A LIFE ON THE STAGE by Jacob Adler


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The legendary actor’s juicy memoirs, nicely fleshed out with his granddaughter Rosenfeld’s explanatory commentary. Jacob Adler (1855—1926) was Yiddish theater’s greatest star, first in London and then in America, where his towering portrayals of Shylock and King Lear (transformed by Jacob Gordin’s adaptation into a Jewish merchant prince) won the praise of uptown gentile critics as well as the Lower East Side audiences who worshiped him. Modern-day readers may at first be disappointed that this memoir, the bulk of which was originally published in a New York Yiddish newspaper from 1916 to 1919, deals more with his apprentice years in Russia than his triumphs after fleeing its anti-Jewish laws in 1883. Most will soon be won over, however, by his warts-and-all depiction of the Yiddish theater’s birth (in the fourth quarter of the 19th century) as a decidedly low art form composed primarily of vulgar comedy and light music. Odessa-born Adler was a wild youth, the despair of his pious parents, who fit in easily among the drifters, hard-livers, and near-charlatans who pioneered Yiddish theater. His chronicle of their picaresque journeys and cutthroat competitiveness is vivid, amusing, and oh-so-Russian: on one page Adler swears undying enmity for the producer who “betrays” him; on the next, they fall into each others” arms as the tears and vodka flow freely. Factual information is in scant supply—Adler can—t even state his age consistently—but the incomparable evocation of place and atmosphere more than compensates. Translator and editor Rosenfeld provides the necessary historical background in commentaries that become longer (and more intrusive) in the memoir’s sketchier late chapters, which appeared in 1925 after Adler had suffered a stroke. Nonetheless, they too contain some wonderful material about his most famous roles, and Rosenfeld’s interpolations about the maturing of Yiddish theater into a more serious art (for which Adler was largely responsible) are lucid and informative. A wonderful treat for theater lovers—and for anyone who likes real-life intrigue and emotion rendered with Dostoevskian intensity. (50 photos)

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-41351-0
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1999


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