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Thanks! -- Arnie Perlstein, Portland, OR

Sunday, May 1, 2016

The matchless four-way literary match of creative geniuses, hidden in plain sight…until now

 As part of my latest revisiting of Romeo & Juliet, I was reading the following speech by Capulet to daughter Juliet, in which Capulet (like Sir Thomas Bertram in Mansfield Park or Mrs. Bennet in Pride & Prejudice) is astonished by her refusal to docilely accede to the rich, older husband he has chosen for her. Beyond those (unsurprising) Austenian echoes, I was jolted by the unexpected echo of another, very well known story – can you guess what it is? (my Subject Line, plus the words in ALL CAPS  in Capulet’s speech, give you a giant hint, if you think about it):

Soft! take me with you, take me with you, wife.
How! will she none? doth she not give us thanks?
Is she not PROUD? doth she not count her blest,
Unworthy as she is, that we have wrought
So worthy a gentleman to be her bridegroom?
Not PROUD, you have; but thankful, that you have:
PROUD can I never be of what I hate;
But thankful even for hate, that is meant love.
How now, how now, chop-logic! What is this?
'PROUD,' and 'I thank you,' and 'I thank you not;'
And yet 'not PROUD,' mistress minion, you,
But fettle your fine joints 'gainst Thursday next,
To go with Paris to Saint Peter's Church,
Or I will drag thee on a hurdle thither.
Out, you green-sickness carrion! out, you baggage!
You tallow-face!

Did you guess?

To immediately end the suspense, my mind was blown when I read “Thank me no thankings, nor, proud me no prouds” --- what I was reminded of were the ironically negating lyrics of the final stanza of the song “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof,  in which big sister Tzeitl scares Hodel and Chava out of their romantic yearning for a perfect husband:

[Hodel & Chava]
Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.
Find me a find, catch me a catch.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, look through your book
And make me a perfect match.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, I'll bring the veil.
You bring the groom, slender and pale.
Bring me a ring, for I'm longing to be
The envy of all I see.
For Papa, make him a scholar.
For Mama, make him rich as a king.
For me, well, I wouldn't holler
If her were as handsome as anything.
Matchmaker, matchmaker, make me a match.
Find me a find, catch me a catch.
Night after night, in the dark, I'm alone.
So, find me a match of my own.
Hodel, oh Hodel, have I made a match for you.
He's handsome! He's young! All right, he's 62.
But he's a nice man, a good catch. True? True!
I promise you'll be happy. And even if you're not,
There's more to life than that. Don't ask me what!
Chava! I've found him! Will you be a lucky bride!
He's handsome. He's tall! That is, from side to side.
But he's a nice man, a good catch, Right? Right!
You've heard he has a temper. He'll beat you every night.
But only when he's sober- so you're all right!
Did you think you'd get a prince?
Well I do the best I can.
With no dowry, no money, no family background,
Be glad you got a man!
[All three of them]
Matchmaker, matchmaker, you know that I'm
Still very young. Please, take your time.
Up to this minute, I've misunderstood
That I could get stuck for good.
Dear Yenta, see that he's gentle.
Remember, you were also a bride.
It's not that I'm sentimental.
It's just that I'm terrified!

Matchmaker, matchmaker, PLAN ME NO PLANS.
I'm in no rush. maybe I've learned
Playing with matches a girl can get burned.
So bring me no ring, GROOM ME NO GROOM,
Unless he's a matchless match!

Think it’s just a coincidence? In a 2003 thread in the Shaksper listserv….
…Capulet’s two consecutive “neologizing imperative retorts” [for other examples, see Dale Randall’s “X Me No X's…” American Speech, 64/3 (Aut. 1989), 233-43] were noted, but, since Fiddler on the Roof is never associated with Shakespeare, no one heard what I believe is, from the right perspective, an obvious allusion.

So now, please allow me to introduce you to the evidence I’ve quickly assembled. First and foremost, there’s striking, multifaceted parallelism between these two scenes in Romeo and Fiddler. Both scenes are about daughters coerced by parents to marrying rich older men those daughters don’t want to marry- plus Tseitl, like Juliet, has already secretly declared her love to a younger suitor. In Romeo & Juliet, Capulet spews abuse at Juliet, an insane overreaction to her diplomatic, deferential, and desperate attempt to avoid his draconian fiat. In Fiddler, the girls in that final stanza seek to do exactly the same as Juliet—by not challenging parental authority directly, but instead cajoling diplomatically, asking “only” that no match be brought “unless he’s a matchless match”!   

And there’s also a subtly ironic pun in the word “matchless”, that I never noticed till today ---on the surface, it’s a comparative; i.e., the ideal husband is unmatched by all the other suitors. But there’s also a subversive “chop-logic” hidden meaning –he can be a “match” only so long as he’s “matchless”, meaning he must not be a match….imposed on her against her own free choice! And by the way, we hear that same comic chop-logic in the rabbi’s prayer that God keep the Czar (who, like Capulet, is prone to cruel, irrational, and deadly edicts)……far away from the Jews he victimizes!

And,  it turns out that throughout Romeo & Juliet,  the word “match” is repeatedly used, by four different speakers, as Shakespeare walks this versatile word through the paces of its many meanings, including that very same pun in that last stanza of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” I decoded in the previous paragraph!:

ROMEO [re Rosaline]
[and it’s that same pun on “match”, as both arrange marriage and comparison, in “matchless match”!]

Then, after Romeo & Juliet first meet, we read the Chorus intone in the next Prologue:

Then, Romeo and Mercutio trade witty jests:

This is yet another meaning of match, as game, a pun which is then unwittingly and darkly echoed by Juliet hears that Romeo having killed Tybalt:

And finally the Nurse does an abrupt 180, and advises Juliet that Paris is a better match for her than Romeo, which unites the meanings of arranged marriage and comparison via “it excels your first”:

That is an extraordinary matrix of punning poignant wordplay that makes it crystal clear that the lyricist of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker”  was very specifically pointing to Capulet’s rant --- which adds a dark depth to a song that already was darkened by the agitated minor key interlude of Tseitl’s cautionary tale.

I wondered how this translation of Romeo & Juliet to Fiddler came about, and Google quickly led me to  the following discussion in the late Mark Van Doren’s 1939 classic,  Shakespeare, as he pointed out ”…the relentless rush of time as the Thursday of Juliet’s enforced marriage to Paris is tolled by Capulet the perpetual motion MATCHMAKER---
Day, night, hour, tide, time, work, play
Alone, in company, still my care hath been
To have her MATCHED;   (3.5)
…Romeo & Juliet will have [the older generation] with them to the end, and will be sadly misunderstood by them. The Capulets hold still another view of love. Their interest is in ‘good’ marriages, in sensible choices. They are MATCHMAKERS, and believe they know best how their daughter should be put to bed…..She is ‘a wretched puling fool, a whining mammet,’ a silly girl who does not know what is good for her….”  Whereupon Van Doren then quoted Capulet’s “proud me no prouds” speech.

There you have yet another set of remarkable echoing, which to me is strong evidence that the lyricist of “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” read Van Doren’s authoritative tome, while grafting Romeo & Juliet onto Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye stories. And it was then that I recognized a clue to answering that question, right in front of my eyes (and next to my ears), in parallel scenes from two films made a decade apart:

First, the “To Life” number in Fiddler, which begins with Tevye and Lazar Wolf toasting each other after the former consents to the latter’s marrying Tseitl (which will be undone in the next scene), then morphs into a complex dance number involving many dancers from among the Jews and Cossacks of Anatevka:

And second, there’s the opening scene in West Side Story, in which the Anglo Jets and the Puerto Rican Sharks dance their way through the first of several, increasingly tense confrontations:

When you examine it, the parallel is much more than the obvious fact that Jerome Robbins wrote the choreography for both -- it's that Robbins and his collaborators clearly chose to consciously revisit, in Fiddler, the Us vs. Them theme from West Side Story; but instead of Sharks and Jets, it's Russian Jews and Gentiles! And the subtle, pervasive leitmotif of that echo is the Jets’s finger snaps, which are  revisited in the finger snaps by the Chasidic dancers in the Bottle Dance scene in Fiddler:

The following account in Robbins’s Wikipedia page bears out my claim of that revisiting:
“In 1947, Jerome Robbins approached Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents about collaborating on a contemporary musical adaptation of Romeo and Juliet. He proposed that the plot focus on the conflict between an Irish Catholic family and a Jewish family living on the Lower East Side of Manhattan during the Easter–Passover season. The girl has survived the Holocaust and emigrated from Israel; the conflict was to be centered around anti-Semitism of the Catholic "Jets" towards the Jewish "Emeralds" (a name that made its way into the script as a reference).” 

When Robbins’s initial conception morphed away from his original Jewish theme into West Side Story, he never forgot it, and then played a key role in eventually transplanting it to Czarist Anatevska!

And that would have been enough…but then, I turned to the rest of Fiddler, to see if I could spot any other Romeo & Juliet echoes in it. As I browsed Juliet’s speeches searching for other Fiddler antecedents, my eye was caught by two conversations between Juliet and her mother, which I believe find their way into the subtext of Fiddler.

First, as Lady Capulet seeks to persuade Juliet to accept Paris as a husband, she turns to a metaphor of  Juliet and Paris as fish: “The fish lives in the sea, and 'tis much pride  For fair without the fair within to hide.” In other words, fish, especially attractive fish, should be paired off together, as in Noah’s ark.

That seems to me to be a direct source for Tevye’s attempt to persuade Chava not to continue her growing intimacy with the righteous Gentile Fyedka, but this time Tevye turns Lady Capulet’s fishy metaphor on its head, using it in a negative sense: “In other words, a bird may love a fish, but where would they build a home together?”

And second, we have what Juliet says to her mother later in the story, when she must conceal that she plans to run away to Mantua to be with the banished Romeo:  “God knows when we shall meet again.”

That reminded me of the exchange in Fiddler:
Hodel: Papa! God alone knows when we shall see each other again.
Tevye: Then we will leave it in his hands.
And I checked in Sholem Aleichem’s original story, and saw that Hodel does indeed say the same thing to Tevye there as well.

That exchange leads right into Hodel’s poignant solo in Fiddler that Juliet could have sung had she actually been able to pick up and openly move to Mantua, far from Verona, and live with Romeo there.

How can I hope to make you understand
Why I do, what I do.
Why I must travel to a distant land,
Far from the home I love.
Once I was happily content to be
As I was, where I was,
Close to the people who are close to me,
Here in the home I love.
Who could see that a man could come
Who would change the shape of my dreams.
Helpless now I stand with him,
Watching older dreams grow dim.
Oh, what a melancholy choice this is,
Wanting home, wanting him,
Closing my heart to every hope but his,
Leaving the home I love.
There where my heart has settled long ago
I must go, I must go.
Who could imagine I'd be wand'ring so
Far from the home I love.
Yet there with my love, I'm home.

These three echoes of Romeo and Juliet in the love stories of Tseitl, Hodel, and Chava in Fiddler raise a deeper question: whether this Romeo & Juliet subtext in Fiddler was entirely the work of its American creators, or was any of it already present in Sholem Aleichem’s original stories?

My sense is that the great Yiddish storyteller did know Shakespeare (as well as Austen --- especially Pride & Prejudice, as I’ve previously claimed many times), and decided to use Romeo and Juliet as a model, but in an outside the box way—in effect, Sholem Aleichem split Romeo and Juliet into three couples, in order to separately highlight three different sides of their complex story:

In the triad of Tseitl, Motel, and Lazar Wolf, we see Juliet, Romeo, and Paris; except that S.A. “corrects” Capulet’s tragic error of going berserk on Juliet, by allowing Tevye to change his mind. Then, in Hodel and Perchik, S.A. foregrounds Juliet wishing to marry the “outlaw” who is banished for a serious “crime”, and being willing to following him anywhere.  And finally, in Chava and, S.A. brings out the Juliet who wished to marry the forbidden lover, who is part of the ancient enemy of the bride’s clan.  

Before I close, I want to bring out two fainter echoes of Romeo & Juliet in Fiddler, which would not stand alone, but which nicely complement all of the above:

First, the joyous exuberance of “the tailor Motel Tamzoyl”, after Tevye (again, so opposite to Capulet) reverses himself and consents to Tseitl’s marrying him, in “Wonder of Wonders”, seems to point to Romeo’s following two exuberant love paeans to Juliet on the theme of “wonder”:


Part of what makes me think this “wonder” allusion is intentional, is that Motel calls himself a Daniel, and I have long seen more than a little of the Biblical Daniel in Romeo the dreamer. So, I believe, did Sholem Aleichem, by means of his clever parody on Daniel, the faux-prophetic dream of Tevye which he uses in order to bring his wife around to the notion of Motl as a good match for Tseitl.

And finally, I invite you to read the following exchange through the lens of all of the above:

The image of a fiddler on the roof as a symbol of the Jew in Eastern Europe was clearly derived by the creators of Fiddler from Sholem Aleichem’s story “On the Fiddler” in his collection Jewish Children. I suggest that those imaginative minds also looked at Romeo & Juliet, and found in Mercutio a Shakespearean analog for S.A. fiddler– the fearless artistic soul who teeters precariously on a knife’s edge of divided loyalty between the Montagues and Capulets, seeking to seduce the warring factions into “dancing”—i.e., making peace---with each other. All it earns him is an early death, as he literally gets caught between the crossed swords of Tybalt and Romeo --- tragically similar to the Jews whose ancient balancing act in Eastern Europe is brought to a similarly abrupt end, first by the Czar with his pogroms, and then later by Hitler’s Holocaust.

And so, in that fiddler on the roof, we see the genius of Jerome Robbins et al – the symbol of dance and music as a force for peace between ancient enemies---most of all in those scenes from West Side Story and Fiddler I gave YouTube links for, with their astonishing synthesis of music, dance---especially in that brief moment of hopeful possibility, when Tevye and his Cossack counterpart first start to dance together arm clasping arm.

To life (and also to Shakespeare, to Sholem Aleichem, and to Robbins and his Fiddler partners)!!

Cheers, ARNIE
@JaneAustenCode on Twitter

1 comment:

Sasha Margolis said...

I believe it's pretty well-established that the name of Fiddler actually comes from Chagall