The Melting Pot
nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
March 12, 2006
America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! Here you stand, good folk, think I, when I see them at Ellis Island, here you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. But you won't be long like that, brothers, for these are the fires of God you've come to—these are the fires of God. A fig for your feuds and vendettas! Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians—into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American.
— The Melting Pot (1908) , Act I
[H]ow else shall I calm myself save by forgetting all that nightmare of religions and races, save by holding out my hands with prayer and music toward the Republic of Man and the Kingdom of God! The Past I cannot mend—its evil outlines are stamped in immortal rigidity. Take away the hope that I can mend the Future, and you make me mad....I keep faith with America. I have faith America will keep faith with us.
— The Melting Pot (1908), Act II
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal"....I have a dream that my four children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character....When we let freedom ring, when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God's children, black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old Negro spiritual, "Free at last! free at last! thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"
— Martin Luther King, Jr. (1968)
[H]ow we struggled, how we fought, for the family, for the Jewish home, so that you would not grow up here, in this strange place, in the melting pot where nothing melted. Descendents of this immigrant woman, you do not grow up in America, you and your children and their children with the goyische names. You do not live in America. No such place exists.
— Tony Kushner, Angels in America (1993)
Above, behold: the evolution of a powerful idea. Israel Zangwill may not have coined the term "melting pot" to describe the romantic ideal that he understood (willed?) for the still-young U.S.A. (Zangwill was English); but his play gave it currency, and the words stuck. Now the eminently invaluable Metropolitan Playhouse has staged a revival of Zangwill's work, providing us a look at The Melting Pot, on its own terms.
It's entirely worth seeing.
As drama, it is very much of its time, which is to say that the dialogue can sometimes feel dense to our 21st century ear and that the plotting relies all too extremely on melodramatic conventions rather than psychology. (The third act concerns itself almost entirely with a dastardly scheme on the part of the play's villains to reclaim the ingenue from the hero; they would tie her to train tracks or a saw mill if Zangwill could figure out how to get either one into his New York City setting.)
But the story is as timely and resonant as ever. David is a young, recent Jewish immigrant from Russia. He's a musical prodigy—would be a virtuoso violinist if not for an injury to his left shoulder, inflicted on him by soldiers in the pogrom in which the rest of his family was brutally murdered. He's also a gifted composer, and the symphony he's working on is an ode to his new home, the America that has fired his romantic imagination (see the two quotes at the top of this piece).
David is "discovered" by Vera Revendal, a Russian emigre (the daughter of a Baron, we eventually learn) who fled her homeland after serving time in jail for trying to overthrow the Czar's regime. Vera now works at a settlement house in New York City, where she first heard David play. She wants him to return, and although she's taken aback to find out that he's a Jew, she rises above her prejudice and arranges for the wealthy American dillettante Quincy Davenport to hear David's music. Davenport brings along the great German conductor Herr Pappelmeister, who immediately recognizes David's genius. The young immigrant composer suddenly finds himself handed an immense career opportunity and—perhaps even more importantly—in love with Vera, a gentile.
David's twin journeys away from his roots and toward assimilation in his new country, one professional, one personal, mark the rest of The Melting Pot. David's uncle reacts violently to the notion of intermarriage (as does Vera's father the Baron, who turns up in the second half of the play). And David himself, haunted by the ghosts of his past (the "angels" that playwright Tony Kushner would suggest, nearly a century later, don't exist in America), is torn apart inside as he tries to embrace the success offered him in his new land.
It's potent stuff, food for thought whether you're the great-grandson of immigrants as I am, or can trace your lineage back to the Mayflower, or you just arrived on these shores yourself. The ideals that America once represented to the world and itself have shifted so seismically that the re-examination that Zangwill's play forces us to make of them can only be fruitful.
Metropolitan's production of The Melting Pot features direction by Robert Kalfin, an extremely effective design (Andrew C. Boyce did the set, Douglas Filomena the lights, and Gail Cooper-Hecht the costumes), and a sterling, anchoring central performance by Daniel Shevlin as David. Offering solid support among the nine-person cast are Kendall Rileigh as the incongruous Irish maid, Ronnie Newman as the expansive Herr Pappelmeister, Suzanne Toren as the Yiddish-speaking Frau Quixano (David's great-aunt), and Steve Sterner as David's uncle Mendel (who gets some quality time on the piano to match Shevlin's on the violin).
Metropolitan Playhouse has staked out as its mission the production of plays from America's past. This is noble work that illuminates and fosters understanding, and their current selection of The Melting Pot may be the most significant single piece they've mounted yet.