The 1960s was one of the most prosperous decades in the history of the United States. Between 1960 and 1965, low unemployment and low inflation dominated. The average worker’s salary increased by one-fifth. People had more money and more things to spend it on. Still, there was some labor unrest, such as a short strike by the United Auto Workers (UAW) against General Motors in 1964. Despite such incidents, America’s economic strength contributed to its position as a world leader. This position was sometimes difficult and lead to longterm problems. America renewed its commitment to prevent the communist insurgency in the small Asian country of Vietnam in 1964 by committing the first significant troop dispatches to aid the South in their battle against the Vietcong in the North. The U.S. also continued its stance in the thirty-year-long Cold War a power stalemate with the Soviet Union that pitted the implied threat of each country’s nuclear arsenal against the other (the term ‘‘Cold War’’ originated from the fact that while war-like conditions existed between the two countries, the fear of nuclear devastation prevented any actual fighting or significant escalation of hostilities).
For many Americans, the world was becoming a much smaller place; improved and increasingly affordable modes of transportation made travel easier both within the North American continent and abroad. Where people could not travel, television expanded knowledge of the world at large, offering a vicarious means of global expedition. Television also opened people’s eyes to the burgeoning social problems in America. This...
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Fiddler on the Roof is a musical comedy that takes place in 1905 in the small Russian village of Anatevka. The action of the play occurs largely in and around the home of Tevye. The kitchen, Tevye’s bedroom, the front yard, and the barn are the primary locations, in addition to some brief settings in the village, including an inn, Model’s tailor shop, the train station, streets, and roads. Tevye’s house emphasizes his importance as the primary character as well as the centrality of the family and its traditions in the play.
In Fiddler on the Roof, Tevye has two kinds of monologues: those in which he prays, talking directly to God, and those in which he directly addresses the audience. Both kinds of monologues allow Tevye to express his religious beliefs, doubts, worries, and fears. He talks about his failing horse and the problem of supplying a dowry for his five daughters. When he talks to God, especially, the importance of religion and tradition are emphasized. When he talks directly to the audience, it is usually to comment on the action of the play. The use of monologue underlines that Fiddler on the Roof is told from Tevye’s point of view and that he is the musical’s primary character.
Tevye’s monologues also serve to advance the story, especially at the beginning of Act II. In this monologue, Tevye updates the audience about what has taken place...
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Compare and Contrast
1905: There is widespread student protest against the Russian injustices, particularly educational inequality.
1964: Students are among the first to demonstrate for greater civil rights and to speak out against American involvement in Vietnam.
Today: While the spirit of social protest is alive and well, nation-wide mass demonstrations are less common due to less overt social injustices and the absence of a war such as Vietnam.
1905: There is widespread prejudice against Jews in Russia. There are over 600 anti-Jewish riots called pogroms, many of which result in loss of property and life.
1964: There is widespread prejudice against African Americans in the United States, especially in the South. Violence is used in an attempt to deny them such basic civil rights as equal access to public services and integrated education.
Today: While prejudice against minorities remains, many institutional barriers have been overcome; there is significant legislation to ensure social equality. Prejudice and injustice still arise, however, as in the Los Angeles, California, riots that resulted following the acquittal of white police officers accused of beating black motorist Rodney King.
1905: By law, Jews are banned from many jobs in Russian society; they are denied positions simply because of...
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Topics for Further Study
Compare and contrast Tevye with the title character in Bertolt Brecht’s Mother Courage; both characters struggle to survive in tough times and a harsh environment. Focus on their quests to support and guide their children.
Research the history of the Jews in turn of the century Russia. Why was tradition—a central theme in Fiddler on the Roof—so important to their way of life?
Read the short stories by Sholem Aleichem (1894’s Tevye and His Daughters) that are the basis for Fiddler on the Roof. How do the demands of the short story form affect how the stories are told? How are the tales told differently on the stage?
The title image and central metaphor of Fiddler on the Roof—the fiddler himself—comes from a painting by Marc Chagall. Research Chagall’s background and his stylistic concerns as an artist. Compare and contrast Chagall with the Stein’s play and its themes.
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What Do I Read Next?
Rags, a musical written by Joseph Stein that was first produced in 1986. It continues the story of Tevye and his family upon their arrival in the United States.
Russia in the Age of Modernisation and Revolution 1881-1917, published by Hans Rogger in 1983, is a history of Russia, including treatment of the Jews and the events of the Revolution of 1905.
Wandering Star is a novel by Sholem Aleichem published in translation in 1952. It concerns a Yiddish theatrical group touring Russia.
Life Is with People: the Culture of the Shetetl, a nonfiction book published by Mark Zborowski and Elizabeth Herzog in 1952, describes the customs of a type of Jewish town known as...
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Bibliography and Further Reading
Hewes, Henry. ‘‘Broadway’s Dairy Air’’ in the Saturday Review of Literature, October 10, 1964, p. 33.
Lewis, Theophilus. Review of Fiddler on the Roof in America, January 2, 1965, p. 25.
Review of Fiddler on the Roof in the Nation, October 12, 1964, p. 229.
Review of Fiddler on the Roof in Time, October 2, 1964, p. 82.
Sheed, Wilfred. ‘‘The Stage: A Zero and a Cipher’’ in the Commonweal, October 16, 1964, p. 100.
Taubman, Howard. ‘‘For Better or For Worse: Unaware of Limitations Popular Musical Theater Turns to Unusual Themes—‘Fiddler’ Brings One...
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