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  • The Politics of Pageantry, 1936–1946
  • Stephen J. Whitfield (bio)

How does a weak and often despised minority petition the public for a redress of grievances? Occasionally the answer is, through spectacle. Among the curios of American Jewish culture were efforts to arouse ethnic and political consciousness and to inspire moral support from the general community through the presentation of pageants, which are dramas invested with a civic purpose. Pageants are hybrids of art and propaganda which often evoke the past in order to affect public opinion and to stimulate communal cohesion; not primarily motivated by commerce, such aesthetic events are really political gestures. 1 Three of these civic acts were staged in New York City during the two most exigent crises to confront emancipated Jewry. The rise of Nazism had propelled into exile collaborators on The Eternal Road (1937), a biblical extravaganza that also encapsulated the history of the Diaspora as a saga of oppression. The artists most involved in that spectacle had been marginally Jewish, though the torment of exile compelled them to grapple with their own origins in addressing audiences of mostly first- and second-generation Americans. The organizers of We Will Never Die (1943) sought to fortify the hopes of other American Jews while their brethren were being massacred, and joined with other artists on A Flag Is Born (1946), a play designed to validate the fight for Jewish sovereignty in Palestine.

In all three works the immediacy of the stage was supposed to remedy, however slightly, the sense of powerlessness that pervaded Jewish experience, to activate feelings of solidarity that dispersal had stifled, and to invoke (through a synthesis of drama, music and exhortation) the tragic dimension of Jewish fate. The Eternal Road, We Will Never Die [End Page 221] and A Flag Is Born enlisted the histrionic, musical and moralistic talent that a tiny people could tap within its own ranks, talent that could not be confined to the synagogue or even the meeting hall. These dramaturgical enterprises gave that people its own voice, so that Jewry could speak for itself instead of seeing on stage how others had depicted, say, the Jew of Malta, or Shylock, or Nathan the Wise.

That voice was not quite as universalist as the show business messages characteristic of American Jews, who rarely referred to themselves in exposing the pathos and injustice of bigotry. Intolerance was usually wrong when others were its victims. Recall the doomed romance of the beautiful but “tragic mulatto” Julie in Show Boat (1927), based on Edna Ferber’s novel with libretto and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II; or the beautiful Pacific Islander Liat whose frustrated love for Lt. Joseph Cable makes him realize in South Pacific (1949), again according to Hammerstein’s lyrics, that “You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late, /Before you are six or seven or eight, / To hate all the people your relatives hate— / You’ve got to be carefully taught.” Or consider the angry Puerto Ricans who sneer, thanks to Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics in West Side Story (1957), about “everything right in America / If you’re a white in America”; or the lovely, eponymous heroine of Pocahontas (1995), who rebukes, through Stephen Schwartz’s lyrics, the Eurocentrism of the Virginians: “You think the only people who are people / Are the people who look and think like you. / But if you walk in the footsteps of a stranger, / You’ll learn things you never knew you never knew.”

In the 1930s and 1940s the three spectacles considered here did not dismiss the value of universalism. But they also rectified the imbalance by attempting to show that Judaism differed, that particularity need not be cultivated at the expense of cosmopolitanism or of tolerance. A Flag Is Born was especially emphatic in the case that it advanced for Zionism. No one elected the progenitors of pageantry to speak for the collectivity; no one appointed them to mount such master narratives either. Yet these figures represented yearnings and fears, terrors and hopes that millennia of the Jewish experience disclose to the historian. In an era when the reconciliation of ethnicity and citizenship was not yet a certainty, and...

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pp. 221-251
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