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He Should Have Directed It

In response to:

Fiddle Shtick from the December 18, 2014 issue

To the Editors:

Forgive me if I am taking Robert Brustein’s review essay of books on Fiddler on the Roof—with its semiregret for his dismissal of the show fifty years ago and semirevival of the same argument—too personally. As he mentions, my father, Boris Aronson, designed the sets for the show. While almost point for point he hailed from the background Brustein claims was elided, or blurred, in the show, my father did not see Fiddler as a betrayal of his past. He had been born near Kiev, lived through pogroms, knew Sholem Aleichem as a family friend, and his father, a leading rabbi, was directly involved in the Beilis case.

More relevant, perhaps, to Brustein’s claim that Fiddler was a key step to the dumbing down of theater was my father’s artistic training. Along with such experimental artists as El Lissitzky and Isaachar Ryback, he created the Culture League to blend Jewish tradition with artistic modernism. He then continued to explore that intersection by studying with the Cubo-Futurist innovator Alexandra Exter. For my father, Fiddler was not the fudging of his heritage but rather an opening—a chance to bring to a larger audience some of the aesthetic experimentation of his youth.

As I see it, Fiddler did make compromises, but it also registered a fundamental change on Broadway. Not the lamentable final descent into the middlebrow outlined by Brustein. Rather, it began the popular theater of identity. The totally assimilated Jews who created the show used popular culture to explore their own conflicted, repressed, or acknowledged past. Broadway had always provided a home for the blacklisted, the gay, the Jew—so long as he or she told stories about others or lightly caricatured that background. Fiddler gave the creators of mass appeal theater a way to speak to the nation about their own story. It was not the slide into the theater of wealth Brustein snidely suggests, but rather the opening of a door to expression. At least that is the path it offered to my father.

Marc Aronson
Rutgers University
School of Communication & Information
New Brunswick, New Jersey

Robert Brustein replies:

I have nothing but the greatest respect for the legendary stage designer Boris Aronson. Perhaps if he had directed Fiddler on the Roof, it might have been closer to the intentions of Sholem Aleichem.