Academic journal article MELUS

How the Melting Pot Stirred America: The Reception of Zangwill's Play and Theater's Role in the American Assimilation Experience

Academic journal article MELUS

How the Melting Pot Stirred America: The Reception of Zangwill's Play and Theater's Role in the American Assimilation Experience

Article excerpt

Israel Zangwill's The Melting Pot caused quite a stir in its initial run across the United States in 1908 and 1909. With Zangwill then regarded as one of the leading writers in Britain,(1) the play appeared in a succession of large theaters before varied audiences. It opened in Washington, D.C. before President Theodore Roosevelt and went on to tour Chicago and the West for several months before coming to New York a year later. Initial reviews praised it as an entertaining and serious examination of American culture; Roosevelt himself was among its most extravagant boosters. In New York, however, it met with a different sort of reception: popular enough to have a lengthy run, it was generally panned; critics called it formally flawed, a play that simply did not work.

There is nothing unusual about a play's receiving mixed reviews, of course, but the nature of the mixed reviews of The Melting Pot is striking. The play itself is heterogeneous; with a sentimental love story at its center, it also boasts symphonic music, ethnic stereotyping, slapstick, melodramatic descriptions of dead fathers and sisters, and pointed political criticism. The Washington and Chicago critics were able to see the political philosophy in the midst of the other elements and they praised it, along with the performance of the actors, as a powerful articulation of the promise of America. Critics in New York, however, saw little but its formal messiness. As one New York Times headline ran, "New Zangwill Play Cheap and Tawdry: A Sentimental Story Poorly Built on the Structure of a Fine Idea" (7 September 1909, 9). The same play, therefore, with the same lead cast evoked such different reactions across the country that it seems as if it were a different play altogether.(2)

One as yet unconsidered reason for the play's uneven reception, I argue, is that it played before an America that was renegotiating the aesthetic conventions of theater as one means of articulating, what it meant to be American at all. The early part of the twentieth century saw American public entertainments become barometers of class and native-born sensibility in unprecedented ways. At the same moment that formerly elite cultural activities, such as fine dining, exclusive shopping, and sporting events, became open to a wider public,(3) other cultural phenomena, including symphonic music, opera, museums, and the theater, developed from broadly popular entertainment forms into what Lawrence Levine calls sacralized high culture. In Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Levine maintains that such "high" culture was created by native-born tastemakers who were consciously asserting art as the domain of their own privilege. He argues that such critics and society leaders refashioned the theater and other formerly less restrained entertainments into experiences that would be alienating, or at least instructive, to the majority of Americans, particularly to immigrants. Where Shakespeare had once been performed in repertory throughout the United States to audiences of all sorts, productions of his plays became increasingly the purview of the cultural elite; where the theater in general had once been a place to meet one's neighbors and show off one's new clothes, it became an increasingly regimented place. What had once been a bustling, varied site became increasingly ordered with well-defined expectations of its audiences for dress and decorum. The Melting Pot, which celebrated America's capacity to accommodate difference, appeared on the scene at a moment when the American theater world ceased to accept heterogeneity in its productions and, more subtly, ceased to accommodate difference in its audiences.(4)

One of the more incongruous seeming characters of The Melting Pot is Kathleen, an Irish maid whose chief duty is to wait upon Frau Quixano, an old Jewish woman who lives in New York with her son Mendel and his nephew (her grandson) David. …

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