Literary, Cultural, and Historical Significance of the 1937 Biblical Stage Play the Eternal Road
|Author: ||Friedman, Jonathan C.|
This project examines the literary, cultural, and historical significance of the 1937 stage play, The Eternal Road, the biblical epic of the Jewish émigré titans—writer Franz Werfel, composer Kurt Weill, and director Max Reinhardt. In academic circles, the play is relatively well known, although it has not received the kind of attention that scholars have paid to works such as The Threepenny Opera, Forty Days of Musa Dagh, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Reinhardt’s most often performed theatrical production. Apart from articles and chapters in dissertations and books, no comprehensive analysis of Road exists in monograph form.
The play, which premiered at the Manhattan Opera House in January 1937, sold out its 153 performances, but it closed less than six months later, a victim of extravagant casting and design. In fact, no Broadway show in its time ran up as large a deficit. Meyer Weisgal, its producer, dubbed it one of the theater’s most brilliant money-losers ever. The significance of Road lies elsewhere—in its singular moment of expression of Jewish pride by several colorful, albeit complicated, dramatis personae.
There are numerous areas of scholarship to which a study of this sort contributes. Students of the history of American theater will welcome a recitation of the play’s production history and a careful reading of its text. Historians, meanwhile, might find the subject helpful in illuminating some of the everyday responses to Nazi persecution by central European Jewish émigrés. One of the more intriguing issues for me is where to situate Road within the broader context of the life work of its principal creators. To what degree was the play a departure from or a continuity within the aesthetic approaches of Reinhardt, the parvenu, Weill, the left-leaning social critic, and Werfel, the would-be Catholic. To what extent did the three figures project their conflicts with, and corresponding concepts of, “Jewishness” onto the text and performance of the play? What was the role of external and intrinsic factors that helped to bring Road into existence? If Hitler had never come to power, would there have been an Eternal Road?
The show was the only occasion in which Reinhardt, Werfel, and Weill joined together to issue a condemnation, in the only language and forum they knew, of the Nazi assault on Jewish culture, religion, and history. And yet their play was more than mere anti-Nazi tableau, and certainly more than either a technical wonder or a box office bomb. It was a remarkable tribute by Jews to Jews in all their various, conflicting incarnations.
“Professor Friedman makes particular mention of the German-Jewish faith in the transformative power of art, as well as the Nazi effort to “purify” Germany of all Jewish cultural influences in the 1930s, because it was the confluence of these historical elements that made possible the subject of the present book, i.e., the 1937 stage play The Eternal Road. Indeed, it was a desire to respond to the Nazi persecution of German Jewry that lay behind the decision of an eccentric American impresario and Zionist by the name of Meyer Weisgal to produce a Broadway biblical epic, set to music, that would recount and celebrate Jewish origins and history from the Patriarchs to the destruction of the temple in 586 B.C. And it was an abiding belief in the ability of theater to serve as both a “mechanism of protest and collective self-respect” that motivated three Jewish titans of German theater, music, and literature—director, Max Reinhardt, composer, Kurt Weill, and writer, Franz Werfel—to collaborate with Weisgal in the realization of his project. As Professor Friedman recounts in his excellent and highly amusing study of this episode in Jewish theatrical history, a more unlikely collaboration could not be imagined. All four of the principals in this play were stubborn and strong-willed, and the three German-Jewish creators of The Eternal Road brought distinctive and often conflicting political, religious, and aesthetic approaches to their work … the story of The Eternal Road is a fascinating tale and Professor Friedman’s recounting of it will prove enlightening and entertaining to a wide range of readers, be they historians of modern German Jewish culture or aficionados of Broadway theater. As he so eloquently puts it in his introduction, The Eternal Road engages our attention because it remains “a remarkable tribute by Jews to Jews in all their various, conflicting incarnations.” – (From the Commendatory Preface) M. Gregory Kendrick, Ph.D., UCLA
“Not only is the book well written; simply, and seemingly effortlessly, but the story is extraordinary. I believe that this book will appeal, not only to the academic community, but to a cross over audience as well. The way Dr. Friedman contextualizes "The Eternal Road" within the broader scope of world history, Jewish history, and pre-war European and American culture is brilliant. It draws the reader in to the complete picture of the juncture in history when "Road" was produced. The book also draws on themes of American theater at the time, and takes the reader through the drama of staging a theatrical production in the first half of Twentieth Century American Theater. Dr. Friedman's addition of startling facts in conjuction with the production, including the casting of young Sydney Lumet, I found added a tremendous amount to the story. I would use this book as a teaching tool for my UCLA undergraduates, but would also recommend the book as a fascinating read to anyone interested in drama, theater, or Twentieth Century history as well. Finally, I found that the title encapsulates perfectly the tone of the book. So often in "academic" texts, the title feels more like a thesis statement, and the title of the book, I must admit, drew me in for a careful read. Mellen Press is indeed lucky to publish this book, and I wish you all the success. I can tell you that I will certainly order the text for the bookstore of my Museum, and will recommend to The Museum of the Tolerance, the Skirball Cultural Center and other Jewish and Cultural institutions around Los Angeles that sell books.” – Rachel L. Jagoda, Executive Director, Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust
“Jonathan Friedman’s book is not only a compelling account of the genesis and development of the stage play, “The Eternal Road,” a biblical tale of the Jews in the Old Testament, but, more importantly, analyzes the role of this theatrical epic within the context of Jewish cultural reaction to the danger of Nazi persecution. The student of the performing arts will find the detailed reconstruction of the play’s origins and progress very revealing, but to the historian, this book offers something more—a penetrating, and much-needed addition to the scholarship examining the German-Jewish émigré response to Nazism. By examining how theater was used as a vehicle of protest, Friedman’s book fills a void in the existing literature on this topic. This work contributes to our understanding of the mind-set, self-questioning, and re-shaped perceptions of self of the newly arrived German Jews during this turbulent, anxiety-fraught period of their lives. Friedman’s analysis convincingly presents the play as an attempt not only to produce great art, but, perhaps more significantly for the artists involved—to raise the public’s awareness of events unfolding in Europe, especially to bring the contemporary persecution of Jews to the attention of an American audience.
In tracing the process of the creation of “The Eternal Road,” Friedman also offers the reader an interpretation of the personal significance the play held in the lives of the principal artists, all refugees from Nazism. We are given much insight into the motivations and personal thoughts of writer Franz Werfel, composer Kurt Weill, and director Max Reinhardt. Jewish Drama, Human Drama comes alive with vivid biographical accounts (including some amusing vignettes) that are deftly interwoven through the books descriptive narrative. Moreover, Friedman’s account of the enormous technical difficulties entailed in the play’s production also gives the reader an appreciation for the frustrations and anxieties experienced by the producers. We see the plays’ creators as individual artistic geniuses, but, interestingly, we also see these cultural greats interacting, reacting, and sparring with each other.
Friedman’s work has been well researched, as is evidenced by the impressively detailed descriptions of pivotal events in the play’s development. The account is amply illustrated and supported by evidence gathered from archival holdings such as the personal papers of Franz Werfel, and the correspondence between Reinhardt and Weill. The translations of key documents and letters (in German) are excellent, blending smoothly into the narrative. A useful bibliography lists both published primary and secondary sources, while a concise index facilitates easy maneuvering between referenced topics.
For the historian of theater arts, this book offers an astute analysis of the artists’ motives woven into an informative discussion of the enormous theatrical intricacies surrounding production of “The Eternal Road.” For every reader, Mr. Friedman has presented a vivid behind-the-scenes portrayal of the creation of a massive spectacle, and after reading the book, any reader’s curiosity will doubtlessly be stirred to see the actual play.” – Dieter Kuntz, Ph.D., Historian, Editor, US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC
Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
Other Theater Books