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Director, Playwright Emily Mann Talks About A World of 'Meshugah'

Candace Braun

Is the Holocaust meshugah, are the characters in the play meshugah, or is life meshugah? McCarter's Artistic Director Emily Mann delved into these questions and more on Thursday, October 21, when she discussed her play Meshugah at the Princeton Public Library.

The talk was part of the library's month-long series celebrating the centennial of Isaac Bashevis Singer, the Polish-born American journalist, novelist, short story writer, and essayist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1978.

First performed at McCarter Theatre in 1998, Ms. Mann's play Meshugah, which means crazy in Yiddish, is based on Singer's novel, originally published as a series for The Forward, New York's Jewish immigrant newspaper. While the title of Ms. Mann's comic tragedy is the same as Singer's novel, Ms. Mann said she doesn't believe Singer meant to use it for his novel because it was edited after Singer's death.

Ms. Mann said she felt the word "meshugah" was written across the pages in his desk for another reason: "I don't think he thought the title was Meshugah. I think he thought the whole thing was."

She said that the words "lost souls" were found written on a paper and she believes that is the title he wanted for the piece.

However, both "crazy" and "lost" appear to be fitting titles for Ms. Mann's play, which focuses on three Polish survivors of the Holocaust. Set in 1952, the play begins with Aaron, a 40-year-old writer for The Forward, meeting up with Max, 67, a friend he thought had died in a concentration camp. Max introduces Aaron to his 20-something mistress Miriam, hoping she will help relieve Aaron's depression as the lone survivor in his family.

As Miriam becomes Aaron's lover but remains Max's mistress, a love triangle develops, with the men sharing the woman between them.

Finding the Words

Ms. Mann first took an interest in Singer's work one summer when she was ill with multiple sclerosis, fortunately now in remission. She told her audience how she spent many days in bed, and therefore needed something to pass the time. Living in Chatham, N.Y., at the time, she went to the local library and found an entire bookshelf dedicated to Singer. It was then she decided to spend the summer tackling his works.

As the daughter of a Polish Jew, Ms. Mann found herself touched by Meshugah, and returned to work that fall unsure of what she would do with the novel, but knowing a play was hiding somewhere within its pages.

Then, one morning, she woke up and wrote eight pages of the play, and called in sick so she could continue: "I couldn't stop. It was all inside me and started to spill out ... You never know what inspires you to write a play until you've written it."

She continued that way for a few weeks, but it took years before the play reached its final version, she said: "This particular play went through two incarnations."

In her first version, Ms. Mann focused on many of the characters that are found in Singer's novel, as she felt they were all important and had something important to bring to it. After premiering the play at McCarter with a cast of 13 characters, Ms. Mann decided she needed to go back and do some rewriting. After two more versions were put on the stage, Meshugah received its New York City premiere in the spring of 2003, with only five characters, and most of the play centered around the two men and one woman involved in the love triangle.

A Deeper Plot

But while both Singer's novel and Ms. Mann's play appear to center mostly on the trials of love, a deeper plot is found beneath the surface. When Max's character falls ill and feels he is close to death, he offers Miriam completely to Aaron, and the two begin to speak of marriage. However, Aaron soon discovers that Miriam was a mistress to a Nazi officer during the war. Aaron is forced to decide whether he can forgive the mistakes of Miriam's past in order to have a future with her.

While Singer's novel has Aaron leaving Miriam and going back to the life of a bachelor in New York, Ms. Mann decided to take her play in a different direction. After Miriam explains to Aaron that she did what she had to in order to survive, Aaron decides he loves her enough to take her back, but under one condition: they must never have children together.

Aaron's last words in the play to Miriam are, "For some, marriage is an investment in the future. For us, it is about the past. What we know should not be passed down. We must be like mules. The last of a generation."

While becoming more acquainted with Singer's work and developing her adaptation of the play, Ms. Mann said she started to question more and more what she would have done if she had been faced with a situation similar to Miriam.

"I've never known anyone quite like Miriam, she is amazing ... I look at her and wonder if I really would have wanted to live that badly."

With a mother born in Poland and a number of relatives who were born in Warsaw, where the characters in the play come from, Ms. Mann said that at different points in her life she has changed how she feels about the decisions that Miriam's character made: "Every time I go back to this ... I feel differently."

The last lecture in the library series on Singer will take place this Thursday, October 28, at 7:30 p.m., when Alana Newhouse, arts and culture editor for The Forward, speaks on Singer's work and the impact it had on the Jewish immigrant community.

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