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  • The Old System
  • Sarah Blacher Cohen

from the story by Saul Bellow

with permission by the author

"The Old System" © 1967 by Saul Bellow. All rights reserved.

"A Silver Dish" © 1978 by Saul Bellow. All rights reserved.

Stage adaptations by Joanne Koch and Sarah Blacher Cohen.

"The Old System," adapted by Sarah Blacher Cohen, was first presented with "A Silver Dish," adapted by Joanne Koch, as Saul Bellow's Stories on Stage in 1992 as a staged reading featuring Byrne Piven, directed by Joyce Piven at the Chicago Writers' Bloc New Play Festival with support from the Dramatists Guild Fund, Inc.; then in 1993 at the Lewis A. Swyer Theatre, the Empire Center at the Egg, sponsored by the New York State Writers' Institute and the College of Humanities and Fine Arts, University at Albany; at the Barbra Streisand Festival in San Diego featuring Hal Gould in 1995; in 1996; as a staged reading at the Florida Atlantic University Library Series in 2000; at the Empire Center at the Egg in Albany, New York, in a memorial performance directed by Rebecca Kaplan and sponsored by SUNY Hillel in 2005; as a staged reading at the Spertus Institute in Chicago and at the Milwaukee Public Library in 2005, both presentations directed by Sandy Shinner.

The Old System

Cast of Characters:

Samuel Braun—an inward, ruminating intellectual in his sixties whose family reminiscences interrupt his scientific detachment. Referred to in the script as Dr. Braun or Dr. Samuel Braun.

Ilkington—a seventy-year-old stuffy WASP gentleman with a streak of criminality. [End Page 170]

Young Sammy Braun—an earnest young boy.

*Young Tina—an angry hulk of a girl on the verge of puberty who is seductive and menacing.

Aunt Rose—a hard-driving business woman with a slight Yiddish accent who has veto power over her family's choices.

Uncle Braun—the docile Yiddish-accented survivor of the Czar's army and his domineering wife.

Isaac—Born in Europe, coming to America as a boy. Initially an upright young man is his twenties who, in the course of the play, becomes a middle-aged man with old-world spiritual values and strong attachment to family.

*Adult Tina—an embittered middle-aged woman who feels mistreated by her family and patriarchal society.

Rebbe from Williamsburg—the religious equivalent of a perceptive psychiatrist who immediately discovers what's wrong and offers the right advice. He speaks with a slight accent from his Lubovitcher Hasidic ancestors.

Mutt Braun—a streetwise tough-guy who, beneath the outward bravado, is still a little boy taking orders from Tina.

*(If the right actress can be found, she can be both the younger Tina and the older Tina.)

THE OLD SYSTEM adapted by Sarah Blacher Cohen from the story by Saul Bellow.

Lights up on One Actor, who will play the part of the older Samuel Braun, scientist.

Dr. Braun

Winter. Saturday. The short end of December. Alone in my apartment. Working with a thought… a feeling.

(Braun strides up and down, grappling with an idea, struggling to ascertain its meaning.)

They said that I, a scientist, a specialist in the chemistry of heredity, did not love anyone. Not true. I didn't love anyone steadily. But unsteadily I loved, at an average rate…

Especially my two cousins, in upstate New York… Isaac Braun and his sister Tina… from Albany and Schenectady. Isaac, a boy from Europe, grew up to be a man in the direct Old Testament sense, as that bird on the sycamore was born to fish in water. Isaac had the outlook of ancient generations on the New World. [End Page 171]

Tents and kine and wives and maidservants and manservants. His old country Jewish dignity was very firm and strong… In childhood he showed me great kindness. He took me for rides in the wagon with the old sway-back horse. He used to call me Sammy, sometimes Sammele.

Actors playing ISAAC and SAMUEL BRAUN as a boy are lit sitting atop a cube, swaying as if in a horsedrawn buggy. OLDER DR. SAMUEL BRAUN glances lovingly upon them.

(A very soft musical three or four minute bridge of a Jewish-sounding Klezmer...


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pp. 170-201
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