A Love Letter to the Yiddish Stage: Peretz's At Night in the Old Marketplace, Reconsidered

Photograph from the YIVO archive

I. L. Peretz is known for his many achievements: the literary sophistication of his poetry and short stories, his seminal influence on Yiddish literature, and his accomplishments as a champion of Yiddish culture. Less well known are Peretz’s failures—most of which happened in the theater.

Peretz was a talented, even visionary, playwright who saw in the theater an opportunity for Yiddish culture to reach an audience far beyond those who could read the Hebrew alphabet. The theater, Peretz believed, was the final frontier for Yiddish. In the public-facing medium of the stage, where literary work succeeded or failed based on its ability to reach a mass audience, Yiddish could—at long last—attain the very public recognition and legitimacy that he had long sought. For Peretz, the theater represented the pinnacle of Yiddish culture’s engagement with the outside world. If Yiddish literature could succeed on stage, it would be proof positive that he had accomplished his goals.

And yet, in spite of his passion for the stage, Peretz was perhaps the least successful playwright, director, and producer in the history of the Yiddish theater. Though he penned dozens of plays, most were never produced during his lifetime, despite his best efforts. In the last decade of his life, Peretz tried again and again to produce and codirect theatrical productions; each was an unambiguous failure scorned by critics and audiences alike. Ironically, Peretz’s vision of an intellectual and artistically ambitious Yiddish theater would come to pass only after his death. If Avrom Goldfadn was the father of popular Yiddish theater, Peretz was the father of its highbrow cousin—the modernist Yiddish theater.

Peretz’s tortured love affair with the Yiddish stage offers fascinating insight into his vision for the future of Yiddish culture. Peretz the playwright was not the successful writer whom we often encounter, the iconic cultural figurehead of Warsaw Jewry. Peretz the playwright was all too human, a brilliant artist wounded again and again by rejection, a man far ahead of his time who never saw his dreams come true.

As a director and a dramaturge, I consider Peretz the most theatrically exciting playwright in all of Yiddish literature. It is astounding how innovative Peretz’s plays were: in their experimentation with form, their early adoption of cutting-edge European modernist techniques, their enigmatic endings, and their sheer technical prowess, Peretz’s plays are all ahead of their time. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Peretz’s 1907 play Bay nakht afn altn mark (At Night in the Old Marketplace), the culmination of his vision for the Yiddish stage.

At Night in the Old Marketplace is Peretz’s panoramic chronicle of the entirety of the modern Jewish experience, rendered through a modernist lens. Both poignant and nightmarish, the play takes place in a town marketplace over the course of a single night and features nearly one hundred characters representing the broad spectrum of modern Jewish life: a wedding jester, a pair of lovers, musicians, wealthy Jews, impoverished pious Jews, revolutionaries, a cantor, political prisoners, dead martyrs, shopkeepers, and a perennial wanderer, among others. Halfway through the play, the dead rise from their graves and join the living in the marketplace, along with talking gargoyles, zombies, and dancing statues.

Yiddish theater artists are also represented. In a clever meta-theatrical twist, the play opens with a director, a stage manager, an actor, and a playwright rehearsing a play that is proving difficult to stage. The set is not quite finished, the play is unworkable, and the production team is far behind schedule. Suddenly a mysterious wanderer enters who isn’t part of the script. The wanderer falls asleep onstage, and his dream becomes the action of the play. In his dream, the dizzying cast of characters exchange philosophical observations on Jewish life, in rhyming couplets. Characters sing and dance, they pray, and they deny God’s existence. Political revolutionaries and religious reformers come and go. In the end, the wedding jester entreats the other characters to run to the synagogue (“Jews, / go / to shul! Jews, go—”) as a factory whistle drowns out his voice. Modernity, in the guise of the factory whistle, ultimately dissolves the dream with its overpowering noise.

At Night in the Old Marketplace was difficult to produce, and so rarely was. Even with double- or triple-casting, dozens of actors would still be required. Peretz also called for an enormous and exceedingly complex set that included eight shape-shifting buildings (stable enough for actors to climb upon), a hidden catapult, giant movable tombstones, a floating cemetery that emerges in mid-air, and a remote-controlled mechanical rooster. The play has only been staged a handful of times in the century since it was written: in 1925 by the Moscow Yiddish Art Theater, in 1928 by the Vilna Troupe, and in a musical concert adaptation by Frank London in 2007. But Peretz’s grand technical vision and his complex set engineering have never been completely realized.

Peretz’s plays are remarkable in their refusal to hew to what seems physically possible to achieve onstage. Of all the Yiddish plays in the repertoire, this is the one I would most like to see in a full-scale production. Peretz was a dramatist of the imagination, a brilliant playwright whose work was so cutting-edge that it was only understood after his death. At its best, his writing for the stage pushes aggressively at the medium’s boundaries.

And yet I believe that At Night in the Old Marketplace is absolutely stageable, now more than ever. Technology and new theatrical techniques could solve the technical and logistical problems that hindered attempts at full-scale production in the 1920s. A technically savvy director in 2015 could use video projection to convey the massive number of characters and their passages from death into ghostly life and back again. A contemporary director could follow the trend of recent immersive theater productions like Sleep No More, an interactive version of Macbeth in which the audience members take part in the performance, walking through the set and the action. With At Night in the Old Marketplace, Peretz envisioned complete audience immersion—in fact, I’ve rarely encountered a play more ideally suited to this kind of production. Put on this play in an abandoned warehouse somewhere in Brooklyn, create its multifaceted vision of Jewish history in a way that audiences can interact with, and it will shine.

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Frank London will bring "A Night in the Old Marketplace" to the stage at Yidstock on July 15th. This modern retelling of I.L. Peretz's 1907 play Bay nakht afn altn mark is a mad mash-up of psychedelic klezmer, Kurt Weill, and folk tunes from the Old Country gone electric. This multimedia concert features an all-star cast of singers and musicians, including Frank London and Lorin Sklamberg, with ;Seth Rogovoy as special guest narrator. See full details and order tickets.