For Jewish writers in the Soviet Union, the early decades of the revolution were the best of times—until they were suddenly the worst. Freed—at least in theory—from hundreds of years of ancestral prejudice, and the suffocating strictures of the Rabbinate, joyfully secular poets, playwrights, and novelists created a vast and vital literature in Yiddish. And Stalin helped by supporting institutions dedicated to fostering such “national” art—as long as the work was Kosher communist, of course.
But like other revolutionary flowerings before it, the summertime of Yiddish literature couldn’t last—and when the end came, it took some of its Stalinist true believers by surprise. Nathan Englander’s The Twenty-Seventh Man—now playing the Public in a production directed by Barry Edelstein—presents a semi-fictionalized account of one of Stalin’s lesser-known atrocities: the round-up and summary execution of many of Russia’s finest Yiddish writers only months before Stalin himself finally died.
In a secret-police cell, four great authors are rudely assembled for questioning and worse—well, three of them are great, and one seems to be entirely unknown, perhaps even the victim of a deadly bureaucratic error. Vasily Korinsky (Chip Zien), his Lenin Prize prominently displayed on his lapel, is a proud Party poet, who has always tempered his linguistic brilliance with political pieties (and now can’t believe he’s in the slammer). Moishe Bretzky (Daniel Oreskes) is a bear-like enthusiast for life, whose writing has always stayed clear of ideological minefields by hymning the pleasures of the flesh. Yevgeny Zunser (Ron Rifkin), a gentle genius at the end of a celebrated career, serves as paterfamilias for the impromptu salon. Englander’s rendering of the colleagues’ garlicky jibes, briny put-downs, and occasional astringent admissions of mutual admiration is one of the plays great strengths. He succeeds in evoking a literary scene that was lively precisely because it was ruthlessly, cheerfully, competitive—and the three actors revel zestfully in the Yiddishkeit.
The odd one out in this august company is Pinchas Pelovits (Noah Robbins), a young scribbler of immense industry and zeal, who leads an ascetic life entirely devoted to literature—and has never published a word. Denounced on the basis of one ambiguous hand-scrawled verse, he represents authorship in its purest impulse—never to escape prison, he will always have written only for the sake of writing. The neophyte’s near-religious passion for the art becomes a cue for the older writers (and Englander) to talk about the joys and compromises of a literary world that couldn’t have existed without the revolution, but was always at risk because of it.
Perhaps inevitably, because of our unreserved sympathy for these vivid, bristling characters, and our knowledge that stories like this never end well, The Twenty-Seventh Man can’t help becoming a bit of a melodrama. It’s a melodrama of a recognizable type: the Artist Destroyed By Totalitarianism plot (with its comforting byproduct, the reminder that circumstances are better now). And Englander and Edelstein do succumb to some of the familiar shorthand: brutish guards, summary onstage beatings, a climactic interrogation scene in which Korinsky is invited to compromise his dormant principles. (That these atrocities did happen, and may even have happened the way they’re staged, doesn’t, unfortunately, prevent them from being theatrical clichés.)
The script, which Englander adapted from his short story of the same title, never entirely escapes its origins as literary fiction, for both good and bad. It’s full of passionate, highly wrought speeches—Englander writes beautifully—that sometimes sound composed as much for the ears of posterity (or the eyes of a sensitive reader) as they are for the demands of dramatic necessity. His characters say the things, and make the tough decisions, we fervently hope artists in such hopeless circumstances would say and make. And they always have an exquisite metaphor within easy reach.
The heroic part of Englander’s play is the attempt to restore a deliberately effaced world of Jewish letters to life—its final image of the writers facing a firing squad is moving not just for its pathos, but for its eloquent evocation of a whole literary generation flourishing at the edge of destruction.