Fiddler on the Roof

by Joseph Stein

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Historical Context

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 662

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 increased awareness of inequalities and injustice within their own borders motivated many people to become actively involved in the correction of such problems: activists took stands throughout the decade on such issues as civil rights, poverty, and war.

Though courts had affirmed many of the tenets of American civil rights in the 1950s, it was in the 1960s that activists fought, both passively and aggressively, for their implementation in a meaningful way; fights for equality in the workplace, in public institutions such as schools, and in other public places became widespread. In 1964, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which banned racial discrimination in public places and employment. President Johnson also lead a national war on poverty. To that end, he signed the Equal Opportunity Act of 1964 which funded youth programs, community-based anti-poverty measures, small business loans, and the creation of the Jobs Corps.

Inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, women began demanding equal rights, especially as more women entered the workplace. The feminist movement also found inspiration in such books as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. One reason the women’s movement gained power was the introduction of the birth control pill in the early- 1960s. This medication sparked the ‘‘sexual revolution’’ of the 1960s, enabling women (and men) to pursue sexual relationships without the risk of pregnancy.

Other social groups challenged traditional roles. Young people ‘‘revolted’’ in the 1960s, not just by participating in the rights movements. They protested against their parents and society’s values, especially the middle- and upper-class fixation with material wealth. When the United States became more deeply involved in Vietnam, college campuses were the frequent settings for powerful antiwar demonstrations. Some young men refused to fight in a war in which they did not believe and which they felt posed no threat to the American way of life.

Despite such momentous changes in society, Broadway theater, especially the musicals of the early-1960s, targeted an older, more conservative audience. Musicals were nostalgic for the great examples of the form from the past. The year 1964 had three such productions: Fiddler on the Roof, Hello, Dolly!, and Funny Girl. Movies were the exact opposite, with many independent filmmakers finding an outlet for their counter-culture agendas in film. The 1960s marked a significant turning point in western cinema, with many films rising to challenge the status quo; 1964 was the year that director Stanley Kubrick’s landmark antiwar satire Dr. Strangelove debuted.

Literary Style

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 529

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 since the end of Act I.

Dance is used in Fiddler on the Roof to underscore the themes of the play. Perchik, especially, uses dance to challenge tradition. In Act I, scene 6, Perchik makes Hodel dance with him when no one is around, though women are not supposed to dance with men. Though Hodel has been obedient before, this act—and Perchik’s infectious free spirit—leads her to question traditions. During Tzeitel’s wedding, Perchik asks Hodel to dance again. She agrees, which leads to all the guests save two (Lazar and Yente) breaking the tradition.

Dance is also used in other ways in Fiddler. When Tevye agrees that Tzeitel will marry Lazar, he dances for joy. The whole inn joins him in this dance, including some Russians. Dance primarily serves as a symbol of freedom and happiness in the play.

The title of the musical is derived from its most obvious symbol: the fiddler on the roof. The fiddler, as Tevye tells the audience, represents the fragile balance of life in the village. Tevye says ‘‘every one of us is a fiddler on the roof, trying to scratch out a pleasant, simple tune without breaking his neck.’’ The fiddler appears at key moments in the play: the prologue to Act I; Act I, scene 4, when Tevye agrees to the match between Tzeitel and Lazar; when Tevye is warned about the forthcoming pogrom (assault on the Jews’ property); the wedding scene, where tradition is broken and the pogrom takes place; and at the very end of the play when the family leaves for America. Then, the fiddler climbs on to Tevye’s wagon, indicating that challenges will confront them where ever they go.

Compare and Contrast

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 319

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 their religion.

1964: Civil rights legislation in the United States seeks to address hiring practices that work against African Americans and other minorities.

Today: Conservative forces in the United States seek to rescind some aspects of the civil rights legislation, targeting Affirmative Action and other ‘‘quota’’ practices as reverse discrimination that works against qualified whites.

1905: The number of Jews allowed to receive a secondary or higher education is restricted by law.

1964: Though the American court system orders the desegregation of public schools, some state officials, especially in the South, are reluctant to follow through. Some openly defy the law.

Today: There is a debate over the merits of integration in education. Court-mandated bussing practices—enacted to integrate schools— are phased out in some areas of the country.

Media Adaptations

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Fiddler on the Roof was adapted as an immensely popular film in 1971. This version was directed by Norman Jewison and stars Topol as Tevye, Norma Crane as Golde, Molly Picon as Yente, and Rosalind Harris as Tzeitel.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 273

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 Off’’ in the New York Times, October 4, 1964, section 2, p. 1.

Taubman, Howard. ‘‘Theater: Mostel as Tevye in ‘Fiddler on the Roof’’’ in the New York Times, September 23, 1964, p. 56.

Further Reading
Altman Richard and Mervyn Kaufman. The Making of a Musical: Fiddler on the Roof, Crown, 1971. This book discusses Fiddler on the Roof from its conception to the original Broadway production as well as premiers in Europe and the Middle East. The evolution of the movie version is also included.

Guernsey, Otis L., Jr. Broadway Song & Story: Playwrights, Lyricists, and Composers Discuss Their Hits, Dodd, Mead, 1986, p. 115. This is an interview with Jerry Bock, Sheldon Harnick, and Joseph Stein on the creative process behind Fiddler on the Roof.

Rosenberg, Bernard, and Ernest Harbug. The Broadway Musical: Collaboration in Commerce and Art, Crown, 1971. This book discusses the creative and financial process of putting together a Broadway musical, including Fiddler on the Roof in its discussion.

Suskin, Steven. Opening Night on Broadway: A Critical Quotebook of the Golden Era of Musical Theatre, Schirmer, 1990. This book features summaries of critical response to and quotes from reviews of original Broadway productions, including Fiddler on the Roof.

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