Transcript:

Speaker You know, the story of Jerome Robbins within the context of American Jewish history, one would say, is a very representative one in the sense that he was the son of Yiddish speaking immigrants from Eastern Europe, which was really the dominant source of the idea of the Jewish population in the United States.

Speaker Today, that is well over two million Jews came from the late 19th to the early 20th centuries to the United States. Jerome Robbins, his parents, Rabinowitz was, of course, their name when Jerome Robbins was born, which in that sense very, very representative. They came to New Jersey. He the father, Harry Rabinowitz, went into manufacturing. He had a course at factory. They were part of a really a remarkable nexus of first generation Jews, of Americans who who produced often very, very upwardly mobile, ambitious and strikingly talented people who in all sorts of ways enriched and benefited American society. And the Robbins story is really a not quite pivotal, I would say, but certainly a highly typical one in the sense that you have a first generation that struggled, a first generation that dealt with economic challenges, and a second generation that was in some ways free to do other things, including the arts, which was the case with Jerome Robbins, of course.

Speaker He was much affected by a book that I'm sure you know, it was by John Murray Cuddihy.

Speaker Yes, right. Freud, Marx, Levi Strauss. Oh yeah. The title is The Ordeal of Civility. Yeah, sorry. OK.

Speaker And which talks about the difficulties of Jewish assimilation and really caused the kind of culture shock. And I wonder if you could address that with respect to Robin's own experience.

Speaker You know, John Murray Cuddihy, a sociologist, actually not a Jew, wrote a remarkably intriguing book called The Ordeal of Civility, which had a great influence on Jerome Robbins, who was not college educated but was certainly avidly interested in broader issues of culture that dance but music and the fine arts, particularly later in life. The book by John Murray Cuddihy is a an intriguing study of the name of the encounter that Jews who didn't grow up in families that had particular definitions of what etiquette consists of that would satisfy the standards of, let's say, Emily Post or Gloria Vanderbilt had in terms of figuring out how to negotiate their way into a middle class and upper middle class society in which the rules, the nuances, the subtleties were often elusive. And I would guess that in the case of Jerome Robbins, this book had a special appeal because of his own uncertain relationship, both to his own Jewish origins and, of course, his own ambivalence with regard to the society that seemed to demand of him a higher degree of assimilation and certainly acculturation. Then particularly later in life, he felt was a may have been to too high a cost for him to bear. So the the Cuddihy book, which had an influence certainly in academic circles and certainly beyond that, if Jerome Robbins is a good instance, is really about the interplay of rules and social regulations that may seem obscure and not entirely rational with the yearning of upwardly mobile, ambitious people from the lower middle classes, perhaps Jews in particular, whose parents had immigrated into figuring out how does one succeed in a society in which nobody within the family could have instructed you? Exactly. How does one negotiate one's way through it?

Speaker I'm going to read you something.

Speaker No, no, I understand, yeah, because I was I was rereading the Jowett biography on the train going down, and I remember that line, the whole thing done on the train.

Speaker Well, I underline. So it helps. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Tell me when we're ready already. OK. Yeah, Jerome Robbins was, let's say, tahn. Between the. Eagerness to succeed in America.

Speaker And a that is to succeed in a society which promised that there would be rewards for those who were talented and and a society that seemed to offer opportunities at the old world had denied, particularly Jews, and at the same time a sense of perhaps a kind of disloyalty that success would itself require a certain kind of distance from his own obscure. Culturally distinctive past, which in some ways had to be abandoned for the very sake of success in in the ballet and on Broadway and a passage that confronts that in his diary is a very haunting and very poignant way of expressing that kind of ambivalence. The. Willingness to take America at its word when it promised maximum of opportunity for those who had individual merit and the willingness and the drive to succeed, and on the other hand, an awareness that he was clearly distancing himself very, very profoundly from the Yiddish speaking, socialist collectivist culture that was highly suspicious of a world that certainly in Europe and particularly in Eastern Europe under its tourism, seemed to be often offering nothing but persecution and discrimination to the Jewish minority. And Robbins', in a sense, never entirely lost that sense of being an outsider for all of the acclaim, all of the glory that his talent was able to bring him.

Speaker Terrific. Excuse me, Peter, do we need to send somebody out again? It's very low. I think it's unusable.

Speaker OK, um.

Speaker You sort of answered this, but I'll just ask you anyway, if you have anything to add on it, Jerry wrote about his displeasure with the old Jews when he was a child in Rochester and found they were kind of.

Speaker Yes, yeah, I was for an ambitious young man. Mm hmm. Yeah, sure, yeah.

Speaker Jerome Robbins had a ambivalence toward his Jewish heritage that could be contrasted, for example, with that of his friend and collaborator, Leonard Bernstein. One could say that Leonard Bernstein had a remarkably affirmative and positive view. He came from roughly the same kind of family background, the same sorts of origins as had Jerome Robbins. And in contrast to Bernstein, there was a kind of rebellious streak in Jerome Robbins. Certainly it took on an anti religious, you could even say anticlerical tone. That is, Judaism was something which was either a mass of superstition, of ritual prayer and worship conveyed in a language that that Robbins didn't know and didn't want to learn. And this is something which is often a key feature of Jewish history in the diaspora since emancipation in the 18th and 19th centuries. Robbins is an embodiment of that in the 20th century, in the sense of in order to find his own way, in order to authenticate his own desires and his own interests, there had to be a breaking off from the past. And that past, given his family origins, was inevitably a kind of religious and ethnically very powerful past. It is something that occurs very, very frequently within within Jewish life in the United States as well as the old world. It's not the only way that one can be said to relate to one's own past, but it's a way that is a very, very common one. The more striking thing to me is that Robins never left it completely. Jewishness was something that interested him very deeply. Of course, he was the director of choreographer, the one who conceived Fiddler on the Roof. Of course, 10 years after that, he does a ballet, the book, which again is a way of tracing and identifying with his own Jewish origins. In this case, interestingly enough, issues of Jewish mysticism that are related clearly to religion. So Robbins never fully assimilated, never believed that he could be simply an American. But again, it's a little bit useful to perhaps compare him to Leonard Bernstein, who was given a chance to change his name as a way of assimilating more fully. And Bernstein chose not to do so. Robbins', for reasons that are perfectly common and perfectly understandable, did choose to do so, did not want to make it as Rabinowitz, but believed that in the 1930s and 1940s it was a little bit more likely that he could do so with a name that didn't seem to be so ethnically specific.

Speaker Oh, by the way, of my answers, too long you're going to have trouble editing here, OK?

Speaker Film was written.

Speaker That's true. Good point, sorry, that's.

Speaker Good. I'm going to switch now, if we might, and let's talk about the 30s during the 30s.

Speaker Lots of artists and intellectuals became involved in with left wing or. And tell me about why they did that. What did they join? What did they hope to achieve by the.

Speaker Robbins comes to maturity in the 1930s, often called the red decade, in the sense that it was the most powerful excuse me in the sense that the the night to start over, let's just cut for a second and I'll do the fiddler and then we'll do it.

Speaker Sure. OK, ok. OK, OK.

Speaker Yes. Robin's never distanced himself entirely from Jewish life and from Jewish culture. The strongest piece of evidence of that was 1964, when he directed and choreographed Fiddler on the Roof, the single most important Broadway manifestation of trying to come to terms with the Jewish past and with Jewish tradition. Robbins comes to maturity in the 1930s, a decade which marked the crisis of American capitalism, the greatest crisis that the American economy had ever faced, and it seemed almost natural. It seemed like a kind of intuitively necessary thing for artists, intellectuals, virtually any thinking person to wonder whether the system could survive, whether the system even deserved to survive. When when Franklin Roosevelt takes office, one out of four people who wanted work was unemployed with tremendous implications for their loved ones and family members. So Robbins is part of a generation that recognizes the limitations, even the abuses of the system of private enterprise. And because he had come from an immigrant Jewish family, that itself had didn't have any obvious stake in the system that they had come to. It was almost a kind of determined feature of intelligent, open people emerging in that generation, fearing what the future would bring, not knowing, of course, the degree to which the crisis would come to an end or when it would come to an end to move toward the left to accept the criticism from socialism, from Marxism, that the system itself was doomed. In Robbins's case, there was certainly the additional element, as drawn from his own family sense that persecution was the almost inevitable lot of the Jewish minority, that Robbins was acutely sensitive to the problem of anti-Semitism, and that that is what additionally drove him to the left because the assorted Marxist socialist, communist parties and sects all believed in a kind of universalist creed by which the accidents of ancestry, the caprices of nationality, the follies of religion would all be overcome in a world in which only class mattered. And therefore it was only a matter of the overwhelming majority of Americans who were working class and struggling that they had a common purpose, a common struggle and issues of race, religion, ethnicity. All these things were secondary. And therefore, for somebody like Jerome Robbins and in this respect, he was quite typical. The appeal of the left was a very, very strong one, and it lasted basically through the 1940s, maybe into the early 1950s, as a way by which from his own past, from his own consciousness, he got the sense, in other words, that there was something wrong that required criticism. One might want to add that artists themselves, almost by definition, take a certain detached status as take a certain detached relationship to their own society, that the friction between artistic ambition and social demands is what is, generally speaking, broadly speaking, productive of creativity. It doesn't come from complacency. It comes from criticism, or at least it comes from a certain capacity to detach oneself and look at the world from the outside. And Robbins is a is a wonderful personification of that.

Speaker So tell me a tiny bit, if you would, about Popular Front Art of the 30s and how Gerry's family handles product that.

Speaker Yes, the the mid to the late 1930s is a certain period in the history of American popular arts in particular, in that it blended two features that now look different, but at the time were remarkably entangled. One was the leftist claim that the people broadly defined not just the working class, but ordinary Americans in general had to mobilize themselves against the limitations of American capitalism, against the limitations of the American political system.

Speaker And it was a wonderfully, marvelously fervent period in terms of the development of arts that sought to address the people and speak to their concerns and their anxieties and their fears. What is also striking about the period of the of the Popular Front and of popular culture in the late 1930s is that it was also a remarkable, remarkable period of American nationalism.

Speaker The sense, in other words, that's the saying of the time was, yes, we have come through the worst that the system had inflicted in terms of poverty and hunger, and the dustbowl had somehow not broken the spirit of Americans. And therefore, by the midnight 1930s, the sense of pulling through the sense that somehow the worst was behind them actually activated a period of pride in America, not just in working people, not just in the need for political activity, but also a sense of assurance and confidence that Americans had the will have the tenacity, had the resilience to succeed. And perhaps the best indication of that is the runaway best seller of 1939, John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath, which on the one hand is a devastating critique of the way in which the land had been misused by a kind of rapacious agrarian capitalism. But on the other hand, it's a tremendous pride in families like the Jones, who, for all of the pressures which they confront and for all of the splitting away of their various family members, that they are forced to suffer as a result of the Great Depression. There is also the sense that these are the sort of ordinary Americans who were somehow going to make it so popular. Popular Front culture is a left wing culture, certainly as Steinbeck's book is, broadly speaking, a left wing book. But it is also a book which restored a certain kind of faith in the national spirit of Americans themselves. So it's not just about the class, about a working class. It's also mojo saying we're the people. We go on and Jerome Robbins read that as though by osmosis in his sense, that even though he was clearly a critic of the mainstream political and economic arrangements in the United States, he also wanted to choreograph and devise and conceive works that would themselves speak to an American spirit and speak to a kind of national distinctiveness that could be separated from the forms of higher culture that didn't seem to him to be suitable for American conditions. So he helps to create an indigenous American art in his choreography and finally in his musicals. That in some ways is a an inheritance of the popular culture that he had basically matured into.

Speaker I think I need to have.

Speaker I hope some of this is even true. OK, Judy, go ahead.

Speaker OK, so Jerry entered ballet theater and he very quickly became disaffected with the the whole notion of perpetrating Russian culture to the exclusion. This is exactly what you're talking about.

Speaker But what was going on in the 40s that set the scene for this real interest in making, shall we say, American Ballet?

Speaker Yes, the 1940s is, in a sense, the decade in which Jerome Robbins becomes famous first with fancy free the ballet, then with on the town, and then, of course, with a number of different works which build and consolidate his reputation and make him the central figure that he became in American culture, both high culture and popular culture. The 1940s is a very difficult decade to get a clear handle on. If the 1930s is the red decade, the 1940s seems split the first half by World War Two, the second half by something else. That seems to be the incipient emergence of a kind of a. red decade in which the sort of leftism, the popular culture that Jerome Robbins personified come comes into serious question. But the 1940s is a period of extraordinary American confidence. When Pearl Harbor occurs, nobody doubts that ultimately the United States was going to win that war with its allies, United Nations allies, although nobody knows at what cost. Nobody knew how long that would take. And the rest of the decade is a period in which American political power is at its peak. When the United States bestrides the rest of the world in ways that had not been had never happened before, and for which the end of the Cold War in the 1990s is the only thing that is comparable. You still have in the first half of the 1940s, you've still got the sense in which it's fine to criticize America, although usually within the context of pride in what ordinary Americans can accomplish. And that is something that comes out in the ballet of the three sailors in New York, something, in other words, of the sense of patriotism, of shared suffering, in which the wealthy, the upper middle class, as well as the poor are fighting a people's war. There were no real divisions along the lines that emerge much later in terms of responsibility for bearing the brunt of military combat. This was not the case in the 1940s. And Robbins', who was draft exempt, was in fact able to in some ways convey that spirit of a common purpose and above all of shared responsibility. And that carries, to some extent into the later latter part of the 1940s. Other things begin to emerge. That is, first, doubts come into being he choreographs the age of Anxiety Music by Leonard Bernstein, and in doing so begins to get the sense, in other words, of a kind of psychological framework of doubts about the use of American power, the scope of American power, the purposes of American power. These are a sort of glimmerings only by the end of the 1940s that might be said to emerge as the leftism of the 1930s already begins to recede.

Speaker There was a kind of cultural obsession. With American identity that kind of played itself out in the ballet world in a particular way. You know what I'm talking about, this may be too specific to ballet. And if it is, I'm talking about the ballets of Dean now and more.

Speaker Oh, yeah. Mm hmm. Uh, I don't really feel confident that one. Yeah, OK.

Speaker So, like, um, as far as you know, and again, we can skip over this show, but as far as you know, how hospitable was the ballet world in that period to Jews or not?

Speaker I believe the answer is not isn't it fair that that Robbins was the first important Jewish choreographer in ballet?

Speaker No, because Agnes. A. m..

Speaker Remembering correctly, her and mother.

Speaker OK, but that's pretty vague. I mean, she was not identified as Jewish.

Speaker Well, Jews, what identifiers really?

Speaker OK. All right, now, we better drop that then. Sorry. That's OK.

Speaker Yeah, no, like a lot of people and you started to talk about this before, but if you could point at a certain point, Jerry became disenchanted with whatever the communist organization. Yeah. A lot of people did. What were their complaints?

Speaker Had they been naive or those complaints valid? Why did they leave and why didn't. Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Speaker The relationship of Jerome Robbins to communism is, of course, a ticklish, delicate area. He joins what is called the Communist Political Association. At the end of 1943. He could not join the Communist Party because there was no Communist Party.

Speaker It had dissolved itself into the Communist Political Association as a gesture to support the war effort in which the Soviet Union and the United States and Great Britain are the chief allies against the axis powers. So in order to deflect some of the animus that might be directed at the party itself, the party calls itself the Communist Political Association. Robin's claims that his primary motive in joining the Communist Political Association was its its claim to be in the forefront of the fight against anti-Semitism. He didn't seem to have particularly highly developed views of economic relations, didn't seem to have highly developed views about the exploitation that communists ascribes to capitalism. And it seems to have stemmed largely from his own ethnic identity as something which was clearly endangered in a world in which Hitler was still very much dominant in Europe by 1940. In 1943, D-Day does not occur until the following June 1944. Why Robbins' leaves the Communist Party is ambiguous and subject to varying interpretations. It's clear that by 1947, the possibilities of a Marxist inflected movement that might make a major difference in American cultural or political life was clearly fading. There was no particular claim on the part of the rejuvenated, reborn, renamed Communist Party that it necessarily was in the vanguard of the working class or of those who claim to speak for that class. And by 1947, regardless of what Robbins' himself knew exactly, the evidence that the Soviet Union had been horrifically and tragically corrupted under Stalin was apparent for virtually anyone except the most ardent party members. And Robbins' was in no way a dedicated, committed comrade, a member of a Communist Party Kadry. So a number of factors undoubtedly played their role by 1947. It's also fair to say from the viewpoint of Jewish history that anti-Semitism had been so dramatically discredited by Nazism that the period after the Second World War is the period in which the final assault upon American anti-Semitism is taking place. So that one didn't need to be a communist. It was probably a defect, actually, to be a communist in order to combat anti-Semitism and to recognize the degree to which it simply violated American democratic ideals. And therefore, the motive for Robbins' joining the Communist Political Association at the end of 1943 had largely vanished, I would guess by 1947.

Speaker Also said that it had to do with the restrictions. Oh, OK. Mm hmm.

Speaker Yes, yes, yes, yes, the Communist Party produced more ex communists than it ever produced in the way of people who remained in the party, Jerome Robbins was one of them in the sense that he felt, as did many, many others, particularly those of independent and creative spirit, that party restrictions in terms of what could be said, what could be expressed, had to conform to a set of standards and ideals that were dictated by the by Communist Party headquarters in New York City and broadly speaking, ultimately from the headquarters of the Communist International in Moscow, so that communism produces so many ex communists, precisely because the very reasons that rebels and dissidents might be attracted to the movement were the very things would be driven away by a movement that insisted upon ideological conformity and rigidity.

Speaker Set the stage for us, if you would, about what happened in the federal government in the 50s, which we would call the Red Scare. What was going on in the world that enabled that? And who was at the.

Speaker The 1950s is an as a decade that can, in fact, be fairly easily characterized in terms of Red Scare, in terms of McCarthyism, in terms of the imposition of political conformity, of which Robbins was himself a prominent victim. The basic origins of that transition from the 1930s and 1940s into the 50s can be explained in very, very simple terms by the difference between 1945 and 1950. The difference between a an America that was extraordinarily powerful, virtually unique. After the Japanese surrender in August of 1945, the United States controls half of the world's economy. The United States is the only major power that is not weaker as a result of the Second World War. And yet by 1950, the the most populous country on the planet, China, is communist, the largest country in the world. In terms of land mass, the Soviet Union remains communist. The American atomic bomb monopoly had been lost a year earlier, and it looked as though the United States was in some ways losing its domination politically and economically. And therefore, for certain sorts of people, there had to be a simple explanation for that remarkably dramatic decline from what was virtual omnipotence to something that suggested a dangerous and menacing kind of weakness. And for those who were often associated with conservatives and even reactionaries, usually members of the Republican Party, but not exclusively, there had to be enemies or traitors from within and not simply causes that stemmed from from communism outside, and particularly for the junior senator from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy, a Republican from with strong roots in Midwestern isolationism. The explanation couldn't be from abroad. It had to be at home. So what happens? Which makes which was to make Jerome Robbins subject to these particular sorts of political changes, is the sense that communism is, no, not a threat to the United States. Communism is suddenly now a threat in the United States, and that produces investigatory actions on the part of the U.S. Congress, both the Senate and the House of Representatives that alter the climate of political dissidents and even political freedom in the United States and make it very, very difficult for not just for Marxists, not just for communists, but even for liberals and progressives to really feel that the United States is something in which they have an equal role to play in its political life and in its political dialogue. In its efforts to impose political conformity, the Congress establishes a House committee on un-American activities that is in the lower house of the United States Congress.

Speaker The aim of which was to investigate and presumably for purposes of legislation, although very little legislation ever resulted to those groups on the left and presumably on the right as well, that in some ways endangered democratic values and institutions by 1947. However, the House Committee on un-American Activities, or Hewat, as it was popularly or notoriously known, primarily was investigating communist or Kwesi Communist activities primarily in the arts, beginning with Hollywood. Largely, it's fair to say, for purposes of publicity, if you could get movie stars, if you get Hollywood figures who were to reveal the degree to which they had been or once were under communist influence, this would create a sufficient atmosphere of suspicion that would itself move the axis of American politics to the right. Virtually everybody who served on the House Committee on un-American Activities, Democrat and Republican, were of a conservative and harshly staunchly anti-communist bent. The effect of which was to in some ways restrict, broadly speaking, liberal and progressive opinion and taste as well. So KUAC was a committee that sought to intimidate those who had been or seemed to be at one point communists.

Speaker The committee itself was generally rather accurate in identifying people who had indeed been communists. The number of non communists who fell within its grip was in fact only a very, very small minority. But the broader effect was clearly to make it much, much more difficult for liberal opinion, Democratic Party opinion associated with the New Deal and Fair Deal to express itself with the same degree of confidence that had been the case in the 1930s and 1940s.

Speaker So it was part of the broader Republican and conservative reaction to the New Deal and to Harry Truman's Fair Deal. And it was this which basically pulled a choreographer like Jerome Robbins into its orbit in basically in the late spring of 1953, once a number of the more prominent figures in Hollywood had been already disposed of in various ways. So after Hollywood, Hewat goes after others, whether in the theatre, whether it be and in dance and music. By the 1950s, they were even going after painters. The the list gets exhausted by the mid 50s of those who could bring about who could achieve a measure of publicity for UEC itself. So Robbins's is in sort of the middle wave of those beginning in 1947, largely ending by 1956 of those who could in various ways be discredited as having been communists.

Speaker Now, just to set the scene completely, as far as Jerry, what is the country generally Jews and homosexuals because. For example, a lot of the people who testified in front of the committee or subcommittee, weren't you?

Speaker Yes.

Speaker The House Committee on un-American Activities, let me start of the House Committee on un-American Activities. Was primarily motivated by a desire to promote itself.

Speaker Even as it sought to discredit those who were on the left, those on the left were disproportionately members of minorities, Jews, African-Americans, who, for reasons of believing that a universalist creed would benefit their their own group, their own people saw something at one point attractive in communism, broadly speaking, and in the left in general, some of them were homosexuals, although it would be not quite right to say that there was a an explicitly anti-gay agenda, it was basically unheard of for gay people to be out of the closet. I mean, the closet was the only place where gay people could effectively be, certainly if they wanted any degree of role in in American public life. So homosexuals were not themselves, particularly the targets, although there could be cases in Jerome Robbins may have been one in which the fear of being exposed may well have led him to make the decision to name names that he made in May of 1953. But generally speaking, the degree to which Jews in particular seemed to be the target may well have reflected the degree to which Jews were disproportionately attracted to a movement which advocated the end of anti-Semitism. There was a notorious member of the U.S. Congress, John Rankin, Democrat of Mississippi, who was the leading anti-Semite in the United States Congress, and he served on the House Committee on un-American Activities. But its primary thrust was in no way, it seems to me, prejudiced against any group in particular, but a broader effort to to limit the political freedom of of those on the left.

Speaker You know, Jerry was dogged for years by the FBI and then finally they called him to testify along the way. So for somebody who was subpoenaed for his choice, you know.

Speaker Those who were subpoenaed by the House Committee on un-American Activities faced very, very bleak choices after the Supreme Court had turned down the appeal of the Hollywood Ten who had been convicted of contempt of Congress in 1947.

Speaker No one testifying before the House Committee on un-American Activities could claim the protection of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedom of expression. The only alternative that was available constitutionally to to prevent the probability of having to name names was the Fifth Amendment, which basically said that in a criminal trial, you need not be compelled to testify against yourself. But that language is suggestive of the problem. It didn't give you the right not to testify against others. And therefore, by 1953, A somebody who was subpoenaed before you act, such as Jerome Robbins, basically had no constitutional protection whatsoever. If you were asked a question that as a member of the Communist Party, as somebody who attended meetings of units of the Communist Party, who else was present at such meetings? And it is one of the shabbier moments in American political history that the Constitution, in that sense was no barrier to somebody basically having to become an informer. And that was the constitutional limitation that somebody like Jerome Robbins was facing in 1953, which is to say the he had no rights not to testify.

Speaker So what would happen to him?

Speaker Yes, yes, the problem that faced people who were subpoenaed was that if they refused to testify, whether claiming the Fifth Amendment or, as Arthur Miller testified in 1956, not claiming any protection at all except his own conscience that forbade him from being an informer, the choices of the choice, the consequence of not testifying was basically that you were likely to be robbed of employment, because whether you were a university professor, whether you had a contract with a Hollywood studio or whether you were working within the framework of radio and television, you would generally be immediately fired if you did not cooperate with a legitimate committee of the United States Congress.

Speaker That was the basic position that employers took, including The New York Times in the 1950s, in the early 90s, early to mid 1950s, and therefore not testifying would have meant the ruin, the end of people's careers if they did not name names. And that was the terrifying, really the tragic dilemma that those who were subpoenaed were facing when they were called before the House Committee on un-American Activities not to testify, brought tremendously bad career consequences and testifying ran other sorts of risks, including the danger of perjury because mistakes might be made in terms of memory from 15 years earlier, there might have been even legitimate failures of memory. There might also have been efforts to shield people whom somebody called to testify might want to protect. And this brought the danger then of a of perjury or contempt of Congress, which would then bring all sorts of legal and punitive consequences. That was the alternative to simply having the destruction of one's career.

Speaker People who criticize Jerry and others have testified often say that there was no blacklist in the theater and there were certainly nothing in it. Yes, right. So was there or was there not? I mean, what? From what I hear you saying, he would have suffered professionally. But how so? There was no blacklist.

Speaker Yes. Yes. One of the features of the 1950s in terms of the anti-communist animus that existed was that its results were unevenly distributed. Those who suffered the greatest danger of the destruction of their careers were those in the film industry, those who were suffered. The second greatest consequence were those in television. Third was probably radio and those where the where there was the least consequence would be in book publishing, in magazine publishing, in newspapers, in dance and in theater.

Speaker The line here, the simple one that can be drawn, is the more popular the art, the more vulnerable the artist might quite well have been because of the alleged dangers that would be resulting from the insinuation in the mass mind of possible communist propaganda and infiltration. Strictly speaking, Jerome Robbins would have faced no real penalty had his ambitions been confined to the theater and to ballet. But Jerome Robbins is so key, a figure in the arts in America in the last 40 or 50 years, precisely because his own ambitions could not be confined only to the world of ballet and and the world of theater. The fact that he was already, by the early 1950s, deeply involved in television and had been deeply involved in choreography with major and still memorable television productions, the degree to which he was already apparently harboring ambitions within the movie industry. And of course, he was the co-director, as well as the choreographer of the film adaptation of West Side Story, are indications that his reach was not confined to that of the theater and of ballet. So anybody whose talent might have pushed him in directions beyond where he had begun was facing an extraordinary degree of danger. If a huge subpoena arrived, and it is very likely, I don't claim to have any capacity to conjecture in any significant way on his motives. But it's very likely that he will realize the consequences of not cooperating if he hoped to have any career beyond that of theater and beyond that of dance. And of course, one also has to, it seems to me, have a measure of sympathy for him in the degree to which nobody knew how long the Red Scare was going to last. Nobody knew that within less than half a decade after Jerome Robbins was called to testify, the first real limitations are being imposed by the federal courts on the kinds of questions and the kinds of punishments that could be inflicted by the U.S. Congress in its effort to root out communism in our culture and in our society during the time that he kept successfully putting off the FBI.

Speaker Hmm. What would have been the ways that he could have been pressured? They have ways of convincing, you mean other than a subpoena?

Speaker Yes.

Speaker Other than a subpoena.

Speaker I shouldn't answer that because, I mean, the common explanation his case was he didn't want to be blackmailed about with regard to his own sexual orientation, but I don't know. I think it would be irresponsible for me to do that because I don't really know to what extent that really was a motive. OK, but, I mean, it's a subpoena would be a sufficient kind of incentive to testify. Yeah.

Speaker Oh, sorry. Just give me a second. Mm hmm. Um. You know, I shouldn't ask you just what you can tell us, not in detail, but we should just have a statement by you that that explains exactly what the nature of his testimony was. I mean, sure he did. Yeah. So, yeah. What was. Yes. Speaking. What was Mr..

Speaker Finally, yes. Robbins'. Did his best to avoid testifying under circumstances that would be extremely perilous.

Speaker Anyway, one decided to cooperate or not to cooperate. He did everything he could to avoid what seemed to be something that was dangerous and inevitable. And when he was called to testify, the chief.

Speaker Penalty that was imposed on anybody who was subpoenaed under such circumstances was to be forced to be an informer. This is one of the cruel paradoxes of the anti-communist mania of the early 1950s, which is to say the best way to demonstrate one's loyalty, the best way to prove that one was a patriotic American was to do something that is generally abhorred in virtually all societies, which is to be a rat, a stoolie, a stool pigeon, a canary and so on.

Speaker And therefore, in an odd way, all that the House Committee on un-American Activities was interested in was whether it would be possible to humiliate and to degrade those coming before it by compelling them to do things that they would normally not dare or imagine doing.

Speaker It was not a matter of extracting information. It was not a matter really of enlightening people about the methods of the Communist Party. About which Jerome Robbins had very limited information. It was certainly not about espionage. It was certainly not about treason. It was basically a way of discrediting those who had once for good reasons and for bad reasons, believed that their political values drove them into the ranks of communism. And therefore, what those who were called to testify dreaded was the act of humiliation that entailed being an informer. Robyn's name seven names. He felt that he had no choice if he was to demonstrate his degree of cooperativeness, if he was to demonstrate his own distance from the Communist Party that he had he had quit in 1947, six years earlier. This was the painful, dreadful, dreaded dilemma.

Speaker That was faced by those in 1953, and it was only a few years later that it was possible not to name names and get away with it, there were certain ways in which certain witnesses could get out of it, depending on the kind of lawyer that they had, depending on certain almost legalistic ways. But for somebody like Robbins', there really was no alternative if he wanted any sort of career whatsoever. And therefore, the the heart the significance of his testimony did not really have anything to do with knowledge that he could provide for purposes of enabling the U.S. Congress to enact legislation, which is the ostensible reason that there are such committees. The only purpose really was in some ways to impugn the integrity of those who had the misfortune of being subpoenaed.

Speaker And then what happened to those people?

Speaker I don't know, I don't mean oh, in general, not not not the seven whom he named. Hmmm, that's going to be a long that may be too long, and I'll try to make it very brief, OK, sure, of course.

Speaker For example, even said the word.

Speaker All right, OK. Yes, the for those who were named by witnesses, by cooperative witnesses before the House Committee on un-American Activities, the consequences could range from themselves being called to testify to their own careers, being placed in jeopardy by the simple fact of their being named. Some could escape by various means, for example, testifying either to certain journalists or to certain lawyers or to the Screen Actors Guild, for example, whose president at one time was Ronald Reagan that they themselves had been falsely named or that they themselves had long left the Communist Party, or that they themselves had all sorts of evidence to support their fervent opposition to communism.

Speaker It's very, very difficult to generalize about what happens to those who had been blacklisted, those who had lost their jobs because they had been named by a cooperative witness before KUAC. To give one example, Zero Mostel, for example, after he was named Masel, basically had no further career, immediate career in in the movie industry. Mostel actually became a painter before he makes his way back to the top, starting an off off Broadway and then off Broadway. And then finally, interestingly enough, with Jerome Robbins in a funny thing, happened on the way to the forum, which Robbins directs in 1961, and then with Fiddler on the Roof, which was the climax of Zero Mostel career, again directed by Jerome Robbins in 1964. So in an odd way, the blacklist hovers over Jerome Robbins, his career, both in terms of the shadow that is inflicted by the mere act of naming names and the degree to which even those who are blacklisted, if they were very lucky, were able to come back sometimes under the tutelage and inspired by the artistic achievements of Jerome Robbins himself.

Speaker But for some people I know, it's hard to general. Yes, but just taking the dark view here for sure. For some people, this had. Such serious consequences, I mean, Mustoe was a towering talent, and so he was able eventually to recover. Yes, but this was not always the case. Yes, correct.

Speaker That is correct. Yes. The the consequences of the. Blacklist, the consequences of being named by a cooperative witness before KUAC in particular, were often severe.

Speaker In extreme cases, there could be suicide, which was the case of Philip Loeb, who was a television actor most famous for appearing on The Goldbergs. Certainly the destruction of career, sometimes for more than a decade, the destruction of marriages, the destruction of family life, the extraordinary difficulty of getting a job of any sort. Some fled to Mexico, to Greece, to England, to France, not knowing if they would ever be able to work again. This was especially difficult, of course, for actors and actresses, a bit easier for screenwriters. Again, the the penalties, the consequences were often very unevenly distributed. But it's fair to say that the consequences overall were truly terrible. And this was a kind of price that Americans inflicted upon themselves, not by any outside forces, but simply a desire to purge the community of those who had aroused such suspicion out of their communist past and were now being held accountable when the rules and the regulations and the political taste had suddenly changed.

Speaker Jerry said at the end of his testimony, I feel I did the right thing is. Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Speaker The question of whether Jerome Robbins or anyone else does the right thing as a citizen who was presumably responsible for cooperating with legitimate congressional investigations and for constitutionally sanctioned congressional committees is a question which is very, very difficult to answer.

Speaker In retrospect, the motives vary considerably. The circumstances, of course, vary from one person to another. It's fair to say that everybody paid a price. It might have been a psychological price. It might have been an economic price. It might have been a familial, marital, interpersonal price, so to speak. And for those who never have to face that terrifying choice of everything that one has worked for, for all the talent that one has cultivated, that might be stripped from you in a few minutes is something that it seems to me an historian ought to be very, very reluctant to judge.

Speaker Um.

Speaker What was the public's attitude about the hearings? I mean, mainstream America.

Speaker Yeah. Historians speak of the red scare of the 1950s, we often emphasize the degree to which anticommunism had pervaded American society. There is no question that the opposition to communism, the fear of communism, certainly the fear of the Soviet Union as the chief manifestation of international communism was in general a very, very powerful one. There is no real evidence that there was widespread public opposition to the violation of constitutional rights that the congressional committees inflicted in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It's also fair to say that there was no tremendous popular enthusiasm either. This is something that Americans generally shied away from. There were no major protests. There were no major manifestations, demonstrations, marches in favor of what the committees were doing or in fact, opposed to what they were doing. But the remarkable thing is without in any way lessening the horrific cost that was inflicted by the Red Scare, the remarkable thing is that the there was a kind of resilience that a kind of oscillation that by the early 1960s, possibly even a little bit earlier, had suggested that Americans realized something had gone wrong.

Speaker There was something, in fact, to be ashamed of, and that the blacklist was something in which there were mostly victims with no particular gain except a kind of disgrace to American democratic ideals. I don't want to in any way minimize what was terrible about what happened to Jerome Robbins and many, many others. But it was as though Americans suddenly had second thoughts within a decade of that, and that realized that something clearly had been shameful about the ways in which congressional committees had behaved.

Speaker Um.

Speaker I skipped around. Was there an impact on the performing arts in.

Speaker The anti-communist favorites of the 1950s produced. A certain kind of limitation on artistic expression that. Again, varied from period to period within the 1950s and even later, certainly varied within the arts. You could certainly say with a degree of confidence that.

Speaker Fewer works were produced. That might have widened and variegated. The arts in America, in that period, those who are on the left felt in various ways muzzled or had to go into a kind of subterfuge, often had to go into very take not very apolitical stances during that period in ways that you might say lessened the opportunity to give Americans as audiences to encounter challenging and difficult works. There were certain ways by which the arts sought to address that. Arthur Miller perhaps being the most famous case in a play like The Crucible. You might say that On the Waterfront, directed by Elia Kazan, dealing with the whole question of informing is central to any understanding of that period, although it takes a position, oddly enough, in favor of informing, although not within a strictly speaking political or Left-Wing framework. One never knows, of course, to what extent works, don't get produced, don't get creative, don't reach their audiences out of a kind of self-censorship that artists themselves feel because of the political climate they have to impose upon themselves.

Speaker But I think it's fair to speculate that American society lost something by the recognition by some of its most creative figures that there were things that they had better left be left unsaid and that there were ways by which they prevent they felt constrained in reaching audiences that deserve to confront what they might have said.

Speaker Given that Jerry was subpoenaed by what you called a legitimate government.

Speaker Yeah. Yes.

Speaker Do you think that the people who condemned him for what he did are justified in their beliefs and what.

Speaker Those who criticized Jerome Robbins for naming names. Did so, as I understand it. Based on an ethical revulsion against the act of informing, based certainly on the degree to which the seven people whom Jerome Robbins named, in effect became victims over which they had no control. And in that sense, at the very least, one could say that by his testimony, Robbins harmed seven people and those who were close to those seven people in ways that could never fully really be repaired, given the losses that presumably were inflicted as a result of that testimony. Whether criticism of Robins is therefore justified. When those who criticize him may not have faced the same kind of dilemma or may not have been themselves willing to say to pay the high price of self-destruction of their own careers, of their own lives, had they been put in Jerome Robbins, his own shoes is, it seems to me, the insoluble moral dilemma that you ask in a sense, still leaves with us today and makes it very, very difficult to offer a kind of retrospective judgment. My own sense is that no one who has not been through what robbins' against his own will. Went through. Can sit in easy judgment on that decision and the degree to which only a small handful of people ever defied the committee, knowing that there would be terrible consequences to their own lives suggests that the problem here is not an individual's weakness or even necessarily an individual's cowardice, but a systematic problem which Robbins and others like him did not create, but of which in all sorts of ways they have to be sympathized with without in any way denying that they obviously did harm to others by their extraordinarily, excruciatingly difficult, difficult choices.

Speaker There were I don't know the chronology, but there were people who, like Miller was later.

Speaker Yeah, right. Helmond and others who refused to testify. They didn't go to. Yeah, terrible happened to them.

Speaker So, yes, yes, the. The dilemma that the historian faces, that the moralist faces that the citizen faces is to imagine what would have happened had Robbins' refused to testify. The two most striking cases are that of playwrights Arthur Miller and Lillian Hellman. Miller has the benefit of testifying three years later when anticommunism in the form that it was expressed by UEC was already losing some of its momentum and some of its power. So Miller benefits somewhat by the degree to which forces were already moving in a somewhat different direction, recognizing that the committee, such as UEC, needed to have a little bit shorter of a leash in terms of what they were doing. And secondly, Miller benefits from the degree to which he was able, as the leading playwright in the United States, probably to be reasonably confident that in a Cold War in which there is a cultural component, the United States is not going to jail. A figure of such international prominence as the author of Death of a Salesman. Lillian Hellman is often cited as the other important case of somebody who defied who she testified in 1952, one year before Jerome Robbins did, Hellman benefits from the fact that she issues a statement. Through her lawyer, that makes a general. Claim. In favor of conscience. Makes a general claim against the problem of informing, but in fact, when she is under oath, Lillian Hellman takes the Fifth Amendment in declining to testify with regard to names that she was asked to name Helmond, benefits from the cleverness of her public statement, giving certain people, certain citizens the impression that she had defied the committee, which are actual testimony, in fact, belies lies, benefits. I think it's fair to say also by her gender in that, again, an all male kuac is less likely to want to put in jail for contempt of Congress and not only a famous playwright, but a woman as well.

Speaker Didn't help a lot of Americans now, but she didn't testify. Yeah, different crime. Yeah. And actually, this just just, um, I'm not leaving.

Speaker Yeah, go ahead.

Speaker No, I mean, the. I'm not sure that you brought out the. The option of taking the Fifth Amendment as a. I mean, it in itself involved a certain capitulation. But it was an option that hundreds and hundreds of people took for, yes, until they were prevented from doing so, in some cases I do it.

Speaker OK, yeah, the question of the Fifth Amendment is a tricky one because it's very language presumably guarantees the right not to testify against oneself, but offers no protection if asked to testify about others. There were a number of technical issues and legalistic issues which Lillian Hellman, in fact benefited from in the sense that if you were unwilling to testify about yourself as was guaranteed, then you could not be required to testify about others. So a lot depended on what you were willing to say as a way of avoiding having to say things that you did not wish to say. The Fifth Amendment only applies, according to its language, to criminal trials. And of course, you sought to benefit, sought to who sought to manipulate those who came before it as witnesses by saying this is not a criminal trial. You are not accused of any crime as such. What would be wrong with your testifying? And the Fifth Amendment was posed another kind of danger for those who felt that they had to take it, which is to say anybody saying I refuse to testify on the grounds that it may incriminate me seems to be looks like could be seen as somebody who was guilty of something. And that was the other terrible difficulty that those seeking to take the Fifth Amendment would face so that even if one invoked a constitutional. So-called privilege, it's really a right, not a privilege. If you invoked that right, you could still be deprived of your job because you were not cooperating fully.

Speaker OK, um, I think we're ready to move on.

Speaker Is before we do, is there anything else that you would like to say about. 50 Kuzak black people who are.

Speaker Yeah, let me just say one other little thing, I think one of the striking features of the culture of the Cold War in which Jerome Robbins. Was compelled to be ensnared, is that he was not a particularly political person. What ensnared him was basically that he by 1953 was famous, he had nothing to spill in terms of political beans, nothing about espionage, nothing about treason. And one of the shameful features of that era was that fame itself, success itself, artistic talent itself was enough to arouse the suspicion and interest of the House Committee of un-American Activities. And Robbins was innocent in the sense that he was not really motivated in his life by any acute political consciousness, even when he was a member of the so-called Communist Political Association from the perspective of the early 21st century. There is something impressive, even dazzling, about the Broadway of the 1950s, it was close to the last decade in which Broadway had a kind of central city, a kind of integral role in American popular taste in the American mass arts. Robbins is a key figure in that. And what is striking about, it seems to me, could be maybe put in two directions. One of them is that Broadway is still looking in some ways behind its back at the Europe of the light opera of the operetta, even perhaps of the opera, so that the Broadway of the 1950s characterized, for example, let's say, by guys and dolls, by my fair lady, by Candied and by Robins works preeminently West Side Story and Gypsy. Is that it partakes something of the musical sophistication and the lyrical ingenuity and cleverness that we associate with supreme works that could be associated with high culture and even with Europe.

Speaker Sure, you can just repeat the same thing about Gypsy, because Gypsy, I think, was what might have been fifty nine.

Speaker Yeah. Was it. Yes, it was. OK, don't worry. I wasn't sure.

Speaker Yes. 59. So that the Broadway of the 1950s, produced by people themselves of considerable musical knowledge, awareness and acuity, looks much more like what we would often call high culture than it does than what we would think of as popular culture, particularly since the 1950s, is the era that sees the emergence of rock and roll. So in that sense, one could say that the Broadway of the 1950s is the kind of apogee of a genre that is going to begin losing out in its popularity, in its appeal to more vernacular forms of popular musical entertainment, beginning, let's say, particularly with rock and roll that emerges in the 1950s. So on the one hand, you could say that the Broadway musical is something that looks more like European high culture than it does to what is to become of American popular culture. On the other hand, one doesn't quite know where to place the Broadway musical in relation, let's say, to other arts. If you compare it, for example, to the films of the 1950s, one could say that Broadway has about a kind of aura that allows you to say certain things that were less likely to be said in Hollywood, which had to reach a larger audience because Broadway is by definition urban and New York and ethnically very much accentuated by Jews as members of the audience as well as its creators. It meant that there was often a liberal or even a political kick to Broadway that was less likely to be the case in Hollywood. West Side Story is the supreme instance of that in the degree to which it deals with prejudice, the degree to which it deals with the dangers of urban violence, the way it deals with, let's say, the failures of the melting pot, it allowed a critical stance that was less likely to be found in Hollywood, which had to appeal to a much, much wider audience, including much, much more conservative audiences in the heartland. And therefore, the Broadway of the 1950s is, on the one hand, technically and formerly highly sophisticated, a kind of culmination of all that had happened in the previous decades, while at the same time having a greater political latitude than would be the case of a more popular art such as the film and certainly a much more regulated and censored form of entertainment, which was reflected on television.

Speaker Something is something that a lot of people don't know is that. On the town was the first that's, of course, in the 40s was the first. Broadway musical, maybe play, I don't know, but certainly a musical that had an interracial.

Speaker Yes, in the 50s, you know, this jazz where there was an interracial duet.

Speaker In those days, how would that have been perceived by the audience?

Speaker OK. And when you say interracial, you mean that a white person dancing together.

Speaker OK, we're not talking about Showboat, which has an interracial cast, but a divided cast.

Speaker That's right. Now, these are people.

Speaker Yeah, OK. Right. Right. And we're dancing together.

Speaker Now, this was on the town, on the town, on stage and all this jazz and dance ballet.

Speaker Yeah, and this is going to be a tougher one. The degree to which on the town included an interracial cast, that is whites and blacks dancing together on the stage. And that Opus Dei opus jazz, excuse me, and that Opus Jazz did something very similar in the world of ballet, marked a kind of transition and may well have accelerated a far greater degree of racial tolerance that had been correct than had been characterized in the earlier decade. The year that On the Town opens on Broadway is the year that the single most important work on interrelation, indirect racial relations in America in the 20th century is published, which is Gunnar Myrtle's An American Dilemma, that work, written primarily by a Swedish sociologist under a grant by the Carnegie Co-op, the Carnegie Corporation. Basically says that Americans have to confront the discrepancy between democratic ideals and racist practices some years on the town and on the town is already showing the possibilities that that's hypocrisy. That inconsistency is something that needs to be repudiated there. The U.S. Army is basically still segregated in 1944. It is not to be fully desegregated as an act of policy for another four years. Major League Baseball is not to be desegregated until 1947. Robbins is already able to demonstrate out of his convictions, out of his values, the importance of understanding that the war against the axis, the war against Nazi ideology, has to have a component at home that includes a greater degree of racial equality than Americans were accustomed to before that.

Speaker You said it already. That story was ahead of it. Mm hmm.

Speaker You know, West Side Story, which premiered on Broadway in September 1957, is ahead of its time in all sorts of fascinating ways. The most important way, I believe, is the attentiveness that it gives to ethnic difference. The 1950s, when West Side Story premieres, is a decade of a considerable degree of claims of national homogeneity. We're all together and the struggle against communism. We're all together in the effort to promote democratic values, which meant, in effect, a kind of hegemony of whites and and of Protestants. And what West Side Story does is show the degree to which that ideal was violated by reality, that the melting pot did not in any way burn away tension, rivalry, even violence, and that Americans knew Americans who had come from Puerto Rico were facing difficulties that could not merely be papered away by the ideology of Cold War unity. And what West Side Story prefigures is the heightened consciousness of racial and ethnic difference that is to emerge in the 1960s, beginning with the civil rights movement extending into the black power movement, extending into the degree to which so-called white ethnics also become become conscious of their own and ancestral distinctiveness. And West Side Story is way ahead of the curve. Looks anomalous in comparison to what else is going on in the 1950s in its. Exposure, really, of the degree to which ethnicity immigration remained, issues that had not been resolved in American history, the second way in which it's ahead of its time is what was so shocking for those privileged to have seen West Side Story when it opens in 1957. And that is the nakedness of violence. American homogeneity was supposed to be based on persuasion, supposed to be based on the view that everybody wants to be an American because of the superiority of its institutions and its view of the values of this nation. And what West Side Story reveals is the degree to which violence is something which is not going to be ignored, cannot be denied as something which is central to the American experience. And what happens in the 1960s, of course, is that violence erupts most appallingly, perhaps at the beginning, with the degree to which white Southerners were seeking to maintain segregation through violence. Then, of course, the war in Vietnam, then the urban riots in black ghettos that occur beginning with Watts in 1965, the political assassinations that had occurred, whether it be John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, Robert Kennedy for shocking assaults, assassinations within a period of five years. And Americans are therefore unable in the 1960s to deny the relevance of violence in understanding our heritage, which West Side Story puts on stage in an era of seeming placidity and tranquility.

Speaker Go ahead.

Speaker Sure, go ahead. You said what makes him go ahead? OK, yeah, OK.

Speaker You know, Ballies, USA, representing the United States, yeah, and the World's World's Fair, Russell, 68, 58.

Speaker First, it was a State Department. Yeah, right. Uh oh. I think you've already just done this. Tell us about the period. It was fifty eight through sixty one. That is USA representing the United States all over Europe and NASA. And I'm wondering if there's anything that you can tell us about that period of time that would set the stage for that.

Speaker Yes. The period of the late 1950s, beginning of the 1960s is a marvelous moment for the cultural historian because. Really, what what happens at that moment as a result of agreements signed between the Soviet Union and the United States, is that the Cold War is going to take on a cultural dimension. It's not going to be missiles facing down one another. It's not going to be strategic bombers facing down one another, or at least not only those things, but that an agreement as a thaw begins to emerge in the Soviet Union under Nikita Khrushchev as Eisenhower seeks to find ways to allow his own legacy to be one of peaceful negotiations rather than staring down the enemy, agreements are made that allow the battle to occur on cultural terms. The Soviets are going to provide their fabulous violinists and pianists. The Soviets are going to provide their fabulous ballet companies. The Americans are going to be responding not only with their own classical musicians, but also with art exhibits by with jazz musicians and including Ballet USA, in which Jerome Robbins was so intimately and so integrally involved, and particularly for Western Europeans. This is a tremendous revelation in among many that occur in indicating now that the indigenous arts in the United States have nothing to be ashamed of in terms of vitality, in terms of dynamism, in terms of taking a somewhat divergent path from the course of the arts in Europe and the degree to which Robbins, a native born native, trained, non imperial Russian ballet, Roo's trained choreographer, is able to demonstrate something of the excitement of dance, including ballet to international audiences. If something which makes Robbins a man who was victimized in 1953 for having at one time been a communist, becomes an important cultural champion of an anti-communist stance using culture in subtle but unmistakable ways to promote the notion that the Americans are not simply vulgar because the Americans are not simply primitives. The Americans have thought tastefully and successfully about how to rejuvenate and to modernize the traditions that they have inherited from Europe.

Speaker What would it have meant to somebody with a background that you described to be invited to dance in the Kennedy White House opening dance at Madison Square Garden with his company? He didn't personally, yes, company. Yes, White House activists were voting for the president's birthday day, you know.

Speaker The story, Jerome Robbins, is a story of an amazing trajectory from obscurity. To an extraordinary degree of fame that could not have been in any way anticipated by his parents, could not in any way have imagined had been imagined by the young Jerome Robbins, that offers a kind of gratifying testimony. To the degree to which the promise of opportunity that America seemed to offer to immigrants and their children could, with the right degree of talent and the right degree of luck and the right degree of timing could in fact be honored. And the period after the Second World War. Is one in which because of unprecedented prosperity. And because of the expansion of arts institutions and cultural life, despite the shadow of anticommunism in the early part of that era, means then that all sorts of people who would have been ignored or denied earlier have the chance really to make it in America. And Robbins is a as a wonderful instance.

Speaker Of something along those lines that could be achieved in terms of even having his company dance at the Kennedy Center dance and under the auspices of a and the Kennedy era of a benign benign toward the arts White House, the degree to which things that were inconceivable, certainly to his grandparents in czarist Russia now become something that have a kind of only America to tinge to it. That is, it seems to me, central to the story of not only careers, open to talents, but the degree to which the rewards now are well in excess of what anybody could have dared hope for earlier.

Speaker I'm going to ask you to just go back to the point where you got to the Kennedy young, there was wrong. There was no Kennedy Center.

Speaker No, not not there. Not not in the Kennedy White House. But but he went to the Kennedy Center. Only the Kennedy White House, OK? The degree to which. Robbins's dance company could get to the White House under President John F. Kennedy was something that could not easily have been imagined when he was young, certainly could not have been imagined by his parents, certainly could not have been foreseen in Tsarist Russia by his own grandparents.

Speaker Yeah, thanks. I'm now in the 60s, he became very interested in experimenting with theater forms and he had what was called the American Theater Lab, which was an experimental group that was funded by the. In which he was trying to see if he could make theater pieces the way he made ballets without having to actually perform at the end, it was a lab. I'm not going to ask, but if you could just sort of set the scene in the 60s. To so we can understand why his spirit of experimentation and of trying to break through old forms really was part of that era.

Speaker I don't know if I can do that yet. I know he directed a play that I actually saw, which was Arthur Capezio Dad, poor dad.

Speaker Well, in terms of the 60s of artistic experimentation, even cultural tour was going on in the 60s. Mm hmm. Mm hmm.

Speaker That created a kind of revolutionary atmosphere. And a sort of anti-establishment and fostered experimental attitudes by a whole raft of theater directors.

Speaker OK, yes. The Kennedy White House. Where Jerome Robbins is company performed. Encouraged a kind of openness and a kind of experimentation that would not have been true of the Eisenhower White House began in a perhaps loose and inexplicitly way to open up possibilities of experimentation and creativity that get unleashed far, far beyond the wildest imaginations of the those involved in the early 1960s.

Speaker The decade is one, of course, of tremendous violence, tremendous upheaval, tremendous divisiveness. It is also an era that opened up possibilities for those in the artistic community to confront the unanticipated and often tumultuous changes that were occurring in American society, whether it be the openness with regard to what could be expressed both with language and with sexuality, with what could be expressed in terms of political opposition and hostility, the degree to which even one could be remarkably anti patriotic in a conventional way, in ways that could not have been foreseen a decade earlier, enable those who were themselves receptive to artistic transformation. And no one was more open to figuring out how to breathe life, breathe life into older forms. And Jerome Robbins would enable him and his theatrical, as well as in his choreographic role as choreographic experimentation to do things that would be less likely to be the case the decade earlier. The background, of course, is one in all sorts of ways of tremendous. Hatreds, animosities, the depths of emotions that produce the greatest divisiveness since the American Civil War even greater than during the Great Depression, but it is one that opens up a kind of chasm within which all sorts of possibilities for good or for ill can work themselves out. And Jerome Robbins is very much in his theatre work in particular, is very much part of that kind of openness and that kind of receptive receptivity to novelty.

Speaker We talked a little bit for about four long years, and I know that you're very familiar with. You talked about its importance to Jerry, but, um, you know, here's a piece coming from four sons of Jewish immigrants. It's about a bunch of old Jews in Russia. Why does this.

Speaker Jerome Robbins is. Intimately associated in his reputation. With having directed and choreographed Fiddler on the Roof. It is a work which when it opened in 1964 until it closed on Broadway in 1972, was something that again could not easily have been foreseen in the directness, the explicitness with which it sought to address the fate of a particular community. In this case, in effect, Jerome Robbins, his own ancestors, his own something in terms of his own past. There's no easy way of accounting for why Fiddler on the Roof, in ways that nobody could have imagined, was to reach not simply Jewish audiences, but non Jewish audiences throughout the world, even in communities where the Jewish community, where the Jewish minority was often very, very small or virtually non-existent. There it's only. Speculative in terms of why it had the reach that it did, part of it may well stem from the degree to which, as Robbins himself understood, this is a musical about the fate of tradition. And the opening song, which Robbins insisted had to set the theme for the rest of the musical is about what goes wrong with a family, what goes wrong with a community when the forces of modernity break through and destroy the stability and the assurance of the past. And it's fair to say that every society on Earth in the 20th century has undergone something of what happens to the Eastern European Jews who are the subject of Fiddler on the Roof in the early 20th century, and therefore, whether it is Japan, whether it is B, whether it is Latin America, whether it is South Africa, there is virtually no place on Earth that has been immune to the often cataclysmic historical changes that have taken place. And the fact that this is a musical which treats that subject with such sympathy and with such poignancy and occasionally with humor, is one that probably enables Fiddler on the Roof to reach out far, far beyond its own seemingly parochial concerns with the immediate fate of Eastern European Jews and makes it into a kind of universal subject in which its protagonist, Tavia, is as baffled as so many of the rest of us are by how to deal with a world that he did not grow up in and yet which he has to somehow learn how to adapt to.

Speaker The significance of Jerome Robbins could be stated very simply. Almost no one else has managed at such a high level of artistic achievement to work within the world of classical ballet. And the work of popular entertainment. It is difficult to think of virtually anyone else. Certainly not in the field of dance. Who has done so much in two separate fields? To enliven those arts, to reimagine what their possibilities might be and to do so in ways that are likely to be indelible, the mystery of Jerome Robbins, it seems to me, has to do with whether those two realms of ballet and the the musical. Whether each of those genres somehow. Encouraged his work in the other, whether there's a connection between the two that basically energized him in ways that were symbiotically dynamic. The significance is clearly that he accomplished it in two fields. The challenge for anybody thinking about his career is to what extent did that career succeed to the extraordinary degree that it did, precisely because in America at his time, he was able to do both.

Speaker You said something in. In our conference about Jerry Bridges high in popular culture with a distinctly American.

Speaker That's hard, huh?

Speaker Jerome Robbins is able to do what he does. In a distinctly American accent, because he refuses to be bound. By the rigors of the past. In the formal limitations that that passed might impose, he's not seeking to perpetuate a tradition. He's seeking to enhance it, and there's something American about the. Faith, that novelty is more important than stability, something American about believing that making something new is better simply than keeping it alive. It's very hard to always specify what is American about any work of art we know, of course, certain things are American. Let's say jazz would be one such thing. Even the Broadway musical, properly defined is American. But one could say that the sense, in other words, that the arts are something to be achieved in every generation and life breathed into them in ways that as though nobody else had done it before. Reflects the kind of American assurance and an American confidence and an American faith in possibility that is seen including heavily by foreigners, as something which is very, very much part of our own national traditions. And that, it seems to me, would justify the claim that Robbins's work has a distinctly American accent.

Steven Whitfield
Interview Date:
2007-09-11
Runtime:
1:41:37
Keywords:
None
American Archive of Public Broadcasting GUID:
cpb-aacip-504-xk84j0bt7f, cpb-aacip-504-z02z31pd8c, cpb-aacip-504-x639z9173p
MLA CITATIONS:
"Steven Whitfield, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). 11 Sep. 2007, https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1024
APA CITATIONS:
(2007, September 11). Steven Whitfield, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About. [Video]. American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1024
CHICAGO CITATIONS:
"Steven Whitfield, Jerome Robbins: Something to Dance About." American Masters Digital Archive (WNET). September 11, 2007. Accessed January 19, 2022 https://www.pbs.org/wnet/americanmasters/archive/interviews/1024

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