Tradition on Broadway

Given its urban American and Jewish heritage, one would not expect broadway musicals to show much sympathy for traditional communities.  But because this art form is generally popular and apolitical, some truth can often sneak in.  Consider two deservedly famous musicals, The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof.  Both present more-or-less traditional communities:  a small town in Iowa and a Jewish village in the Russian Empire, both around the turn of the twentieth century.  Interestingly, both are sometimes accused of presenting these communities in an idealized, nostalgic way.

On its face, this criticism is surely wrong for The Music Man.  Meredith Wilson seems to go out of his way to affirm all the negative stereotypes held by urban liberals about small-town Americans.  The people of River City are naive, stupid, provincial, hostile to outsiders, and maliciously gossipy toward each other.  The audience is more likely to sympathize and identify with con man Harold Hill.  The town does have an internal liberal critic, Marian the librarian, who for her efforts to make a higher culture available to the townsmen is accused of peddling “dirty books” like The Canterbury Tales.  Fiddler on the Roof, on the other hand, does present its subject community sympathetically.  The hero, Tevye, even gets to give an explanation of tradition’s general function as the musical opens.  (“Because of our traditions, each one of us knows who he is and what God expects him to do.”  I think this sums it up pretty well.)  However, the only traditions that matter to the story concern how marriages are decided.  A matchmaker proposes matches; the father of the bride must approve; no marriage outside the faith.  Each of Tevye’s three oldest daughters falls in love with a forbidden man and marries him, and the consequences are presented as either entirely good or negative only because of Tevye’s (presumably unreasonable) disapproval.  The implication is clear.  This tradition, and presumably many others like it, is stupid, and the daughters are right to disregard it.  Like The Music Man, Fiddler on the Roof embeds the modern, liberal sensibility in one of the characters.  This time it is Perchik, a former student and now socialist revolutionary who leaves Anatevka in Act 2 to go agitate the workers (taking one of Tevye’s daughters with him).

Having embraced so much of the liberal critique of tradition, why do liberals still feel threatened by these musicals?  Indeed, they are surely right to, because people who see them immediately want to live in such a community.  Despite surface agreement with liberalism’s critiques, the audience is still confronted by the immense success of these communities.  To modern eyes, River City doesn’t seem contemptible at all.  There is next to no crime, drugs, gang warfare, or illegitimacy; the town’s bad boy doesn’t do anything worse than harmless practical jokes and taking the mayor’s oldest girl out for ice cream.  Behind it all is a cultural confidence, a sense that the town’s ways are right and worth enforcing, that white Americans have not been allowed to feel for many decades.  Mock Mayor Shinn for his stupidity all you want, but do cities run by Marian-types have the same massive, undeniable success?  Here of course we come to the accusation that the musical is giving us a false, “idealized” picture.  But this is not true.  American small towns one hundred years ago simply were not hellish.  Wilson didn’t populate River City with opium dens, white slave traders, and constant rampaging lynch mobs not because he was too timid to show the truth, but because such a thing would have been so disconnected to reality that even urban liberals would have found it preposterous.  The point is worth making again:  the musical grants every accusation liberals of the time could credibly make against small town America, and the result is still very attractive.  The only way to maintain a “we’ve come a long way” attitude is to add new accusations that anyone at the time would have found ridiculous (e.g. the liberal presumption that white townsmen before the 1960’s did nothing but prod their tiny brains to think of new ways to torment negroes).  The success of Anatevka is even more impressive.  A way of life is being preserved despite great adversity, a way of life that ennobles the daily tasks of people in every station by bringing them in relation to the sacred.

The audience is presented with a paradox.  On the one hand, all these traditions and social conventions, considered individually, are wrong, stupid, and pointless.  They should all be discarded.  And yet, could one imagine River City or Anatevka continuing to exist with anything like the same character if they were all discarded?  After all, look at what happened to American culture once Marian and her ilk got their way.  Philistine social propriety has not been replaced by high culture, but by alienation and animality;  not by Chaucer and Balzac, but by promiscuity and meth.  And what happened to Russia when it was captured by a cabal of Perchiks?  Hell on Earth–far worse not only than a world made by the likes of Tevye, but even much worse than a world made by the anti-semites that appeared to be Tevye’s main threat.  (Fiddler on the Roof ends, ominously, with the harmless villagers of Anatevka expelled and mostly going to America, while Perchik is in prison in Siberia, foolishly left alive and in Russia to continue plotting his murderous revolution.)  Somehow, tradition can be wrong in every particular, and yet still be right overall.

Of course, I don’t believe that tradition really is wrong in every particular, or even most of them, and I’ve never liked the idea of tradition as stuff we do for reasons we don’t understand.  Nevertheless, the above is a good paradox to ponder if it leads some people to suspect that their criticisms of tradition are somehow missing the point.

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21 thoughts on “Tradition on Broadway

  1. See the movie “Heights” and do a review here if you like. Let me know. I’ll give you a quick hint:

    Blonde girl is engaged to Jewish guy, but Jewish guy is not really committed to Judaism. Glenn Close is blonde girl’s mom, she doesn’t really approve of the match but her objection is not strong. At end of movie, blonde girl is with a man she just met (not Jewish). They are on a roof, and man asks blonde girl, “what’s behind that door?” She says, “I don’t know, i never opened it.” he says “why not? let’s look” and he opens it and it’s a beautiful old church inside.

    The screenwriter apparently never got another gig since then. I can see why. I think when they were making the movie, they thought it was some hip movie about liberal hipsters in NYC. Only upon viewing it did they notice an extremely conservative message:

  2. Oh wow, the “What’s behind that door” scene is in the trailer above! There’s not just one but several conservative messages embedded in this movie. I might have even missed some. You’re going to be amazed that such a movie was made when you see the scene in the rabbi’s office, doing marriage counseling.

  3. I’m Jewish, liberal, and Fiddler on the Roof has been part of my cultural background since childhood. Not once have I, or anybody I know, felt “threatened” by it, other than occasionally being overwhelmed by its deployment in the service of schmaltziness at bar mitzvahs and weddings. Nor indeed has anyone ever seen it and wanted to live the life of a rural peasant. Or in other words, Jews may be prone to nostalgia for the traditions of the past like anyone else, but they tend not to be idiots, and thus know better than to think it represents an attractive and viable alternative to modernity.

    • I’m Jewish and I’ll take the village. Did you know that Rabbi Zalman, founder of Chabad, organized Russian Jews to fight for the Czar against Napoleon because he felt that the liberalism of Napoleon was a greater threat to Judaism than the pogroms in Russia.

      • The real problem with Judaism is that it has defined itself in racist terms since Roman times based on inheritance from the mother. This is in contradiction to the Torah. The Torah says that anyone who doesn’t keep the Sabbath should be cut off from his people. If Jews who didn’t keep the Sabbath were cut off from Judaism, then Judaism would be a good traditional religion instead of being a race containing a large number of nonreligious troublemakers.

  4. Hi a.morphous,

    That’s interesting, and I suppose I should have suspected this would be the normal liberal Jewish experience. Ironically, Fiddler on the Roof may be more prone to prompt illiberal thoughts among Gentiles than among Jews. We do, after all, “tend to be idiots”, and many of us are profoundly dissatisfied with modernity. Even if an alternative has serious drawbacks, if it has serious attractions as well, we’ll be interested.

    • Jews can be just as dissatisfied with modernity as anyone else. They just aren’t prone to thinking it can be undone, and their solutions tend to be more forward looking (not that any of those have been that great).

      A couple of these solutions did involve a return to the land: the zionist kibbutz movement, and the american post-hippie commune movement (not specifically jewish, but plenty of jews involved). In both cases (a) the model was specifically communal, so not really very traditionalist and (b) it didn’t really work out, because agricultural labor is not much fun so people with alternatives won’t stick with it.

      I don’t think most gentiles are idiots either; I would guess they are just as reluctant to actually live the life of a peasant farmer. Perhaps they are more prone to fantasize about it, which explains the country music industry.

      • Modernity can be undone. Or rather, it can fall apart (anything can fall apart, except God). Indeed, that’s just what modernity is doing to itself: destroying the tree upon which it grows, and that sustains it.

        Traditional culture, also known as moral culture, does not at all conflict with high technology. Indeed, the causality runs the other way: high technology is the fruit of traditional culture. So, there is no need for us to return to peasant agriculture in order to have a sane and healthy culture.

      • e model was specifically communal, so not really very traditionalist

        What makes you say that? I would say that is precisely what makes such arrangements traditional.

  5. I tend to agree with a.morphous that modernity can’t be undone in the sense that the social damage it has caused is permanent.

    It appears to be true that, under the aspect of eternity, anything can fall apart spontaneously or even destroy itself. But if we are concerned with the here and now, then “modernity” is a chronic disease without a cure.

    • Sure. But that’s just a way of saying that it is in the process of destroying itself, by destroying its host.

      But be all that as it may be, there is nothing that says that in order to have a traditional culture you have to be primitive.

      • There is also nothing that says that you *can* have a traditional culture which also somehow supports the demonic effectiveness of capitalism+science. I very much doubt it is possible and I don’t think there are any examples to point to.

        For example, this internet you are using is a product of the cold war, which you can trace back further to WWII, nationalism, and the rise of the nation state and the collapse of feudalism. All the predecessor technologies, from electricity to telegraphy to the computer, were the products of the intense competition of war and/or capitalism. How would a traditionalist society, where everybody has a fixed role and is comfortable with it, produce this level of creative energy?

        Or do you mean to simply have a traditionalist revolution (a questionable concept) and stop modernism in its tracks, so you can enjoy the technological benefits of what it has developed and stop it from developing any more?

      • A chronic disease may linger for a very long time without destroying its host – it makes life miserable for as long as that life lasts. An end comes to everything: in the meanwhile, we must suffer.

        Christians who see “modernity” as a spiritual calamity must bear the burden and cultivate the theological virtues.

      • a.morphous, you make a good point: dealing with technological change is indeed a challenge for any social order. But the stasis of absolute social fixity and the dissolution of all social forms do not exhaust our alternatives, thank Heaven. What’s needed is meta-stability: a set of social forms that can stably succeed at reproducing society in such a way as to promote true human flourisihing (and fend off aggressors of all types) while accomodating changes and challenges. Traditional societies met that criterion of ordered flexibility. That’s how they lasted long enough to become traditional.

        War and capitalism are not new sorts of challenges. They have been with us from the beginning. Traditional societies engaged in both, for thousands of years – not without mishap, of course, but stably. That stability is the only reason we have a civilization that knows its history.

      • On the one hand, technology seems not to be the issue. What’s notable about the villages in The Music Man and Fiddler on the Roof is not the level of technology, which is unremarkable for their surroundings. That’s certainly not what people get nostalgic about. On the other hand, people will argue that some livelihoods and economic arrangements promote traditional lifestyles better than others, and these things are ultimately determined by technology.

      • Kristor, meta-stability sounds nice but I’ll believe it when I see it. The one thing that is most destabilizing to any social order is technological change, from the stirrup that enabled feudalism to the printing press and cannon that put an end to it. Modernism is almost definitionally the period where technological change began to accelerate at an unprecedented rate, and if any meta-stable order emerges from it, I am pretty sure it will not be like any traditional society anywhere.

        I suppose I might believe in something like the scenario in Neal Stephenson’s /The Diamond Age/, where the world is so chaotic with newness that the only way to survive is to create little enclaves of traditional values — like people who affect the mores of Victorian England, or Mandarin China, take your pick. Those don’t seem authentically traditional to me, more like play-acting, but maybe you would feel differently.

      • “… where the world is so chaotic with newness that the only way to survive is to create little enclaves of traditional values …”

        That’s pretty much what the discourse in the orthosphere is about. We are indeed struggling to recreate little pockets of traditional society, mostly within our own families. But while we are feeling our way, and thus “faking it till we make it” – as with any skill one struggles to acquire; as, for that matter, with life in general – we are not engaged in a pretense. We mean it.

        So did the monks at Lindisfarne.

        If we are lucky, we will succeed at recreating some sort of meta-stable traditional society. If we are not, then, so far as we can see, it’s the end of civilization. That will be its own sort of meta-stability.

  6. On a similar note, one of the reasons for the popularity of Disneyland is the wholesomeness of Main Street USA. Based on Walt Disney’s hometown, it is safe, clean, neat, pleasing to the eye, and, except for the crowds, a pleasant place to be—just as most of America was until very recently (and some parts still are).

  7. In the film version of ‘Fiddler’ Tevye says, as he is being expelled form the village, that he hopes Perchik will succeed in “turning the world upside down”. He says this with a wry smile. This is practically the last line in the film. So in the end Teyve has completely rejected traditionalism and endorsed topsy-turvy moral inversion, specifically Bolshevism.

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