Course Guide: Immigrant Experience

Lower East Side Tenement Museum RBA Case Study (LESTM) and Elmer Rice's Pulitzer prize-winning play Street Scene (1928), subsequently turned into a classic film (1931) and an opera by Rice, Langston Hughes and Kurt Weill (1946).

Street Scene: One may regard the main character of the play/film/opera as the tenement house on the Lower East Side where people from different ethnic groups live together and banter on the steps outside on hot summer days. Although there is a palpable camaraderie and concern among those who share the tenement, the pressure caused by difficult living conditions, poverty, racism, sexism, and loneliness lead to the tragic destruction of a family.

Question for Students:
Does Rice create stereotypes or authentic characters from different backgrounds? (His dialogue is remarkably humorous and realistic, and yet he tends to draw a multitude of "ethnic" characters with broad strokes.)

The dramatic and film version of Street Scene offer a slice of life as it might have been lived in a building very much like the one that has been transformed into the Lower East Side Tenement Museum.

Street Scene; the Opera (1946):
Material for Discussion:

  1. Kurt Weill himself was an Eastern European immigrant - one might see him as a variation on Abraham Kaplan, the old Jewish Marxist.
  2. In this version, another character was added when Langston Hughes was contracted to become the lyricist for the project, the African-American janitor.
  3. This became the first Broadway production to be truly multicultural -- its creators as well as its content.
  4. Despite the progressive stand these authors took, Langston Hughes was given less autonomy and financial remuneration than the others on the project.
  5. There are many forward-looking elements in the content and musical styles i.e. the almalgam of opera and Broadway. There are also many less progressive tendencies (especially when compared with the more innovative "wrong-note harmonies" of Kurt Weill's earlier German collaborations with Bertolt Brecht. ***Brecht and Weill's Three Penny Opera and Mahagonny are themselves both superb city texts.)
  6. Musically, the use of brass and the energetic1940s-style vamp that introduces the action after the overture capture the cacophony and pace of city life.
  7. Specific songs also carefully depict city scenes and themes. In "Lonely House," Sam Kaplan, for example, captures the feeling of isolation in a crowd. There is a clear nostalgia in the violin melody for another time and a very different kind of space. (This song may be effectively compared to Baudelaire's prose poem "Crowds".) In "Remember that I care," Sam Kaplan and Rose Maurrant expose the therapeutic qualities of art and nature in the city, as they think about Walt Whitman's poem "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom," and their own walk through the park.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum: RBA study and/or Visit:

Material for Discussion in Relation to Street Scene:

  1. A visit to the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, like the play, film or opera also offers a theatrical experience - one of the staff members dresses up as if he/she were one of the actual historical people who lived in the building at the turn of the century. Visitors are asked to play along in this interactive, theatrical experience. This helps those who come imagine the lives of these people.
  2. In both the Elmer Rice piece and the LESTM dramatic representation of reality, there is an effort to teach tolerance and give the viewer an understanding of the experiences of multi-ethnic immigrants and migrants on the Lower East Side. But, there are also significant differences between representing a piece of dramatic social realism and evoking the oral histories of ordinary people in an interactive format.
  3. LESTM derives its truth-value from the specifics of real people in real situations, or what Ruth Abram, the founding member of LESTM, calls "the useable past"-i.e. the concept that historical precedents create lessons with useful practical applications for confronting current problems.
  4. Elmer Rice, on the other hand, finds truth in the potential tragedy that the pressures to which these circumstances can lead. This scenario gains its power only after it has passed through the legitimating process of art; its "realism" has been carefully constructed.
  5. LESTM challenges traditional concepts of what constitutes a museum, what types of buildings should be preserved and whose history is worth memorializing. At the museum, community services are available for current immigrant populations along with educational programs for the students and the general public; this also disputes the accepted notion that museums are about remembering the past rather than transforming the present.
Street Scene, the 1931 classic film, the Broadway musical on CD (in a number of different versions) and a DVD of the opera are all readily available. There is only one full production of the opera on DVD (published by Image Entertainment with the Staatsphilharmonie Rheinland-Pfalz, conductor James Holmes and the Ludwigshafener Theater Chorus, 1995). In this production, the words are difficult to hear, so you may want to provide the text for the students to read along if you play excerpts.