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Theatrical Liberalism

Theatrical Liberalism: Jews and Popular Entertainment in America

Andrea Most
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: NYU Press
Pages: 304
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    Theatrical Liberalism
    Book Description:

    Finalist for the 2013 National Jewish Book Award, American Jewish StudiesMakes new sense of aspects of popular culture we have all grown up with and thought we knew only too well. Most bridges religious studies and theater, political theory and American studies, high criticism and middlebrow performance. Her book will help us see better how Jews and their Jewishness did not merely 'enter' American popular culture, but did so much to invent it. - Jonathan Boyarin Leonard and Tobee Kaplan Distinguished Professor of Modern Jewish Thought, University of North Carolina For centuries, Jews were one of the few European cultures without any official public theatrical tradition. Yet in the modern era, Jews were among the most important creators of popular theater and film-especially in America. Why? InTheatrical Liberalism, Andrea Most illustrates how American Jews used the theatre and other media to navigate their encounters with modern culture, politics, religion, and identity, negotiating a position for themselves within and alongside Protestant American liberalism by reimagining key aspects of traditional Judaism as theatrical. Discussing works as diverse as the Hebrew Bible, The Jazz Singer, and Death of a Salesman - among many others - Most situates American popular culture in the multiple religious traditions that informed the worldviews of its practitioners. Offering a comprehensive history of the role of Judaism in the creation of American entertainment, Theatrical Liberalism re-examines the distinction between the secular and the religious in both Jewish and American contexts, providing a new way of understanding Jewish liberalism and its place in a pluralist society. With extensive scholarship and compelling evidence, Theatrical Liberalism shows how the Jewish worldview that permeates American culture has reached far beyond the Jews who created it.

    eISBN: 978-0-8147-0798-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Setting the Stage
    (pp. 1-14)

    On Armistice Day, November 11, 1938, Kate Smith introduced a new song, “God Bless America” on her CBS radio program, recorded live at the New York World’s Fair. The song was instantly popular. Ms. Smith continued to sing it on every one of her radio broadcasts for the next year; she recorded it with RCA in 1939, the lyrics were introduced into the Congressional Record, and it has long been considered an alternate national anthem.¹ The song remains central to American popular culture today, and experienced a renewed burst of popularity after September 11, 2001, when congressmen, Broadway performers, baseball...

  5. 1 Jews, Theatricality, and Modernity
    (pp. 15-38)

    It is well known that throughout the twentieth century, American Jews were deeply involved in the creation of American popular entertainment. Never much more than 3 percent of the population, Jews were nonetheless instrumental in the development of the major industries and entertainment forms that provided mass culture to a majority of Americans through much of the twentieth century: Broadway, Hollywood, the television and radio industries, stand-up comedy, and the popular music industry have all been deeply influenced by the activity of Jews. If we look beyond America’s shores, we find the same story, although not quite to the same...

  6. 2 The Birth of Theatrical Liberalism
    (pp. 39-87)

    Jewish immigrants to the United States in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries landed in urban environments undergoing enormous social and cultural transformation. On the one hand, in the settlement houses, immigrant aid societies, and public schools that immigrants encountered every day, the purveyors of the Social Gospel preached a liberal Protestantism that worked to improve the educational, work, and living conditions of the urban poor and focused attention on a very particular type of assimilation to Protestant American norms. On the other hand (and often in direct opposition to the values of the Social Gospel), powerful mass entertainment...

  7. 3 Theatrical Liberalism under Attack
    (pp. 88-140)

    In the first half of the twentieth century, theatrical liberalism became a central defining ethos of American popular culture. Plays and films such asThe Jazz Singer, Show Boat, Annie Get Your Gun, Babes in Arms, The Royal Family, Stage Door,andTo Be or Not to Bepromoted the theater as a spiritually elevating pursuit. The theatrical community in these musicals served as a model of a meritocratic society in which what an actor did was more important than who an actor was or what he or she believed. Theatricality promised the anti-essentialist freedom to self-fashion, and members of...

  8. 4 The Theatricality of Everyday Life
    (pp. 141-163)

    Toward the end of Mel Brooks’s 1974 parody of the Hollywood Western,Blazing Saddles,a fight in a Wild West town literally bursts out of its set. Walls come tumbling down as the camera pulls back to reveal that the frontier town is actually a stage set on a Warner Brothers backlot in contemporary Los Angeles. Cowboys break through one set into another, disturbing a rehearsal for a lavish musical comedy number (replete with fountains, top hats, and tuxedoes) and then tumbling into the studio commissary, where they initiate an enormous pie fight. A tour group caught in the mayhem...

  9. 5 Theatricality and Idolatry
    (pp. 164-200)

    In the voracious quest for authenticity that characterized not only the ethnic revival but also the radical politics of the later 1960s, many Jewish and American culture makers became increasingly interested in breaking down the boundaries that they believed impeded communication among individuals and propped up corrupt systems of power. Experimental theater, political protests, and popular commercial incarnations of these kinds of performances tested the borders between secular theater and religious ritual, and between performers and spectators, reimagining the theater in its “original” or “authentic” purpose as a site for mystical communion and societal rebirth. Few of these writers or...

  10. 6 I Am a Theater
    (pp. 201-240)

    Woody Allen’s 1985 filmPurple Rose of Cairo,explicitly dramatizes the connection hinted at inYoung Frankensteinbetween self-creation and theatricality. The film once again thrusts us back into the temporal homeland of theatrical liberalism, into a Depression-era movie house where an RKO Astaire-Rogers style film is playing. Cecilia, who has seen the movie countless times, watches raptly from the audience. Suddenly, one of the characters on the screen turns directly to her and begins to speak. He “escapes” the film, claiming he is in love with her. The minor Hollywood actor Gil Shepherd is shocked and angry to learn...

  11. Curtain Call
    (pp. 241-246)

    On March 24, 2011, Ben Brantley wrote in theNew York Timesabout a new musical that had just opened on Broadway:

    This is to all the doubters and deniers out there, the ones who say that heaven on Broadway does not exist, that it’s only some myth our ancestors dreamed up. I am here to report that a newborn, old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical has arrived at the Eugene O’Neill Theater, the kind our grandparents told us left them walking on air if not on water. So hie thee hence, nonbelievers (and believers too), to “The Book of Mormon,” and feast...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 247-274)
    (pp. 275-280)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 281-292)
    (pp. 293-293)