‘SALAD BOWL’ AND ‘ANTI-SEMITISM’
IN ELMER RICE’S STREET SCENE
America is known as a country that consists of many kinds of ethnic groups. People have used the term ‘melting pot’ to illustrate the various kinds of ethnic groups in America for quite a long time. However, recently some new terms come up to substitute that term, such as ‘salad bowl’ and ‘mosaic’.
Street Scene—a drama written by Elmer Rice during the Depression Era shows that the term ‘melting pot’ is no longer suitable to illustrate the various kinds of ethnic groups in America.
Street Scene—a drama written by Elmer Rice during the Depression Era shows that the term ‘melting pot’ is no longer suitable to illustrate the various kinds of ethnic groups in America.
This paper entitled “Salad Bowl and Anti-Semitism in Elmer Rice’s Street Scene” will analyze how a group of people living in a tenement show their prejudice toward other dwellers; how they still praise their native countries where they come from; and how they do not really like American culture, the country where they live at present time.
Key words: drama, melting pot, salad bowl, anti-Semitism, ethnic group
Drama is one of the three genres of literature that is given to students of Faculty of Language and Literature to sharpen their capability to analyze literary works. The material is taken from various sources, starting from classical works, such as The Odyssey by Homer, Hamlet written by William Shakespeare, until more modern works, such as A Doll’s House by Henrik Ibsen, Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller. This paper, especially will talk about Modern American Drama.
In Chapter 8: American Drama—An Introduction Reuben divided Modern American Drama into three literary styles—realism, naturalism, and expressionism. Stage realism is the use of ordinary people, in ordinary settings, using commonplace dialect. Realistic plays show aspects of real people playing out conflicts and intrigues which reflect the ordinary experiences of American middle-lower class life. Recognizable heroes and villains were replaced with ordinary character showing ordinary thoughts and weakness.
Naturalism—a commonplace interchangeable with realism—assumes that humans are controlled by their environment, fate, psychology, chance or coincidence. Naturalistic situations are generally pessimistic and deterministic. Trapped and controlled, human behavior is instinctual and animalistic, there is heroism in a human’s desire to survive against insurmountable odds.
While in expressionistic plays, the playwright’s subjective sense of reality finds expression. The characters and the milieu may be realistic, but their presentation on stage is controlled by the writer’s personal biases and inclination (http://www.csustan.edu/english/reuben/pal/chap8/8intro.html).
Street Scene—a play written by Elmer Rice in 1929—obviously falls into realistic play because it tells about ordinary life of people which happens in a cheap tenement in New York where many immigrants from low class society live. The play has more than twenty six characters. None of them has more important role than the others. Street Scene “spoke in the voice of the people, complete with vicious racial and ethnic slurs and raw hatreds on display” (http://www.blockbuster.com/bb/person/details/ 0,7621,BIO-P164197,00.html).
Street Scene—from which Elmer Rice got Pulitzer Prize (Gassner, 1949:566)—vividly portrays life in the early twentieth century New York teeming with people of all backgrounds living in a tenement. It portrays racial prejudices and hatred against other ethnics—problems that are always up-to-date until now.
Written in the Depression Era, Street Scene contains some problems faced by ordinary people at that time, such as racial and groups problems caused by a bulk of immigrants coming to New York by the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century, domestic conflicts that happened to many families and which were triggered b common problems from outside, etc. However, this paper only focuses on the melting pot—a metaphor used to describe who is an American—and anti Semitisms elements.
Street Scene depicts the life that happened in New York at the beginning of the Depression Era. Besides a bulk of immigrants came to New York from other continents—Europe and Asia—many black people from the Southern part of America also moved there since they considered New York as “the Mecca of opportunity” (http://www.columbia.edu/~bjp5/erica/history.html). No wonder, New York became very crowded and the dwellers of New York had to struggle to live decently.
In line with the real life portrayal in the play, historical criticism is used to explore Street Scene. Holman in his book A Handbook to Literature stated that historical criticism is criticism “that examines a work and describes and evaluates it in terms of the social, cultural, and historical context in which it was produced (1981:214). Due to the limited time, this paper will deal with the social and historical context only.
THEORETICAL BACKGROUND AND THE BACKGROUND OF THE PLAY-WRIGHT AND THE PLAY
This chapter deals with the theoretical background of the analysis of the paper. “Melting pot” and “Anti-Semitism” are chosen here because when reading the play Street Scene, one will see clearly the description of those two elements. “Melting pot” is closely related to the many characters in the play who have various background, while “Anti-Semitism” is portrayed very clearly by Elmer Rice here with the presence of a Jewish family in the play.
This chapter also gives the background of the playwright—Elmer Rice—and the play itself—Street Scene. This chapter is provided here to give clear and complete information of the whole paper.
The idea of melting pot is as old as the history of the United States itself. In 1782 Hector de Crevecoeur stated in his Letter III What is an American “…a family whose grandfather was an Englishman, whose wife was Dutch, whose son married a French woman, and whose present four sons have now four wives of different nations. He is an American, who leaving behind him all his ancient prejudices and manners, receives new ones from the new mode of life he has embraced … Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men …” (Baym, 1989:561).
From the quotation above, one can conclude that the United States is a country where people from different nationalities come and meet together, leave all their traditions behind and become new people with new manners, behavior, personality, and make up new traditions in their new country. The United States is the refuge for people who suffer from poverty and religious persecution because it offers its vast fertile land and freedom of religion for the new comers.
In 1908, a Jew from England, Israel Zangwill produced a play entitled “The Melting Pot”. One of the characters—David Quixano, a Russian Jewish immigrant—said that, “America is God’s Crucible, the great Melting Pot where all the races of Europe are melting and reforming!” (Glazer, 1970:289).
In the play, Zangwill portrays an intermarriage life between Quixano—a Jew—and his wife who comes from another ethnic. It conveys a message that still holds a tremendous power on the American imagination—the promise that all immigrants can be transformed into Americans, “a new alloy forged in a crucible of democracy, freedom and civic responsibility” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/meltingpot/ melt0222.htm).
In 1908, when the play “The Melting Pot” opened in Washington, the United States was in the middle of absorbing the largest influx of immigrants in its history—Irish and Germans, followed by Italians and East Europeans. Catholics and Jews—some of 18 million new citizens between 1890 and 1920 (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/national/longterm/meltingpot/ melt0222. htm). The immigrants envisioned America as a vast land affording unlimited economic and social opportunities in an atmosphere free from harassment and interference. “By the mid-nineteenth century many came to this country with clear intentions of maintaining their separated cultural identities” (Rose, 1997:81).
According to Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (http://www.wikipedia. org/wiki/Anti-Semitism) Anti-Semitism—opposite Philo-Semitism—is hatred directed against Jews. It typically takes the form of
Hostility toward Jews in a degree that greatly exceeds any legitimate grievances or resulting from no legitimate cause whatsoever, or
Disdain for supposed physical or moral features of Jews.
In the twentieth century, the most visible forms of anti-Semitism were
Racist anti-Semitism. Some people perceive Jews as people of racially distinct origin from other peoples, and claim that discrimination on the basis of such distinctness is valid
Religious anti-Semitism. Like almost every other religion in history, Judaism has faced discrimination and violence from people of competing faiths and in countries that practice state atheism.
In Economic anti-Semitism, many people believed that Jewish people—from medieval era to today—unfairly took away jobs and money from Christians. More commonly, there is prejudice against Jews on account of the fact that Jews are often, in spite of what ethnic and religious differences they have with the population at large, in positions of power and prestige. Hence, anti-Jewish prejudice is very often, by the defenders of Jews and Jewishness, ascribed to envy more than to any sort of religious concern. While racial anti-Semitism, the most modern form of anti-Semitism, is type of racism mixed with religious persecution. Racial anti-Semites believe erroneously that the Jewish people are at a distinct race. They also believe that Jews are inherently inferior to people of other races.
Besides provided by Wikipedia free encyclopedia, explanation about Anti-Semitism is also found in Grolier Academic Encyclopedia, which states that Anti-Semitism is “a form of prejudice towards Jews that may range from mild antipathy to violent hatred (1983:68)
The Background of the Playwright and the Play
Born Elmer Reizenstein in New York in 1892, he was a high school dropout who developed an interest in the legal profession and graduated cum laude from New York Law School at age 20. in 1913, he decided to try his hand at writing plays. The result was On Trial, a courtroom drama that he presented unsolicited to a producer and which proved good enough to get produced on Broadway, where it was a hit (http://www.movies.yahoo.com/shop?d= hc&id=1800077155cf=biog&intl=us).
From the 1914 until the mid 1940s, rice—he changed his last name into Rice in order not to be misunderstood over the telephone—was one of the most prominent playwrights and theatrical directors in America, and made important contribution to motion pictures, both as an author and screenwriter. His most-widely-studies drama The Adding Machine was written in 1923, a strange, expressionist play about a lifelong office worker, Mr. Zero, who loses his job to the device of the title, murders, his boss, is tried and executed, and ends up in heaven operating the very device that cost him his job, until he is returned to earth. (http://www.blockbuster.com/bb/person/details/0,7621,BIO-P164197,00. html)
Street Scene—Rice’s most famous play—was written in 1928, and produced on Broadway in 1929. in 1931, the King Vidor movie version, based on Rice’s own screen adaptation, utilized a huge set the size of a city block that gave the screen drama a subtly enveloping quality (http://www.blockbuster.com/bb/ person/details/0,7621,BIO-P164197,00.html) Street Scene became an opera in 1947 with music by Kurt Weill and lyrics by Langston Hughes. In 2002, The Department of Arts of California State University played it March 6-10 directed by Randy Wonzong (http://www. newsreview.com/issues/chico/2002-03-07/finearts.asp)
THE MELTING POT AND ANTI-SEMITISM IN ELMER RICE’S STREET SCENE
THE MELTING POT
It has been mentioned before that “the melting pot” is the idea of the melting of all kinds of races to be one new race. This term is used to describe the race “American”. Recently, however, the demographies of the United States are changing in profound and unprecedented ways but so to are the very notions of assimilation and the melting pot that have been articles of faith in the American self-image for generations. There is a sense that, especially as immigrant populations reach a critical mass in many communities, it is no longer the melting pot that is transforming them. In fact, the concept of assimilation is being called into question as never before. Some sociologists argue that the melting pot often means little more than “Anglo conformity” and that assimilation is not always a positive experience—for either society or the immigrants themselves. And with today’s emphasis on diversity and ethnicity, it has become easier than ever for immigrants to avoid the melting pot entirely. Even the metaphor itself is changing, having fallen out of fashion completely with many immigration advocacy and ethnic groups. They prefer such terms as the “salad bowl” and the “mosaic”, metaphors that convey more of a sense of separateness in describing this nation of immigrants. In a salad, a tomato slice does not marry a radish to produce hybrid offspring (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp/ srv/national/longterm/meltingpot/melt0521.htm#TOP).
To describe Street Scene, Randy Wonzong used the term the melting pot, “If you want to see the Walt Disney version of the American melting pot, you’d better forget it. This is the melting pot the way it was (http://www.newsreview.com/issues/chico/2002-03-07/finearts.asp)
However, the idea of ‘melting’—people from various nationalities come to America to seek for a better life and leave their heritage of the country behind, and in the new country they blend with people from other races and make up a new race—can be used only after the second, third, etc generation of the immigrants were born. They are more ‘American’ than their parents, grandparents, because of the American culture they face and undergo since born. “The process of assimilating or melting will be much easier when there is intermarriage among ethnic groups” (http://www.ascd.org/readingroom/ edlead/9405/janzen.html). For example, if an Irish man is married to a German woman, there is a big possibility that the Irish man will not stick to his Irish heritage, and his wife will not stick to her German heritage either. It is very possible that they will create “new heritage” in their own family to be adhered by their children.
Furthermore, Peter Rose stated in his book entitled They and We that the melting pot philosophy, while far more democratic in intent, came to be seen by many keen observers as “unrealistic”. People were not about to simply mix together in the great crucible to form one new American type, the result of a blend of the cultural ingredients of Europe, Africa, and Asia. Recognition of this fact encourages the emergence of the “idea of cultural pluralism” (1997:86).
Street Scene tells a story of six immigrant families, the Kaplans, the Russian Jews; the Fiorentinos, the Italians; the Olsens, the Swede, the Maurrants, the Irish; and the other two families whose native countries are unknown—the Buchanans and the Heldebrands. In the tenement also lived the Jones, the New Yorker. The Irish man is married to an Irish woman, the Italian man is married to an Italian woman, etc. No inter-marriage life is portrayed here.
The time when the play was written belongs to the Depression Era. People face many kinds of problems—e.g. economic, social, and political, etc. The New Yorkers blamed the new immigrants for causing the difficult time. “Many Americans of native stock saw the new immigrants as a threat …” (Tindall, 1984:792). This kind of racial prejudice towards the new comers can be seen clearly in the play.
MRS. JONES. What them foreigners don’t know about bringing up babies would fill a book. (Gassner, 1949:57)
In commenting about the Olsens’ way to keep their baby, Mrs. Jones, the New Yorker, used the word ‘foreigners’. It shows that she still saw them not as American. It shows her prejudice toward people coming from other country. That comment of Mrs. Jones was cut by Mrs. Fiorentino, the Italian, “Foreigners know joost as much as other people, Mrs. Jones” (Gassner, 1949:570). As a new comer in that city, Mrs. Fiorentino showed dislike when she was still considered a foreigner and in Mrs. Jones’ statement one can conclude that coming from out of America, the Olsens are considered to have a lower status than those born there, because Mrs. Jones’ comment underestimated her. Mrs. Jones’ comment was for the Olsens, but Mrs. Fiorentino—realizing that she was not native there—felt that the comment was conveyed to her too.
In another part of the play, Maurrant said, “We don’t want foreigners comin’ in, tellin’ us how to run things” (Gassner, 1949:577). Maurrant is an Irish, but he also used the term ‘foreigners’ to talk about other people to show his dislike. And like Mrs. Jones, he was also cut by Mrs. Fiorentino, “It’s nothing wrong to be a foreigner. Many good people are foreigners” (Gassner, 1949:577).
The abovementioned quotations show that those people do not melt together. Mrs. Jones has prejudice towards new comers in New York, and Maurrant also has prejudice towards people coming from other countries. Living in a crammed building like that did not automatically make those people feel like one big family. They still cannot trust their neighbors, even gossiping another dweller in the tenement becomes one favorite pastime.
LIPPO I betcha ‘e’s got ‘nudder woman. He find a nice blonda chicken, ‘e runaway.
MRS. JONES There ought to be a law against women goin’ around, stealin’ other women’s husbands. (Gassner, 1949:576)
Here is another quotation.
MISS CUSHING. (breathlessly, as she comes up the left of the stoop) Say, what do you think! I just saw them together—the two of them!
MRS. JONES. (rising excitedly) What did I tell you?
MRS. FIORENTINO. Where did you see them, Miss Cushing?
MISS CUSHING. Why, right next door, in the entrance to the warehouse. They were standing right close together. And he had his hands up on her shoulders. It’s awful, isn’t it?
JONES. Looks to me like this thing is gettin’ pretty serious.
MRS. JONES. You didn’t notice if they was kissin’ or anythin’, did you?
Gossiping, talking bad things about other dwellers becomes daily activity. Besides, some of the families still stick to their native country and the traditions. Filippo’s description of the beauty of his native country also strengthens the fact that he does not melt with his new country yet. He still does not feel that he is an American, though he lives in the United States.
LIPPO. Ah, ees bew-tiful!! Ees most bew-tiful place in whole worl’. You hear about Sorrent’, ha?
ROSE. No, I don’t think I ever did.
LIPPO (incredulously). You never hear about Sorrent’?
ROSE. No, I don’t know much about geography. Is it a big place?
LIPPO. Ees not vera beeg—but ever’body know Sorrent’. Sorrento gentile! La bella Sorrento! You hear about Napoli—Baia di Napoli?
ROSE. Oh yes, the Bayof Naples! Is it near there?
LIPPO. Sure, ees on Bay of Napoli. Ees bew-tiful! Ees all blue. Sky blue, water blue, sun ees shine all time.
While Lippo shows his admiration of his native country’s beauty, Maurrant shows dislike of the tradition in the United States.
MAUTRANT. I’ll give him a god fannin’ when I get hold of him
MRS. MAURRANT. Ah, don’t whip him, Frank, please don’t. all boys are wild like that, when they’re that age.
JONES. Sure! My boy Vincent was the same way. An’ look at him today—drivin’ his own taxi an’ makin’ a good livin’.
LIPPO. (leaning on the balustrade). Ees jussa same t’ing wit’ me. w’en Ahm twelve year, I run away—I don’t never see my parent again.
MAURRANT. That’s all right about that. But it ain’t gonna be that way in my family.
In another part of the play one can find
MRS. FIORENTINO. (soothingly). Things are different nowadays, Mr. Maurrant, from what they used to be.
MAURRANT. Not in my family, they’re not goin’ to be no different. Not so long as I got somethin’ to say.
The quotations above clearly show Maurrant’s reluctance to blend with the American culture at that time. He considers the American culture that he faces every day bad so that he does not want his family to be influenced by it. Here is another quotation describing Maurrant’s dislike of the American culture.
MAURRANT. … Look at what’s happenin’ to people’s homes, with all this divorce an’ one thing an’ another. Young girls goin’ around smokin’ cigarettes an’ their skirts up around their necks. An’ a lot o’ long-haired guys talkin’ about free love an’ birth control an’ breakin’ up decent people’s homes. I tell you it’s time somethin’ was done to put the fear o’ God into people. (Gassner, 1949:578).
Rose, Maurrant’s daughter, says of Mrs. Jones’ children, the New Yorker, “She and those wonderful children of hers!” (Gassner, 1949:593). This sentence is ironical because Rose comments about Mrs. Jones’ son—Vincent—who tries to abuse her one night, and Mrs. Jones’ daughter—Mae—who sleeps with a boy in the boy’s friend’s house. It means that, like her father, Rose does not like the American culture that she faces in the place where she and her family live.
From the discussion above, it can be concluded that the people living in that tenement do not make a new race. The characters of the play still show their nativity, they do not blend to make a new race. It is more appropriate to use the metaphor ‘salad bowl’ or ‘mosaic’ than ‘melting pot’ to depict the scenes in this play because one still can see clearly which is the Jew, the Italian, the Irish, and the New Yorkers.
Anti-Semitism—the hatred directly against Jews—can be seen clearly in the play. Some characters in the play show their dislike toward Jews. The following quotation shows mild antipathy toward Jews. Lippo, the Italian, comments on Sam Kaplan, the Jew.
LIPPO. … Look! ‘Eresa da boy. ‘Esa walk along da street an’ reada da book. Datsa da whola troub’; reada too much book (Gassner, 1949:578)
LIPPO (Rising to his feet and yelling after him). Wotsa matter you? … ‘Eesa reada too mucha book. Ees bad for you. (Gassner, 1949:581)
The Jew—due to their bitter background, e.g. pogrom in their native country, Russia, or extermination by Hitler—move to the United States to seek freedom, so that they work hard and study hard too. It is considered something awful by other races.
MRS. JONES. Yeah. Leave it to the Jews not to lose a workin’ day, without makin’ up for it. (Gassner, 1949:571)
That quotation shows Mrs. Jones’ not willing to understand why the Jews still think about working although there is a very crucial thing happens in the office—the owner has just died and will be buried. She thinks it will be understandable if the office is closed without obliging the employees to work overtime the day before when such a crucial thing happens. It shows that the Jews are hard workers, but other ethnic groups do not like that.
LIPPO. No, ees no good-Jew. ‘E’s only t’ink about money, money—alla time money. (Gassner, 1949:592)
In another part of the play, Rice shows more violent hatred than afore-mentioned ones. Kaplan is involved in a serious discussion with some other tenement dwellers that it almost ends up in a violent attack by Maurrant to Kaplan.
KAPLAN. Who’s toking about electing presidents? Ve must put de tuls of industry in de hends of de working-klesses and dis ken be accomplished only by a sushal revolution.
MAURRANT. Yeah? Well, we don’t want no revolutions in this country, see?
(General chorus of assent)
MRS. JONES. I know all about that stuff—teachin’ kids there ain’t no Gawd an’ that their gran’fathers was monkeys.
JONES. (rising ,angrily). Free love, like they got in Russia, huh?
(KAPLAN makes a gesture of impatient disgust, and sinks back into his chair.)
MAURRANT. There’s goddam many o’ you Bolshevikis runnin’ aroun’ loose. If you don’t like the way things is run here, why in hell don’t you go back where you came from?
The quotation above shows how the dwellers of the tenement do not like their Jewish neighbor. Maurrant, Jones, and his wife argue Kaplan, an elderly Jewish who still sticks to his native country’s tradition. Wonzong described Kaplan as “a political activist, an old Jewish guy who talks about capitalism and the need for some sort of reform against greedy corporations, crooked politicians and the influence of Big Money” (http://www.newsreview.com/issues/chico/2002-03-07/finearts.asp)
JONES. Like I heard a feller sayin’: the Eye-talians built New York, the Irish run it an’ the Jews own it.
MRS. FIORENTINO (convulsed). Oh! Dot’s funny!
JONES (pleased with his success). Yep; the Jews own it all right.
MAURRANT. Yeah, an’ they’re the ones that’s doin’ all the kickin’.
From the quotation above, one can see that no one likes the Jews in the tenement. Shirley, Kaplan’s daughter who is there when that happens does not try to defend her ‘community’, she just said, “It’s no disgrace to be a Jew, Mr. Maurrant” (Gassner, 1949:577). She understands pretty well that many people do not like Jews so that she does not try to argue. Referring to what is stated previously under sub-heading Anti-Semitism, it is universally known that racial prejudice against Jews is understandable. It is alright to have that feeling and Shirley knows that. This play is written in the Depression Era, and Peter Rose says that “the search for scapegoats during the Great Depression often found the Jews … targets for the bitter frustrations felt by many Americans because some Jews were extremely successful financially” (1997:56).
Commenting on Rose’s close relationship with Sam, Kaplan’s son, Mrs. Jones says, “If you don’t mind sayin’ it in front of your daughter, either—I’d think twice before I’d let any child o’ mine bring a Jew into the family” (Gassner, 1949:593). For Mrs. Jones, to marry a Jew is something which is not tolerable for other ethnic groups. She does not support the idea of inter-marriage between a Jew and someone from other ethnic group.
Besides that, from Shirley’s side, it seems that she thinks that to be a Jew even makes her feel to be more than the other race. It can be seen from the following quotation.
SHIRLEY. You’ve got your head so full of that Rose Maurrant upstairs that you don’t want to eat or sleep or anything anymore.
SAM. I don’t feel like eating, why should I eat? (Bursting out) You’re always telling me: “Eat!” “Don’t eat!” “Get up!” “Go to bed!” I know what I want to do, without being told.
SHIRLEY. I don’t see, just when you’re graduating from college, why you want to get mixed up with a little batzimer like that!
SAM. It’s always the same thing over again with you. you never can get over your race prejudice. I’ve told you a hundred times that the Jews are no better than anybody else.
The quotation above shows that for Shirley other races are worse than the Jew, the Jew is the best. She does not agree when Sam has a special relationship with Rose who is not a Jew. The following quotation strengthens this argument.
ROSE. I haven’t tried to vamp Sam, honestly I haven’t. We just seemed sort of naturally to like each other.
SHIRLEY. Why must you pick out Sam? You could get other fellows. Anyhow, it’s much better to marry with your own kind. When you marry outside your own people, nothing good ever comes of it. You can’t mi oil and water.
Here, one can conclude that people other than Jews do not like them, and Jews do not like people from other races either. They do not like one another. It this is the case, racial prejudice between Jews and other races will always exist.
From the discussion previously, one can conclude that this play—Street Scene—really shows anti-Semitism. Besides, it also contains another element—that is the metaphor “salad bowl”. Some new immigrants depicted in the play do not show that they blend themselves with the culture they find and face in America after migrating there. The Irish family show their dislike of the culture they are supposed to engage in. The New Yorker family show their dislike to the new comers by calling their immigrant neighbors as “foreigners”. The Italian still worship his native country’s beauty.
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