If Seattle is the second most literate city in the United States—as a University of Wisconsin researcher reported in 2004—it’s no surprise that literary events are abundant fixtures in the Puget Sound Region. This weekend, book enthusiasts can enjoy a different spin on the ubiquitous author reading/signing, when Town Hall Seattle presents three dramatic readings of classic Isaac Bashevis Singer short stories.
Last year’s centennial celebration of Singer’s birth saw The Library of America publication of a three-volume series of his prodigious short fiction titled Collected Stories. Through 2004 and the early part of this year, the National Endowment for the Humanities funded a year of library programs and exhibits across the country marking the anniversary, but Seattle was not part of the itinerary.
Town Hall’s “Short Stories Live!” is not officially part of the Singer centenary events, but is nonetheless, apropos to the moment. ACT Theatre Artistic Director Kurt Beattie directs a trio of actors and reads “The Mirror.” Local actress Julie Briskman presents “Taibele and her Demon,” and Jean Sherrard rounds out the program with “The Cafeteria.”
Town Hall producer David Brewster approached Beattie with the idea of a Singer event, and the two worked in concert to select the program. Beattie is a longtime Singer enthusiast, hailing the Jewish immigrant as one of the greatest storytellers of the 20th century.
Beattie has read and reread almost all of Singer’s works and welcomed the excuse to again delve into the author’s stories in preparation for this event. With a number of languages to his credit, Beattie’s only regret in regards to Singer is that he must read the work in translation and not in the author’s native Yiddish.
In 1935, Singer immigrated to New York, following his elder brother and creative mentor Israel Joshua Singer. I.B. Singer spoke virtually no English upon his arrival. Leaving behind a rising literary stardom in Warsaw, Singer began his American career by penning the first of many articles for the New York-based Yiddish daily Forverts (Daily Forward).
In 1943, Singer’s fiction writing career was reborn when he returned to his Yiddish roots for inspiration, language, setting and character. Singer intimately involved himself in the English translations of his writings, collaborating with notables like Saul Bellow. Singer was rewarded for a profound, prolific body of work in what many considered a dying language when he received the 1978 Nobel Prize for Literature.
“The Mirror” is first among equals for Beattie, and his enthusiasm for a public reading of this fantastical old world tale is abundant. Beattie describes the brief, disturbing portrait of a minor devil and his would-be mistress as a “sort of children’s tale for an adult that’s instructive but at the same time full of ambiguity.” He also sees “The Mirror” as vintage Singer.
“It has the moral investigation that’s going on almost all the time with Singer, and yet it’s in the context of folklore and Jewish life both in Europe and New York and Miami and elsewhere. Singer has this extraordinary ability to evoke the astonishing netherworld that awaits all of us, just around the corner.”
There have been stage and screen adaptations of Singer’s work throughout the years, most notably and controversially Barbara Streisand’s film version of “Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,” which was denounced by the author.
Singer collaborated on a stage version of “Taibele and Her Demon” in the late 1970s that featured F. Murray Abraham at the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. According to Beattie, Singer uses superstition in “Taibele and Her Demon” to present a relationship that may or may not be true between two people.
Beattie and Brewster gravitated to “The Cafeteria” in an effort to include what Beattie describes as a “New World” story. Again in this selection, the New York narrator’s reality is fluid, with soft edges smudged into alternate possibilities.
This tribute to Singer remains true to the stories as stories with an ever-present authorial voice. Beattie, Briskman and Sherrard rehearsed together and critiqued one another’s work, but the performance will remain a grouping of readings without overt theatrical inflection. Though Beattie could envision a Book It-style performance of Singer’s work with full staging and textual adaptation, he was looking for something more closely attuned to the narrative artistry of the original.
“The idea in this evening is to support the magic of these stories as a single utterance in the ear and the sense of a single storyteller telling you, personally, this journey,” remarks Beattie.
“Singer has the charm—the gift—to simply begin with ‘let me tell you a story’ and keep you there. Short story writers are closest to that storyteller around the fire or in the desert or wherever people have been to listen to stories. These storytellers made sense of our lives—of us—and gave voice and shape to our fears and desires.”