The Melting Pot by Israel Zangwill, Finborough Theatre, 3 December 2017

This was a very interesting Sunday evening at the Finborough.

Here is a link to the Finborough resource on this play/production.

The playwright, Israel Zangwill, sounds like a fascinating character in his own right. To some extent the story in the play mirrors his story, although the play is set in New York, not Zangwill’s native London. Also, the play’s young hero is a composer, rather than an author.

The young hero of the play, David, is a refugee survivor of the Kishinev (Chișinău) pogrom, inspired to compose music to celebrate the cultural melting pot he finds in New York. He falls in love with a beautiful Russian Christian radical who is running a settlement house in New York and who turns out to be the daughter of an anti-semitic Baron from Bessarabia. How culpable is the Baron for the pogrom that took place on his watch? And how is the young love going to go down with him and with David’s traditionally orthodox but loving kin?

If that all sounds a bit melodramatic to your taste, I can understand the sentiment. Yet somehow Zangwill manages to avoid those excesses, at least in the hands of this Bitter Pill/NeilMcPherson/Finborough production. The play isn’t quite Ibsen, but it is even less like a melodramatic Yiddish Theatre monstrosity.

Indeed the play seems hugely pertinent today, with many minorities being persecuted across the globe still, plus swathes of refugees and migrants on the move. Zangwill includes both sides of the assimilation (or perhaps I should say acculturation) and ethnic tolerance argument, although you are left in no doubt that you have been in the hands of a liberal enthusiast of the melting pot.

Grandpa Lew, sitting, with his musician brother, Great Uncle Max, standing

Of course I cannot help this piece bringing to mind my own family – in particular my mother’s musical family, who came to London from the Pale of Settlement in the early 1890s.

I wondered briefly whether Israel Zingwall might have taught my Grandpa Lew at the Jews’ Free School, as the programme says that Zingwall taught there, but a little on-line research indicates that Zingwall quit teaching at that school a few years before Grandpa Lew made his fleeting appearances there (between periods of survival-oriented child labour truancy).

Returning to the Finborough in December 2017, the place was deservedly full on a cold, wet Sunday evening. In the bar and audience we saw Michael Billington, with Mrs B making a (now rare/occasional) appearance at the theatre. The Billington’s dedication to high-quality fringe theatre over the decades is exceptional.

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Janie and I highly recommend this production.

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