Review of Underworld Trilogy (god of vengeance, Motke Thief, The Dead Man) by Sholem Asch, trans. Caraid O’Brien

Jonathan L. Green

Under­world Tril­o­gy (god of vengeance, Motke Thief, The Dead Man) by Sholem Asch, trans­lat­ed by Caraid O’Brien. (White Goat Press, 2023.) 241 pages, $22.95

In the spring of 2021, Carnegie Hall broadcast on their website a radio version of Caraid O’Brien’s new translation of Sholem Asch’s The Dead Man as part of their “Voices of Hope” Festival. The festival’s stated purpose, to spotlight “[t]he life-affirming power of music and the arts during times of crisis,” was both appropriate for the moment and at humorous odds with Asch’s play. The timeliness could not be argued: in the midst of a brutal pandemic, a community gathers to reconcile with the dead. Asch’s 1922 play, written during the 1918-1920 Influenza pandemic, speaks directly to this mid-COVID 2021 translation. But Asch was writing on the heels of a strenuous aid trip to the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe during WWI, so taxing and disturbing that he suffered a nervous collapse upon his return to the U.S (166). The Dead Man (Der Toyter Mensch) is a horrific reflection of the reality he witnessed firsthand: not a demonstration of the “life-affirming power of […] the arts during times of crisis,” 1 1 “Voices of Hope: an Online Festival,” Carnegie Hall, accessed October 31, 2023, but in fact the opposite, affirming the presence of death in all things, death of the individual, death of the sanctified rite, death of the community. In O’Brien’s translation, neighbors in a fire-bombed shtetl fear for what remains of their lives as a dead man stalks them: “The dead come back! […] Dragging us with them into the naked grave. […] Will they let us live? […] The dead are coming after us” (232-33).

Timely, yes. And even more so in October, 2023. As I write, I am interrupted every few minutes by news notifications detailing the war in Gaza. In her introduction to the play (166), O’Brien quotes Asch’s own prescient words in a 1919 New York Times article, describing the horror he had witnessed on his aid trip to Eastern Europe:

Hundreds of thousands had to leave their homes within 25 hours. They had lived there hundreds of years, in one day and one night they were uprooted, not only the healthy, but the sick. The beds have to be carried out of the hospital with their sick occupants and when they died they had to be left on the road without burial... Those that got back found their property destroyed, stores entered, homes devastated. 2 2 “Says Jews starve in parts of Russia: Yiddish writer tells of finding dire destitution, especially in Lithuania,” New York Times, June 25, 1919, 8., as quoted by O’Brien.

As the characters in The Dead Man discuss the aid for their suffering that cannot reach them because it cannot pass the closed border (182), an elder of the village commands: “It has to stop. We have to put an end to this tragedy. We have to start living like human beings” (174). When it was first written, when it was first translated, and today, Asch’s work serves as a premonition of the signifiers and lasting effects of inhumanity, of cruelty, of hypocrisy, of violence.

Available for the first time in English, Asch’s The Dead Man (1922) is joined by earlier works god of vengeance (Got fun nekome, 1907, whose translated title appears in all lowercase in this volume) and Motke Thief (Motke Ganev, 1917) in a compilation that translator O’Brien has titled Underworld Trilogy—“Underworld” referring both to the lewd, illicit landscape of the pimps, thieves, and prostitutes who populate the earlier works, and the literal land of the dead (though not named so, perhaps a vision of Sheol) of the latter work. Though the grouping of the plays and title of the collection is O’Brien’s choice, not Asch’s, the juxtaposition of the works illuminates compelling parallels and contrasts.

In these lithe, exceptionally actable translations by O’Brien, Asch treats even his most reactive characters with a sense of reason and empathy. His Yankl Shapshovitsh, god of vengeance’s hypocritical Orthodox Jew who attempts to “kosherize” his family name after years of running a brothel by buying a Sefer Torah, displays endless layers of shame, yearning, ruthlessness, even love. Yankl is in this way a sort of response to Shakespeare’s Shylock: both men are in businesses not wholly biblically pure; both men are damagingly protective of their virginal daughters, to the point that they drive them away in the arms of undesirable suitors; both, at the end of their tales, lose their Jewishness because of their own foibles. But though many contemporary readings of Shylock afford him a sense of depth, Shylock is still Venice’s villain: to be defeated is his dramatic purpose.

In Asch’s 1907 work, however, the playwright affords his overbearing father character a touch more pathos and humility. It isn’t Yankl but Reb Eli, the matchmaker who arranges the Sefer Torah commission and finds a suitable husband for Yankl’s daughter Rivkele, who stands to benefit monetarily from this arrangement and insists the plan move forward even when Yankl expresses doubt. And while Shylock cites a mix of honor and hatred as his chief motivation in the courts of Venice, Yankl cares not for his own name in the execution of his plan and is willing to change his trade. He stammers to the Torah scribe: “Rebbe, we are sinful people. I know God will punish us […] He ought to punish us. […] if I can’t do my business in my little ‘shop’ here… I’ll handle horses, I’ll handle…” (39-41). (Interestingly, Asch attended Max Reinhardt’s seminal production of The Merchant of Venice at the Deutsches Theatre in 1906, just a year prior to the premiere of vengeance by the same company. 3 3 Mazower, David. “10 Things You Need to Know About God of Vengeance.” Digital Yiddish Theatre Project (February 2017): Accessed Oct 31, 2023.
Asch wrote the role of Yankl for the actor who played Shylock, Rudolf Schildkraut (16)). That Yankl abandons the community of his faith at the end of the play, when he discovers that Rivkele has sold her body, weighs heavy. Shylock is defeated by the courts of Venice, but Yankl is defeated by himself. In the play’s second act Yankl, though clearly flawed, is characterized as a decent boss, as pimps go; the head prostitute in the brothel, Hindl, scolds her younger colleagues: “And our balebos, isn’t he an honest man? Has he cheated any of you? He is creating the most beautiful, most important object in Jewish law […] is there anything more honorable than that?” Yankl’s self-vanquishment feels more tragic than Shylock’s loss at the end of Shakespeare’s “comedy.”

Similarly, Asch gives his eponymous thief Motke a fair chance morally, even though he makes a living stealing from others, even though he might not deserve it. Despite his repeated and eventually broken oaths of love, faithfulness, and protection to a series of women (his mother Zlatke in the prologue (105-7), tightrope-walker Mary in the first act (111), the young and beautiful Khanele in the second act (132) and again in the third (147-148)), we are drawn to Motke because of his willingness to envision a fair and loving world. And Asch allows us to bear witness to the societal constructs that have led him to his troubling lifestyle: in the play’s prologue, Zlatke explains to the townspeople who have come to punish her son for thievery: “From the cradle on he had to feed himself, my milk, his, I had to sell, before he was even born, […] while he was still crawling on all fours he had to search for crumbs, like a little chick has to peck” (103). A world that starves a child is immoral, not the child who must steal to feed himself. The crowd hears this and turns upon the bootmaker from whom Motke stole, shaming him instead for hoarding resources.

In both vengeance and Motke, Asch’s characters enact performances before their communities to benefit themselves. Soreh, Yankl’s wife and a former prostitute, cleans the house religiously to present purity for the visiting Sefer Torah scribe. Yankl promises to give up his wealth and profession in order to keep his daughter pure in the eyes of his faith, a promise eventually broken. His daughter Rivkele performs the role of virginal bride for her parents as she curls into the arms of her true love, one of the prostitutes employed by her father. Motke kills a rival and steals his identity, living under the dead man’s name for years in order to be more upwardly mobile, with a clean ethical slate. And later, he performs the role of khosn, husband-to-be, to make his mother proud, even as his relationship with his khale, bride, dissolves. He exclaims to his khale’s father “I am still a young guy, I can still become someone completely different” (138). Here, the characters’ relationships to the “underworld” provide them the skills and resources to create these performances and thrive—but only temporarily. By the end of both plays, the “underworld” actually underlines the distance between characters’ individualism and the communities in which they desire to live. Though understandable, these performances are again and again shown to be impossible to sustain.

The Dead Man, the last play in the trilogy, stands apart from the earlier works. It is far less narrative in nature—the characters seem to heave one great cry of woe from the first scene to the last—and the play’s relationship to the underworld is literal. Josef, a soldier killed in WWI, returns to his shtetl to gather his neighbors, mother, and khale and usher them into the land of the dead. If there is any “performance” in the piece, it is not an intentional one; rather, the performance is that of being alive, imposed on the members of the shattered shtetl. “Living” itself may be an illusion in the play. Reb Rehemiah, an elder of the shtetl, says to the other survivors: “Didn’t we all die? How many times did we look death in the face? How do you know that we are not dead?” (190). Just as Josef is a literal ghost of a man, the remaining members of the shtetl are figurative ghosts of themselves, living in memories of houses, in a ghost of a once thriving community. Here, the underworld doesn’t stand between Asch’s characters and their communities; it envelops and destroys them.

Throughout the collection O’Brien’s translations soar, her language dancing from the harsh, crude curses of the old world’s underbelly to the soft murmurs of two women in love to the hopeful cries of a trio of starving boys begging to be released into death so that they want no more. She describes her aims to “imitate both Asch’s phrasing and diction and to include a layer of the original Yiddish in the translation so as not to sever it sonically from the cultural specificity of the source text” (93). When the words are spoken aloud, one can hear the broken syntax of past generations of immigrants, mixing English, Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, and more, reflecting the patchwork, itinerant identity of Asch’s mother tongue.

This volume is the first in a playwright series by White Goat Press from the Yiddish Book Center. The physical book is mammoth: nine by twelve inches, spiral-bound, and weighing in at nearly two and a half pounds. Though too bulky for actors to use while staging a production on their feet in a rehearsal room, it would be at home on a music stand during a public reading, ideally allowing the work—meant, of course, for performance—to live on.

Asch’s writing spans nearly fifteen years in this volume, and O’Brien’s work spans even longer: her work translating The Dead Man began in 2019, a full two decades after her god of vengeance premiered in a Times Square strip club. The chance to view both writers’ works across time and circumstance is perhaps the greatest gift of this collection. The shifts in tone, structure, and texture among the works are astonishing. The trilogy opens with vengeance, a melodrama pushing at the edges of that form, inching into the nuanced naturalism being explored elsewhere in Eastern Europe contemporary to its writing. (The denizens of the brothel in vengeance’s second act are a nearly perfect tonal match for those of the inhabitants of the country house in Chekhov’s Three Sisters.) Motke Thief brings Asch’s characterizations, intimately relatable in their flaws and outbursts, into a different genre, a sort of Dickensian social analysis. (There is something of Dickens’ Mr. Sleary, the circus boss in Hard Times, in Asch’s Alter Terakh, the owner of the circus in the first act of Motke.) But it is the radical shift in The Dead Man that is most troubling and thrilling. Gone are the action-driven monologues, the plot that pushes one scene into the next, the strong sense of identity and individualism so evident in Asch’s earlier works. Asch confronts us with a sense of destruction and hollowness, of hopelessness and anonymity: here, characters are just “Jews,” “Foreigners,” “Women,” “Boys,” “Merchants” (170) who slump, lie, and drift into and out of a thick, obscuring fog (217). In Asch’s writing, it seems, the horrors of war have sapped his figures of desire and identity. In O’Brien’s stewardship of the play, the extreme isolation and endless dread of the COVID lock-down seem to have shifted her language, too, into a slow, steady march toward death.

Green, Jonathan L. “Review of Underworld Trilogy (god of vengeance, Motke Thief, The Dead Man) by Sholem Asch, trans. Caraid O’Brien.” In geveb, November 2023:
Green, Jonathan L. “Review of Underworld Trilogy (god of vengeance, Motke Thief, The Dead Man) by Sholem Asch, trans. Caraid O’Brien.” In geveb (November 2023): Accessed Apr 19, 2024.


Jonathan L. Green

Jonathan L. Green is the Director of New Play Development at Steppenwolf Theatre and was previously the Director of New Works at Goodman Theatre and the Founding Artistic Director of Sideshow Theatre. He lives and works in Chicago, Illinois. (photo credit: joe mazza -- brave lux inc)