It is early October 2007 and I have just returned to London from a weekend in Liverpool. A sad occasion. My aunt Mita, my father’s older sister, died earlier this year and yesterday the stone was set on her grave. Today, she would have been seventy-five years old. At the Long Lane cemetery in Aintree, opposite a derelict factory that made bombs during the war, friends and family gathered to pay their respects. One elderly man with a stick mistook one of the Harris brothers. A keen-eyed woman put him right: ‘This is Brian. Not Bruce. It’s Brian.’ The man with the stick wasn’t convinced, ‘Ah Bruce.’ he said again to Brian who smiled patiently. The woman persevered, ‘This is Brian. It’s Brian.’ After the grave was unveiled and the simple ceremony complete, someone noticed that Mita’s grave was directly in front of another old friend’s who had died a couple of years before. Still wiping away tears, one of the cousins noted, ‘Look at Lawrence, right behind her. He’s kibbitzing her bridge hand.’ Someone else chipped in, ‘Look, there’s two spaces going next to them. Book those quickly and you’ll have a full game.’ Even in death, the characters from the Liverpool Jewish community manage to plane the next game of cards.
So what, pray, has any of this to do with Chekhov’s revered play Three Sisters? First performed at the Moscow Art Theatre in 1901, this classic four–act drama examines the lives of the three Prozorov sisters and their brother, who have lived for eleven years in the small provincial town where their late father had commanded a brigade. Provincial life does not suit any of the sisters. Each longs to return to Moscow, their childhood home and idealised haven. There is not a Jew amongst these characters. No Jew would have inhabited this social milieu. And yet the sense of community, the emotional highs and lows, the ill-tempered humour, the corny asides, the affection, the melodrama, the poignancy, the hope, the despair, all — as actress Tracy-Ann Oberman insightfully noted when she first mentioned to me that she hoped to find a writer ready to take up the challenge of writing a Jewish version of the play — smack of something very Jewish indeed. Maybe it is the Russian background. Still, a leap was required to find a way of extrapolating the Jewishness out of Chekhov. A new location needed to be identified. Somewhere provincial. An Anglo-Jewish community. I knew one intimately. I was raised in Liverpool. And there was something about the time just after the Second World War, just as the State of Israel was coming into being, which provided contemporary relevance along with enough passage of time to give greater perspective. How might it work to transport Olga, Masha, Irina, their brother Andre and the rest forwards by half a century and settle them in Merseyside? Work began and soon Chekhov’s polysyllabic names had become shortened to Gertie, May, Rita and Arnold Lasky. This family had also managed to acquire a very grand, if also fading, house on Hope Street in the city centre. The visiting officers from the military unit in the town had transformed into American airmen stationed at the base just outside the Liverpool at Burtonwood. And Moscow had managed to duplicate itself and become two ‘idealised havens’: New York, for some characters, birthplace of the sisters’ mother, hub and hive of Jewish culture; Jerusalem and Palestine, the prospect of a Jewish homeland, for other characters. 3 Sisters on Hope Street was born.
A good deal of research was undertaken to root this re-location of Chekhov’s world authentically: Zionist tracts, diaries of ordinary English life in the austerity years, local Liverpool newspapers, including the Jewish Gazette, founded in 1947. Particularly illuminating on both a personal and creative level was an interview that I recorded in September 2006 with my father, Rubin Samuels and my stepmother Estelle, my father’s sister Mita, then coping valiantly with chemotherapy, also took part, as did her husband Tony Harris, and old family friends Beil Friend, Cecil and Shirley Bredski. They had all been children, teenagers or young adults during the period 1946-1948 when the play is set and their first-hand experience, the world it revealed, provided a fascinating glimpse of Jewish life in this thriving, if small, provincial community in the middle of the twentieth century. This is the context for 3 Sisters on Hope Street. The play fuses fiction with real experience in subtle, almost indiscernible ways. Here life and art meet social history. In asking questions to authenticate the world of the play that Tracy and I were developing, I found myself making discoveries about my hometown and community, seeing it afresh through the detached eyes of a writer, all the while gleaning useful ‘material’.
Mita described waking up as a small child after an air raid. She and the other children would go out into the garden and watch the bombs fall. The following morning, they would gather shrapnel for their collections, which they would polish and display. In Act 2 of 3 Sisters on Hope Street, May, the middle sister is starting to become intimate with American air commander Vince Samuel stationed at the local base. Vince is based on the Vershinin character from the Chekhov in which he is a lieutenant-colonel newly arrived to take charge of the local battery. May is married to Mordy, the deputy headmaster of the Jewish school in Hope Place. Like everyone around her, May is still haunted by, and recovering from, the war. She finds, stowed away in a cupboard, a stash of shrapnel:
May: During the war, sometimes even before the all-clear sounded … Rita, Arnold and I would run out into the streets and collect it. Like a bunch of kids we were. But this one… [she almost strokes the largest piece, searching its surface for every nuance of texture] … this beauty came to us.
Vince: Aaah, the boarded window upstairs.
May: From the house over the road. You could have heard the explosion in Wallasey. It’s a miracle that all our windows weren’t shattered.
Vince: There were a lot miracles during the war.
May: Were there?
Vince: You’re looking at one.
Mita and Rubin recalled the extended post-war rationing with grim relish: the Yiddishe grocer kept eggs and butter under the counter and sold them on the Black Market: the bread was grey, the cream cheese was made from single not double cream.
In Chekhov’s play, the characters endure a spiritual and emotional poverty, as if life, love, excitement, even hope are diminishing resources. In 3 Sisters on Hope Street, the characters endure an austerity that seeps through the fabric of their lives. The delight with which they relish the Act 1 birthday tea for Rita, furnished mostly from rare treats provided by the American serviceman, forms the climax of proceedings. They are even allowed to scoff cake made with real eggs:
Gertie: Well, thanks to our American friends we’ve gone to town!
Everyone applauds the tea.
Gertie: The sandwiches are fresh. And guess what? There’s tinned salmon.
Gertie: And we even got some cream cheese. So sorry. We tried, but we couldn’t find full-fat anywhere.
Everyone at the interview remembered the boiled sweets the American servicemen had. The high point of Rita’s birthday tea is a shower of one of the favourites, ‘Pear drops!’
Meanwhile, events thousands of miles away were impacting on life within the tight-knit Jewish community of Liverpool. The activities of the Irgun in Palestine in 1947, notably the execution of two British sergeants, unleashed a torrent of anti-Jewish feeling. Mobs rioted in the streets of a number of English cities, including Liverpool, attacking Jewish properties. My relatives vividly remembered living through these epochal and violent times. I realized that few people know about the anti-Jewish riots around England in 1947 and wanted to include this. Chekhov’s Act 3 provided the perfect opportunity. His characters are dealing with a disastrous fire in the town, which does not affect the sisters’ household directly but keeps them up late preparing provisions to assist the rescue effort. The Laskys now deal with the impact, on that August bank holiday, of the riots in Brownlow Hill. Gertie and Auntie Beil from the old country (one of the interviewees, Beil Friend, inspired the name for this character) open the act collecting bedding for refugees from the attacks on houses and businesses a couple of miles away. Debbie Pollack, daughter of one of the kosher butchers and bullish, invasive wife of brother Arnold refuses to let anyone come to stay and threatens to put Auntie Beil into the soon-to-be-built old age home at Stapeley. Not long after, Mordy, whose modest ambition is to grow a moustache like Clement Attlee’s, arrives from the thick of it. His speech about rescuing meat from Debbie’s father’s shop refers to actual members of the community at the time as well as fictional characters: ‘Typical Joe, he was that determined to go back into the fray for the beef joints he’d just got in. It took two Rosenblatts, plus Meyer Max and me to stop him from putting himself in harm’s way.’
Despite differences and flashes of conflict, the Jewish community has always continued to play an important part in local Liverpool life. For this reason, it seems important and fitting that 3 Sisters on Hope Street is to open the Liverpool Everyman’s Capital City of Culture 2008 programme. The tightly-knit and yet involved Jewish presence in the city has fed the city hugely. In its idiosyncratic way, this community represents the universal bonds minority immigrant cultures need to form within families and amongst each other, their sense of separateness that remains intrinsic no matter what. Conversely, there’s the strong impulse to make their presence felt and root themselves in the place of settlement. The community has shrunk a good deal since the 1940s, and has continued to do so, reduced now to half the size it was when I grew up there in the 1960s and 1970s. Greenbank Drive Synagogue, opened in the 1930s and mentioned in the play as being snazzy and new, is to close at the end of 2007. Chekhov captured the way change is irresistible, how loss is eternally built into our daily lives creating a sense of quiet despair that lies in the everyday heart of the human condition. And also, as his Olga declares: ‘Oh my dear sisters, our life is not over yet.’
And as Gertie, her counterpart in 3 Sisters on Hope Street, declares: ‘The world is changing and there’s everything riding on it. We’ve each got to play our part. Yes, also, somehow, as the old life dwindles and nothing stays the same, there is a promise of a new way emerging, a ray of eternal hope.’
3 Sisters on Hope Street by Diane Samuels and Tracy-Ann Oberman, after Chekhov, will be performing at the Liverpool Everyman on Hope Street from 25 January to 16 Feruary, and at the Hampstead Theatre, Swiss Cottage, London from 21 February to 29 March, 2008.
Liverpool Everyman box office: 0151 709 4776
Hampstead Theatre box office: 020 7722 9301
To be published by Nick Hern Books,
Tel 020 8749 4953