The Eternal Road
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The Eternal Road is an unprecedented work of art, spectacle, and pageantry in the service of a Jewish historical and ideological message. It is unique in the history of the American stage, not least for its scope, scale, vision, and sheer stature—and for the profile of its creative collaborators. It has been called a pageant, an opera, a music-drama, a staged oratorio, a biblical morality play, a biblical epic, and a biblical extravaganza—even a “Jewish passion play.” That the work still defies generic definition after nearly seventy years is testament to its singularity. This recording features musical highlights from the original score, representing about one third of the entire work.
The Eternal Road was the brainchild of the flamboyant impresario, producer, promoter, and mainstream Zionist activist and leader, Meyer Weisgal. He conceived the project with a threefold interrelated purpose: to respond to the state-sponsored persecution of Jews in Germany following the National Socialist Party electoral victory in 1933 with the appointment of Hitler as chancellor; to relate through reenacted biblical accounts the age-old historical wandering and suffering of the Jewish people; and to suggest a messianic national hope, enshrined in the still young Zionist enterprise, for the first realizable alternative in nearly 2,000 years to that “eternal road” of helplessness.
As the Chicago-based executive director of Zionist activities for the Midwest region of the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), Weisgal had already experienced the value of public spectacles for advancing the Zionist cause and fostering public awareness of situations affecting world Jewry. He had produced two enormously successful pageants: his All-Chicago Hanukka festival, Israel Reborn (1932); and his lavish Romance of a People, at Jewish Day at the 1933 World’s Fair, “A Century of Progress,” with a cast of more than 6,000. Fresh from that heady success—just as the implications of the Nazi victory in Germany were registering—and convinced of the power of such theater as a vehicle for advocacy and Jewish identity, he envisioned a production of heroic proportions, a musical-dramatic epic that would encompass the basic narrative of the Hebrew Bible in a single evening, implicitly suggesting Zionism’s answer to the perpetual dilemma of the Jewish people’s existence. In view of the dangerous situation for Jews in Germany even in that pre-Holocaust period, Weisgal determined to seize the opportunity to bestir the world, through theater, with a focus on the rich cultural heritage of the Bible as a source common to Christians and Jews.
Insistent on a team of the highest possible artistic profile, Weisgal turned first to one of the most famous directors and fellow Jews on the international scene, Max Reinhardt. Aware of Reinhardt’s departure from Germany in the face of its new policies that expelled Jews from the arts, Weisgal cabled him with the message, "If Hitler doesn't want you, I'll take you!". He also asked Reinhardt to identify the most appropriate playwright and composer, and they settled early on upon New York as the most logical city for the production.
Reinhardt proposed poet and playwright Franz Werfel, a fellow German-Jewish refugee who had already been expelled from the Prussian Academy of Art. To compose the score, he selected Kurt Weill, then in self-imposed exile in Paris. On some levels Werfel was an understandable nominee, not only for his known humanistic leanings and Expressionist poetry, but also because of his acknowledged affinity for biblical subjects. But it was a strange choice in other respects—especially in light of his transparent fascination with Roman Catholicism and, in particular, with its deeper theological mysteries. That orientation would later reverberate in dialectics and frictions with the other principals over the issue of Jewish particularity versus universal perspectives, and it left many aspects of the drama, especially its conclusion, open to conflicting interpretations, for Werfel’s understanding of the Bible was governed more by Christian perceptions than by traditional Judaic sensibilities.
Werfel conceived his play as a modern incarnation of a passion or biblical morality play, which he titled Der Weg der Verheissung (lit., The Road of Promise, although no translation accurately conveys its mystical or religious connotations). That title was obviously connected to one or more of the biblical promises stemming from the eternal covenant with Abraham. For Werfel the universalist, even the messianic promise could have meant assurance of ultimate redemption for all mankind; whereas for Weisgal, and probably for Weill as well, it was unmistakably related to the Zionist vision of national rebirth and, specifically, a return to the land—the “Promised Land.”
Weisgal was at first concerned about Werfel’s skirting of Jewish perspectives. Moreover, reliance upon divine salvation ran counter to the Zionist conviction that waiting and praying for 2,000 years had proved futile. Also, Werfel’s messiah seemed not to be quite the same messiah for whom observant Jews pray daily to lead the Jewish people out of its particular exile and back to its home. And his exile appeared to be a more universal abstract exile of the human spirit, one whose termination could be negotiated on Christian theological terms. Indeed, there is no specific reference anywhere in the play to the modern Zionist movement or its activities at that time in Palestine. But when the production finally materialized, the staging at least implied a dual conclusion—expressing in the words of Psalm 126, mirrored in Weill’s triumphant processional, the eventual deliverance to Zion.
Weisgal cautioned Werfel that the play must be a “Jewish play—that and nothing else,” but thereafter he became wholly preoccupied with massive fund-raising, as well as with all other aspects of production, presentation, and promotion. The eventual Judaic sensibility and character of The Eternal Road is owed largely to Weill’s score, with its considerable quotation of authentic and recognizable Jewish liturgical melodies; to Reinhardt’s biblically grand staging and attention to detail; to Norman Bel Geddes’s sets and costumes; to the choreography of Benjamin Zemach, who had invented a style of ballet and modern dance based on Judaic rituals and folklore; to Ludwig Lewisohn’s English version of the play; and even to the nature of the advance promotion, beginning with the support of Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) and later Israel’s first president. The result was a manifestly Jewish statement that clearly satisfied Weisgal, even if overt Zionist perspectives were left to intuition.
The premiere was originally anticipated for no later than October 1935, but numerous setbacks and postponements, owing in part to the extravagant stage designs as well as to financial and technical problems, resulted in its opening fifteen months later, at the Manhattan Opera House (formerly the Hammerstein Opera House) on Thirty-fourth Street. Meanwhile Lewisohn, a Zionistically as well as religiously inclined author and critic, published his English version under the title The Eternal Road in 1936. A stage adaptation had still to be prepared by William A. Drake, for which some new lyrics were then added by Charles Alan, the pageant’s supervisor. Substantial portions of the original score (estimated by Weill at about one third) were eliminated even before the premiere, and further cuts and changes were instituted thereafter. Unfortunately, we cannot know precisely the identity of all those cuts. The program booklet, issued after opening night, simply states, “Program subject to change without notice.”
The overall dramatic structure consists of a series of flashbacks to biblical events—emanating from a continuous all-night vigil in an unspecified synagogue, where the Jewish community has taken refuge from a raging pogrom. As they await news of their fate—slaughter, intervention, or expulsion—the faithful among the community engage in prayer and biblical deliberations. Others, some there for the first time and in shock at the sudden unprovoked attack, precipitate debates. Werfel’s stage directions specify “a timeless community,” but the characters clearly represent personalities and situations of the modern era in Europe; and they typify such a community’s array of diverse positions and orientations. The only timeless aspect is the perpetual recurrence of persecution throughout Jewish history.
The play is divided between two basic literary devices: prose dialogue and metered verse, a bipartite structure mirrored in Weill’s musical approach. The verse became the lyrics for his biblical scenes; the prose remained as spoken dialogue in the synagogue scenes. The five-tiered stage (actually five stages, a full acre in size) allowed for the simultaneous viewing of the synagogue interior and the biblical reenactments.
Throughout the night in the synagogue, the Rabbi recalls incidents from the Bible in an attempt to sustain the peoples’ courage, reminding them of their biblical heritage and of God’s eternal covenants with them. The stereotypical characters, given no proper names, ponder, question, and debate the meaning of their plight. The regular worshipers, called the Pious Men and Women, have refused to dilute their Judaism to accommodate modernity, and they continue to rely on God’s help and judgment. The Rich Man has attended synagogue only occasionally, substituting financial support for personal religious commitment. He has preferred to downplay his Judaism in the eyes of the non-Jewish world from which he curries favor. The Estranged One only now realizes that he has wrongly assumed that total assimilation and denial of his heritage would forever preclude persecution. His thirteen-year-old son has been shielded from any knowledge of his Jewish heritage or history, and by morning the young man comes to resent that imposed ignorance as he leads the procession into exile. In the Zionist context, he represents the newly idealistic youth who will rebuild the land.
The most troubling character is the Adversary, who represents a type of “devil’s advocacy” in his challenges, which invite some people to reevaluate their positions. He combines cynicism, bitterness, rebellion against God, and—most significantly—a Zionist-oriented refusal to rely any longer on God or His promise of redemption. In that sense he may be the most transparently Zionist element in the play, even though that role is never specified. Other stereotypical characters include the Fanatic; the Timid One; a young man prepared to intermarry; those who have rejected Judaism on rational or scientific grounds; committed Zionists; non-Zionists and anti-Zionists; and the eternal Skeptic.
The biblical scenes include choral numbers, solo vocal arias, and ensembles, almost along operatic lines in some cases, more like oratorio movements in others. The Rabbi’s sung biblical passages are often reminiscent of the recitative style in Baroque or classical passions or other oratorios. But actual Hebrew biblical cantillation motifs and archetypes of Hebrew psalmody are discernible there as well, reflecting Weill’s conscious effort to incorporate authentic traditional Judaic elements within neo-Baroque stylization. But even that Western stylization of quasi-metrical recitative, with sustained organ (or organlike) accompaniment, was not without precedent in the modern German Liberale Synagogue, with which Weill was fully familiar. Louis Lewandowski (1821–1894), the most influential composer of the German Synagogue, had introduced it as a synthesis of traditional Jewish and modern Western music; and that style had become a ubiquitous feature among German Jewry. If the Rabbi’s biblical recitations evoke Bach’s St. Matthew Passion—as they do—they could just as easily derive from any number of Lewandowski settings.
Weill determined from the outset to utilize genuine Jewish liturgical material throughout the overall structure, as an integrative binding device. He recalled some from his youth; he also asked his father to provide him with manuscripts of authentic synagogue melodies. In addition, he made a study of the pertinent manuscript collections at the Bibliothéque Nationale in Paris.
Some of the oldest known tunes of the Ashkenazi liturgical rite appear throughout the work. These include several from the so-called missinai tune tradition—seasonal leitmotifs that date in most cases to the medieval Rhineland communities and are associated to this day throughout the Ashkenazi world with specific holy days or occassions on the liturgical calendar. The missinai tune for the Festival of Sukkot is heard here in Act III, as the chorus describes the Israelites wandering in the wilderness. Another one, assigned to the Festival of Shavuot, is heard in repeated orchestral strains throughout desert scenes and at Sinai.
Later, postmedieval tunes of minhag Ashkenaz (Ashkenazi custom), which became established in western and Central Europe up through the 17th century, appear as well. One is the universal Ashkenazi rendition of the monotheistic pronouncement, sh’ma yisra’el, preceding the biblical readings on the High Holy Days. It is sung by Moses in Act II. Another is an old tune commonly associated with the singing of both Psalm 144 on Sabbath afternoons and of the piyyut (liturgical poem) Omnom ken on Yom Kippur eve. This tune recurs among the excerpts from Acts I, II, and IV.
Act IV, “The Prophets,” was performed as a separate act at most only once—at the premiere. Even then it had been truncated by opening night.
Thereafter, the final scene was most likely appropriated for the end of the third (and final) act. Other parts might later have been incorporated into the third act as well, although there is no existent documentation that can confirm which, if any, such excerpts were so salvaged. Weill’s complete score includes no orchestration of Act IV. Yet Max Reinhardt’s son, Gottfried, who was present at the premiere, refers specifically in his description of that evening to the performance of a fourth act, also implying that parts of it had indeed been eliminated by curtain time; and he reports that the fourth act began well after midnight and ended as late as two a.m., Variety’s report of a pre-midnight ending of the entire pageant notwithstanding. The original fourth act was to cover the final days of Zion before Jerusalem’s fall to the Babylonians, the destruction of the First Temple, and the expulsion of the Jewish community barricaded in the synagogue—all culminating in the procession of the biblical characters along the “eternal road” that connected the five stages, joined by the procession of the expelled European Jews up the “heavenly staircase” atop the fifth stage.
The concluding music on this recording is drawn from the grand final scene and procession. The messianic voice confirms the ultimate fulfillment of the covenant. As the procession winds up the “heavenly stairs,” a messianic figure—labeled the “Angel of the End of Days” in Lewisohn’s English version—comes down to meet them with a clear assurance of Jewish survival. Perhaps for Weill that procession led, as it certainly did for Weisgal and maybe by then even for Reinhardt, to Palestine, where the messianic voice amounted to the embodiment of the Zionist ideal.
The Eternal Road embraces a dual musical format in which the synagogue scenes are akin to intimate chamber pieces, juxtaposed against the large choral-orchestral aura of the vocal solo and ensemble numbers in the biblical scenes. Comparing it to his earlier works, Weill is said to have described it not only as more varied and heterogeneous, but also as “Mozartean.”
The Eternal Road has been called “the most formidable project any undaunted group of repentant Jewish artists of the highest order has yet undertaken.” By all reliable reports, it was also the largest, most grandiose, and most costly pageant ever mounted in New York—with at least 245 actors, actresses, and singers; 1,772 costumes; 1,000 stage lights; and 26 miles of electrical wiring. The opera house had to be gutted and virtually rebuilt to accommodate the extravagant set designs. Since the synagogue set was placed in a large area dug into the orchestra pit, leaving no room for the 100-piece orchestra, the orchestral score was prerecorded on film sound track and played back each night via loudspeakers against live vocal performance. A small 16-member supplementary ensemble, required by union regulations, played from a soundproof backstage room, from where its music was transmitted electronically.
Despite general critical success and glowing reviews of the music, the production ran for only 153 performances before closing forever. Its financial woes increased as the run progressed, until despite Weisgal’s frantic efforts to save it, even the most basic bills could not be paid. Nor had Weisgal achieved his aim of alerting the world to the dangerous plight of German Jewry. Neither the press nor the public appeared to have picked up on that message, almost out of political avoidance, and the Zionist implications appear to have been ignored altogether.
The final performance was a benefit for Weisgal, who literally had bankrupted himself for the cause. A telegram from Reinhardt proclaimed:
"The light that we lit together in the Manhattan Opera House will shine undimmed in the history of the theater and of the Jewish people."