In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s famous story, “When Shlemiel Went To Warsaw,” a man from Chelm - an idiot, a shlemiel named, appropriately enough, “Shlemiel” - goes on a journey to see far off Warsaw. He doesn’t get far before he tires and lies down for a nap, leaving his boots pointing in the direction he was going so he would know where to go when he waked. A mischief maker turns his boots around while Shlemiel sleeps, so when Shlemiel wakes he walks back the way he came instead of continuing to Warsaw. Arriving in the next town, Shlemiel is puzzled by the striking similarities to his own hometown of Chelm - same name, houses, same people, even a wife and children who look exactly like his living in a house identical to his own. But, of course, this can’t be his own Chelm - it must be a second, identical Chelm, with its own Shlemiel who must himself be on a journey.
Although he wishes to continue on his way, he is prevailed upon by the town’s elders to remain until the other Shlemiel returns, and to live in the other Shlemiel’s wife’s house as a caretaker for her children until her husband returns. And so he does. The husband, of course, never does return, and though Shlemiel himself is happier with his new wife and family than he had been with the ones he left behind, he concludes that journeying is fruitless when the whole world is the same all over, all just one big Chelm.
Singer adapted this story, combined with elements from other stories in his Chelm cycle, into a straight play, Shlemiel the First, which, in turn, Robert Brustein adapted into a musical, which just completed a revival run at the Skirball Center at NYU. The result, while pleasant and basically enjoyable, is so smothered in schmaltz that you can only barely still taste the sharpness of Singer’s wit.
Part of the problem is the production. Shlemiel is played as a sweet naif rather than a lazy fool. His wife has obvious affection for him from the first; because she doesn’t start out as a harridan, we don’t see a profound change when he comes back convinced he’s not her husband. Gronam Ox is a transparent buffoon rather than an arrogant bully. And everybody mugs and mugs and mugs. The only character this pays off for is the rich man, who comes to Gronam Ox to come up with a way he can avoid dying (he’s not only rich but punctilious in his observance - why should he die like all those fools who didn’t save their pennies and resist temptation as he did?), who gets a marvelously direct song about his conviction that he deserves immortality. For everyone else, all this mugging is a way of soothing us, making sure we know that nobody threatening or disturbing, and nothing actually serious is going on in this town. Which, if the audience agrees, is a surefire way to lose their interest.
And part of the problem is that the musical sentimentalizes what the stories satirizes. This is particularly the case when it comes to food. The Shlemiel of the stories fantasizes about being king of Chelm and receiving, in lieu of taxes, a jar of strawberry jam. That tells us something about Shlemiel’s relationship to food, and to money - and to his own imagination. These are poor people dreaming of what they imagine riches would be. When Brustein’s Chelmnites sing about blintzes, though, they are playing on the audience’s nostalgia for “old country” foods. They are ribbing us about that nostalgia, yes, but it’s still all about us, not about them. They are not creating a different world and inviting us to enter, which is what theatre should do.
And part of the problem, the most inexplicable part, to me, is the insane impulse to change the ending that afflicts so many adaptations of literature for stage and screen. In the short story that forms the main basis for the musical, Shlemiel never gets over his conviction that he is living in a bizarre duplicate of his old home town. He muses, for the rest of his days, about what his adventures have taught him about the nature of the world, without coming to any clear conclusion. The ending is marvelous and quite funny.
The musical actually improves on the story by elaborating on the Shlemiel family’s domestic arrangements when he returns. Since Shlemiel is married to another woman, and Mrs. Shlemiel is married to another Shlemiel, he can’t legally or morally cohabit with Mrs. Shlemiel. But he’s supposed to live in her house, and there’s no other bedroom to give him. So they set up a curtain between his bed and hers. But of course, the “walls of Jericho" don’t stay up long. This is all quite funny and also smart satire - of the traditional practice of niddah in particular. And then, just as the couple have concluded that they love each other more than either ever loved their original spouses, they discover that they are each other’s original spouses. The mystery is unraveled, Shlemiel knows who he really is - and we are denied Shlemiel’s sense of wonder at the nature of the universe that graces the end of Singer’s story in favor of a trite moral about there being no place like home. Feh.
Singer has become assimilated to the Jewish kitsch borg, which he would probably find funny but which I find deplorable. Philip Roth has long been despised in certain Jewish quarters for airing dirty laundry in public. But Singer, who is more universally loved, is similarly despised in certain deep Yiddish quarters for saying that the laundry didn’t get dirty here in the treifa medina, but was already dirty back in the old country. His comedy grows from the soil on that laundry. Clean it up, and it isn’t funny anymore. So I wish people would keep the detergent away and let him be his smelly self.