painting of a melancholy violinist has become world
famous as "the fiddler on the roof". The musical of that name, adapted
from a set of tales by the Russian Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem,
premiered on 22 September 1964 at the Imperial Theater in New York City
and was sold-out to theatres for years. The story is set in Anatevka, a
little Jewish shtetl in the Russian Ukraine, shortly before the
revolutionary turmoils of 1905. Tevye, a milkman who owns a lame nag,
lives together with his wife Golde and their five daughters in a cramped
peasant cottage; they live in bitter poverty and constant fear of pogroms.
Yet Tevye drives a desperate but quick-witted bargain with God and turns
the tables on tragedy by the sheer volubility of his wit.
As Maurice Samuel wrote: "Life pets the better of him but he comes off
better in debate with it." At first Tevye has something to hold on to:
"Without tradition our lives would be just as insecure as the fiddler up
there on the roof." But then nothing turns out the way one expects. His
daughters refuse to let their father choose their husbands and marry as
they please. Heartbreaking scenes, being disowned by their father and the
depths of despair are the consequences. An edict of the Tsar's puts an end to
it all. Tevye and his wife Golde are rejected by their daughters. Denied
the descendants they long for, they and all the other Jews of Anatevka are expelled from their homes.
Chagall was born in 1887, the son of a Jewish fishmonger in Liozno near
the White Russian provincial capital of Vitebsk. His early life was
remarkably like that which is enacted in the musical. At the age of
thirty-three he had his first experience of scene painting and directing
plays at the Moscow Yiddish Theatre.
In 1941 he emigrated — like Sholem Aleichem had twenty-five years
earlier — to the United States, where he again worked in the theatre.