‘Only the dreamers, who dream while awake, call back the shadows of the past and braid from unspun threads, unspun nets.’
– Isaac Bashevis Singer
Coincidences, coincidences …
On Friday we attended a superb production in the Playhouse Studio – a one-man performance in which Stuart Richman portrays Isaac Bashevis Singer in his New York apartment in 1978, waiting for the taxi to take him to the airport to travel to Stockholm to collect the Nobel Prize for Literature. In A Day of Pleasure, we are drawn intimately into Singer’s room as the consummate storyteller recalls his childhood on Krochmalna Street in pre-First World War Warsaw where he lived with his Hasidic Rabbi father and family.
Krochmalna Street was a neighbourhood where thieves, prostitutes, street vendors and ragpickers rubbed shoulders with devout Jews. As a child, Singer soaked up the religious observances, tall tales and superstitions on Krochmalna Street and in the isolated village of Bilgoray where, during the German occupation of Warsaw in World War I, Singer’s mother moved the family for greater safety – back to her birthplace. Singer’s childhood experiences provided the subject matter for many of his tales of shtetl life. in a community virtually untouched by modernity – tales filled with wild adventures, superstitions and rationalism, demons and hobgoblins, dead geese which shriek, a burly milkman with a voice ‘like a lion’, and a fiercely independent elderly washerwoman bent double beneath a mountain of laundry.
Singer’s world – the world magnificently conjured by Stuart Richman’s magnificent performance – is the same as that depicted in Marc Chagall’s paintings (seen at Tate Liverpool a couple of weeks ago), in Yevtushenko’s poem Babi Yar that inspired Shostakovich’s Thirteenth Symphony, and in the last weeks fifth episode of Simon Schama’s powerful and deeply personal TV series, The Story of the Jews. In the finest of a fine series, Schama explored the lost world of the shtetls of Eastern Europe, the seedbed of a uniquely Jewish culture. He showed how Shtetl culture made its mark on the modern world, most notably in America, where the sons of shtetl immigrants wrote the American songbook, most poignantly ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’, written by Edgar Yipsel Harburg (who also wrote ‘Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?’) and released on record in March 1940 just as, in Eastern Europe, the Nazis were grinding the world of the shtetl to dust and ash.
Back in the Playhouse Studio, designer Anna Gooch’s set drew us into the intimacy of Bashevis Singer’s New York home, while the ghosts of the lost shtetl past glimmer in faded chairs and piles of suitcases which encircle the room. This was a Useful Donkey, directed by Neil Sissons, but most notably written and performed by Everyman founding member Stuart Richman, who had been powerfully drawn to Singer’s work after discovering a copy of his memoirs in a Wirral auction house a few years ago. Early on, Richman has Singer exclaim: ‘Life is God’s novel, let him write it. But let me tell it.’
Singer was the grandson of two rabbis and son of third, born Yitskhok Zynger in 1904 in a small Polish town twenty miles from Warsaw. When Singer was four, his family moved to the apartment on Krochmalna Street in Warsaw. At seventeen, Isaac entered a rabbinical seminary but left within a year, unable, he later wrote, to be ‘the sort of Jew that my pious parents wanted to make of me’. A passionate reader not only of the Talmud and Kabbala but also of Dostoevsky and Spinoza, Singer turned his attention toward the literary and journalistic world. He made a meager living translating European novels, including All Quiet on the Western Front, as well as publishing his own short stories.In Warsaw Singer had a wife, Runya, although they were never married by a rabbi, and a child. But, in 1935, with differences pulling them apart, and with Hitler’s rise to power threatening, the couple parted for different cities: Singer for New York, while Runya, a staunch Communist, took their son to the USSR, and later to Palestine.
In 2012, Stuart Richman told Laura Davis of the Liverpool Echo how the idea for A Day of Pleasure had begun with the collection of short stories he had picked up at auction:
I just found it very, very moving. It’s simply a picture of a world that has disappeared, not all because of the Holocaust when a vast proportion of Yiddish culture was wiped out, but also because time has passed and life has changed.
Richman told Laura Davis that he felt a personal connection with the stories because of his own family background. Both sets of his grandparents were part of the wave of Jewish people fleeing Eastern Europe as the dark shadow of persecution swept the continent. Intending to travel to America, they ended up settling in London.
My Russian (paternal) grandparents came from a village in the Ukraine which the Nazis completely destroyed. My mother’s father came from Poland and he was actually conscripted into the Polish Cossacks. My father’s mother actually did work as a washerwoman in the east end of London during the period that her cobbler husband had gone to the States and got caught up in the First World War. He couldn’t come back and they were totally impoverished.
Richman remembered being taken to the cinema as a seven-year-old in immediate post-war London, and experiencing his first glimpse of the fate that could have befallen his family:
I saw the first images of the Holocaust, the skeletons and piles of rotting bodies, and I think it’s really that which has dictated my choice of stories from A Day of Pleasure.
Although the Playhouse production was billed as a world première,Richman’s first performance of A Day of Pleasure was in the Princes Road synagogue in June 2011. Delayed for a year by illness, this was a beautifully-crafted piece of theatre, superbly scripted and performed by Richman, and enhanced by the intimate and evocative staging. In her review for the Liverpool Echo,Laura Davis wrote:
Rare is the opportunity in adulthood to sit in silence and listen to stories, so those chances when they are come are extra special. … Stuart Richman plays Isaac Bashevis Singer – exile, writer, philosopher – on the eve of receiving his Nobel Prize in Literature in Stockholm in 1978: “Today I am a Yiddish novelist, tomorrow I will be a Nobel Prize winner, a day later I will be a Yiddish novelist again,” he jokes with characteristic mischievousness.
Under Neil Sissons’ direction, Richman speaks directly to the audience, which this being the Playhouse Studio is small anyway but his warm performance makes each individual feel he is addressing them alone. Singer’s childhood was filled with the magic of imagination and belief, which he takes the time to describe as he awaits his taxi to the airport in his New York flat. There are the nameless but terrifying creatures in the dark passage, the cricket telling an endless story from behind a tiled stove, a pair of dead but still screaming geese.
In contrast, his friends and neighbours feel solid and earthly – the brave and generous dairyman Reb Asher; a spindly washerwoman with her enormous linen bundle like an insect hoisting a crumb of bread eight times its size; his Rabbi father and intellectual mother whose faith and rationalism were constantly butting heads. […] It all helps to conjure up a picture of a now long lost culture in an experience that is pleasurable indeed.
In this YouTube clip, Stuart Richman talks about performing in A Day of Pleasure:
The opening words of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Nobel speech, 1978:
The storyteller and poet of our time, as in any other time, must be an entertainer of the spirit in the full sense of the word, not just a preacher of social or political ideals. There is no paradise for bored readers and no excuse for tedious literature that does not intrigue the reader, uplift him, give him the joy and the escape that true art always grants. Nevertheless, it is also true that the serious writer of our time must be deeply concerned about the problems of his generation. He cannot but see that the power of religion, especially belief in revelation, is weaker today than it was in any other epoch in human history. More and more children grow up without faith in God, without belief in reward and punishment, in the immortality of the soul and even in the validity of ethics. The genuine writer cannot ignore the fact that the family is losing its spiritual foundation. All the dismal prophecies of Oswald Spengler have become realities since the Second World War. No technological achievements can mitigate the disappointment of modern man, his loneliness, his feeling of inferiority, and his fear of war, revolution and terror. Not only has our generation lost faith in Providence but also in man himself, in his institutions and often in those who are nearest to him.
An extract from the Presentation Speech by Professor Lars Gyllensten of the Swedish Academy:
Singer was born in a small town or village in eastern Poland and grew up in one of the poor, over-populated Jewish quarters of Warsaw, before and during the First World War. His father was a rabbi of the Hasid school of piety, a spiritual mentor for a motley collection of people who sought his help. Their language was Yiddish – the language of the simple people and of the mothers, with its sources far back in the middle ages and with an influx from several different cultures with which this people had come in contact during the many centuries they had been scattered abroad. It is Singer’s language. And it is a storehouse which has gathered fairytales and anecdotes, wisdom, superstitions and memories for hundreds of years past through a history that seems to have left nothing untried in the way of adventures and afflictions. The Hasid piety was a kind of popular Jewish mysticism. It could merge into prudery and petty-minded, strict adherence to the law. But it could also open out towards orgiastic frenzy and messianic raptures or illusions.
This world was that of East-European Jewry – at once very rich and very poor, peculiar and exotic but also familiar with all human experience behind its strange garb. This world has now been laid waste by the most violent of all the disasters that have overtaken the Jews and other people in Poland. It has been rooted out and reduced to dust. But it comes alive in Singer’s writings, in his waking dreams, his very waking dreams, clear-sighted and free of illusion but also full of broad-mindedness and unsentimental compassion. Fantasy and experience change shape. The evocative power of Singer’s inspiration acquires the stamp of reality, and reality is lifted up by dreams and imagination into the sphere of the supernatural, where nothing is impossible and nothing is sure. […]
Singer has perhaps given of his best as a consummate storyteller and stylist in the short stories and in the numerous and fantastic novellas, available in English translation in about a dozen collections. The passions and crazes are personified in these strange tales as demons, spectres and ghosts, all kinds of infernal or supernatural powers from the rich storehouse of Jewish popular belief or of his own imagination. These demons are not only graphic literary symbols but also real, tangible forces. The middle ages seem to spring to life again in Singer’s works, the daily round is interwoven with wonders, reality is spun from dreams, the blood of the past pulsates in the present. This is where Singer’s narrative art celebrates its greatest triumphs and bestows a reading experience of a deeply original kind, harrowing but also stimulating and edifying. Many of his characters step with unquestioned authority into the Pantheon of literature where the eternal companions and mythical figures live, tragic – and grotesque, comic and touching, weird and wonderful – people of dream and torment, baseness and grandeur.