Cynthia Ozick’s "Actors"

The protagonist of this story is “Matt Sorley, born Mose Saducca,” a mostly-out-of-work Brooklyn actor of Sephardic stock, whose wife Frances composes crossword puzzles.

“It wasn’t clear whether he was actually acting all the time (Frances liked to accuse him of this)…”

Matt finds a role in an adaptation of “The Yiddish King Lear,” a rewriting of an 1892 play from the great era of Yiddish theater. The director enthuses:

“It’s the largeness – big feelings, big cries. Outcries! The old Yiddish theater kept it up while it was dying out everywhere else. Killed by understatement. Killed by abbreviation, downplaying. Killed by sophistication, modernism, psychologizing, Stanislavsky, all those highbrow murderers of the Greek chorus, you see what I mean?”

The playwright is “the daughter of one of those pioneer performers of greenhorn drama; the old man, believe it or not, was still alive at ninety-six, a living fossil…” Which is to say that the old man comes from Ozick’s generation of American Jews, who learned Yiddish when it was still a living language.

Matt feels he’s doing a good job getting into character as “the Lear of Ellis Island” until the nonagenerian, the living fossil, lets him him know he’s no Jacob Adler.

Matt’s humiliation brings to mind a joke in “Envy; or Yiddish in America,” a story Ozick wrote decades earlier. The joke is about a poet from Zwrdl who sells his soul in installments, in order to attain mastery of language after language, only to find that his writings are destined for rejection and oblivion in all languages. Among the warnings of “Actors” is that we can go through life playing role after role without ever finding an authentic one.
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