Reznikoff’s Nine Plays1
Charles Reznikoff’s plays are written in the verse form of his narrative poems. They need few stage directions. Scene and action are indicated by his titles and by speeches of characters which have a suggestive capacity commensurate with the associative potential of the realities upon which they are modeled. Reznikoff’s method is presentation rather than description. He does not stand us at a distance and summarize events as if they were the past; he puts us behind a tent-fold or closet door to overhear them as if they were present. All nine of his subjects are historical, and his history is the presentation of what stays true; six are Judaic, and his Judaism is a manifestation of what stays human.
Nine Plays has not been in print since Reznikoff hand-printed it in 1927, collecting his plays from Uriel Accosta and A Fourth Group of Verse (1921), Chatterton, The Black Death, and Meriwether Lewis (1922), and Coral and Captive Israel (1923), and adding Abram in Egypt, Rashi, and Genesis. Four of these, Captive Israel, The Black Death, Abram in Egypt, and Uriel Accosta, had appeared in The Menorah Journal in 1924 and 1925.2
Uriel Accosta, of a Portuguese noble Catholic family of Jewish descent, having converted himself and his mother and brother to the Judaism of the Old Testament, is unable to accommodate himself to the Church’s fanatic inquisitions and tortures in Oporto where (in 1585) he was born, or to the elaborate and strict rabbinical legislations in Amsterdam where he seeks refuge. In the first scene in Reznikoff’s play, Uriel’s brother observes: “We are too near the Jews, our grandfathers, to speak so freely, / Dominican Torquemada still listens at our hearts,” and Uriel, in reply, describes his discomfort and its cause: “Listen at mine: an uneven rhythm in its monotony, / As if it would speak out and dares not and would and dares not.” Uriel’s mind and body are not dissociated; the symbolic does not obscure the literal sense of “heart.” Reznikoff’s lines mimic the conflict which both mind and body express—in the contrast between unevenness and monotony, in the alternation between alveolar continuants and stops, in the repeated movements between “would” and “dares not.”
Reznikoff succinctly presents Uriel’s feelings not only in forms of rhythm and sound but also in imagery:
- URIEL. Here in Oporto Mother Church takes those
- who grope too far,
- Gently by the hands and hangs them by those hands,
- hangs stones upon their feet,
- To lengthen their reach that, groping and groping,
- They catch hold of the truth at last [pp. 1-2].
The ironic shifts from being led to being forced, from groping too far to being stretched too far, express Uriel’s frustration and bitterness. Uriel assumes the metaphoric significance of reality itself: the Church would show Uriel the truth only of death. At the end of the scene, Uriel closes “the shutters against the smoke and smell” of heretics—“a Jewess and a Moor”—burnt that day in the square [p. 3], and Uriel’s brother “reads unti a shriek is heard,” and “presses his palms against his ears” [p. 4]. Reznikoff’s images are both real and significant.
In Amsterdam Uriel writes a book which attacks rabbinical Judaism as nonbiblical, and stones rather than smoke of human flesh assault his windows. One of the Jews who accompany the watchmen who arrest Uriel says to him: “The jail and gallows are easily understood: / The key in the lock squeaks, ‘Stay’; / The knot, rubbing in the gallows rope, says, ‘Jump!’” [p. 10]. Uriel’s situation speaks, “Do not do to others as these have done to me.” The significance of the real is similarly clear throughout Reznikoff’s plays.
Reznikoff wrote his Uriel Accosta in reaction to a play of 1847 by Karl Ferdinand Gutzkow:
Uriel Accosta started with my dissatisfaction with a German play by that name. It was very romantic; the hero wasn’t bothered by any theological questions except incidentally—he was in love. That explained all his troubles.3
Reznikoff did not permit the man’s history to be reduced to or distorted by personal, literary, or cultural needs. The real Uriel Accosta was driven by theological doubts and desires and defended his individuality with neoclassical rather than romantic arguments. Before he shot himself in 1640 he wrote a short autobiography, Exemplar Humanae Vitae, which, according to the encyclopedia, “attacks revealed religion as disruptive of natural law and a source of hatred and superstition. In contrast, the religion of nature and reason bids us love our fellowman.”4 If Uriel were in love then that was incidental—Reznikoff does not mention it. Uriel’s love of truth and love of his fellow man, however, are evident by his actions. Reznikoff’s Uriel suffers from the lack of conditions for truthfulness and, because he speaks the truth, from lack of love. Reznikoff’s play ends not with Uriel’s suicide but with his decision to end his loneliness by going out to suffer again the ridicule of the congregation.
It is hard at first to imagine Reznikoff’s plays produced with song and dance. They seem too deep, or too plain, or too rich. Their language carries their significance so well that staging would seem superfluous. Yet Reznikoff tells us:
But let me say this about the plays: they are really libretti and should be accompanied by music. They really require staging and dancing. When I wrote them, I was very much under the influence of German expressionist drama, particularly that of Georg Kaiser. I was also interested in The Dybbuk, which had a lot of music and dancing.5
Reznikoff is too modest. We can already hear a dirge and see a nightmarish dance of the sensitive and worried Uriel Accosta being pushed to the grave, completely helpless. We can hear already the bass of Abram’s self-degradation alternating with the soprano of Sarai’s angry pride and the tenor of the messengers’ sarcastic disdain. We can imagine the sulking yet frantic desperation of Thomas Chatterton in brass winds backgrounded by the cold forces of literary and political societies in woodwinds and viols at the lower registers. We can already see the strength and bitter determination by which Meriwether Lewis explores a continent to escape himself, in contest with the fatigue and fear of his soldiers and the petty, hypothetical complaints and admirations of the citizens.
Captive Israel is Mariamne’s self-damning dance of pride and principles before her husband, the duplistic Herod, who changes stage-settings to manipulate with cruelty and selfishness Mark Antony, Salomé, John Hyrcanus, and Mariamne. The Black Death is a dance of the creation and resistance of Jewish scapegoats for the unintelligible bubonic plague. Coral is an operatic melodrama with full orchestra starring Nat Turner the underdog, John Brown the determined but criminal and ineffectual vigilante of freedom, and Abraham Lincoln the politician. Rashi is a piece for chamber orchestra in which we see a day in the life of the great Jewish scholar Rabbi Shelomoh Ben Isaac. Genesis continues the story of Abram and Sarai (from Chapters 12, 18, 23, 24, and 26 of Genesis), in which the worried Abram and the confident Sarai prove God’s privilege by establishing in Isaac a nation.
One may admit that Reznikoff was influenced by Yiddish and German theater, but not that he imitated them. His plays do not follow the supernatural and dreadful schemes of The Dybbuk by Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport (published under his pseudonym, S. Ansky) or the exaggerated symbolism of Georg Kaiser’s work.6 They contain no unreal atmosphere and no distortion of character. The ghosts in the first scene of Chatterton are historical persons who tell Chatterton from their tombs a definite message: “Live, while you can, Chatterton” [p. 23]; they are neither mysterious nor vague; they are not the stuff of either psychology or superstition. Reznikoff objectifies inner experiences, but never sacrifices verisimilitude, never departs from what the characters, in their situations, would do and say. His characters are real people in particular times and places. Appearances represent reality and reality is significant and dramatic.
Reznikoff’s plays also do not imitate the exaggerated symbolism of German expressionism. Their structure is inspired by, but not modeled on, Georg Kaiser’s work. Reznikoff’s scenes jump without transition between widely separated times and places. In Uriel Accosta, for example, scenes span the distance between Oporto and Amsterdam and the time of fifteen years. Reznikoff says:
That’s the experssionist influence. In one of Kaiser’s best plays, as I recall, a bank clerk throws up his job and goes through one experience after another. There’s really no relation among them except that the man is trying to find himself. I think what I did in the plays is exactly what I try to do in my other verse: cut out everything that wasn’t interesting in the hope that what was left would be.7
Again, Reznikoff is too modest. There are strong relations between sequential scenes in his plays. These relations are determined by his historical frameworks and by his deep involvement with his subjects. Since all scenes are precisely detailed to relate an aspect or moment of a coherent reality, they are inevitably connected by the relations that moved the characters and events of that reality, and by the relations that determined their significance to Reznikoff.
Reznikoff might have titled Coral after The Coral by Georg Kaiser. Kaiser’s play, written in 1917, is a parable about the errors of capitalist industry which culminated in World War Two. The Billionaire, in fear of the poverty and helplessness of his unhappy childhood, has created an empire whose center is the gas factory. He ruthlessly exploits his workers but tries to impress them with his “warm heart” by setting up his perfect double, the Secretary, distinguished only by a little coral on his watch chain, to attend to the poor and dissatisfied. The Billionaire envies the Secretary’s happy childhood and lives for his son and daughter, whom he spoils with luxury and freedom. But his children rebel; the daughter becomes a nurse and the son incites the workers at the gas factory to strike. Instead of killing himself, the Billionaire kills the Secretary and takes the coral for himself. Convicted of his own murder, he goes joyfully to his execution, having assumed, with the coral, the Secretary’s happy childhood.8
Reznikoff’s play is a dramatic reconstruction of the American abolitionist movement, beginning before 1831 with the insurrection of Nat Turner and including, in five scenes, the rise and fall of John Brown, and in five more the Civil War and the rise and fall of Lincoln. “Coral” is mentioned nowhere in it. Louis Zukofsky gives the most likely interpretation of the title—that Reznikoff casts doubt on whether man, like coral, can build upon each others’ skeletons to create a new land.9
Correlations between Kaiser’s and Reznikoff’s plays are possible. Human suffering is recognized in both plays; it can neither be alleviated nor escaped, and does not accumulate to the common good. But differences are more evident. Kaiser’s play symbolizes history; Reznikoff’s presents it. Kaiser invents a parable of historical forces reduced to psychological forces—characters without names or personalities motivated according to Freudian psychology. Reznikoff retells the abolitionist movement in terms of characters, events, and scenes which are both historical and significant. The principle of Reznikoff’s selection of facts is described by Ezra Pound:
Any fact is, in a sense, “significant.” Any fact may be “symptomatic,” but certain facts give one a sudden insight into circumjacent conditions, into their causes, their effects, into sequence, and law. . . . The artist seeks out the luminous detail and presents it. He does not comment.10
Kaiser believes that the universal is in the general; Reznikoff proves that the universal is in the particular.
Reznikoff’s work is distinct in his historical focus. His nine subjects reflect his concern for events of the past which have shaped the present, which have delineated the context of his own life by having established precedence, determined basic human patterns, created expectations for and limited acceptance of subsequent possibilities. History for Reznikoff is not merely a record of the past; it is a record of the events, characters, and conditions which are significant to the individual, both to the author and to his readers.
In June 1925 Reznikoff submitted Genesis to the Menorah Journal. His cover letter described and justified his plans for writing a series of plays beginning with Genesis to tell “the story of the Jews from their beginning until the present.” One of his reasons reveals his sense of the significance of history:
Perhaps in the last analysis I am only projecting these plays because they seem symbolic of myself, and you, reader, if you are interested in them, are only interested because they seem symbolic of your struggles.11
History, for Reznikoff, is not merely symbolic; it is an extension of the particular, the local. Telling it requires an ethical consciousness of the conditions which affect our happiness and creativity. Considering the question why he would dramatize the history of the Jews, Reznikoff writes:
I do not think it sufficient to answer, Because I am one. But because I am one, I am at home among my people, I think I understand their thoughts and speech better than those of another people. Nor is this sufficient. The Jews typify, perhaps more than any other people, constant and often victorious struggle against a hostile environment and hostile elements within itself, a struggle which has constantly evolved Jews that are symbols of the admirable.12
Historically shaped conditions end, for Reznikoff, not only with his Judaism, whose roots he presents in Uriel Accosta, Abram in Egypt, Captive Israel, The Black Death, Rashi, and Genesis, but also with his role as a writer, whose roots he presents in Chatterton, and his identity as an American, whose roots he presents in Meriwether Lewis and Coral. These plays explore the difficulties of being true to oneself, one’s God, one’s family, one’s art, one’s country, and one’s fellow man, and consequently, make these truthfulnesses more possible.
1 First published in Charles Reznikoff: Man and Poet, edited by Milton Hindus, 1984, pp. 267-273.
2 The Menorah Journal, 10, 1 (February 1924), 38-45; 10, 4 (August-September 1924), 381-385; 10, 5 (November-December 1924), 514-515; 11, 1 (February 1925), 35-42. Rashi appeared in The New Palestine before June 1925 (see “An Introductory Note to Genesis,” June 1925, The Charles Reznikoff Archive at The Archive for New Poetry, University of California, San Diego). The colophon in Nine Plays reads:
I set the type by hand and did the press work. 400 copies were printed and the type distributed; this is Number . I thank the editor of The Menorah Journal for permission to reprint Abram in Egypt and the editor of The New Palestine for permission to reprint Rashi. C.R.
Louis Zukofsky included Rashi in An “Objectivists” Anthology in the section devoted to the epic (Le Beausset, Var, France: To, Publishers, 1932), 87-91. References to Nine Plays (New York: Charles Reznikoff, 1927) appear in brackets in the text.
3 Reznikoff, The Contemporary Writer: Interviews with Sixteen Novelists and Poets, eds. L. S. Dembo and Cyrena N. Pondrom (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1972). p. 214.
4 This and information about Accosta, Encyclopedia Britannica, 1966 ed.
5 The Contemporary Writer, p. 214.
6 See The Dybbuk: A Play in Four Acts, trans. Henry G. Alsberg, and Kaiser, Five Plays, ed. J. M. Ritchie (London: Calder and Boyars, 1971).
7 The Contemporary Writer, p. 214.
8 See Ernst Schurer, Georg Kaiser (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1971).
9 Zukofsky, “Charles Reznikoff: Sincerity and Objectification,” handwritten manuscript at Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.
10 “I Gather the Limbs of Osiris,” Selected Prose 1909-1965, ed. William Cookson (New York: New Directions, 1975), pp. 22-23.
11 “An Introductory Note to Genesis.”
12 “An Introductory Note to Genesis.”