Fiddler on the Roof

by Joseph Stein

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The Breakdown of Tradition

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In Fiddler on the Roof, tradition is an important theme, defining the lifestyle of Jews living in Anatevka, Russia, in 1905. As the dairyman Tevye says to the audience in the prologue to Act I, ‘‘Because of our traditions, we’ve kept our balance for many, many years. Because of our traditions, everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.’’ Such traditions define every facet of Jewish life, including how young girls find husbands. But traditions that have not changed for many years are challenged in Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye, especially, is forced to accept change—as well as force change himself. Most of these changes are related to marrying off his daughters but not all. Tradition is challenged in Fiddler on the Roof, primarily through Tevye and his daughters.

Though Tevye claims to embrace tradition in the prologue to the first act, he regularly cuts corners. He invites change into his house in the form of Perchik, a former student from Kiev who is an outsider in the village. In Act I, scene two, the other villagers are suspicious of Perchik’s warnings about the changes taking place in the world at large. While they think that Tevye’s inability to make his deliveries is ‘‘bigger news than the plague in Odessa.’’ Perchik tells them: ‘‘You should know what’s going on in the outside world.’’ Despite the villagers distrust, Tevye invites Perchik in for Sabbath supper. Further, Tevye hires him to teach his daughters, though a villager calls the thought of educating girls ‘‘radical.’’

There are conservative forces in Tevye’s household. Golde, Tevye’s wife, does not believe in women’s education. When she catches Chava with a book in the first scene of Act I, she says ‘‘You were reading again? Why does a girl have to read? Will it get her a better husband?’’ Later, in Act I, scene six, Golde interrupts her daughters’ lessons with Perchik to have them help finish their father’s work when he oversleeps.

While Tevye is a poor man who cannot afford dowries for his daughters, he wants learned men for their husbands. He agrees to Lazar’s match, mostly because Lazar is a good man and relatively wealthy. However, when Tevye tells Tzeitel about the match in Act I, scene six, she begs him not make her marry Lazar. She tells her father, ‘‘Papa, I will be unhappy with him. All my life will be unhappy. I’ll dig ditches, I’ll haul rocks.’’ This argument does not phase him, but when she says ‘‘Is that [an agreement] more important than I am, Papa? Papa, don’t force me. I’ll be unhappy all my days.’’ His daughter’s impassioned plea reaches his heart, and he agrees to dissolve his agreement with Lazar. Tevye’s fondness for his daughters forces his second abandonment of tradition.

Tevye’s daughters serve as some of the greatest agents of change in Stein’s play. When Tzeitel believes that a match might have been made for her in Act I, scene three, she tells the man she really loves, Motel, that he must ask her father for her hand. Motel is afraid of Tevye and apprehensive because he is a poor tailor. He says that he does not feel adequate enough to ask for her hand—at least not until he gets his new sewing machine. Though Motel does not work up enough courage in this scene, he is forced to do so in Act I, scene six, when Tevye tells Tzeitel about the match with Lazar.

Tevye does not abandon tradition without an argument, however. When Motel offers himself as a prospective...

(This entire section contains 1756 words.)

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husband for Tzeitel, Tevye says ‘‘Either you’re completely out of your mind or you’re crazy. Arranging a match for yourself. What are you, everything? The bridegroom, the matchmaker, the guests all rolled into one?’’ When Tevye finds out that Motel and Tzeitel gave a pledge to each other over a year ago, he is outraged. In a reprise of the song ‘‘Tradition,’’ Tevye sings incredulously ‘‘They gave each other a pledge / Unheard of, absurd / Where do you think you are? / In Moscow? / In Paris? / This isn’t the way it’s done / Not here, not now / Some things I will not, I cannot, allow.’’ Despite these misgivings, Tevye sees that his daughter is happy with the poor tailor and eventually relents. In fact, Tevye goes as far as to deceive his wife in Act I, scene seven, describing a horrific dream so that this wedding can occur.

Tevye’s second daughter Hodel starts out as the family’s biggest keeper of tradition next to her father. Early on, when Tzeitel worries that Yente has brought a match to her mother, Hodel says, ‘‘Well, somebody has to arrange the matches. Young people can’t decide these things for themselves.’’ Hodel likes the rabbi’s son. She is even the first to be suspicious when Perchik says he is a ‘‘good teacher.’’ She replies, ‘‘I heard once, the rabbi who must praise himself has a congregation of one.’’

But Hodel is the first daughter to really break tradition, under Perchik’s influence. In Act I, scene six, she is left alone with him for a moment. Hodel perceives she has been insulted by Perchik and immediately turns to tradition for support. She tells him, ‘‘We have an old custom here. A boy acts respectfully to a girl. But, of course, that is too traditional for an advanced thinker like you.’’ Perchik protests several lines later, stating that ‘‘our ways are changing all over but here. Here men and women must keep apart. Men study. Women in the kitchen. Boys and girls must not touch, should not even look at each other.’’ Perchik goes on to tell her that in the city, men and women, girls and boys can dance together. He grabs her hand and starts to dance with her. Though startled, Hodel dances along.

Later, during Tzeitel’s wedding, Hodel and Perchik are public agents of change. At the recep- tion in Act I, scene ten, Perchik goes over to the women’s side and asks Hodel to dance. While some villagers call this act a ‘‘sin,’’ Tevye defends the young man’s brash act. After Perchik and Hodel dance, Tevye joins in and makes Golde dance with him. Soon the rest of the village joins in, save Lazar and Yente. Both of them have suffered the most because of these breaks with tradition.

Finally, when Perchik must leave in Act II, scene one, he asks Hodel to marry him. She agrees, though it will be a hard life for her. Tevye enters and they tell him of their engagement. This break with tradition is again hard for him to understand. He believes they are asking for his permission and tells them no. Perchik tells him, ‘‘We are not asking for your permission, only for your blessing. We are going to get married.’’ Tevye has another crisis of conscious, but he asks himself ‘‘did Adam and Eve have a matchmaker? Yes, they did. Then it seems these two have the same matchmaker.’’ Again, when Tevye sees that one of his daughters is happy, he gives in and breaks with tradition. He allows Hodel to travel to Siberia, where she will marry Perchik. There is no wedding for him to attend, though she promises to keep one tradition and marry under a ‘‘chupa’’ or canopy.

Of all of Tevye’s daughters, however, Chava makes the biggest break with tradition. She crosses a line that even Tevye cannot allow. In Act I, scene eight, Chava minds Motel’s tailor shop for a moment. During that time, a young Russian man named Fyedka begins to talk to her. He tells her, ‘‘I’ve often noticed you at the bookseller’s. Not many girls in this village like to read.’’ He goes on to offer a book to her. Chava is uncomfortable with him because he is not Jewish. She does not want to take the book, but she finds herself doing so. When Motel returns, she lies to him, saying that the book is her’s. By Act II, scene two, the villagers, like Yente, have noticed that the Russian and Chava have been spending time together.

In Act II, scene five, things come to a head. Chava tells Fyedka that she is afraid to tell anyone about their relationship. When Tevye comes by, Fyedka wants to talk to him, but Chava says that she is the one who must confront her father. She argues, ‘‘The world is changing, Papa.’’ He replies, ‘‘No. Some things do not change for us. Some things will never change.’’ Chava then informs her father that she and Fyedka want to be married. He says that he will not allow it and grows angry. By the next scene, Chava has secretly married Fyedka and begs her father to accept the union. He cannot. Tevye asks, ‘‘Accept them? How can I accept them. Can I deny everything I believe in? On the other hand, can I deny my own child? On the other hand, how can I turn my back on my faith, my people? If I try to bend that far, I will break.’’ Chava leaves with her husband, disowned. Tevye says that she is dead to him.

In the final scene of the musical, Chava comes with her husband to say goodbye following the Jews’ expulsion from the village. Though Golde and Tzeitel warmly greet her, Tevye still cannot accept what she has done. Fyedka and Chava tell them that are leaving the village, too, because they do not want to be a part of this injustice. Just before the couple leaves Tevye tells Chava in a quiet way ‘‘God be with you,’’ acknowledging her and the changes in tradition that inevitably have come to his family.

Tevye and his daughters force an evolution in society’s transitions which predict greater changes for their village and their country. The community of Anatevka is literally breaking down at the end of Fiddler on the Roof just like the traditions that fell through the course of the play. A way of life is disintegrating, making way for new traditions and mores. Stein implies that people like Tevye contribute to such a process. By being innovators, the agents of change, those involved gain the strength of character to face an uncertain future.

Source: A. Petrusso, for Drama for Students, Gale, 2000.

Review of Fiddler on the Roof

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Of Fiddler on the Roof little more need be said that it is as good as ever. The art of curatorship has rarely been exercised so scrupulously in the Broadway theater. The Chagallesque sets by Boris Aronson have been faithfully reproduced; ditto the Zipprodt costumes. The credits at the foot of the program are worth quoting in full for what they may portend for future revivals: ‘‘Original Production Directed & Choreographed by Jerome Robbins,’’ followed in letters half that size by ‘‘Choreography Reproduced by Sammy Dallas Bayes/Direction Reproduced by Ruth Mitchell.’’ The role of Tevye is reproduced by Topol, who, oddly, seems younger this time round than in the 1970 movie version, when he had to work at looking the age he’s now achieved naturally. So, if you loved Fiddler in 1964, you can love it again just the same; and if you missed it then, here’s your chance. Book (Joseph Stein), score (Jerry Bock) and lyrics (Sheldon Harnick) may never before have meshed with this kind of Rolls-Royce precision.

Has Time, then, played none of its usual ironic tricks on the text? Well, it does seem darker to me now, and the final curtain, with Tevye heading for the New World but leaving behind three daughters probably destined to be victims of the Holocaust seems overtly tragic. In the movie version, by contrast, the final emphasis is that Tevye’s glass is half-full rather than half-empty: America awaits him, in Technicolor. And if Fiddler’s a tragedy, then may it not be a tragic flaw in Tevye’s character that he accedes to his daughters’ determination to marry for love rather than prudentially? It’s a question that makes the story a lot more interesting, though it must remain unanswerable. Everyone in the cast does a splendid job, but I won’t recite the honor roll. I’ll just give an unqualified recommendation. As of right now this is the best musical on Broadway.

Source: Thomas M. Disch, review of Fiddler on the Roof in the Nation, Vol. 252, no. 1, January 7/14, 1992, pp. 26–27.

Review of Fiddler on the Roof

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After seeing Fiddler on the Roof (based on some Yiddish short stories; book by Joseph Stein, music by Jerry Bock, lyrics by Sheldon Harnick) numerous members of the audience confessed (or proclaimed) that they shed tears of compassion and gratitude; others have asserted that their hearts swelled in elation, while still others were convulsed with laughter. My own reception of the show was cool.

I too found it endearing—worthy of the affection the enthusiasts had manifested. Yet thinking of it in its detail, the text lacked the full savor of its sources; the music simply followed a pattern of suitable folk melodies without adding, or being equal, to them; Jerome Robbins’ choreography, though correct in its method, was not—except for two instances—as brilliant as I had expected it to be. Boris Aronson’s sets did not ‘‘overwhelm’’ me; even Zero Mostel’s performance, which cements the diverse elements and gives them a core and a shape, was open to objections. Then, too, were not those critics right, in the press and the public, who maintained there was a Broadway taint in the mixture?

Yet the longer I reflected, the greater grew my regard for the show! The steadier my effort to arrive at a true appraisal of my feelings, the more clearly I realized that the general audience reaction was justified. By a too meticulous weighing and sifting of each of the performance’s components one loses sight of the whole.

The production is actually discreet. For a popular ($350,000) musical there is a certain modesty in its effect. The vast machinery of production—I do not refer to the physical aspects alone—which must perforce go into the making of an entertainment of this sort has by an exercise of taste been reduced to a degree of intimacy that is almost surprising. The choreography, for example, does not attempt to electrify: though it is rather more muscular, broader and certainly less ‘‘cosy’’ than Jewish folk dancing tends to be, Robbins has on the whole successfully combined the homeliness of such dancing with Cossack energy. And though Aronson’s sets may remind one of Chagall, they do not really attempt to achieve Chagall-like results. (Chagall’s art is always more emphatically Russian or French than anything else. Whatever their subject, his paintings possess a certain opulent flamboyance that is hardly Jewish.) Aronson, faced with the need to move his sets rapidly, as well as to give them the atmosphere of impoverishment required by the play’s environment without robbing them of a certain quiet charm, has made his contribution to the proceedings relatively unobtrusive—which a Chagall stage design never is. (There is also in Aronson’s pictorial scheme a nice contrast between the ramshackle drabness of the places in which the play’s characters are housed and the profuse yet delicate greenery of the natural surroundings.) Considering too the dizzying extravagance of Mostel’s histrionic quality, his performance is remarkably reserved.

None of this, however, goes to the heart of the show’s significance, which must be sought in its effect on the audience. That effect comes close, within the facile laughter, the snug appreciation of an anticipated showmanship, to something religious. To understand this one must turn to the play’s original material: stories by Sholom Aleichem. Sholom Aleichem (pen name for Sholom Robinowitz, born in Russia in 1859, died in New York in 1916) was the great folk artist of Yiddish literature—an altogether unique figure who might without exaggeration be compared to Gogol. The essence of Sholom Aleichem’s work is in a very special sense moral. It is the distillation of a humane sweetness from a context of sorrow. It represents the unforced emergence of a real joy and a true sanctification from the soil of life’s workaday worries and pleasures. Although this blessed acceptance of the most commonplace facts of living—generally uncomfortable and graceless, to say the least—appears casual and unconscious in Sholom Aleichem, it is based on what, in the first and indeed the best of the play’s numbers, is called ‘‘Tradition.’’

This tradition, which might superficially be taken to comprise little more than a set of obsolete habits, customs and pietistic prescriptions, is in fact the embodiment of profound culture. A people is not cultured primarily through the acquisition or even the making of works of art; it is cultured when values rooted in biologically and spiritually sound human impulses, having been codified, become the apparently instinctive and inevitable mode of its daily and hourly conduct. Sholom Aleichem’s characters are a concentrate of man’s belief in living which does not exclude his inevitable bewilderment and questioning of life’s hardship and brutal confusion.

In the stories this is expressed as a kindness which does not recognize itself, as pity without selfcongratulation, as familiar humor and irony without coarseness. This is beauty of content, if not of form. For the Eastern (Russian, Polish, Rumanian, Galician) Jews of yesteryear ‘‘would have been deeply puzzled,’’ Irving Howe and Eleazer Greenberg have said in their admirable introduction to a collection of Yiddish stories, ‘‘by the idea that the aesthetic and the moral are distinct realms, for they saw beauty above all in behavior.’’

More of this meaning than we had a right to expect is contained in Fiddler on the Roof. Is it any wonder, then that an audience, living in one of the most heartless cities of the world at a time of conformity to the mechanics of production, an audience without much relation to any tradition beyond that expressed through lip service to epithets divested of living experience, an audience progressively more deprived of the warmth of personal contact and the example of dignified companionship, should weep thankfully and laugh in acclamation at these images of a good life lived by good people? In Fiddler on the Roof this audience finds a sense of what ‘‘togetherness’’ might signify. Without the cold breath of any dogma or didactics, it gets a whiff of fellow feeling for the unfortunate and the persecuted. It is a sentiment that acts as a kind of purification.

Is there too much ‘‘show biz’’ in Fiddler on the Roof? Undoubtedly. But apart from the fact that dramaturgic and musical equivalents of Sholom Aleichem’s genius are not to be had for the asking, is it conceivable that a truly organic equivalent of the original stories could be produced in our time at a theatre on West 45th Street? The makers and players of Fiddler on the Roof are not of Kiev, 1905, nor do they live (even in memory) a life remotely akin to that of Tevye the Dairyman, his family and his friends, or of the author who begat them. The producers of Fiddler on the Roof are Broadway—as is the audience—and, in this instance, perhaps the best of it. Those who have attended some of the latter-day productions of the Yiddish stage itself will know that they too are as alien to the spirit of Sholom Aleichem as anything we see at the Imperial Theatre.

The name of Chagall has almost unavoidably come up. The nearest thing to that artist’s type of imagination dwells within Fiddler on the Roof’s leading actor. Zero Mostel has ‘‘Chagall’’ in his head. Mostel’s clown inspiration is unpredictably fantastic—altogether beyond the known or rational. One wishes this fantasy were allowed fuller scope in the show, even as compliments for its control are in order. For Mostel too, being part of Broadway, will fleetingly lapse into adulterations inhospitable to his fabulous talent.

Source: Harold Clurman, review of Fiddler on the Roof in the Nation, Vol. 199, no. 10, October 12, 1964.


Critical Overview