Shakespeare in Immigrant New York

Shakespeare Unlimited:
Episode 130

In the 19th century, a new influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy arrived in the United States. Many of them settled in the Lower Manhattan. Reformers wondered how these new arrivals could be assimilated into American culture. Their solution? Give ‘em Shakespeare.

But at the same time, these recent immigrants were staging Shakespeare’s plays themselves, in their own languages and adapted for their own cultures, sharing performance spaces and loaning one another costumes and props in a vibrant Lower East Side theater scene.

We talk to Dr. Elisabeth Kinsley about her new book, Here in this Island We Arrived: Shakespeare and Belonging in Immigrant New York. In it, Kinsley, an associate Dean at Northwestern University, explores cultural belonging and American national identity through Shakespeare. Kinsley is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Read an excerpt from Here in this Island We Arrived. 

Listen to Shakespeare Unlimited on iTunes, Google Play Music, Soundcloud, Spotify, NPR One, or wherever you get your podcasts.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast. Published October 15, 2019. © Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. This podcast episode, “We Being Strangers Here,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Kayla Stoner and Kristin Samuelson of Northwestern University's Global Marketing and Communications Department.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: It's a question that repeats and repeats in America. Immigrants are coming in in huge numbers. Some people just say, "Close the doors." Others say, "No, take them in." But then those people have a debate: once we take them in, how do we make them Americans? Like I said, it repeats and repeats. The last time it happened, they thought they had an easy answer. How do you make immigrants into Americans? Simple. Give 'em Shakespeare.

WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I'm Michael Witmore, the Folger's director. As the 19th century came to a close, immigrants from Eastern and Southern Europe flooded into America, many settling in New York's Lower East Side. During this time, there was a strain of progressive reformer who thought that, of all things, it was Shakespeare, his language and his characters, that held the key to teaching these immigrants English and, more importantly, making them into Americans.

Meanwhile at the same time, sometimes only blocks from where these reformers ran their settlement houses, immigrants themselves were performing and adapting Shakespeare in their own native languages. All of this is a piece of American history that hasn't been deeply explored until now.

In a new book, Dr. Elisabeth Kinsley, an associate dean at Northwestern University, looks at precisely why and how Shakespeare was interwoven into the lives of three European immigrant groups in the late 19th century in New York. Her book is called Here in This Island We Arrived: Shakespeare and Belonging in Immigrant New York. And she came into the studio recently to talk to us about it.

We call this podcast episode “We Being Strangers Here.” Elisabeth Kinsley is interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.


BARBARA BOGAEV: So why Shakespeare? I mean, I understand all of this as far as the progressive educators are concerned considering where Shakespeare was in white America at that time. But for Yiddish and Italian theater artists, why Shakespeare?

ELISABETH KINSLEY: Sure. A number of reasons. I mean, Shakespeare had proliferated around the world across the 19th century. And so, there are kind of two things on in New York at the time. If you're looking to the progressive reformers who are staging Shakespeare for new immigrant groups in settlement houses, there's this sense of Shakespeare as Americanizing or even civilizingI hate to use that word, but insofar as they saw it—force.

So it's tempting, I think, to see Yiddish, or Italian, or even German uptake of Shakespeare on their stages as a kind of gesture to assimilate into American culture. But I think it was more a move to claim greatness, I guess, on a world stage, and to legitimize their theaters artistically, more so than socially or culturally.

BOGAEV: And that's what we were seeing in the 19th century. This proliferation of Shakespeare across the world and Americans appropriating Shakespeare as a national author even though he's a Brit.

KINSLEY: Yeah. I think there was a sense of “our” Shakespeare, even as America is trying to distinguish its own national identity against its British roots. Shakespeare becomes really imbricated into the fabric of the American public consciousness and American culture as a figure of the great national drama. Yeah.

BOGAEV: And Shakespeare was also being translated into other languages, for instance, German, I think at that time?

KINSLEY: Sure. German translations were the kind of gold standard of translations around the world. But there were Russian translations. There were Shakespeare performances in India, and all over the world by the end of the 19th century.

BOGAEV: How about Italy? Shakespeare was a thing for immigrant Italians?

KINSLEY: Yeah, there was a big transatlantic Shakespeare performance scene, I guess, at the time. So there were these big Italian stars who were big in Italy, but who also were big around the world and would come to New York and perform in Italian. And this is distinct from the Italian-American theater on the Lower East Side, but Italian stars Tommaso Salvini and Ermete Novelli, they would come and perform Shakespeare with English-speaking casts. He would perform in Italian and be the main event on stage. These polyglot productions were attended by English-speaking playgoers distinct from the, kind of, Lower East Side working-class-immigrant audience in so-called American theaters.

BOGAEV: Wait this is so wild. So these stars would perform in Italian?

KINSLEY: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: And the rest of the cast was speaking English?

KINSLEY: Sure, yeah.

BOGAEV: So what did these audiences here in New York get out of this?

KINSLEY: They knew Shakespeare and so they saw these romantic performances, and read into gesture, and knew the story well enough to appreciate these performances as really extraordinary acting.

BOGAEV: That's so wild. We should say that you focus on three ethnic groups in the book. Italians, as you were saying, Jews, and Germans.


BOGAEV: And I was thinking, weren't the German-American communities pretty well established by the time that the Jews and Italians started coming?

KINSLEY: They were, yeah. Sure. And we should specify, I guess, Yiddish-speaking, the Eastern European Jews who are kind of... their population was growing and growing on the Lower East Side. And, yeah, the German population had assimilated, I guess, for lack of a better word. But certainly still was seen as a distinct ethnic or even racial group, some folks would argue, back at that time.

BOGAEV: “Racial.” So there's this hierarchy it sounds like, among the immigrants, as there perennially has been.

KINSLEY: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: And the Germans were kind of at the top. They were the oldest and so they weren't seen so much as a curiosity, but they were still ethnic? Were they considered white? And I guess that's what you're getting to with this racial

KINSLEY: Sure. I think we have to distinguish between legally white—by a kind of census category, right?—and social or cultural whiteness.

BOGAEV: Yes, exactly. And a big part of your story is about cultural whiteness.

KINSLEY: Right. And cultural belonging.

BOGAEV: And the part that Shakespeare plays in that.

KINSLEY: Sure. And I think class, obviously, plays a role in this as well. The German theater was pretty mixed in terms of its audiences, class-wise. It was, like you say, not as much of a curiosity. But, certainly, in reviews that you read in the English language press with reviewers who are identifying as Anglo-Saxon in their kind of racial self-identification, will refer to Teutonic aspects of performances in German. That sometimes they'll say, “The Teutonic nature of this performance was at odds with its author,” something like that. So still kind of marking a difference between German-ness and Anglo-Saxon whiteness or American whiteness.

BOGAEV: Well one of the most interesting things to me reading your book, is that the Yiddish, and German, and Italian theater troupes, you write, shared theaters.


BOGAEV: And they shared actors, and props, and sets.

KINSLEY: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: And I think, “Of course, that makes sense.”


BOGAEV: I mean there's limited resources and funds so, yeah, that makes sense. But I think, you know, you learn in history about each of these ethnic groups separately in your textbooks and we don't tend to think of them as mixing as much as they did. But that's completely wrong.

KINSLEY: Right. Sure. I think that's one of the most exciting parts of entering into working on this book. It was that you really have to go to each group's history, as you say, and then you start to say, “Well, gosh, if you've been in Lower Manhattan, everything is very close together.”

BOGAEV: Right. Everybody's on top of each other.

KINSLEY: Everyone's on top of each other and so, of course, these weren't demarcated histories insofar as we study and learn about them. And so the fact is that these groups were sharing costumes, were leasing theaters from one another and sharing stages, and their audiences were kind of working together and crossing paths with one another. I think that for me was an exciting turning point in thinking about the kind of primary arguments and stories in this book.

BOGAEV: In the sense that this kind of inter-group connection was forming bonds between these groups?

KINSLEY: Forming bonds or just sensibilities, I guess. I don't want to overstate it. But I think the way that we kind of historicize this period of time is this idea of assimilation into a kind of melting pot America, right? Where these groups would shed their ethnic specificities into what the book looks at as a kind of American whiteness.

And I think that there was just a lot more going on than a straight-line assimilation or even cultural efforts across progressive reform agencies to, quote, “Americanize immigrants.” I think that there was just a lot of interactions folks were having with one another and building up sensibilities that were much more complex and much more pluralistic than history would often have it.

BOGAEV: And Shakespeare played a part in that kind of subtlety?

KINSLEY: Sure. I think Shakespeare invites that kind of thinking. These folks all had Shakespeare in common. And the English language press, who would come and review these performances, did so insofar as Shakespeare was a draw. That fact that Shakespeare becomes a sort of an analog for, or a kind of condensed version of, Lower Manhattan itself, makes it an exciting vehicle to learn about this history.

BOGAEV: Let's give people an idea of some of the productions that the performers were doing. And, as you said, they come in two different categories. One is immigrant performers who were putting on the plays themselves. And the other is when reformers would come in and put on Shakespeare for these immigrant audiences for educational purposes or assimilation purposes.


BOGAEV: So starting with just what immigrant performers would do themselves, often they'd adapt the story to feature characters and settings that were familiar to their own particular ethnic group.

KINSLEY: Sure. The Yiddish theater in particular did a lot of adaptation.

[CLIP from Jacob Gordin’s דער ייִדישער קעניג ליר‎ Der Yudisher Kenig Lier, 1934.]

KINSLEY: Their audience was eager to see Jewish life and Jewish characters on stage. And so The Jewish King Lear is a really great example of, kind of, “Jew-izing” or making Jewish Shakespeare's plot and characters so that it's resonating with the Yiddish audiences.

[Clip continues]

BOGAEV: And what was The Jewish King Lear like?

[Clip continues]

KINSLEY: It was set in Eastern Europe with a kind of religious father figure who decides to divest himself of his wealth to his three daughters and go to Palestine for a time. And his youngest daughter, Taybele, is representative of a more enlightened and intellectual strain of Jewish life that is at odds with a more Orthodox strain of Jewishness that was really playing out on the Lower East Side between families.

[Clip continues]

KINSLEY: And then he goes off to Palestine, he comes back, he loses his sight. And by the end of the play, he reconciles with Taybele who has become a doctor by this time and is able to cure him of his blindness with new cataract surgery. So there's this kind of win for science and intellectualism. And, really, it followed Shakespeare pretty closely, but did some important work among Jewish audiences on the Lower East Side at the time.

BOGAEV: Wow. So different and yet preserving this kind of essence of King Lear. So was the language... did it rhyme? Was it iambic pentameter?

KINSLEY: Generally it's kind of a prosier version of Shakespeare.

BOGAEV: And I think you write that the Yiddish productions incorporated music.

[CLIP: Music from Jacob Gordin’s דער ייִדישער קעניג ליר‎ Der Yudisher Kenig Lier, 1934.]

KINSLEY: It would have sounded very Jewish to audiences. And often ritual melodies were featured and incorporated on stage.

BOGAEV: You mean ritual in the sense of Jewish prayers?


[CLIP: The Kaddish from Boris Thomashefsky’s Hamlet adaptation, Der Yeshive Bokher.]

KINSLEY: Boris Thomashefsky's Hamlet adaptation, for example. Yeshiva Bokher learns of his father's death onstage at the outset of the production and breaks into the Mourner's Kaddish, which would have been a familiar prayer to folks in the audience.

[Clip continues]

You say it when you're grieving a family member. And another Jewish adaptation, Romeo and Juliet made Jewish, takes place in the synagogue. And so a lot of the music that's going on is liturgical, is religious music.

BOGAEV: And was there popular music as well in these productions?

KINSLEY: Sure. There was music that was made popular. So the music was such an important part of this that music that was written for these productions was sold as sheet music. That was a boom on the Lower East Side to purchase this music and kind of relive the Yiddish theater in your home around the piano.

BOGAEV: That's cool.


BOGAEV: That's like the original cast album or something.

KINSLEY: Sure. The religious melodies that were set and arranged for these productions were also included in the sheet music. The lines between popular and religious got pretty blurred, which I think is emblematic of certainly the Jewish experience in Lower Manhattan at the time. As folks were kind of letting go of some of their religious observances and retaining cultural Jewishness in spite of that.

BOGAEV: And how did the Italian productions compare? Was there as much music? Did they do as much transposing of the story to different settings?

KINSLEY: That's a good word, transposing. No, the Italian performances were more so translations still by all accounts, prosier translations. Antonio Maiori's Italian theater was not as well established as the Yiddish theaters. The Yiddish theaters had a huge following and were just lucrative. And the German theater was well established. The Italian theater, as follow its history around 1900, was kind of moving around a lot and looking for stage space and constantly seeking funds to build a dedicated house. But I think the production value... there just weren't as many resources to outfit the stage as thoroughly, I guess.

And insofar as music played in, certainly there were variety shows and musical acts buffering the Shakespeare performance. So after the Shakespeare play would end, the cast would come back on and play a ditty. And levity would ensue, moments after Othello's or Desdemona's death, you know, these kinds of things. It was a mixed bag, I guess.

BOGAEV: “Oh well.”

KINSLEY: “Oh well.”

BOGAEV: So then on this parallel track, you write there were these progressives. These reform-minded New Yorkers staging classical Shakespeare productions for the Germans, and the Italians, and the Jewish audiences. How would they stage these events? Are they bringing troupes in from outside or did they start their own companies?

KINSLEY: Sometimes. Sure. A little bit of both. There was a lot of programming in these Lower East Side reform agencies. So the way Shakespeare made its way into this programming ranged from recitals, where a single person would stand and recite Shakespeare to a room full of people. That was very popular at the People's Institute, one of the two reform agencies that I track in the first chapter of the book. There were Shakespeare clubs, where folks would read Shakespeare together. There were Shakespeare performances. The People's Institute brought in Ben Greet and his company.

[CLIP: Ben Greet as Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing.]

I do much wonder that one man, seeing how much another man is a fool when he dedicates his behaviors to love, will, after he hath laughed at such shallow follies in others, become the argument of
his own scorn by falling in love.

BOGAEV: I guess I have to ask “Why Shakespeare?” again, because Charley's Aunt was popular at that time; that play or David Belasco's plays or even minstrel shows. What was it about Shakespeare?

KINSLEY: I think people saw opportunity to provide moral instruction through Shakespeare's plays. To issue kind of an idealized language in idealized settings.

BOGAEV: You mean language in terms of elocution?

KINSLEY: Sure. And that was where I was headed. Shakespeare had also made its way into the school curricula in the 19th century and in elocution manuals. So learning how to speak English well involved uptake of Shakespeare. Shakespeare becomes a really common tool for imbricating immigrant groups into an American upwardly-mobile consciousness.

BOGAEV: It's so interesting that these two things are going on parallel at the same time.


BOGAEV: I mean here you have these immigrants are performing Shakespeare in their own language.

KINSLEY: Mm-hmm.

BOGAEV: What did the reformers think of that? And you write about a woman called Alice Herts.

KINSLEY: Sure. She came to the educational alliance and started a children's theater. She has a few choice words for Shakespeare performed in other languages. I think she preferred to see it in English and saw it as a way to really draw young people out of what she perceived as really wretched conditions and provide “permanent force,” I think she calls it, into the minds of children to make them good citizens. This is how she saw it.

I think that idea of what Shakespeare is doing for these groups is totally at odds with what these groups themselves are doing with Shakespeare. A lot of what I'm interested in in the book is the ideological work that reformers like Alice Minnie Herts or journalists like John Corbin, who's going down to see Shakespeare performed on the Lower East Side. Their sort of ideologies about Shakespeare are at odds with the actualities of immigrant groups not assimilating via Shakespeare to Shakespeare but rather assimilating Shakespeare to their own cultures.

BOGAEV: Well, sure. I mean, she's a person of her own time. And Shakespeare's plays, they're about royalty and noblemen and noble women. Was that something that she or these reformers believed the immigrants, with all their biases against immigrants, could grasp this royalty?

KINSLEY: Yeah, absolutely. I mean she saw these worlds as superior to the worlds thatin her case she was working with the children's theater, that these children were enduring. And she saw the Shakespearean characters, I think, as superior to the children and to even the adults in the children's lives. And so she saw this as an opportunity for children to really inhabit a space that would elevate them.

BOGAEV: I guess she does come across as kind of a snob.

KINSLEY: She does come across as a snob.

BOGAEV: She can't help but.

KINSLEY: Yeah, I think she was probably well meaning, right? And probably had wonderful relationships with the children she was working with and was trained as a social worker and really did… her pedagogical intentions were probably wonderful. But if you go back to her work, it really does come across as quite paternalistic, insofar as the way as she held Shakespeare and the characters above the population she was working with.

BOGAEV: And this is an age when the photographer Jacob Riis published his landmark book, How The Other Half Lives. And that portrays just beautifully and poignantly the desperate conditions of immigrants on the Lower East Side, and it sparked reforms. But even he spoke about his subjects as these inferior kinds of grimy people who needed to be elevated.

KINSLEY: Oh sure. Yep. If you start to flip through the photographs that are so prominent across his work, they were very important, as you say, in exposing this kind of municipal crisis. But also really invite a bourgeois, privileged viewer to objectify or gaze at these populations on the Lower East Side.

I've got a page marked here with some choice words from Riis talking about crossing the Bowery into “Jewtown.” And this also, I think, is a useful way to get into the way that folks were thinking about and seeing race at the time. He says, "No need of asking where we are. The jargon of the street, the signs of the sidewalk, the manner and dress of the people, their unmistakable physiognomy betray the race at every step." And at one point he talks about, “the Jews and Italians who will carry their slum with them wherever they go.” So these kinds of ideas about slum-i-ness even attached to the populations that these reformers were working with.

BOGAEV: Yeah, and it sounds so repugnant to our modern ears.

KINSLEY: It does.

BOGAEV: And this was one of the good guys.

KINSLEY: Oh yeah. And so it's really more about how the language that they're using and that's circulating wildly starts to kind of cement associations in the public's mind about these populations with respect to Shakespeare in the case of this book.

BOGAEV: And what about the rest of the press? How would reviewers cover these immigrant-staged productions and what kind of biases did they reveal?

KINSLEY: They were often snarkier, right. I think their role as critics would often flatten the complexities that the reformers were working under. And as critics, they were really telling news to their most often Anglo-identified, if not Anglo-in-origin audiences, readerships.

BOGAEV: So how would they be snarky?

KINSLEY: Sure. They would talk about the Yiddish language as kind of a Polish-Hebrew chowder. They would say things like the sound of it is a sacrilege of Shakespeare. When Jacob Adler would perform Shylock, they would... even critics who were complimentary of his performance would say, “Well it's clearly not the Jew that Shakespeare drew. This isn't the intention of the great poet, but it's a good performance for all of that.” They would talk about Antonio Maiori's gestures: “with a wink and a nod,” and the gestures that are so common of “actors of his race.”

There was just a general sense of, “This is our drama and we are reviewing this drama in an Italian theater, or German theater, or a Yiddish speaking theater.” And an interesting tension between a genuine effort to recognize these performance traditions and these stages and troupes, but always seemingly with a bit of an undercutting sense of smugness at least.

BOGAEV: These reviews that you unearth are so rich, both in scorn and bias, but also you get a feeling that these theater reviewers think they're doing something noble.

KINSLEY: Oh sure, yeah. Well they're doing something noble on a number of fronts. I think what's going on in the uptown theaters is that these critics are finding that the, quote, “good” theater, like Shakespeare, is kind of waning in the uptown theater scene and are drawn to the fact that Shakespeare is being performed in these theaters in Lower Manhattan. But I do think they also think, “Yeah we're gonna recognize these communities and write about their Shakespeare plays and tell everyone what's going on down here.” There is this kind of self-satisfaction about it.

BOGAEV: Something that we've touched on, this issue of race or what constitutes white America and white New York, I'd like to dig into a little bit more. Reading the reviews from the press, you do get more of a sense of the pecking order as far as immigrants were concerned. And you quote one critic making a distinction in a review between the Anglo-Saxons, the Germans, and the Jews. As you pointed out earlier in our conversation, this alludes to the nuances of whiteness in the United States at the turn of the 20th century where Anglo-Saxons, Germans, Jews and Italians were perceived as different and differently classed races.

Thinking about this, it's so resonant with what's going on today and our own debate over immigration. You know, who is considered qualified to be an American? Who is considered white in America? Who gets to take on that privilege? And we toss around these words about immigration today, but I think your book really puts a fine point on it. How fluid all of those categories were in the past and still are.

KINSLEY: Sure. I think it's always fluid, right? And that's why looking at something like Shakespeare and how such a weighty cultural figure, cultural idea, cultural space Shakespeare really is all of those things. How that becomes a place where people develop these senses of belonging or some groups will deploy conscious or unconscious efforts to exclude folks from that cultural space.

BOGAEV: Yeah. And I'm thinking of the many allusions, in say the press, to the “swarthy Italian Hamlet.”

KINSLEY: Yep. One of these reviews talks about how Maiori's Hamlet was, “Meat to the dark-browned audience,” who was surrounding the reviewer. There was a kind of perception of swarthiness or darkness, right? Even as the Italians would, you know, identify, again, on a census as white and could claim citizenship insofar. But there's this perception that this group is not quite white as more European groups are coming into New York. Thinking about European races as overlapping between a kind of increasing differentiation, demarcation of the color line in the wake of emancipation. There is this interesting, evolving way of seeing race at that time.

BOGAEV: You quote Jacob Riis on the different stages of whiteness. He writes, "The Italian comes in at the bottom. And in the generation that came over the sea, he stays there unlike the German who begins learning English the day he lands as a matter of duty, or the Polish Jew who takes it up as soon as he's able as an investment. The Italian learns slowly, if at all."


BOGAEV: It's kind of chilling to read.

KINSLEY: Yeah. It's hard to read.

BOGAEV: It's as if learning English is the road to whiteness.


BOGAEV: And that's where Shakespeare comes in among these progressive reformers?

KINSLEY: Absolutely, yeah. And getting on board with the national author who, by this time, has really become a mark of intellectualism or more so than a kind of popular figure earlier in the 19th century. Shakespeare was really much more part of the popular zeitgeist. And by the late 19th century, he is more associated with upwardly-mobile-intellectual space, so that it does sort of seem an apt tool for assimilating groups that were perceived as if not non-white, then differently white.

BOGAEV: Well thank you so much. It's been really interesting talking with you.

KINSLEY: Oh, thank you for having me. It's been great to chat.


MICHAEL WITMORE: Dr. Elisabeth Kinsley is Associate Dean and Director of Undergraduate Admissions at Northwestern University. She is also the author of Here in This Island We Arrived: Shakespeare and Belonging In Immigrant New York, which was published in 2019 by Penn State University Press. She was interviewed by Barbara Bogaev.

Our podcast episode, “We Being Strangers Here,” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster. Ben Lauer is the web producer. We had technical help from Paul Luke at Voice Trax West in Studio City, California, and Kayla Stoner and Kristin Samuelson of Northwestern University's Global Marketing and Communications department.

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