The­atri­cal Lib­er­al­ism: Jews and Pop­u­lar Enter­tain­ment in America

Andrea Most
  • Review
By – December 13, 2013

The­atri­cal lib­er­al­ism, as Andrea Most defines it, is a rev­o­lu­tion­ary embrace of the­atri­cal­i­ty as a viable social mode, the pri­or­i­tiz­ing of exter­nal action over inter­nal inten­tion, the cel­e­bra­tion of self-fash­ion­ing as a unique­ly Amer­i­can form of free­dom, and the con­struc­tion of a the­atri­cal com­mu­ni­ty based on oblig­a­tion rather than rights.” This con­stel­la­tion of val­ues per­me­ates pop­u­lar Amer­i­can enter­tain­ment, cre­at­ed most­ly by Jews, and derives in some mea­sure, she con­tends, from their reli­gious heritage.

That her­itage is the sub­ject of the begin­ning chap­ter – explor­ing the nar­ra­tive of the Bib­li­cal Jacob pre­tend­ing to be his broth­er, Esau, in order to gain the bless­ing and the birthright from his father, Isaac. This par­a­digm of the­atri­cal self-mak­ing” pre­dom­i­nates, Most demon­strates in sub­se­quent chap­ters, in The Jazz Singer, Show Boat, Pal Joey, Death of a Sales­man, A Fun­ny Thing Hap­pened on the Way to the Forum, My Fair Lady, West Side Sto­ry, Fun­ny Girl, Fid­dler on the Roof, Hair, Young Franken­stein, Zelig, Armies of the Night, The Coun­ter­life, and Angels in America.

The­atri­cal real­ism man­i­fests itself in this work, Most exem­pli­fies, by embody­ing Juda­ic val­ues about free­dom, per­for­mance, action, and com­mu­nal oblig­a­tion in pro­duc­tive ten­sion with Protes­tant lib­er­al ideals.…while effec­tive­ly dis­tanc­ing itself from the specif­i­cal­ly Jew­ish rit­u­als and prac­tices that would impede acculturation.”

She con­cludes that the­atri­cal lib­er­al­ism offers not a sin­gle def­i­n­i­tion of a Jew­ish lib­er­al self but rather the debate itself as the fun­da­men­tal fact of Jew­ish lib­er­al­ism” – insist­ing how­ev­er, in keep­ing with Jew­ish tra­di­tion, on actions which change the world but nev­er shut down the debate.”

Most’s exhaus­tive expli­ca­tion of her ambi­tious the­sis, with exten­sive analy­ses and schol­ar­ly ref­er­ences, is impres­sive but not con­vinc­ing. One is hard pressed to accept that these Jew­ish writ­ers and com­posers (along with two Gen­tile ones), cre­at­ing for the most part non-Jew­ish themed work, were large­ly influ­enced by Juda­ic sources.

Nor­man J. Fed­der, Ph.D., is dis­tin­guished pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of the­atre at Kansas State Uni­ver­si­ty. He is cur­rent­ly on the fac­ul­ty of the Inter­dis­ci­pli­nary Arts Pro­gram at Nova South­east­ern University.

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