Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America. By Andrea Most. New York University Press, 2013. xi+246 pp.
This is a remarkable book, sweeping in its range of material, sharp in its reasoning, and loaded with so many insights that it will reward the reader with many returns to its pages. That said, Theatrical Liberalism carries the burden of a title rather too cautious for the abundant evidence and vigorous argument. Andrea Most's subject is actually quite radical, in the best sense of challenging assorted authorities, reviving older visions, and in the process creating a popular culture unimaginable at the rise of industrialization. Alternatively, the book could be seen as "progressive," in the usage of the crucial New Deal and wartime years that coincided with the Jewish artists associated with the Popular Front in theater, film and music--and brought them to the very center of American popular culture.
Winner of the Kurt Weill prize for the best work on musical theater in 2005 (for Making Americans: Jews and the Broadway Musical), Most brings an undisputable authority to the larger subject at hand. She means, without quite saying so, to tell us what is Jewish about the wonderful (sometimes dreadful) entertainments thrilling audiences and giving them--Gentiles included--images of themselves.
There is so much here that any real attempt at summary would be an insult to the book. Still, her painstaking but also audacious interpretations might be summed up in the title of her fourth chapter, "The Theatricality of Everyday Life." Theater pushes the boundaries of lived and imagined experience, she argues, making her case from the highest dramatic forms to the kitsch that captured the largest audiences of the Yiddish theater (and probably all other theater). The actors in Fiddler on the Roof thus manage to succeed in being themselves! Or, at least, their possible selves, thrown backward a few generations, caricatured but not overwhelmed by the compulsions of dramatic fiction (not to mention singing). Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice made a shorter leap with ease and panache.
Most does not...