-388.
    • Bannerman, R. LeRoy. Norman Corwin and Radio: The Golden Years. University, Ala: University of Alabama Press, 1986.
    • Slovès, Henri. Homens Mapole: Folks Shpil in Fir Aktn. Paris: Oyfsnay, 1949.