Dr. Jonathan C. Friedman is the Director of Holocaust and Genocide Studies and Associate Professor of History at West Chester University in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He holds a Ph.D. in German and Modern Jewish History from the University of Maryland, College Park, and is the author of two books, The Lion and the Star: Gentile-Jewish Relations in Three Hessian Communities, 1919-1945 (University Press of Kentucky, 1998), and Speaking the Unspeakable: Essays in Sexuality, Gender, and Holocaust Survivor Memory (University Press of America, 2003).2004 0-7734-6325-9
This project examines the literary, cultural, and historical significance of the 1937 stage play, The Eternal Road, the biblical epic of the Jewish émigré titans—writer Franz Werfel, composer Kurt Weill, and director Max Reinhardt. In academic circles, the play is relatively well known, although it has not received the kind of attention that scholars have paid to works such as The Threepenny Opera, Forty Days of Musa Dagh, and A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Reinhardt’s most often performed theatrical production. Apart from articles and chapters in dissertations and books, no comprehensive analysis of Road exists in monograph form.
The play, which premiered at the Manhattan Opera House in January 1937, sold out its 153 performances, but it closed less than six months later, a victim of extravagant casting and design. In fact, no Broadway show in its time ran up as large a deficit. Meyer Weisgal, its producer, dubbed it one of the theater’s most brilliant money-losers ever. The significance of Road lies elsewhere—in its singular moment of expression of Jewish pride by several colorful, albeit complicated, dramatis personae.
There are numerous areas of scholarship to which a study of this sort contributes. Students of the history of American theater will welcome a recitation of the play’s production history and a careful reading of its text. Historians, meanwhile, might find the subject helpful in illuminating some of the everyday responses to Nazi persecution by central European Jewish émigrés. One of the more intriguing issues for me is where to situate Road within the broader context of the life work of its principal creators. To what degree was the play a departure from or a continuity within the aesthetic approaches of Reinhardt, the parvenu, Weill, the left-leaning social critic, and Werfel, the would-be Catholic. To what extent did the three figures project their conflicts with, and corresponding concepts of, “Jewishness” onto the text and performance of the play? What was the role of external and intrinsic factors that helped to bring Road into existence? If Hitler had never come to power, would there have been an Eternal Road?
The show was the only occasion in which Reinhardt, Werfel, and Weill joined together to issue a condemnation, in the only language and forum they knew, of the Nazi assault on Jewish culture, religion, and history. And yet their play was more than mere anti-Nazi tableau, and certainly more than either a technical wonder or a box office bomb. It was a remarkable tribute by Jews to Jews in all their various, conflicting incarnations.