How Fiddler on the Roof Uses Two Separate Ensembles to Show the Effects of Oppression
By Kay Berlatsky
Fiddler On the Roof is a musical about the life of Jewish people, an oppressed group, and how that group relates to the Russians, who possess and exploit power over them. As part of the exploration of this dynamic, Fiddler establishes a strong concept of community between the Jewish members of Anatevka, while simultaneously creating a separate, but equally strong concept of community between the outside Russians. In this way, there are essentially two separate ensembles – the ensemble playing the Jewish people of Anatevka, which functions in one way, and the ensemble playing the Russian gentile enforcers, which functions in another, very different way. Fiddler uses these two separate ensemble groups to depict how community norms within an oppressed group are affected by an external oppressor, while simultaneously demonstrating that power dynamics within an oppressed group vary greatly from the power dynamics of the oppressor.
The difference between the two ensemble groups is very clear. The first group consists of the Jewish people of Anatevka. They are who the audience is expected to sympathize with, and their existence as a community is established immediately, with the song “Prologue: Tradition”. “Prologue: Tradition” establishes musical unity, a connection to history, a shared understanding of values, and the concept of a closed group. The entire town of Anatevka sings “Prologue: Tradition” together, sharing their roles with the audience and making it clear that there is a general sense of in-community understanding of everyone’s responsibility. While the song also first introduces Tevye as the narrator, he is introduced as narrator specifically to say that “We stay because Anatevka is our home”, immediately leading into the ensemble singing together to back him up. That is, the focus of the prologue to the entire musical is on shared tradition, which is only shared by the Jewish people. It is not, of course, shared by the secondary ensemble. The secondary ensemble encapsulates the Russian gentiles. They do not have a song of shared tradition or unity, and they do not sing together to establish their existence as a group when they are introduced – instead, they interrupt “To Life”, establishing that their unity exists only in opposition to the Jewish people of Anatevka. The identity of the Russian gentiles is very, very different from the Jewish identity in this way. These differences serve to frame the Jewish people as a people with a full history and full identity and the Russian gentiles as an oppressor, intentionally showing how the dynamics within the groups differ from each other.
This is distinctly relevant in how the show is received by outside viewers. The dynamics within the Jewish ensemble group are complicated, and are explored in their full complexity – however, the dynamics within the Russian ensemble group are not, because they are intentionally framed as just the oppressor and nothing more. This framing, though, is not obvious to all audiences. People who identify within the “in-group” (i.e., Jewish people) are much more aware of the ways that that ensemble’s complexity are reflected than people in the “out-group” are, and so, because of the framing of the musical, different people engage with the two different ensemble groups entirely differently.
The clearest example of this is in discussion of patriarchy. When you look simply within one of the ensemble groups – the Jewish group – patriarchy appears to be a major issue of the musical. Gentiles, it seems, are more likely to do this, as the Jewish ensemble is more fleshed out than the Russian ensemble, and so it is easier to invest more thought in them; however, gentile viewers do not necessarily have the context to understand a good portion of the traditions and dynamics, and so analyze the Jewish ensemble without understanding the need to factor in how they are affected by the external, Russian group. This was incredibly clear in class discussion, which featured condemnation of Tevye, a lack of sympathy for him, a strong support for Chava marrying a gentile, and extended, unnecessary discussion of patriarchy. Within the Jewish ensemble, it appears as if patriarchy is the problem. Tevye has the “power” in his family, the rabbi is a man, the women are expected to marry who their fathers tell them, and men have most of the religious influence. This, when viewed in a vacuum, is definitional patriarchy and, when you separate the two ensembles – as the musical allows you to do, in large part – it is very easy to view either of them in a vacuum.
However, the two ensemble groups cannot be separated entirely. Look at them together. Think about them together. The power does not belong to Tevye. Patriarchy is constructed upon power, is entirely reliant on power, and so what is Tevye, a patriarch without power? He’s not an oppressor, he’s not cruel or uncaring, he is not even, really, a patriarch. And the musical shows this through its usage of the two separate ensembles.
In “Wedding Dance”, the Jewish ensemble argues about tradition. Tevye and Lazar Wolfe specifically argue about a broken promise about who Tevye’s eldest daughter was to marry – this argument is patriarchal, as it is an argument between two men over the future and possession of a young woman whose only agency is to convince at least one of those men to agree with her. However, this argument eventually wears itself out – community norms are broken and begin to change, and men and women start to dance with each other. This is crucial. “Wedding Dance” shows how the Jewish community in Anatevka is not necessarily trapped in tradition, but, rather, is willing and able to change and grow and move forward, adapting those traditions for the future. The argument is patriarchal, but the community, as a whole, is attempting to move past that and, if left to their own devices, would almost definitely be able to do so. Of course, they are not left to their own devices, because they are Jewish people in Russia and there is no story about Jewish people in Russia that can allow them to live life uninterrupted. The second ensemble, defined exclusively in contrast to the first, enters. There is a pogrom. The Russian gentiles that make up the second ensemble come into a wedding, a symbol of growth and change, and destroy it, simultaneously disrupting the growth of the community, any feeling of security, and any real hope for the future.
This pogrom serves the purpose of, once and for all, splitting the two ensembles. There is no more dancing together like there is in “To Life”, and there is no longer any way to view them as a single ensemble even though, in theatre terms, the ensemble encompasses everyone. They are two entirely different groups, separated incontrovertibly by power, and by showing that, the pogrom scene shows the differences in power dynamics within both groups. Tevye, although shown as angry and patriarchal, has just as much destroyed as any other member of Anatevka. And, furthermore, he (and the rest of the Jewish ensemble) is specifically interrupted in the process of growth. Anatevka, at the wedding, is taking a step forward in terms of how they view and approach gender. Men and women are dancing together, Tzeitel is celebrating her wedding to the man of her choice, and the rabbi has ruled in their favor. All of this growth is happening, and all of it is immediately interrupted. This is what Fiddler on the Roof uses its ensemble to show about the concept of belonging and shared identity within Anatevka – the oppressor, at any time, has the power to destroy it. It is nigh on impossible to progress as a community or as a society when in constant fear, and, by interrupting a wedding with a pogrom, Fiddler on the Roof shows that without question.
The story that the ensembles tell is one of conflict and oppression, and how community held assumptions, specifically about gender, vary entirely based on what position a community occupies on the social ladder. This story is summed up by what Tevye says to Chava when she wishes to marry an outside gentile. He says: “Some things do not change for us. […] Some things will never change.” When looking at just the Jewish ensemble group without the context of outside power dynamics, as the majority of gentiles seem to do, based on class discussion, this seems cruel. Tevye is denying his daughter happiness simply because she wants to marry an outsider – isn’t this oppressive and patriarchal of him? Isn’t he incredibly backwards? How dare he steal that from her? But, when you place this conversation in the context of the Russian ensemble group, it becomes very clear that that isn’t what is happening. Tevye is trying to protect his daughter from a man who he has absolutely no reason to trust, after being betrayed by a Russian he’d dared to be friendly with, with the full understanding that it is unsafe to change. This scene drives home the point made by the pogrom scene. The Jewish people of Anatevka are not allowed to change, are not allowed to shift their dynamics, are not allowed to attempt to grow, because if and when they do, it will all be destroyed.
In conclusion, Fiddler on the Roof uses ensemble not to make a point about community belonging, but rather to make a point about how community belonging is destroyed by the presence of a separate oppressor. By crafting and clearly distinguishing two separate ensemble groups, Fiddler is able to play them against each other, clearly demonstrating how the existence of one group, the oppressor, deeply and unalienably affects the growth and progress of the other group. These two separate ensembles show how Tevye is not a patriarch, and, instead, oppression leads to fear of growth and change and an inability to pursue it that is then nevertheless condemned by outside audiences.