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  • Staging The Jew: The Performance Of An American Ethnicity, 1860–1920
  • Robin Bernstein
Staging The Jew: The Performance Of An American Ethnicity, 1860–1920. By Harley Erdman. New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1997; pp. 224. Cloth $50.00, paper $19.95.

In his lucid and engaging Staging the Jew: The Performance of an American Ethnicity, 1860–1920, Harley Erdman traces the changing ways in which both Jews and gentiles performed Jewish identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. In the tradition of William Bowlhower and Judith Butler, Erdman argues that ethnicity is processible and performative; identity is unstable and “grounded in action rather than essence” (6). Jewish identity, with its mutable physical markers and conflicting stereotypes (for example, Jews are vilified as both communists and capitalists), is particularly unstable and ambiguous. Erdman describes a complex world in which gentiles performed Jews, Jews passed as gentiles, passing Jews performed grotesque anti-Semitic stereotypes, Jews performed assimilated Jews, and finally, Jewish identity became largely masked in the American theatre.

In the historical arc Erdman narrates, Jewish identity first became visible in American popular culture through gentile performances of Jewish villains, particularly Shylock and the comic “sheeny.” Actors playing Shylock often found themselves unable to achieve an “internal understanding of what motivates Shylock” and therefore “resorted to a characterization grounded in exteriority,” to use Edward Said’s term for “a discursive system based not on hidden meanings but on outward signs” (27, 26). These actors therefore marked Shylock’s Jewishness through visual displays of Oriental exotica such as scarves, earrings, and capes. The “sheeny,” as exemplified by Fagin of Oliver Twist, was also visibly marked as “a swarthy, hairy, fat, middle-aged, hook-nosed man who trumpets his ethnicity through a grotesque and garish vulgarity immediately evident to the eye” (33).

The influx of Jewish immigrants during the 1880s brought many Jews to careers in the theatre. On stage, Jewish men built upon the humor of the “sheeny” to perform themselves as comedic buffoons, or “jolly good fellows.” Erdman’s argument here is particularly nuanced as he analyzes the way in which the “jolly good fellow,” with his Jewishness marked by his beard and dialect, simultaneously performed the anxious question, “Is he a jolly good fellow?” Off stage, many Jewish men became theatrical producers and playwrights; for the first time, Jews exerted some power over the performance of Jewishness. As a result, during the 1890s and early 1900s, Jewish performance—particularly comic performance—gained unprecedented visibility.

This power and visibility ultimately deconstructed itself, as Erdman argues through his reading of the career of David Warfield, a Jewish actor who began his career performing the sheeny, but then became the first actor to popularize the turn-of-the-century Jewish comedic type. Warfield then caught the eye of the Jewish producer David Belasco, who persuaded him to star in The Auctioneer, which Lee Arthur and Charles Klein wrote especially for the actor. Warfield and Belasco engineered an elaborate publicity campaign boasting of Warfield’s anthropological observation of Jews in the ghetto and his subsequent performance of a “vividly true” Jew (111). At the end of his acting career, Warfield applied a similarly realistic style to his sympathetic Shylock; after performing “the one stage Jew with unchallenged credentials in the world of dramatic literature” (116), Warfield retired on the fortune he had earned not from acting, but from investing in theatrical productions.

The ultimate stage in Warfield’s social mobility, then, both resulted from and reflected on his decision to take a position in the business side of the show. He had ascended steadily from sheeny to [End Page 129] Jewish comic . . . to Shylock, but his greatest security both financially and ethnically occurred when the Jewish “Wohlfelt” [Warfield’s birth name] body with which he was born no longer was an object for audiences to examine . . . . He had effectively used his power to manage his way into invisibility.


In 1909, Israel Zangwill’s play The Melting-pot popularized the idea of blended American ethnicity; the “ideal American body,” thoroughly assimilated, would “purify immigrants of visible ethnic difference” (145). The years after 1910 “saw a ‘whitening’ of the Jewish...

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