- “Something Dreadful and Grand”: American Literature and The Irish-Jewish Unconscious by Stephen Watt
Scholars who track the interactions of Irish and Jewish immigrant voices in the creation of American culture have largely focused on vaudeville, musical theater, and popular music around the turn of the twentieth century. Stephen Watt’s ambitious study, “Something Dreadful and Grand”: American Literature and The Irish-Jewish Unconscious, takes this intriguing pairing in a bold new direction, covering more than a century of American theater, including the modern political theater of Clifford Odets and the post-World War II classics of Arthur Miller and others. Watt moves beyond George Bornstein’s The Colors of Zion: Blacks, Jews, and Irish, 1845-1945 (2011), which traced parallels between representations of Irish, Jewish and African Americans in literature. Watt argues that a melding of Irish and Jewish voices was foundational to American drama; that Irishness and Jewishness wove together to produce ambivalent feelings (affirming and grotesque, familiar and terrifying); and that this weaving together of Irish and Jewish artists tended to create theatrical productions as political critique.
Watt derives his provocative title from Irish American playwright John Patrick Shanley’s journey to Ireland in 1993. Shanley knelt at a gravestone bearing his name and was overwhelmed with a feeling of connection he described as “something dreadful and grand” (Watt vii). Although Shanley’s trip to Ireland was marked by a general sense of displacement, he still felt overwhelmingly connected to the place and its people. Such tensions undergird Watt’s argument, particularly through his use of the concept of the “uncanny”—the ways that feelings of strangeness and fear can be a route toward familiarity and home. The ambivalence of Irish and Jewish identity is both part of the “psychical depths” of characters and the “political unconscious,” in Frederic Jameson’s framework, of American theater more broadly (Watt 18).
Watt examines Irish American melodramas at the time of the Great Famine migration and Jewish American theater at the peak of Jewish migration from Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century. In each case, he finds stage [End Page 222] productions that challenged stock stereotypes, introduced Irish-Jewish connections, and even suggested the interchangeability of Irish and Jewish characters.
Previous scholars, such as Ted Merwin and James Barrett, have emphasized the contrasts underlying the popular pairing of Irish and Jewish characters—the Irish were irreverent and childlike while Jews were calculating and acquisitive on stage. The juxtaposition was funny. But Watt makes a different argument here. In the mid-nineteenth century, drama often featured the surrogation of Irish and Jewish characters: they participated in the same activities and were often the plucky and pragmatic heroes of the plotlines. Irish and Jewish characters in nineteenth-century theater tended to be industrious, sympathetic, and witty. For example, the main character in Sam’l of Posen (1881), Samuel Plastrick, resembles the Irish immigrant character in James Pilgrim’s plays, including Shandy Maguire (1850) and Paddy Miles, the Limerick Boy (1836, revised in 1855). Such characters are “vivacious, resolute and blessed with a gift for comic intervention” (150). The chain of substitutions continues to Arthur Miller’s main character in the autobiographical A Memory of Two Mondays (1955). In the play, Bert, a Jewish employee among Irish coworkers, leaves the factory for college as an idealistic revolutionary, becoming an Irish nationalist, according to Watt’s slightly farfetched interpretation.
While many scholars locate the beginning of Irish American drama in the plays of Dion Boucicault, namely The Colleen Bawn, which opened in 1860, Watt pushes back several decades to the plays of John Brougham and Pilgrim. These playwrights articulated a vision of Irish success and industriousness in the United States (rather than a backward-looking longing, as often articulated within Irish nationalism, immigrant fiction, and popular music) and promoted ethnic cosmopolitanism—a belief in community connectedness and “intercultural understanding” (46). In this light, Irish melodramas of the mid-nineteenth century are part of a long arc of political theater, culminating in the 1930s modern...