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Remembering Murray Schisgal — the consummate Jewish playwright with the eyes of a basset hound

The American Jewish playwright Murray Schisgal, who has died at age 93, baffled generations of actors and theatregoers with his bittersweet plays redolent with Yiddishkeit.

Author of such acclaimed works as “The Typists and The Tiger (1963),” “Luv (1964),” and “Tootsie” (1982), Schisgal mystified even astute actors who specialized in performing his works but were at a loss to fully explain their inner meanings or why they succeeded in moving audiences as they did.

In his memoirs, Eli Wallach recalled that he first encountered Schisgal during preparations for the New York premiere of “The Typists and The Tiger”: “He was a fairly tall, bald, and bearded man. His most distinguished features were his eyes – they were so sad. He looked like a basset hound. How could he have written such amusing plays, I wondered.”

Early on, the Jewish content of Schisgal’s work had proved an attraction. As Schisgal informed the American Jewish Committee (AJC) Oral History Library in November 1992, as a navy veteran, mediocre jazz musician, and disgruntled lawyer determined not to practice, he found a director willing to stage his plays in Charles Marowitz. a fellow American Jewish expatriate in London.

In the late 1950s, Marowitz, a collaborator of the English Jewish director Peter Brook at the Royal Shakespeare Company,, identified a quality in Schisgal’s works that was eloquently described by a theatrical colleague in Paris, Laurent Terzieff, who staged several of Schisgal’s works starting in the 1960s.

Terzieff told France’s National Audiovisual Institute circa 2010:

“What I remember above all from [Schisgal] is a symbiosis between Jewish humor and a sense of the absurd, a sense of nonsense, precisely, typically English, Anglo-Saxon;… humor has more than a tone, a sound, and indeed the Schisgalian sound can be recognized in a crowd. It inimitably stigmatizes bad faith attitudes that characters adopt to acquire a good conscience and self-image allowing them to live in American society, where they must sell themselves.”

Schisgal’s innovation, Terzieff continued, was to create a “new American theater that rejected psychoanalysis.” Unlike American Jewish predecessors such as Arthur Miller, entrenched in traditional psychology, Schisgal exulted in “American neuroses of his day to the point where Jerry Lewis could have played his characters.”

Putting onstage a series of characters anguished by questions of relationships and money was surely a legacy of the immigrant Jewish experience. An overlooked short play by Schisgal, “The Pushcart Peddlers” (1979) juxtaposes two greenhorn arrivals from the shtetel to New York, Elias Crapavarnishkes and Shimmel Shitzman, who change their names to Cornelius J. Hollingsworth III and Samuel P. Stone to better succeed as banana vendors.

Having himself succeeded in London, Schisgal was re-imported back to New York by Claire Joseph Nichtern, who managed the pediatrics practice of her husband, Dr. Sol Nichtern and chose as almost her first production Schisgal’s “The Typists and The Tiger,” followed by “Jimmy Shine,” “Luv,” and “Twice Around the Park” (1982-1983).

Actors such as Wallach, Jackson, and Alan Arkin, who could convey utmost plausibility, became essential to his artistry. He worked repeatedly with certain actors, including Arkin. Worthy of rediscovery is a 1966 TV film, “The Love Song of Barney Kempinski,” about a New Yorker who plans to marry after his daily work shift as a cabdriver, Good Humor man, tour guide, and butcher. Alongside Arkin is a remarkable cast featuring Alan King, Lee Grant, Charlotte Rae, Rosetta LeNoire, and John Gielgud.

In addition to ideal actors, as Schisgal informed the AJC, candor about his roots was essential to his plays:

“I do feel once you explicitly introduce Jewish themes [in a play] that two things happen automatically. One, I think the work stands a chance of being a better piece of work than if you do what most commercial playwrights do and that is to conceal the Jewishness of their characters in situations by making them generic, general, and so instead of having a Ginsberg, you have a Grant, or instead of having an Abramowitz, you have an Allen, etc. That is done to address oneself to the largest audience possible and to allow your work to be done more easily in places where, if it were explicitly of a Jewish nature, it would not be available to it.”

This determination to be explicitly Jewish may have been a product of his upbringing in East New York, Brooklyn, where he had his first drama-related thrills at a Jewish theater on Saratoga Avenue in Brownsville and enjoyed recordings by the Yiddish star Aaron Lebedeff.

In Brooklyn, he also encountered anti-Semitic taunts and violence at school and in the streets when growing up. Even among Jews, aggressiveness was present, as he discovered at his bar mitzvah when his classmates hurled bags of candy at his head after the ceremony was over, a local custom.

Years later, among day jobs Schisgal found when struggling as a writer was as an English teacher at a Brooklyn Lubavitcher Yeshiva. In later years, he was a member of the Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a Reform temple on New York’s Upper West Side, although, as he commented to the AJC, his family background was Orthodox: “It is a blessing to have been brought up as an Orthodox Jew because so much is transferred to one in terms of one’s background and sense of belonging to a group larger than one’s nose.”

Humor as a defense mechanism, whether nasal or not, was never far from Schisgal’s message. Among contemporary Jewish plays, he expressed admiration for Herb Gardner’s “Conversations with My Father” and Wendy Wasserstein’s “Sisters Rosensweig.”

In private life, despite his sometimes dour appearance, Schisgal could be fun-loving. His friend the novelist Joseph Heller once recalled to his daughter an evening when Schisgal, Heller, Dustin Hoffman, and their spouses “all piled into a car after dinner and then driven through the wealthy estate roads of Southampton, singing ‘Hava Nagila’ at the top of their lungs.”

More than just a fellow chorister in “Hava Nagila,” Hoffman would prove a key collaborator, starting around 1964 in a short play, “An Old Jew” and eventually in full-length stage works like “Jimmy Shine (1969),” about a failed painter and his interactions with women, and the hit film “Tootsie” which went through many screenwriters until it was finally credited to Schisgal and Larry Gelbart.

Schisgal also worked for a time as a creative executive at Hoffman’s Punch Productions company, helping to develop projects such as “Rain Man” (1988) as well as Hoffman’s filmed versions of “Death of a Salesman” and “Merchant of Venice.”

At Punch Productions in 1991, according to an accusation made in November 2017 by the playwright Wendy Riss Gatsiounis, Schisgal was overly complaisant with Hoffman’s sexual harassment of her, as reported in “Variety.”

Although this accusation overshadowed his final years, Schisgal’s interpretations of Jewish experience are so plentiful and profound that audiences will surely be relishing them for generations. If Terzieff was correct and Schisgal the writer rejected psychoanalysis, perhaps it was because he already knew himself so well as a Jewish writer.

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