Israel Zangwill: Plays

Zangwill's first dramatic success was Merely Mary Ann (1904) a dramatization of his short story of the same name (1893). It was popular and made "more money than all the ghetto books put together."1 He dramatized some of his other short stories and novels: Children of the Ghetto (1899), The Serio-Comic Governess (1904), The Mantle of Elijah (1904) and The King of Schnorrers (1905). Jinny the Carrier was first a three-act comedy (1904) and then a novel (1919).

Zangwill's most famous drama is The Melting Pot which popularized the metaphorical phrase referring to America as the great melting pot in which immigrants are melded into one greater American identity.2 Some of his plays were popular but few were well-received by the critics. Although they have important themes -- generational and racial conflicts, hypocrisy, war and peace -- they are too often melodramatic and didactic with flat characters who tend to declaim rather than speak.

The Melting Pot (1908)

David Quixano, a Russian Jew whose family was killed during the Kishineff pogrom in Russia, fled to America where he joined his relatives. He gives violin lessons and is writing a symphony The Crucible which expresses his belief that "America is God's Crucible, the great Melting-Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and re-forming! ... [h]ere you stand in your fifty groups, with your fifty languages and histories, and your fifty blood hatreds and rivalries. ... Germans and Frenchmen, Irishmen and Englishmen, Jews and Russians -- into the Crucible with you all! God is making the American."3

David falls in love with Vera Revendal, a Christian Russian emigré. When he meets her father, Baron Revendal, he realizes that he was "the Russian officer, supervising the slaughter" at Kishineff (149). Upon learning this Vera curses her father and tells David that "thy people shall be my people and thy God my God!" but David shrinks from the "butcher's daughter" (166).

The premier of David's symphony is a great success but he is unhappy because he could not live up to his own belief; he "preached of God's Crucible, this great new continent that could melt up all race-differences and vendettas, that could purge and recreate," and yet he could not forgive Vera for the sins of her father. She forgives him and decides to leave him to his dreams and music, but he begs her to stay, to cling to him until their love triumphs over death. The play ends on July 4th, also the holy day of Shabbos, with them holding hands on a rooftop looking out over "America, where all races and nations come to labour and look forward!" (199).

President Theodore Roosevelt attended the premier in Washington DC on 5 Oct 1908 and called it a great play. It's obvious why the The Melting Pot was popular in the United State, but it's not easy to explain David Quixano's unqualified praise for America's potential to assimilate immigrants into a great brotherhood, given the history of its treatment of Native Americans, slaves, Chinese and other immigrants and its well-established racism and anti-Semitism. We might ask why is he hopeful rather than cynical?

Only a single attempt is made to distinguish between Russian and American mistreatment and murder of minorities. Quincy Davenport, a rich, American, anti-Semite is talking to Baron Revendal:

Quincy: Well, I'd keep it dark if I were you. Kishineff is a back number, and we don't take much stock in the new massacres. Still, we're a bit squeamish -

Baron: Squeamish! Don't you lynch and roast your niggers?

Quincy: Not officially. Whereas your Black Hundreds --

Baron: Black Hundreds! My dear Mr. Davenport, they are the white hosts of Christ and of the Czar, who is God's vicegerent on earth. (117)4

Of course, it's not enough that a government "not officially" sanction violence (lynching) against those living within its borders; it also has a duty to protect them from violence.

David's Uncle Mendel points out that other countries have taken in Jews but they have not been assimilated. Why is America different? David answers that they "were old civilisations stamped with the seal of creed. Here is this new secular Republic we must look forward --" (102). Nothing in the play justifies David's faith in the "new secular Republic." It simply expresses Zangwill's idealistic optimism about what the United States might become, not what it was or had been.

See also

Israel Zangwill and Zangwill's Zones


1Maurice Wohlgelernter, Israel Zangwill: A Study (New York and London, Columbia Univ. Press, 1965), 37.

2Zangwill did not invent the metaphor of the melting pot. Today the metaphor of salad bowl is often used: the ingredients do not melt, lose their identity and create a new substance, but maintain their identity although they affect the other ingredients and the whole is more than the sum of the parts.

3The Melting Pot: A Drama in Four Acts (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909), 37.

4The Black Hundreds was a extremist, nationalist movement which supported the Czar.