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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Saturday, December 12, 2015

To life, and to the dance of life, in Fiddler on the Roof and Pride & Prejudice

I've posted several times over the past decade, most recently last year…  ….about the multifaceted allusion to Pride & Prejudice I see in the Tevye stories written by Sholem Aleichem 120 years ago, and in the Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof (1964) based thereon, and most of all in the magnificent film adaptation of  Fiddler (1971) directed by Norman Jewison (who, as befits a story with roots in Jane Austen and Sholem Aleichem, is, ironically, NOT Jewish!).  Everywhere I look, I see the parallels, perhaps most of all between the parents of these iconic country families with five marriageable daughters and no sons--Tevye and Mr. Bennet, and Golde and Mrs. Bennet.

I just dusted off the DVD of the film Fiddler and watched the first half of it (it is just under 3 hours long, so it justifies watching it in two sessions), finding myself once again, as happens every time I do watch it, frequently moved to laughter, to choking up, and often to both at the same time. And I realized that there are very few films I’ve ever seen that can so reliably elicit that sort of dual reaction on a repeated basis. And if there’s another film that comes close to that effect on me, it is (what else?) Andrew Davies’s 1996 Pride & Prejudice (aka P&P2)!

So, for all of you reading this post who are great fans of P&P--whether the original novel, P&P2, or both---but have never seen the film Fiddler, or at least have never watched it with Austen in mind (because there are also echoes of Emma, as well), I suggest to you that if you do so, you may be lucky enough to enjoy the same doubled sense of pleasure that I do. At the very least, I guarantee you will find yourself often reminded of Pride & Prejudice.

I’ve never studied the book of the original musical in comparison to the film’s screenplay, but my strong sense is that Joseph Stein, who wrote both, as well as Topol, who performed the role of Tevye onstage countless times before and after he starred in the film, both honed the story and the performance of the central role to perfection for the film during the first seven years it played on Broadway. There’s not one second in the film that sounds a false note, musically or dramatically----at least to my ears. So, just as one would imagine Jane Austen smiling approvingly at P&P2, so too I imagine Sholem Aleichem would do likewise with the Fiddler film.

One parallel between P&P and the show/film Fiddler that I don’t recall consciously registering before today was how central the metaphor of dancing was in both. I don’t have to tell any Janeite reading this how significant and thematic dance is in P&P, indeed in all of JA’s novels. Are there any more memorable romantic scenes in literature or film than Darcy and Lizzy verbally sparring while dancing at the Netherfield ball? And, moving one level up and thinking about the Netherfield ball as a whole, with so many of the attendees dancing, as a microcosm for Meryton the town, which itself is a microcosm for the world---I realized that JA herself was subtly invoking the idea of the cyclic rhythms of the dance of life, generation by generation, with courtship the necessary engine for that eternal progression.

So when you watch the film Fiddler, note how often dance (and it doesn’t hurt that the choreographer was the genius Jerome Robbins!) comes to the fore. It’s not just that it’s a musical with firstrate choreography, as many musicals have—it’s that the metaphor of dance is everywhere subliminally presented to the audience thematically, because it is integral to the meaning of the drama portrayed.

And here’s a telling example. As witty and moving as is the scene early in the film when Chodel and Perchik (modeled by Sholem Aleichem, I claim, on Lizzy and Darcy) briefly dance, and their sharp verbal sparring suddenly and surprisingly turns romantic, I never before recognized the metaphor of dance afoot in the scene I consider the highlight of the film—when Tevye’s and Lazar Wolf’s celebration of the latter’s very short-lived arranged engagement to Tevye’s eldest daughter Tzeitel (just think Mr. Collins and Lizzy) seamlessly morphs into a tour de force, an extended group dance scene involving all the Jewish and Cossack men in the tavern.

I realized that the brilliant team that created and realized that scene on film was telling us that an about face from fear and mistrust to trust and collaboration, a dance of mutually rewarding life (as in “To Life”) is possible when you least expect it---and so it’s no accident that this scene immediately follows the one with Chodel and Perchik. Just as they are both startled at how powerfully they are attracted to each other, so too does a spontaneous connection arise in the liminal state of a boisterous disinhibited tavern fueled by drinking, between Hasidic Jews and Cossack peasants---groups who, for religious and/or political reasons, feel hardwired into believing they are supposed to hate each other.

But Fiddler is no romantic pie-in-the-sky fantasy. That dance scene in the tavern is unmistakably echoed in the scene later in the film when the dancing at the wedding celebration for Tzeitel and Motel--including the extraordinary bottle dance in which the Hasidic dancers begin to incorporate the very distinctive Cossack squat into their movement, is cruelly ended by the “disturbance”—a pogrom-- which the local constable had warned Tevye about earlier. As that scene (and history) shows, the dance of life is ever vulnerable to being abruptly halted, if we all do not remain vigilant.

And so I conclude with the Tevye-esque fantasy that if I were a powerful man (which, in this era of Citizens United, does mean, if I were a rich man), I’d find a way to induce Donald Trump to watch Fiddler with me (my guess is that he’d probably say it’s a favorite of his, for crass political reasons), and then remind him during that scene that he should tread a whole lot more carefully as he steps on so many  toes—indeed, knocks many of the dancers down---and destroys the dance of life on earth that we all yearn for—a global dance which our ever increasingly  interconnectivity could support, but which seems so fragile and imperiled in light of the recent stream of tragic, violent current events around the world, and those who push us closer to the brink of chaos.

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

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