The plot is simple, even seductively coy, but it reverberates into the year ahead. In Isaac Bashevis Singer’s only Yiddish play, “Devil’s Play,” it seems the devil is bored and is looking for a little fun with an easy victim. He settles on a remote shtetl, Frampol, where he finds a happily married older couple, Noson and Royze Temerl, on whom to wreak havoc. As he moves in his crew of troublemakers in the guise of a new maid and her assistant, the plot cascades into disaster. The young and sassy maid tempts Noson easily, until he is paying kiss by kiss, and begging for more. Finally driven mad with desire, he swears to divorce his devoted wife of 40 years and marry the evil hussy. The devil triumphs easily in a scenario all too familiar. Desire leads to temptation, and the rest is history.
Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are for forgiveness and atonement, but we rationalize that our faults are, in one way or another, not really our own. We are but weak, not evil. After all, who can withstand the temptations of the Evil Inclination? If “The devil made me do it,” are we really fully responsible for our transgressions? Singer’s play, written in 1984 from an earlier short story titled “The Unseen” and performed at two readings, October 10 and 17, by the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, asserts that there is hope in the quagmire of lust and foolishness.
The devil has assistants, Namoh (Shifre Tsirl), Mokhlas (Dvoyre Leah) and Shavriri (Coachman Liebyl), a kind of Three Stooges of the Dark Side, who engage in a constant tirade of Yiddish banter and humor that ornaments the straightforward plot. As is typical of Singer’s work, the dialogue frequently veers off into pungent comments about the nature of man, woman and God Himself. In the midst of an exchange between Royze, the loyal wife, and a disguised demon, Dvoyre Leah, the shade exclaims: “My mother used to say: Even the best man deserves a beating.” Royze defends men: “What are you saying? The greatest people were men… men run the world. God Himself is also male… God is a He, not a she. The shade responds: “If He were a she, maybe He’d have more compassion.” The wry feminist in Singer appears to chastise the Creator Himself.
Once her husband betrays her, Royze is devastated and lapses into a permanent mourning for philandering Noson. In desperation she marries her husband’s old competitor and is promptly miserable, continuing to pine for Noson. Suddenly Noson appears in rags, totally defeated. The wicked maid has abandoned him and stolen all his money, and he has been reduced to a wandering beggar. Another shade sarcastically comments: “No matter what, the Evil Inclination shows everyone their piece of cake.” We are, from the devil’s point of view, a trembling mass of pitiful desires to be manipulated.
Singer wields a bittersweet ending as a cudgel against a stern God. Man is tempted, suffers and yet in light of the stubborn love between husband and wife, heaven is forced to forgive the sinner. Human decency and love triumph over the predictable machinations of God’s agent, the devil. Another shade exclaims: “Every human has his demon, and every demon has his human. We are two sides of one coin.” It is hard to know whether the old couple has triumphed over their own foibles or over the pitfalls that our Creator places in our path.
Hidden Treasures, the staged reading series at the Folksbiene Yiddish Theater, will present three other buried gems this season, each calculated to expand the horizons of Yiddish Theater: Sholem Asch’s “Motke the Thief” seems to prove that no good deed goes unpunished; I.D. Berkowitz’s well-known “Moshke the Swine” shows that the crooked indeed cannot be made straight, and finally an unpublished manuscript discovered by Folksbiene Associate Artistic Director Mark Altman in The New York Public Library’s rare manuscript section, Osip Dimov’s “The Resurrected Rabbi,” struggles with the perils of rabbi/congregant intimacies. All in all, the Folksbiene continues to ruffle our collective feathers with pungent Yiddish theater that will set us thinking many New Years to come.
Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and a writer on Jewish art.