THE ETERNAL ROAD is anunprecedented work of art, spectacle, and pageantry in the service of a Jewishhistorical and ideological message. It is unique in the history of the Americanstage, not least for its scope, scale, vision, and sheer stature--and for theprofile of its creative collaborators. It has been called a pageant, an opera,a music-drama, a staged oratorio, a biblical morality play, a biblical epic,and a biblical extravaganza--even a \Jewish passion play." That the work stilldefies generic definition after nearly seventy years is testament to itssingularity. This recording features musical highlights from the originalscore, representing about one third of the entire work.
The Eternal Road was thebrainchild of the flamboyant impresario, producer, promoter, and mainstreamZionist activist and leader, Meyer Weisgal. He conceived the project with athreefold interrelated purpose: to respond to the state-sponsored persecutionof Jews in Germany following the National Socialist Party electoral victory in1933 with the appointment of Hitler as chancellor; to relate through reenactedbiblical accounts the age-old historical wandering and suffering of the Jewishpeople; and to suggest a messianic national hope, enshrined in the still youngZionist enterprise, for the first realizable alternative in nearly 2,000 yearsto that "eternal road" of helplessness.
As the Chicago-based executivedirector of Zionist Activities for the Midwest region of the ZionistOrganization of America (ZOA), Weisgal had already experienced the value ofpublic spectacles for advancing the Zionist cause and fostering publicawareness of situations affecting world Jewry. He had produced two enormouslysuccessful pageants: his All-Chicago Hanukka festival, Israel Reborn
(1932); and his lavish Romance of a People, at Jewish Day at the 1933World's Fair, "A Century of Progress," with a cast of more than 6,000. Fresh fromthat heady success--just as the implications of the Nazi victory in Germany wereregistering--and convinced of the power of such theater as a vehicle foradvocacy and Jewish identity. He envisioned a production of heroic proportions,a musical-dramatic epic that would encompass the basic narrative of the HebrewBible in a single evening, implicitly suggesting Zionism's answer to theperpetual dilemma of the Jewish people's existence. In view of the dangeroussituation for Jews in Germany even in that pre-Holocaust period, Weisgaldetermined to seize the opportunity to bestir the world, through theater, witha focus on the rich cultural heritage of the Bible as a source common toChristians and Jews.
Insistent on a team of thehighest possible artistic profile, Weisgal turned first to one of the mostfamous directors and fellow Jews on the international scene, Max Reinhardt. Awareof Reinhardt's departure from Germany in the face of its new policies thatexpelled Jews from the arts, Weisgal cabled him with the message
IF HITLER DOESN'T WANT YOU, I'LLTAKE YOU!
He also asked Reinhardt toidentify the most appropriate playwright and composer, and they settled earlyon upon New York as the most logical city for the production.?á Reinhardtproposed poet and playwright Franz Werfel, a fellow German-Jewish refugee whohad already been expelled from the Prussian Academy of Art.?á To compose thescore, he selected Kurt Weill, then in self-imposed exile in Paris.
On some levels Werfel was anunderstandable nominee, not only for his known humanistic leanings andExpressionist poetry, but also because of his acknowledged affinity forbiblical subjects. But it was a strange choice in other respects-- especially inlight of his transparent fascination with Roman Catholicism and, in particular,with its deeper theological mysteries. That orientation would later reverberatein dialectics and frictions with the other principals over the issue of Jewishparticularity versus universal perspectives, and it left many aspects of thedrama, especially its conclusion, open to conflicting interpretations, forWerfel's understanding of the Bible was governed more by Christian perceptionsthan by traditional Judaic sensibilities.
Werfel conceived his play as amodern incarnation of a passion or biblical morality play, which he titled DerWeg der Verheissung (lit., The Road of Promise, although no translationaccurately conveys its mystical or religious connotations). That title wasobviously connected to one or more of the biblical promises stemming from theeternal covenant with Abraham. For Werfel the universalist, even the messianicpromise could have meant assurance of ultimate redemption for all mankind;whereas for Weisgal, and probably for Weill as well, it was unmistakablyrelated to the Zionist vision of national rebirth and, specifically, a returnto the land--the "Promised Land."
Weisgal was at first concernedabout Werfel's skirting of Jewish perspectives. Moreover, reliance upon divinesalvation ran counter to the Zionist conviction that waiting and praying for2,000 years had proved futile. Also, Werfel's messiah seemed not to be quitethe same messiah for whom observant Jews pray daily to lead the Jewish peopleout of its particular exile and back to its home. And his exile appeared to bea more universal abstract exile of the human spirit, one whose terminationcould be negotiated on Christian theological terms. Indeed, there is nospecific reference anywhere in the play to the modern Zionist movement or itsactivities at that time in Palestine. But when the production finallymaterialized, the staging at least implied a dual conclusion--expressing in thewords of Psalm 126, mirrored in Weill's triumphant processional, the eventualdeliverance to Zion.
Weisgal cautioned Werfel thatthe play must be a "Jewish play--that and nothing else," but thereafter hebecame wholly preoccupied with massive fund-raising, as well as with all otheraspects of production, presentation, and promotion. The eventual Judaicsensibility and character of The Eternal Road is owed largely to Weill'sscore, with its considerable quotation of authentic and recognizable Jewishliturgical melodies; to Reinhardt's biblically grand staging and attention todetail; to Norman Bel Geddes's sets and costumes; to the choreography ofBenjamin Zemach, who had invented a style of ballet and modern dance based on Judaicrituals and folklore; to Ludwig Lewisohn's English version of the play; andeven to the nature of the advance promotion, beginning with the support ofChaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization (WZO) andlater Israel's first president. The result was a manifestly Jewish statementthat clearly satisfied Weisgal, even if overt Zionist perspectives were left tointuition.
The premiere was originallyanticipated for no later than October 1935, but numerous setbacks and postponements,owing in part to the extravagant stage designs as well as to financial andtechnical problems, resulted in its opening fifteen months later, at theManhattan Opera House (formerly the Hammerstein Opera House) on Thirty-fourthStreet. Meanwhile Lewisohn, a Zionistically as well as religiously inclinedauthor and critic, published his English version under the title The EternalRoad in 1936. A stage adaptation had still to be prepared by William A.
Drake, for which some new lyrics were then added by Charles Alan, the pageant'ssupervisor. Substantial portions of the original score (estimated by Weill atabout one thir