Modicut Puppet Theatre: Modernism, Satire, and Yiddish Culture
Among the hand-puppet theatres that cropped up in New York during the 1920s was the Modicut theatre, an offshoot of the flourishing Yiddish theatrical-literary culture. Created in 1925 by artists-writers-satirists Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler, Modicut enjoyed great success in Yiddish-speaking communities in the United States and Europe. Modicut, satirizing Jewish and general politics and culture of the day, provided an experience unlike anything previously seen in Yiddish theatre.
Puppet theatre was not part of traditional Jewish shtetl life mainly because of the biblical proscription against the creation of graven images (Deuteronomy 4:16–20). However, Jews living in the Pale of Settlement (the areas of Poland and Ukraine to which they were restricted under the Tsarist regime) undoubtedly saw traveling Petryushka puppet theatres on market days. 1 These Slavic puppet theatres often portrayed Jews as villainous characters, thereby tainting an enjoyable medium for Jewish audiences (Shatsky 1930:449). But Jews watched these shows. Yosl Cutler, for example, painted a scene of a traveling theatre in a memoir of his shtetl, Troyanets (1934:161); and Khaver-paver described a puppet theatre in a Ukrainian shtetl marketplace whose audience was comprised of “Jews and peasants.” 2 This was his first theatre experience (Khaver-paver 1963:405). Although there is no documentation to support it, it is possible that amateur puppetry existed in some form within the small towns of the Pale, particularly in connection with Purim, a holiday whose traditions include drinking alcohol, masquerading, and public performance.
The 1920s was an awkward period for Jewish immigrant artists working in Yiddish in New York City. On the one hand, Yiddish literature and theatre began to reach an artistic maturity previously unknown. On the other, its audiences were diminishing because the severe new immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 restricted the inflow of East European Jews and because the acculturation process had begun to reduce the number of Yiddish speakers. Despite this, as the Yiddish idiom collided with American sensibilities and culture, an explosion of literature, poetry, and plastic arts occurred. The Modicut theatre was part of that explosion. [End Page 115]
In the course of its brief eight-year existence, Modicut was seen by thousands. Press accounts and contemporary eyewitnesses indicate Modicut was an exceptionally creative and uniquely Jewish cultural expression. As virtual newcomers to modern literature, drama, and plastic arts, Yiddish-speaking Jews explored possibilities in the modern era that had been closed to them in the parochial atmosphere of the Old World. Moreover, the immigrants assimilated [End Page 116] American culture into Yiddish arts. Modicut appealed both to a general public and to intellectuals, merging Yiddish with avantgarde art and popular culture to produce humor as well as political and cultural criticism.
Zuni Maud immigrated to the U.S. in 1905 from Russian-ruled Poland and was artistically active on the Yiddish literary scene from 1907 on, contributing illustrations to anthologies and cartoons to journals and newspapers. Yosl Cutler arrived in the U.S. from the Ukraine in 1911. He first worked as a sign painter, but was brought into the Yiddish literary world by satirist Moyshe Nadir around 1919. Cutler wrote vignettes which he illustrated himself. Maud and Cutler met during the early 1920s at the offices of the Yiddish satire journal Der groyser kundes, where Maud had worked on and off since 1909 and where Cutler had just been hired. They struck up a friendship and began to collaborate artistically. The two men worked on theatre set designs and opened a gallery/studio together on Union Square which they called “Modicut,” a combination of their names (Maud 1955:47–48). Together, they created the Modicut puppet theatre and minor works of art such as theatre posters and drawings. Separately they produced cartoons, drawings, paintings, sculpture, poetry, and prose. 3 Maud’s cartoons were a visual narrative of Jewish culture of the teens and ‘20s. He addressed serious cultural and political issues in a humorous manner, evoking laughter and thought at the same time. Cutler’s stories were an unprecedented fusion of Eastern European Jewish folk culture, modern American Jewish life, politics, and avantgarde art. Though they were partners, Cutler and Maud’s artistic styles were not similar. Maud, influenced by his teachers, painters Robert Henri and George Bellows, mainly remained true to their “ashcan” style of realism. Cutler, on the other hand, was a modernist who experimented with cubism and surrealism. The Modicut puppet theatre combined Maud’s cynical humor with Cutler’s fantastic Jewish grotesques. Their difference was also their strength. Meylekh Ravitsh, poet and literary critic, wrote:
Truly, if there was anyone who ever doubted that a pair is prearranged in heaven, he should take a look at Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler. Such an artistic duo, each complementing the other so wonderfully is truly a rarity [End Page 117] in this world. Maud is short—Cutler is tall; Maud has a deep bass, a murky, dark bass; Cutler has a bright, cheeky, boyish tenor; Maud is full of Jewish folkloric tradition, Cutler is an expressionist—but when they’re together there is no contrast whatsoever.(1929:984–85)
Noyekh Shteynberg, in his 1929 anthology Idish amerike, concurred: “Cutler is the opposite of Maud. Maud is difficult, Cutler—easy. Maud is stubborn, Cutler—acquiescent. Maud is brutally critical, Cutler—naive and mild” (1929:298). The poet Zishe Vaynper also commented on how different their personalities were, writing that their artistic work together created a kind of harmony which brought them to their artistic goal. He further stated that they were the only artists who brought an element of fun into the proletarian movement (1933:91–92).
Their work, both collaborative and individual, is what Yiddish literary scholar David Roskies called “creative betrayal”: subversions and reinventions of Jewish traditional forms to encompass current, artistic, cultural, and political situations. As they synthesized Jewish tradition into their modernist, bohemian world of 1920s New York, Maud and Cutler not only turned that world upside down, but also put it in front of a funhouse mirror. Despite their penchant for satire, it is clear that their folklore was dear to both of them and would remain an integral part of their work, no matter how much they twisted it. Their art was a result of their alienation, not only from their shtetl childhoods and from Jewish tradition in general, but also from American Jewry at large. 4 Yiddish, bohemian artists connected politically to the Communist Party—they were on the periphery of a periphery, and this made them revolutionaries within Jewish society. Their treatments of Jewish life helped their audiences—entering modernity carrying a great deal of cultural baggage—to laugh at themselves.
The 1920s was a renaissance for puppetry in New York City. Under mainly the artistic dominance of such prominent artists as Remo Bufano and Tony Sarg, the puppet theatre had grown popular. Shakespeare ran in puppet theatres in New York’s uptown theatre district, while more modern works by Arthur Schnitzler and Edna St. Vincent Millay were being performed in Greenwich Village (McPharlin 1948:331–42). But although the Lower East Side was only blocks away from Greenwich Village and a quick subway ride away from Broadway, it may as well have been a different country. The Yiddish immigrant culture of the Lower East Side, with its own press and theatre, was, with a few exceptions, a world apart—yet an extremely vital world with five daily newspapers and a dozen or so Yiddish theatres catering to the 1.5 million Jews who had emigrated to New York since the end of the 19th century.
During the summer of 1925, Maud and Cutler were hired by Director Maurice Schwartz to create the scenery for his Yiddish Art Theatre’s production of Avrom Goldfaden’s Di kishefmakherin (The Sorceress). Schwartz, attempting to ride the popular wave of artistic puppet theatre, asked the two artists to create hand puppets for a scene in the show. Schwartz cut the scene prior to the premiere because he felt the puppets were difficult to see from the house.
Maud and Cutler brought their puppets back to their studio and spent a night remaking them into two Jewish characters, and then improvising dialogue for them (Maud 1955:47). Maud and Cutler began to take these hand puppets with them to the literary cafés they frequented, to create humorous diversions to the often serious activities taking place there. Friends in their literary circle suggested they create a puppet theatre. Maud and Cutler took the idea seriously—and they began building more puppets and writing plays. In early December 1925 all the major Yiddish newspapers published press releases [End Page 118] announcing the imminent opening of the Modicut Yiddish puppet theatre. Small announcements appeared indicating that Jacob Ben-Ami, a renowned actor on both the Yiddish stage and Broadway, was excited about the new theatre and wanted to work with it. 5 This collaboration never came to pass, but it certainly helped broaden popular interest.
Maud and Cutler’s theatre opened on 17 December 1925. Tickets to the shows had to be purchased at their friend Moyshe Nadir’s newly dubbed Artisan-café (previously advertised in the Morgn frayhayt as “Nadir’s Communist Café”), a place where a glass of tea could be purchased at proletarishe prayzn (proletarian prices). The first Modicut theatre was located near the heart of the Yiddish theatre district, on Twelfth Street close to Second Avenue. The space itself was formerly a children’s clothing factory—and Maud and Cutler left the cutting tables and machinery on the floor for effect. The seats were simple wooden benches. There was little decoration, with the exception of surreal-looking faces painted on the gas meters. Clearly, this was to be both a folkloric and a proletarian theatre. Maud and Cutler hired Jack Tworkov, an artist from Buffalo who had worked with Remo Bufano, to assist in making puppets and in directing some of the plays (McPharlin 1948:328). Tworkov would later become a leading figure in modern American painting. For most of the 1926 season, “Modicut” became “Modjacot,” incorporating the “ja” of Jack, and Tworkov’s Minuet, a puppet dance set to Beethoven inspired by a Bufano piece. This was the only non-ethnic, non-political piece in their repertory. Tworkov left after one season with them (Teller 1968:27).
In their puppet plays, Maud and Cutler fused fantasy, satire, politics, and Jewish consciousness, bringing their Groyser kundes caricatures to life. Though puppets were not part of Jewish tradition, Maud and Cutler adapted them to Jewish life smoothly by appropriating Jewish folk themes and characters. Initially, the plays were mainly folkloric, anticlerical comedies, but they soon became more politically oriented, particularly with the onset of the Depression. The exaggerated features of their puppets leaned to the grotesque, and their sets later tended toward the surreal, which led to many comparisons with Chagall (Frank 1929:6). [End Page 119] Modicut’s art and commentary were modernist, while much of its language, themes, and characters flowed directly from traditional folk sources.
Unfortunately, very few Modicut play texts have survived (including one each by Maud and by Cutler), though one can get some idea from excerpts, programs, and press reports. The first Modicut play, Der magid (The Itinerant Preacher), was a religious satire in which an itinerant storyteller comes to a town and gives a stirring droshe (sermon). The shames (sexton) is so impressed that he pleads with the magid, who is already on his way to the next town, to give another droshe. After a good deal of comic wrangling, it becomes apparent that this magid has only one droshe.
The second Modicut production was Maud’s Akhashveyresh, a full-length Purim shpil that was well received critically and printed in its entirety in the journal Unzer bukh (Maud 1928). Akhashveyresh is a traditional telling of the Purim story with parallels to medieval Purim shpiln: written almost entirely in rhyming couplets with a loyfer (or master of ceremonies) introducing the characters and offering commentary. The text follows the basic story of Purim, in which the evil Haman schemes to convince King Akhashveyresh to destroy the Jewish community, but is foiled by Mordechai and his niece Esther. Haman is finally hanged on his own gallows.
In Maud’s version there are a number of creative innovations. More emphasis is placed on Akhashveyresh’s drunkenness, and his consumption of shlivovitz (kosher brandy) in particular. Satirizing the Yiddish theatre, Bigsn and Seresh, the king’s two servants, speak daytshmerish, a Germanized form of Yiddish often used in the popular Yiddish theatre to indicate high-level language. And in order to associate the hero of the story, Mordkhe ha-yehudi (Mordechai the Jew), with common, workaday Jews, Maud refers to him as Motl, a diminuitive of Mordkhe. An example of the breadth of the satire occurs when Konferensiye, the loyfer, introduces the second act: [End Page 120]
In der tsayt fun dem entrakt zaynen yorn fil farlofn,Pasirungen pasirt, nor ken nisim nisht getrofn.Nisht tsu ton un nisht tsu makhn,nisht tsum veynen, nisht tsum lakhn.Hobn mir vi undz gefeltin shpil es nisht arayngeshtelt.Tirtltoyb, oyerhon,tsveyter akt fangt zikh on. (Maud 1928)
(During intermission many years flew by, Things happened, but no miracles occurred. Nothing to do or to make of it, Nothing to cry about, nor to laugh about. We did what we wanted to And didn’t put the [events] in the play. Turtledove, Chicken, Second act begins.)
The authors made the assumption that the audience knew the Purim story and was engaged in the current Yiddish literary and cultural scene. Here, they poke fun at the Yiddish theatre by noting how certain productions removed plot material from plays without much concern. They also mock the poem “Tirtltoyb,” (Turtledove) by their friend, introspectivist poet Yankev Glatshteyn. 6 By introducing a fictitious “Persian national poet,” Khashdarfun, Maud plays on the low status of poets in Jewish life—an issue he was familiar with because of his literary connections. Khashdarfun recites his latest poem and is thrown a nickel by Konferensiye. Mordkhe is asked how he likes the poem and replies, “Don’t bother me, I’ve no time for jokes. Don’t mix yourself up in my megile (the traditional Book of Esther): it’s none of your business.” Here, Maud questions Modicut’s own work of cultural subversion by having a character from the Book of Esther tell them to leave traditional Jewish texts alone. Since both Maud and Cutler were alienated from Jewish faith and practice, their artistic retreat back [End Page 121] into it becomes more poignant in terms of the possibilities of Jewish secular art. The fact that they chose to parody a Purim shpil reveals a paradox: in rejecting tradition, they relied upon it.
The freewheeling comedy and satire of Akhashveyresh emerges in the variety of unusual ways in which Maud and Cutler approached their traditional theme. The play includes typical scenes from the Lower East Side, such as the sudden appearance of an Italian pushcart peddler selling everything from eyeglasses and galoshes to bananas. Other unlikely elements in this Purim shpil include an “African Dance,” in which two black hand puppets dance to the “St. Louis Blues.”
Modicut’s rollicking, broad comedy was apparently memorable, according to the many reviews and memoirs of the play. In one scene, the King has difficulty falling asleep. When he hears snoring, Akhashveyresh says, “Oy, a pleasure...I’m snoring...a sure sign that I’m already sleeping”—however he soon realizes that it isn’t he, but his servant Bigsn, who is snoring. A strong verbal element of the play was the frequency of made-up words and nonsense rhymes, which were Maud’s trademarks. The few photographs available indicate that the painted set of the puppet stage was surreal, with crooked, elongated doorways and windows, and long painted shadows.
Other productions in the first Modicut season included Cutler’s Af vos tustu krenken (Why Should You Be Sick), a folk comedy in rhyme about a father, Zalmen, who arranges with Eliye the shadkhn (matchmaker) to find a match for his daughter Sheyndl. When the shadkhn brings a suitable match, Sheyndl is pleased, but Zalmen is unwilling to pay the shadkhn, causing Sheyndl to take ill. Doctor Yuki is brought in and prescribes a young man for the sick girl. In the end, Zalman agrees to pay and all ends well. During this first season they also performed Di feferdike yidelekh (The Peppy Little Jews), an operetta with song and dance which showcased Cutler’s renowned sense of rhythm with twin hand puppets which danced in time (YIVO Institute).
The success of Modicut’s first season allowed them to open their second year around the corner from the old loft at a new, larger theatre on Second Avenue [End Page 122] where they performed nine shows per week. For the second season Maud wrote Der dibek, a parody of Sh. An-ski’s The Dybbuk, satirizing the numerous productions of the play then being performed in English and Yiddish on the New York stage. In Maud’s version, Leah and her dybbuk (the soul of Khonen, the boy who pined after her, which has inhabited her body) live on Delancey Street, and various theatre troupes including the Yiddish Art Theatre, the Neighborhood Playhouse, and the Vilna trupe (all of which were performing the play that season) arrive and unsuccessfully attempt to drive out the dybbuk. After these efforts, the “rabbis,” or, in this case, the directors of each respective theatre group, decide to summon Khonen’s late father, the mes toer (immaculate corpse), in a final attempt to exorcise Khonen from Leah. But the father doesn’t understand his son’s English, and is upset that Khonen has fallen in with “goyim” (a joking reference to the Neighborhood Playhouse’s English-language version of the play). This was Maud and Cutler’s most brazen satire on popular Yiddish culture to date and the first unambiguous indication that theirs was becoming a theatre that would accurately satirize Yiddish popular culture. For a number of critics and theatregoers who had tired of the many productions of The Dybbuk that season, Modicut’s parody was welcome comic relief.
Maud and Cutler often changed their texts to accommodate current events. In a later version of Der dibek, the puppet rabbis were modeled on Abraham Cahan, the domineering editor of the Forverts newspaper, and Herbert Hoover, whose head was represented as a rotten apple. In yet another incarnation of the show, Leah was portrayed as Mae West and one of the rabbis was Franklin Roosevelt, who waved the N.R.A. Eagle over Leah and chanted, “WPA, NRA, CCC,” in order to exorcize the dybbuk (Cutler 1936). A scene which remained a mainstay of the parody was one in which the rabbis, while attempting to yank the dybbuk out from under Leah, lined up with their hands around each other’s waist and pulled to the “Song of the Volga Boatmen.” Among other items pulled out from under Leah, instead of the concealed dybbuk, was a large herring (Goldberg 1995; Norbert 1995).
Modicut’s audience, culled mostly from the half-million Yiddish speakers on the Lower East Side, found this combination of literary parody, social satire, and slapstick engaging and hilarious. In keeping with the traditions of puppet theatre, there was a warm, even intimate, interaction between the puppeteers and their audiences, particularly if well-known literary and theatre personalities were in the crowd, or if Maud or Cutler spied an attractive woman from behind their stage (Norbert 1995; Novick 1995). If, for example, the writer Moyshe Nadir was in the crowd, Konferensiye, the hand-puppet master of ceremonies, would ask the assembled, “Is Nadir here?” To which the audience would reply in unison, “Yes, Nadir’s here.” “So, let him stay,” Konferensiye would answer. The writer Khaver-paver was in the audience when Konferensiye asked “is Khaver-paver here?” After the usual routine, and Konferensiye’s, “Nu, let him stay,” the puppet turned to Khaver-paver and said, “If he is here, he ought to turn around and take a look in the corner where a beautiful Jewish girl, one he might like, is sitting.” The “beautiful Jewish girl” later became Khaver-paver’s wife, thus promoting Konferensiye from master of ceremonies to matchmaker (Delavellade 1995; Khaver-paver 1963:402–03; Teller 1968:26–27).
The second extant Modicut play is Cutler’s Sokhrim fun fefer (The Pepper Merchants), a fantasy piece written for children (Cutler 1955). A Jewish version of Goldilocks and the Three Bears, the play concerns two Jewish pepper merchants who are accosted while praying in the woods by a family of bears who plan to eat them. The young bears plead with their parents to give them “yidelekh mit khale” (Jews with challah). The parents tell the children they [End Page 123] cannot eat the Jews until they finish praying, so the bears wait until the Jews conclude their prayers and then put them in a large pot. Hoping to be saved, the Jews plead, first with the bears, then with some wandering klezmorim (klezmer musicians), the playwright, and finally the audience. In the end, the Jews convince the bears that because they are pepper merchants they taste “more bitter than poison” and they are finally released. In Sokhrim fun fefer Cutler parodies the folksongs “Bulbes,” and “Bobe Yakhne” and the children’s rhyme “Patshi-patshi kikhelekh” by altering their texts and adapting them to a fantasized Yiddish bear culture. The language in Modicut was rife with Jewish folklore and cultural allusions; a Yiddish rich in the ways of the Old World, but capable of adaptation to new experiences and forms.
Another example of their appropriation of outside themes and comedic synthesis was Maud and Cutler’s “Chinese” play Tshing tang po, in which the characters are given hybrid Chinese-Jewish names like Ting-ling-shmul and Ling-ting-shmultshik. The puppets become involved in the slapstick robbery of a box of honey, which results in the accidental destruction of precious Ming vases (Potamkin 1933:6). Because the text is not available, it is not clear exactly what kinds of cultural composites were created in the play. In any event, it seems likely that the appearance of this “Chinese” piece is the result of the immigrant’s desire to remove himself from the position of “other” by finding a character who appears to be even more exotic than himself.
The only other Modicut works to appear in print were those written for them, such as Moyshe Nadir’s Af yener velt (In the Other World), a comic antireligious piece in which the Angel Gabriel is forced to grovel before God and constantly tell Him how great and important He is (Nadir 1932:155–61). The Modicut production, according to Khaver-paver, made this situation ironic by using Maud’s deep bass voice for the Angel Gabriel and Cutler’s boyish, high-pitched voice for God (1963:403). In addition to the Nadir play, Maud and Cutler adapted existing plays such as Avrom Reyzn’s Dem shadkhns tekhter (The Matchmaker’s Daughters) and Sholem-Aleykhem’s Sheyne balebatim (Fine Businessmen).
All the Modicut puppet plays were accompanied by music, much of which was written by Mikhl Gelbart and Moyshe Rappaport. In addition, the plays often included parodies of popular Yiddish theatre songs, such as Cutler’s Di blekherne kale (The Tin Bride), which was an adaptation of the song “Yome, Yome.” Maud’s play Biznes (Business) contained a parody of the Yiddish theatre song “Ikh bin a border bay mayn vayb” (I’m a Boarder at My Wife’s) called “Ikh bin bay mir der boss in shop” (I’m the Boss of My Own Shop). Maud and Cutler wrote a number of other original plays that have not survived. They include: Der laytisher mentsh (The Respectable Man), Shleyme mit der beheyme (Shleyme with the Beast), Farn shpil un nokhn shpil (Before the Play and after the Play), and Der betler (The Beggar).
Maud and Cutler were popular with intellectuals and general audiences alike, and won critical acclaim from all precincts of the Yiddish press, which was virtually unanimous in praising Modicut during its first few years. This was an unprecedented moment of agreement in the usually contentious Yiddish press, and particularly surprising since Maud and Cutler were connected to the Groyser kundes and the communist Morgn frayhayt, associations which made them personae-non-grata in certain literary and press circles. An interesting aspect of this acclaim was the frequent attachment of the label “intellectual” to Modicut. The Tog advised “the intellectual Jewish audience” to go and see Modicut, and the Morgn frayhayt commented that “all sworn intellectuals have unending praise for the puppet comedies.” 7
It is clear that Maud and Cutler were aware of the novelty of their theatre, and they publicly emphasized this by offering their audiences postperformance [End Page 124] lectures on the history of puppet theatre by such critics as Dr. Aleksander Mukdoyni (pen name of Aleksander Kapl) and historian Yankev Shatsky, as well as entr’acte discussions with well-known Yiddish writers Moyshe Nadir and Avrom Reyzn and, occasionally, themselves. Audiences continued to swell, and by Passover of 1926, Modicut was selling out special midnight shows at the much larger Schildkraut Theatre (Forverts, Morgn frayhayt, Der tog, and Morgn zhurnal 1926). However, to increase attendance, Modicut occasionally offered special rates to its audiences, for example admitting “any mother accompanying a child” free during Hanuka, 1926 (Der tog 1926).
Mukdoyni, an imperious culture and theatre critic, described his experience of watching Modicut in the 5 January 1926 Morgn zhurnal. At first he feared that “some of our Yiddish Bohemians would be toying with an amateurish puppet theatre.” Mukdoyni hoped that Modicut would create a theatre using high-level Yiddish, as opposed to the inferior, low-level language often found in the popular Yiddish theatre. Following a brief history of puppet theatre, Mukdoyni pointed out that after centuries of puppet theatre all over the world, one had finally cropped up among Jews, who were “merely a few thousand years late.” “However,” he added, “as of yet, an authentic Jewish puppet theatre does not truly exist: only a couple of Jewish Bohemians have decided to joke around and have come up with the charming Modicut theatre.” Mukdoyni provided some concrete criticism of their show: “the humor isn’t literary enough; the artists don’t move the puppets enough at the right time; the voices don’t match the characters and the puppets look too much like shtetl Jews” (Mukdoyni 1926a). Finally he concluded that Maud and Cutler were “dilettantes.” He noted, however, that the first shows indicated that real artists were at work who could further develop their craft if they weren’t rattled by its initial success. Mukdoyni clearly had high expectations for this small puppet theatre, an indication that he was aware of Modicut’s popularity and was concerned about its influence as a cultural medium within the community.
Other initial press responses to the tiny theatre were most often exuberant. Nearly all the reviews engaged in the kind of kibitzing that characterized the intimacy of the Yiddish-speaking Lower East Side. Reviewers in the major press organs Forverts, Morgn frayhayt, Der tog, and Morgn zhurnal discussed the concept of eygns, or “our own,” and how Modicut was a uniquely Jewish phenomenon. They analyzed Modicut’s importance for Yiddish culture and for the range of possibilities then available to Jewish artists. For these critics, the idea that theatre could be original and culturally Jewish was very attractive, especially since they seemed to feel that Yiddish theatre too often looked to Broadway for ideas and approval. They considered the Modicut an opportunity to see an artistic endeavor in der heym, or “in our own house,” a rare occurrence that should not be missed. The puppet medium notwithstanding, the critic Leon Krishtal commented in the anarchist Fraye arbeter shtime that “Modicut is successful because of its originality and because it does not mimic gentile theatre” (1926). B.Z. Goldberg, son-in-law of Sholem-Aleichem, wrote in Der tog that Modicut is Jewish in form and content while at the same time modern and artistic. He expressed surprise at the warmth of Modicut’s language, rhymes, and music, and noted that Maud and Cutler knew their Jewish sources and were thus able to discern what is truly yidishlekh, or imbued with a deep sense of Jewishness (Goldberg 1926). These reviewers all seemed to sense a lack of originality and Jewish spirit in the Yiddish theatre of the period, and as a consequence often showed an unmitigated enthusiasm for Modicut.
On the other hand, despite their laudatory comments, pundits of the Yiddish press also had criticisms of Modicut. For example, amidst all the critical praise in the Morgn frayhayt, R. Yuklson complained in that paper that the puppets “didn’t jump around enough” and that the “benches in the theatre [End Page 125] were too hard” (Yuklson 1926). The religiously orthodox Idishe tageblat criticized the artists for skipping over thousands of years of history and ignoring the biblical commandment against the creation of graven images (Blay 1928).
Three months after his initial lukewarm response, Mukdoyni returned to the subject of Modicut to examine how the theatre was progressing, and now he wrote lovingly about the puppets, as if they had found a place for themselves in Yiddish culture. “Under a cold sky in the barren desert of our cultural life,” he commented, “a puppet theatre is growing.” Echoing the radical positions of Edward Gordon Craig, Mukdoyni even wished that the actors of the Yiddish theatre could perform as well as the puppets of Modicut (1926b). Six months later, Mukdoyni wrote incredulously of his initial estimation of Maud and Cutler as artists who only wanted to joke around. Now he considered their theatre “so charming, so lovable and so alive,” and celebrated the beginning of its second season by announcing exuberantly, “We have a Jewish marionette theatre.” The stodgy Mukdoyni even admitted to having laughed at Modicut’s satire, which he now considered “crafty and clever,” and wondered if “the hustling, materialistic Jewish masses deserve such quality.” He characterized the portrayal of Jews on Broadway as crude and inept, but, in reference to Modicut, noted “how lovely, intelligent and charming it is in our own atmosphere.” He exclaimed “what a shining light we have right here” (1926c). Mukdoyni’s comments reveal a number of interesting aspects of the culture surrounding Yiddish theatre. It is clear that he considered Modicut’s puppet shows a serious theatre of satire, and not simply mass entertainment. He also used the opportunity of his Modicut criticism to condemn the current state of acting in the Yiddish theatre, as well as the way in which the non-Jewish theatre portrayed Jewish characters. For Mukdoyni, Modicut captured a particular Jewish essence, which could not be found in the work of live actors.
Critics in the Yiddish press might have been overly effusive because Modicut was the first successful Yiddish puppet theatre. However in non-Yiddish precincts there was also critical interest in Modicut. Modicut was featured in the June 1926 issue of the influential American journal Theatre Arts Monthly as “one of the most interesting of the new puppet theatres” that opened that year (Aronson 1926:20). And throughout the 1920s, when the profusion of puppet theatres in the United States reached its peak, Modicut was one of the few companies consistently mentioned by that journal. In addition, the renowned Russian puppet master Sergei Obratsev, in his autobiography, My Profession, commented that of all the numerous puppet theatres he saw during his eight-month tour of Europe and the United States in 1926, Modicut was one of the three most memorable (1985:33).
An interesting aspect of Modicut’s existence is that it was not, in fact, officially called a theatre, but rather the “Modicut Club,” as tickets found in Zuni Maud’s archives in the YIVO Institute reveal. An article in the Morgn zhurnal of 7 December 1926 indicates that the purchase of a ticket to a Modicut play was akin to buying a membership in that club, if only for a few hours. This unusual arrangement stemmed from an eviction attempt by Maud and Cutler’s landlord, who apparently did not like them, their politics, or their theatre. He brought legal proceedings against them on the grounds that his building was not zoned to house a theatre. However Maud and Cutler prevailed over the landlord through the unlikely method of having their puppets plead for them. In fact, they did not even bother to hire an attorney. They simply showed up in court with their puppets in hand. The judge was evidently so impressed with them that he insisted they perform Akhashveyresh for the court, which they did. After seeing a quickly improvised English version, the judge helped assure the continuing success of Modicut by ruling that although the building [End Page 126] was not technically zoned for a theatre, Maud and Cutler could have a “club” for which they could sell “memberships” instead of tickets. According to the Morgn zhurnal, the judge, the district attorney, and the bailiff then all bought “memberships” in the new Modicut Club. An extant Modicut ledger indicates that the print runs of their membership tickets went from 1,000 at the beginning of 1926 to 15,000 by the end of the year (YIVO Institute).
An important element of Modicut’s success was the artistic value of Maud and Cutler’s hand puppets. Many critics commented on how human the puppets appeared onstage, despite their nature as caricatures, and on how authentically Jewish they looked, from the silk kaftonim and taleysim (prayer robes and shawls) on traditional Jews to the workaday clothing on Lower East Side working-class Jews. The faces of the puppets were stereotypically Jewish, and some resembled the artists themselves. Maud and Cutler also exploited gestures, such as the rotating thumb of a pondering magid, a typical gesture made by Jews when interpreting religious verse, or the flapping ears of the loyfer. Maud and Cutler would sometimes spend months working on particular puppets, trying to perfect a wrinkled brow, a smile, or a raised eyebrow. These technical innovations were typically executed by the strings attached through the back of the puppet, which, when pulled, would cause the puppet’s eyebrows or eyelids to raise. In the mid-1930s, for example, Maud developed a “trick” puppet of Hitler. With the pull of one string, the puppet’s arm raised in the Nazi salute, its mouth opened to reveal fangs, and a lock of hair in the middle of his head stood straight up. 8
In addition to performing in their own space in New York City, Modicut performed in smaller venues, improvising shows in Jewish schools and worker’s clubs in and around New York (Kramer 1996; Trauber 1996). Their summers were spent practicing and performing at the Maud family’s summer resort in the Catskills, “Maud’s Zumeray,” a center for left-wing arts and politics. It is interesting to note that the only item under lock and key in the entire resort was the closet containing their puppets. Zumeray’s sliding fee scales attracted shop workers who, when they came up to vacation there, would often bring scrap material for the artists to use for their performances (Goodlaw 1996). In 1927 Modicut toured Jewish communities on the East Coast, the Midwest, and Canada on a tour under the sponsorship of the Morgn frayhayt, for which Khayem Suller, a former Morgn frayhayt editor, recalls organizing Modicut performances in the left-wing Yiddish school system (Suller 1995). The following year, Modicut played in and around New York and on the East Coast.
In 1929, Modicut toured Europe where they met with great success. On their way to the continent Maud and Cutler fired their manager, but they were able to make enough contacts once in Europe to schedule shows in Paris, London, Brussels, and Antwerp. Modicut received high praise for their sophisticated art and humor from the reviewers in Di post and Di tsayt in London. Writing in Di post, Y. Shayak commented that at some points the audience was not able to control its laughter (1929). In Paris a reviewer in Parizer haynt was less enthusiastic, but favorable and supportive nonetheless (Alperin 1929). In anticipation of their tour of Poland, the Paris shows were also reviewed in Warsaw’s Literarishe bleter by A. Alperin, who reveals such interesting details as the fact that the first Paris show was a special performance for the city’s literary and artistic community, and was presided over by Sholem Asch. Presciently, Alperin also predicted that when Modicut arrived in Warsaw its show would first be a hit with the literary crowd at “Tlomatskie draytsn” (the address and nickname of the Yiddish Literary Union in Warsaw), followed by great success with the rest of Polish Jewry (Alperin 1929:787).
He was exactly right. In Warsaw, Modicut performed twice each night in the performance hall of the Literary Union and ended up playing approximately [End Page 127] 200 shows there. The Warsaw Yiddish press responded with unmitigated praise. After the first few performances, literary critic Nakhman Mayzl wrote in Literarishe bleter:
The entire program is full of extraordinary folk-humor, wonderful ideas, and splendid technique. We have here truly Jewish wrinkles and gestures, words and mumbles, sighs and groans, which come about from Jewish sources and a Jewish way of life.(1929:964)
The Warsaw Yiddish press in general was full of praise for Modicut. The socialist Bund’s Naye folkstsaytung gave a glowing review and recommended Modicut to “all Jewish workers” (Beys-shin 1929). Leytse nayes wrote that “all of Jewish Warsaw impatiently awaits their exuberant performance” (1929). These articles, as well as articles in the leading Warsaw dailies Haynt and Moment, remarked with surprise that a puppet theatre from America could be so genuinely yidishlekh (Khoshekh 1929). This praise was important, since Poland was the source and center of Yiddish culture.
When it became apparent that Modicut had no plans to perform in the Polish provinces, a tour was hastily organized (Maud 1955). They spent a month in Vilna, playing 75 sold-out performances in a row. Articles and reviews in Vilner tog were as effusive and excited about Modicut as those in the Warsaw press. At the last performance in Vilna, audience members mounted the stage to ask Modicut to stay, and a moving letter from Zalman Reyzn (editor of Vilner tog) was read aloud, but Maud and Cutler continued on to Bialystok and other smaller locales throughout Poland (Reyzn 1930). Following Modicut’s departure from Vilna, a Yiddish puppet theatre called Maydim was organized (Rogoff 1996); meanwhile, in Warsaw, Modicut enthusiasts created a fan club. Through Maud and Cutler’s work, puppet theatre had become a fully Jewish medium.
By the time Maud and Cutler were ready to begin their second European tour, during the winter of 1931/32, communist artistic culture had become more oriented to the expression of proletarian themes. Modicut was most closely identified with the communist political community, and although Maud and Cutler did not relinquish all of their folkloric material, they began to follow the new proletarian emphasis. An indication of how politicized their theatre had become by the early 1930s is Nosu Bukhvald’s review of a New York performance of new material they prepared for their tour of the Soviet Union. This special, sold-out show in Irving Plaza was organized by the communist daily Morgn frayhayt. Bukhvald writes:
The themes and the clear proletarian orientation of the two new plays are truly something new for Modicut. Instead of making fun of the old magid from the shtetl, Maud and Cutler have brought their work to the closer thematics of shop, boss, exploitation, imperialism, depression and war.(1931:8)
In addition to a skit about a sweatshop, they also brought world politics to their tiny stage with puppet versions of President Herbert Hoover, British Prime Minister Ramsay MacDonald, and Mahatma Ghandi. In this particular play, Hoover and a puppet called Vol strit (Wall Street) decide that the best way to help the economy is to start a war. However, their plans are foiled by masses of workers. This development provokes the leaders of the world to complain that the workers have only just entered the play and have commandeered too large a role in world affairs—an obvious reference to the Soviet [End Page 128] Union. This class-oriented material replaced the Old Country-related figures with which Modicut began. While Bukhvald liked the text, he commented that the plays didn’t work as well as the old ones; but, he added, time and practice would take care of this problem. He reassured the public that certain key elements of Modicut’s style remained, including grotesque, absurd action and jokes, as well as satire and dialect. Bukhvald lauded their switch from simple, social satire to the struggle of the revolutionary proletariat.
The enthusiastic response Modicut received in the Yiddish-speaking community of the Soviet Union (December 1931 to April 1932) is particularly interesting in light of the decline of official Soviet support for Yiddish cultural activities which did not fit into the theme “national in form and socialist in content.” Jewish folkloric material was now considered objectionable in the USSR, a potential problem for Modicut, for whom folklore had always played a central role. In the Moscow Yiddish daily Emes, a brief article describes the origins of Modicut and mentions the “significant interest” in their performances (Emes 1932:4). According to the article, the Modicut performances were held in smaller venues such as the “Club for Theatre Workers, the International Club and the Theatre for Young Activists, among others.”
Following Maud and Cutler’s initial performance at the “Press-house” in Moscow, tables and chairs were brought up on the stage and a discussion of their works was held by the officials of GAMETS (State Union for Music, Stage and Circus). After some discussion, including comments that some texts would require alteration to make them acceptable for Soviet audiences, it was decided that Maud and Cutler would be officially invited to remain in the USSR as part of the GAMETS organization. They were put on salary and housed in the Grand Hotel for three months; however, quite significantly, no shows were organized for them. Since official attitudes toward Yiddish culture from abroad had soured during this period, it is possible that after their initial performances they were discouraged by the Soviets from performing. Despite the long period they spent in the Soviet Union, far fewer articles appeared in the Soviet press about their exploits than did in their previous year’s tour of Poland, and reportage of their performances, although unquestionably [End Page 129] praiseful, seems reticent. During their long stay in Moscow their enthusiasm evidently began to wane, and after five months Maud and Cutler decided to come home to New York.
Though their first Moscow performance had taken place in the meeting center for journalists, there is no printed information, archival or otherwise, to indicate that they connected with writers and artists from Soviet Yiddish literary circles. However, based on their circle in New York and the connections they made with Yiddish literary figures in Paris, Warsaw, and Vilna the previous year, it seems likely that they spent time with a similar Yiddish literary circle in the Soviet Union. The very fact that they performed in the “Press-house” in Moscow, as they did the year before in Warsaw’s Literary Union, indicates such a connection.
When they returned to the U.S., Maud and Cutler wrote and performed in and around New York, in addition to their usual summer activities at “Maud’s Zumeray.” Both continued writing for the Morgn frayhayt and its satellite journals, Hamer and Signal. The lack of press reports and reviews of new shows in the year following their return from the Soviet Union indicates a reduction of activity. This lull in their work, or at least press reports thereof, may have been indicative of problems in their relationship. Maud and Cutler disbanded their partnership and their theatre in mid-1933 due to an argument, the reasons for which are unknown. Khaver-paver wrote that certain friends of Yosl had convinced him to break up their theatre. “It was a tragedy when Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler separated. [...] How many thousands of workers and simple folk were thrilled by them...how many thousands of children from the Yiddish schools did they charm?” (1963:403–04). Both Maud and Cutler continued performing puppet theatre, alone and with other partners, but neither achieved the success that they had had together, although Cutler, who began to work with puppeteer Lou Bunin, was apparently more successful than Maud, who brought in Bere Yano. 9
In May 1935, Cutler left New York for California, ostensibly to make a puppet film of his own version of the Dybbuk parody. 10 With puppets and stage in tow, he stopped in Jewish communities on the way to perform in shows organized by the Morgn frayhayt. On 11 June 1935, while en route between [End Page 130] Minneapolis and Denver, he was killed in an auto accident near Iowa Falls, Iowa. It is testament to the popularity of Modicut and Cutler that, according to Der tog and Der morgn frayhayt estimates, there were between 10 and 15 thousand mourners at his funeral. Though the huge procession and memorial service took place on New York’s Lower East Side, no mention of it is found in the English-language press. Maud was devastated by his estranged partner’s death, so much so that he was unable to attend the funeral or the memorial events surrounding it. However, he continued to write and draw for the Frayhayt and other left-wing journals, as well as perform puppet theatre.
Though Yiddish cultural modernism experienced a great upsurge in all artistic realms during the first half of the 20th century, it experienced a premature decline due to Jewish acculturation in America followed by the annihilation of the Jews of Eastern Europe during World War II. Modicut serves as a small example of the possibilities that existed for Yiddish culture during this period. This small hand puppet theatre engaged the Jewish working masses of New York and other areas of the U.S., as well as those of Western Europe, Poland, and the Soviet Union. Its popularity is testament to the enjoyment it brought to its audiences while it addressed themes current in Jewish life from the late 1920s to the mid-1930s. The medium of puppetry was important in this respect, because the flexibility of the form allowed for many more performance possibilities than human actors could offer. Modicut could bring the ancient characters of the Purim story to the Lower East Side of New York or mock the political leaders of the world, presenting all this to Yiddish speaking audiences in their own language and as part of their own culture. For Yiddish speakers who reveled in their language and literature, Modicut provided cultural autonomy for a people that had no official autonomous status. In its simple and humorous manner, Modicut fulfilled the Yiddish speaking community’s need for a popular expression of the clash between tradition and modernity, and its consequent synthesis.
Edward Portnoy is currently a PhD candidate in Modern Jewish Studies at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. He is writing his dissertation on Yiddish humor and satire journals published in New York and Poland from the turn-of-the-century to 1939. He received an MA in Yiddish Studies at Columbia University in 1997 with a thesis on the lives and work of artists/performers Zuni Maud and Yosl Cutler.<
1. For more on Petryushka and its role in Russian theatre and culture, see Kelly (1990).
2. All translations, unless otherwise noted, are mine.
3. Illustrations by Maud and Cutler can be found in hundreds of Yiddish books, journals, and newspapers from 1907 to 1956.
5. See Morgn frayhayt, Forverts, Der tog, and Morgn zhurnal for the week of 7 December 1925 for examples.
7. Maud and Cutler also attempted to further increase their “intellectual” audience by placing advertisements in both The Nation and The New Republic (in September and October 1926), although their success in the English-language world was undoubtedly limited since they did not perform in English.
8. Though most of Modicut’s puppets have disappeared over the years, three of Yosl Cutler’s puppets resurfaced at an exhibition of puppet art at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum in 1981. They were loaned by puppeteer Lou Bunin, who worked with Cutler following the breakup of Modicut.
9. In a review in the 1934 edition of Puppetry: A Yearbook of Puppets and Marionettes, Donald Cordry describes a show Cutler did with The Workers Laboratory Theatre, which was attended by “interesting people with accents and wild dark hair.” Cordry is charmed by Cutler’s grotesques and, in likening the puppets to the age-old Punch, he declares the show “a triumph” (Cordry 1934).
10. A 17-minute film of three short performances by Cutler exists under the title Yosl Kotler un zayne marionetn (Yosl Cutler and his Puppets) in the archives of the National Center for Jewish Film at Brandeis University. The film, produced by Joseph Burstyn in 1935, was likely a screen test for the full-length film he wanted to make.
1929 “Der yidisher marionetn teater.” Literarishe bleter (Warsaw) 41, 18 October.
1926 “Modicut Yiddish Marionette Theatre.” Theatre Arts Monthly, June:20.
1929 “Voyle, heymishe amerikaner (di premiere fun amerikanish=yidshn marionetn=theater in varshe).” Naye folkstsaytung. Warsaw, 27 November.
1928 “Modikut.” Idishe tageblat. New York, 2 March.
1931 “Modikot af a nayem veg.” Morgn frayhayt (New York), 30 November.
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1932 “Teater un kino: di ‘modikotn’ in moskve.” Emes 4.
1926 Forverts (New York), 26 and 27 March.
1929 “Fun mayn teater vinkl.” Parizer haynt (Paris), 23 September.
1926 “Modikot.” Der tog (New York), 8 January.
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1929 “Modikot—dos marionetn teater.” Moment (Warsaw), 12 December.
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1926 “Di libe modikot shpil.” Fraye Arbeter shtime (New York), 10 January.
1929 Leytse neyes (Warsaw), 6 December.
1928 “Akhashveyresh.” Unzer bukh (New York) 2–3, February-March.
1929 “Di modikot forshtelungen.” Literarishe bleter, 49, 6 December.
1969 Puppet Theatre in America. Boston: Boston Plays.
1926 Morgn frayhayt (New York), 26 and 27 March.
1926 Morgn zhurnal (New York), 26 and 27 March.
1926 a “Marionetn.” Morgn zhurnal (New York), 5 January.
1928 Mayne hent hobn fargisn dos dozike blut. New York: Mayzl farlag.
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1985 My Profession. Moscow: Rudiga Publishing.
1933 “Modicut.” Young Israel (New York), May.
1929 “Di marionetn kintsler Zuni Maud & Yosl Cutler.” Literarishe bleter 50, 13 December.
1926 -1929 Leksikon fun der nayer yidisher literature, prese un filologye. Vilna.
1996 Interview with author. 20 May, New York, NY.
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1929 “Dos idishe marionetn teater.” Di Post (London), 22 December.
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1929 Idish amerike. New York: Farlag lebn.
1995 Interview with author. 7 November, New York, NY.
1996 Telephone interview with author. 8 February, Brooklyn, NY.
1933 Idishe shriftshteler. New York: Farlag oyfkum.
n.d. General Theatre Archive RG 118.
1926 “Vi lialkes shpiln zikh in idishn marionetn teater.” Morgn frayhayt (New York), 16 April.