Clifford Odets, the most prominent theatrical voice of America’s Great Depression, fell out of favor sometime during the Cold War when his left-wing sympathies resulted in a summons from HUAC (the House Un-American Activities Committee). He avoided the blacklist by “naming names,” then moved from New York to Hollywood where he created screen characters such as “Georgie Elgin” in The Country Girl (for which Grace Kelly received an Oscar in 1955), and “J.J. Hunsecker” and “Sidney Falco” (played so memorably by Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis in Alexander Mackendrick’s 1957 adaptation of The Sweet Smell of Success). But who remembers this child of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants now? Chicago’s Timeline Theatre!
Fresh off their highly-acclaimed 05-06 season, Timeline is opening 07-08 with a revival of Paradise Lost, Odet’s most difficult and controversial play. First performed by the famous Group Theatre in 1935, Paradise Lost was directed by Harold Clurman with some of the most famous Jewish actors of the era in key roles (including Stella Adler, Morris Carnovsky, and Sanford Meisner). Asked to describe the play, Clurman said: “Wherever I went it seemed to me I observed an inner chaos… Paradise Lost seemed to me to reflect this almost dreamlike unclarity and, in a measure, to explain it.”
“Odets is always about calling things out and putting everyone on the carpet and making them accountable,” Timeline director Louis Contey told me by e-mail. “Certainly this play does that.” And staging continues to be a critical element of Paradise Lost. “He’s giving us a little parable,” said Contey, “and we’re playing that up through the design by creating kind of a wasteland for this well-to-do family to inhabit.” As Clurman notes: “Nothing was left for these people except their basic sweetness.”
Paradise Lost runs through October 21. For tickets, visit www.timelinetheatre.com or call 773-281-TIME (8463).
Spertus Institute of Jewish Studies kicks off a new book series with a visit from Alana Newhouse on Sunday, September 30. Newhouse, the arts and culture editor at the Forward, has just published A Living Lens, a beautiful and thought-provoking collection of photos from the Forward archives.
“Forward is associated in the Jewish public mind with New York because that’s where we were based,” Newhouse told me when I called, “But, in fact, we had staffed bureaus in six cities outside of New York (including Chicago). We also had stringers in 12 cities all over the country, and staffers in Eastern Europe, London, Paris, and Palestine. I think it’s fascinating for American Jews to know that we once had a newspaper like this—a newspaper that included the kind of news you’d get in a Wall Street Journal, the local news you’d get in a Chicago Tribune, the news you’d get from your local Jewish newspaper, fiction by Isaac Bashevis Singer, celebrity news. All of that in one newspaper, in a language that you spoke but that the rest of the country didn’t. It was all of that and Dear Abby!”
For reservations, visit: www.spertus.edu or call 312.322.1700.
HAMSA-Fest is metro Chicago’s biannual salute to Middle Eastern music. This year’s performances were held in Lincoln Park on Saturday August 25 and Sunday August 26. The high point for me came during Saturday night’s performance by Pharaoh’s Daughter (Shanir Blumenkranz, Daphna Mor, and Basya Schechter).
Here’s how their website describes their music: “Blending a psychedelic sensibility and a pan-Mediterranean sensuality, Basya Schechter leads her band, Pharaoh’s Daughter, through swirling Hasidic chants, Mizrachi and Sephardi folk-rock, and spiritual stylings filtered through percussion, flute, strings and electronica.”
“Mizrachi” isn’t a familiar word for many Jewish-Americans, so I called Schechter and asked her to explain. “’Sephardic’ is about the community that’s come from Spain,” she told me. “Their communities disbursed into Turkey and Bulgaria and Morocco. ‘Mizrachi’ just means ‘from the East;’ Syrian, Lebanese and Yemenite Jews, they’re not Sephardic.” But Schechter agreed that strict demarcations are tricky: “The oud was from Lebanon. It traveled to Spain around 800. That’s why so much Spanish music has a lot of Arabic inflection.”
“Jewish music has developed in exile,” she concluded. “I feel so much: so much yearning, sadness, joy, memory. I can play oud and sing in Yiddish; make Middle Eastern rhythms and then sing in Ashkenazi Aramaic; have a klezmer violin but then sing something that’s very Middle Eastern inflected. My music is not targeted; I think it can be for everyone.”
TZIVI’s DVD COLLECTION
Circling back to the 30s, Clifford Odets and his Group Theatre colleagues were not the only Jews radicalized by the Great Depression. The stirring documentary Into the Fire, tells the story of American women who volunteered for service in the Spanish Civil War (1936 -1939). Most of these women (Ruth Davidow, Celia Greenspan, Esther Silverstein, Rose Weiner, etc, etc) were Jewish nurses, and director Julia Newman grew up with them; they were her parents’ friends.
The documentary artfully combines “talking head” interviews with readings from letters home as well as snippets from articles by foreign correspondents. Martha Gellhorn, who covered the war for multiple American publications and counted First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt as one of her friends, is prominently featured. Gellhorn, both of whose parents were half-Jewish, discovered her calling in Spain and went on to become one of Israel’s greatest journalistic champions after filing onsite reports about the liberation of Dachau.
Most of Newman’s background material comes from the Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archive housed at New York University. According to the ALBA/VALB website, “Jewish men and women accounted for over one fourth of all international volunteers. Among the medical personnel who went to Spain from many countries, by some estimates 70% were Jews and accordingly the Yiddish language was often used in the operating rooms as a common language to overcome national differences.” For more information, visit www.alba-valb.org/curriculum.
There’s also a local connection: The beautiful voice soaring over the final credits belongs to Jamie O’Reilly who will star in Pasiones: Songs of the Spanish Civil War at the Athenaeum Theatre on Lincoln Avenue on September 7, 8, & 9. The show is dedicated to Studs Terkel who wrote the program notes for O’Reilly’s Pasiones CD. For tickets, visit www.jamieoreilly.com or call 773.267.6660.
Tziviah bat Yisroel v’Hudah (Jan Lisa Huttner) is the managing editor of Films for Two: The Online Guide for Busy Couples (www.films42.com). Send comments and/or suggestions for future columns to Tzivi@msn.com.