Anatevka – The Unbreakable

Communities are built on standards. Standards of etiquette, of work ethic, of moral values, of how you ought to treat your fellow man, etc. In the formation of communities, as people live with and around each other, the manifestation of collective normative values and expectations is an inevitability. As we see our neighbors act as they do from day to day, we build and reinforce an ever-strengthening cognitive framework through which we understand what is “normal”. We develop our own personal understandings of the identities of others through what limited information we have. We gauge the dynamics of our relationships from the nature of our encounters with one another. We adapt our personalities and actions to find balance and harmony within those relationships. We seek stability and security. We fear notions of conflict or change. We establish and live within the norms that sanctify and optimize peace. 

In the 1971 movie musical Fiddler on the Roof, the people of the fictional town of Anatevka live in a tightly knit community. Though far from wealthy or unilaterally prosperous, the Jewish people of Anatevka live in an apparent state of collective harmony through their adherence to strict community standards. As the show’s narrator, Tevye, and the ensemble of villagers make it heard loud and clear, these standards are born out of tradition – traditions which seem to emanate both from the town’s ancestral history and the townspeople’s shared subscription to the Jewish faith.  Before going any further, I do not and will not attempt to claim in any sense that I am an expert on Jewish religion or culture. Rather, from a dissection of the performance text, I am simply positing that the traditions and lifestyles of the people of Anatevka are likely not completely identical to any other Jewish village in Russia at the turn of the 20thcentury. Communities inherently tend to develop their own nuanced idiosyncrasies based on their unique collections of individuals, and no two individuals are exactly the same. I am saying that it is more likely that the performance of Jewish rituals and ceremonies in Anatevka are identical to the performance of these rituals in other Jewish communities than, say, the likelihood that the exact social dynamics and hierarchy of Anatevka would be perfectly replicated elsewhere. Thus, for the purpose of analysis, Anatevka can be seen and understood as a unique communal entity. 

Throughout Fiddler, the people of Anatevka – and Tevye especially – are faced with circumstances which challenge their adherence to the normative standards of tradition. As is true of humanity, resistance is the natural response to the threat of change because we find comfort in normalcy. So it makes sense that the characters in Fiddler display resistance and reluctance when aspects of their traditions are subjected to change by the action of the plot. And while one may adopt the opinion that it is the subscription to tradition which weakens the strength and survivability of their community, as they are ultimately forcefully removed from their home and dispersed across the globe, I would like to offer a very different contention. It is their value of tradition that provides a constant source of strength which sustains their community across space, and, simultaneously, the people of Anatevka’s willingness to adapt aspects of their traditions to accommodate new ideals reflects the bravery of a community able to meet the challenges of an evolving world without sacrificing any aspects of their shared identity. 

From the very top of the show, the audience is introduced to the value of tradition by way of metaphor – through the aforementioned fiddler on the roof. Tevye likens all the people of Anatevka to this fiddler, saying that they are all trying to scratch out happy lives for themselves whilst maintaining balance, and that they maintain this balance through the value of their traditions. As we are introduced to the ensemble that comprises the village in the number that ensues, we see what Tevye means. There is a powerful and clear rhythm to daily life in Anatevka, with well-defined roles for each individual that are largely informed by the people’s ancestral traditions. This way, as Tevye says, “everyone knows who he is and what God expects him to do.” This is well exemplified by the performance of the ensemble in this number as Tevye takes the viewer through the village, showing that, even in moments of disagreement (a mule, or a horse?) there is a pervasive sense of harmony which triumphs. Early in the first act, as Tevye and Golde gather their family for Sabbath dinner, we see an explicit example of traditional rituals strengthening the bonds between community and family members. Sure, in looking at these opening scenes through a contemporary lens, the social roles to which the members of this community are assigned seemed to be aligned with a patriarchal social hierarchy. However, men and women in this show are not intended to be portrayed as necessarily unequal; rather, in accordance with traditional Jewish culture, they perform equally important social functions, just in different domains. The text makes an active effort to equalize the respect shown to characters regardless of gender; for example, though Tevye repeatedly refers to himself as the decision maker of the family, he rarely acts without first trying to either convince or appease Golde to his reasoning, and Golde frequently teases him for his self-referential importance. 

Indeed, the female characters of the show are portrayed as independently minded individuals who dare to subvert communal norms through their well-established self-identities and strong willpower. Tzeitel, Hodel, and Chava play incredibly active roles in pushing both Tevye and Anatevka collectively to adopt and assimilate new ideals. For example, Tzeitel’s declaration of love for Motel to Tevye prompts Tevye to evaluate, in an aside, what is more important – the procedures established through tradition, or his love for his daughter and want for her happiness. Thus, when he agrees to allow both Tzeitel and Hodel to marry Motel and Perchik respectively, he has decided that his daughters’ pursuits of love are more conducive to ensuring their prosperity than to have them adhere to the traditional matchmaking processes. When Hodel and Perchik approach him asking for his blessing (not his permission) in their marriage, Tevye says, “Love. It’s a new style. On the other hand, our old ways were once new, weren’t they?” Tevye is able to realize that the values of tradition, though great, do not always provide the best solutions to novel situations. Tevye’s reverence of tradition, which at first limits his openness to such proposals as this, ultimately instills in him a strong set of moral values against which, being a rational (in the philosophical sense) person, he can determine for himself moral decisions without harming his dedication to or value of his traditions or his community. 

The wedding scene at the end of the first act is perhaps the best singular example of how Anatevka makes itself strong through both the power of their traditions and their ability to adapt aspects of their lifestyles. At the top of the scene, there is a joyous aura which permeates the room and the villagers attending the wedding as they march to the inn with candles and smiles abound (except for Lazar Wolf, who we see scowling, but let’s agree that this is somewhat understandable given that he was in fact promised Tzeitel by Tevye). As the crowd files in, we see the fiddler perched on a loft and watching with a smile on his face. After Motel smashes the glass, everyone in attendance shouts “Mazeltov!” and dancing ensues – the men dance with men and the women with women, but there is a palpable joy shared by all the attendees. Even when the camera shows Lazar Wolf at this point, the bitterness is no longer written on his face. These traditional dances and wedding celebration practices undeniably unite the community of Anatevka with a sense of joy, hope, and possibility for the future. The number that precedes this dance, “Sunrise, Sunset”, though somewhat melancholy in its tonality, underscores and emphasizes these themes regarding change, growth, and hope for the future found in the new bond of Motel and Tzeitel. All of this serves as an excellent example of how great value for tradition unites and strengthens the people of Anatevka within a shared liminal space. 

The real magic, though, happens when the villagers adapt their customs to assimilate a new idea heralded by the ~radical~ Perchik: to have men and women dance together. Yes, when Perchik first interjects with this notion and dares to step over the rope which segregates the men and women, an uneasiness and tension immediately envelopes seemingly everyone in attendance. However, following approval from the Rabbi, he and Hodel begin to dance, followed by Tevye and Golde, and then Motel and Tzeitel (sidenote: the interactions between Tevye and Motel throughout this sequence are hilarious and I love how he mimics Tevye tactics of convincing Golde to dance when he approaches Tzeitel with the same mandate). As more and more of the attendees begin to join in in the thrill of this new festivity, the excitement and joy that radiates throughout the inn seems to reach a peak that wasn’t met with the first dances. In freeing themselves from an aspect of their tradition – without actually harming their value of their traditions, given that the Rabbi not only gives approval but also joins in the dancing – the people of Anatevka reach a new level of kinship and joy through this adaptation of their customs. To the viewer, this is the moment in which the villagers of Anatevka are in their greatest state of harmony with one another. 

It is thus tragic when the Russian soldiers arrive and proceed to destroy the contents of the inn and the ceremony, including the newlywed’s wedding gifts. Things do not get better for the people of Anatevka after this point, as they are forced to abandon their village under threat of brutal violence from the Russians. However, even as we see members of the village all preparing to go their separate ways to many different parts of the globe, the show still ends on a hopeful note, found in the fiddler’s following of Tevye out of the village. The fiddler’s presence here signifies that, even though the community of Anatevka will no longer exist as it once did, its inhabitants will forever be bonded through their shared standards and values, through the everlasting effect of their shared participation in traditions. 

The story of Anatevka is undoubtedly and immensely tragic. And yet, the show’s ending drives home the point I have been contending. These peoples’ willingness to adapt aspects of their traditions to assimilate new ideals brought them great amounts of joy and strengthened the bonds of their community while they were together. And as they are dispersed, it is clear that these bonds cannot and will not be broken by the vastness of space. These people are Anatevka. And as the fiddler follows Tevye out of town, we know that Anatevka and the spirit of its people will persist, just not within the same geographical space. 

Miss Saigon – An Epic Story of Stereotypes

One of the great effects of well-written theatrical characters is the ambiguity of interpretation for audience members that complex and layered writing provides. Part of what makes esteemed theatrical pieces compelling is the space they give to audiences to formulate their own opinions and feelings about the piece and its characters, without being essentially told how to feel by a show’s creators – we don’t appreciate good art because it spoon-feeds us answers, but because it challenges us to think and reflect on our own beliefs, experiences, and biases. Based on this criterion, please allow me to explain why Miss Saigon and its characters are far from original, complex, or layered. On the contrary, the characters in Miss Saigon are quite unilaterally one-dimensional, stereotypical representations that drive a very specific and dogmatic interpretation of the piece endorsed fully by almost all aspects of the show’s performance text. Since dissecting every moment of this show would take quite a long time, I’m going to focus on the representations of two of the show’s leading characters – Kim and Chris – to demonstrate how Miss Saigon advances an extremely narrow-minded and culturally insensitive narrative. 

I’ll begin with Kim, the show’s 17-year-old Vietnamese female lead, played by Eva Noblezada in this 2016 filmed production. On the surface, Kim’s character arc leaves one with the impression that she is a strong-willed fighter, willing to do anything for a better life for her child, continuously fueled by her love for Chris. This is how the show intends for the audience to view her, as a tragic but independent and strong female hero. But is this actually how the text presents her? It’s difficult to argue against the contention that Kim is “strong” – indeed, when the audience is re-acquainted with her after the three-year time jump, we see just how much of a fighter she is, caring for Tam and struggling to survive while living on the streets. The text seems to assert that this fighting nature within Kim is a manifestation of her independent spirit and strong self-concept. To which I’d respond that Kim’s agency is in fact almost entirely illusory and lacks fundamental support from the text. 

Let’s consider the opening sequence of the show and the first interactions between Kim and Chris. Kim – along with every other female seen on stage – is bound to a life of sex-work, all with no choice but to obey the commands of the Engineer and serve the desires of male patrons. All of the women see their only means of escape from this life as dependent on convincing a visiting American male to take them back to America with her as his wife. In other words, these women believe they have no capacities within themselves to attain their freedom, and feel they have to be entirely dependent on the will of a man to be their savior, Kim included. So, would you consider her independent? A free agent? I’d be more inclined to say something like, “Kim is enslaved to the wills of men.” That feels more accurate. So, when she and Chris spend one night together and then decide that they’re in love, what do you think motivates Kim to come to the conclusion that she has fallen for Chris? I think it’s because she knows that “love” with an American soldier equals escape, even if it means binding herself to the soldier as his wife, which is exactly what she does. And on top of that, the only means of exerting her agency in such a situation is with her sexuality – she is only set apart from the rest of the women because of her virginity, and is made to be seen as more desirable to the patrons because so. Oh, and it’s also literally all Chris knows about her before he takes her to a room to have sex with her because his buddy paid for it. The buds of true romance, apparently.  

So, three years later after one night with Chris and she’s still in love but he has a new American wife. So she makes it her objective to have Chris take Tam with him back to America to give him the life she wants for him, and kills herself once she accomplishes this. The text would like you to interpret this as her tragic yet heroic ending. And it is tragic, but not because she shares one last kiss with Chris (we’ll talk about this later) and then dies in his arms. It’s tragic because Kim perceives her role as Vietnamese mother as inherently less valuable than that of American father. It’s tragic because she thinks Tam will have a better life if his mother is dead but he gets to live with his American father. She sees herself as fundamentally less valuable a life than that of Chris. She is not a tragic hero, but a sad mother who sees herself as incapable of providing the life she desires for her child. Because she is a woman and Chris is a man. And because she is Vietnamese and he is American. 

This is a stance the show advances throughout its duration – that Vietnam is hell and America is heaven. Every common Vietnamese person that the text introduces the audience to wants to get right out Vietnam, without presenting any internal character conflicts about leaving their home or bothering to suggest that there may be any aspects of Vietnamese life that could be preferable over life in America. The text suggests that there is no way a reasonable person could desire to stay in Vietnam. The show’s only prominent character who doesn’t pursue leaving is Thuy, who is also portrayed as 100% angry-communist-American-hating-military-man and whom the audience is offered no reason with which to sympathize. Only evil people could want to stay in Vietnam, apparently. 

This brings me to Chris, played by Alistair Brammer. Yes Chris, our All-American, muscular, handsome, moral, caring, and principled American solider…you see where I’m going with this. Just as the text makes every effort to portray Thuy as the force of evil to be despised, there is not a moment when the text does not endorse Chris as the morally superior, white American male savior, the idyllic embodiment of western manhood, above reproach or moral fault. This begins the moment we meet him, when we see him having to be peer pressured to enjoy his time at Dreamland and when we see him attempt to protect Kim from the other men. And after they spend their night together, he decides he’s fallen in love with her after she sings of the death of her family and struggles, which makes him feel a mandate to protect and care for her. His love for her is not based on shared interests or the result of them bonding through shared experiences – he has sex with her, she tells him about her dead parents, and now he is love stricken. The entire basis of him being in love is on the grounds that he feels he must save her. White, savior, complex.

Chris’s actions are never truly brought into serious question at any point in the text. When we find out that he has hidden his history with Kim from Ellen, the audience is not meant to doubt his faithfulness or integrity. Rather, we are expressly meant to sympathize with him for the mental torture that he is enduring. The text emphasizes this in both acts of the play with both Ellen scenes. Even in Ellen’s solo, “Now That I’ve Seen Her/Maybe”, she doesn’t place any blame on Chris for the secrets he’s kept, but rather turns inward to place blame on herself, wondering if now it was her duty to somehow set him free. With this, the text refuses to place any blame or responsibility for the pain Chris has caused others on himself. Rather, he is framed as a victim of circumstance and as man that was simply acting out of the goodness of his heart. When Chris explains himself to Ellen, he even says, “Christ, I’m American, how could I fail to do good?” This line hits the nail right on the head. Miss Saigon refuses to tarnish the goodness of Chris’s character because of his identity as an American man, an ideal to be held up to. Even when Chris kisses Kim before she dies, the text completely ignores the implications of the kiss on Chris’s romantic relationships, as it could be interpreted that his willingness to share in the kiss is indicative of the fact that he is never going to be fully emotionally satisfied with Ellen. But no, the text excuses this as ok because it is the tragic, dramatic conclusion to the tale of two lovers. At this point, I hope I have provided enough evidence to show the flaws with this stance that the performance text takes. 

Miss Saigon is a show of immense scope and scale, and famously so. But unfortunately, the production’s flair for the big and grandiose results in a performance text that quite egregiously presents one-dimensional, stereotypical representations of its characters that deserve much more depth and nuance. The show’s devaluation of Vietnam, its culture, and its people – especially its women – coupled with its glorification of America and the modern American man creates a performance text that fails to appreciate or acknowledge the complexities of the characters presented, and instead settles for outdated and recognizable tropes and stereotypes.