The Image of Jewish-Americans on Stage
Until the 1980s most prominent Jewish playwrights kept ethnic issues at arm's length. Their characters and themes were as American as blue jeans and apple pie. Their protagonists were Melting Pot Everymen, even when identified by ethnic surnames.
Assimilation was tempting for generations of immigrant Jews. They had come together from the four corners of the globe, seeking freedom from religious persecution. In America, mainstreaming did not even require conversion; centering was a matter of permitting edges to blur until the new comers looked and sounded like everyone else. Yet these adjustments, which seemed insignificant, shaded into a devaluation of ancient traditions and tribal integrity. Their children felt the loss.
Other groups did not melt as happily, so in recent years the metaphor has become the Glorious Mosaic, which celebrates diversity as much as it confesses that ignoring fractious differences has neither obliterated them nor ameliorated the problems they generate.
In the 1990s, many Jewish-American playwrights joined the bandwagon, yoking ethnic themes to "hot" issues and shaping the whole into a giant question about identity. Couched in the comic genre and livened by songs, dances, and one-liners, the plays have enjoyed long Broadway runs. In Falsettos ( 1992), William Finn and James Lapine presented homosexuality and Jewish identity in the extended family. Jewish guilt and atonement were tied to the AIDS crisis in Tony Kushner Angels in America ( 1993). Neil Simon's Broadway Bound ( 1987) weighed a narrow, but rich ethnicity against a world of Melting Pot possibilities.
Two plays, however, stand out as paradigms of this trend: Wendy Wasserstein's The Sisters Rosensweig and Herb Gardner Conversations with My Father. Beneath the family exchanges, the metadramas buzz with what Mikhail Bakhtin in "Discourse in the Novel" termed "interanimation:" the interaction of overlapping values as language systems interface. The "languages" spring from cultural crosscurrents, the conjoined news of today and echoes from history. A subtextual dialogue is established between the marginal and the centered, between the literary and the quick. The plays offer no single answer to the problems of multicultural heritage because--again in Bakhtin's terms--the components of discourse (the "centrifugal" forces) are