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The Dollar

by David Pinski


Since it is likely that the playwright was absent most of the rehearsal process, The Dollar by David Pinski was the perfect vehicle for new member Nina Moise to begin her directing career with the Players.  While Pinski was living in New York, there is no indication that he was involved in the preparation of this production, save for the his possible presence in a photo taken during a rehearsal of the play.  Pinski was one of the most notable dramatists of the Yiddish Theatre, writing “ideological dramas,” filled with “passion and artistic protest.”(1)  Dr. Issac Goldberg, who recounts the history of the Yiddish theatre in his book The Drama of Transition, and who translated many of Pinksi’s plays for publication, writes that Pinski was known “not only as dramatist, but as the discoverer of the Jewish proletariat in fiction.”(2)  B. Roland Lewis writes of Pinski that “Drama is to him an interpretation of life, and a guide and leader, as were the words of the old poets and prophets.”(3)  Though not thought of as one of his important plays by any scholar (Goldberg doesn’t even mention it in his extensive discussion of Pinski’s plays), a critic wrote that The Dollar shows the playwright’s ability to “cultivate the ironic anecdote in dramatic form.”(4)  Pinski is quoted saying that he wrote The Dollar in the summer of 1913 when he was struggling financially.  “I relieved myself of my feelings by a hearty laugh at the almighty dollar and the race for it.  Just as I did many summers before, in 1906, when I entertained myself by ridiculing the mad money joy in the bigger comedy, The Treasure.”(5) 

Considered by some a “symbolist” play,(6) The Dollar is an allegorical play in which a “troupe of stranded strolling players,” tired and destitute, end up haggling over a dollar bill they find.  Control of the group is fought for by the Comedian and the Villain, and who controls the dollar is what decides who has the power.  The play concludes ironically, with a sense of Deus-ex-Machina, upon the entrance of a stranger, who is asked to make change for the dollar bill so that the players may divide it up, and who instead pulls a gun, steals the dollar and runs off.  How the Provincetown Players were put in contact with the play is not clear; Pinski had immigrated to the United States eighteen years before, and he wrote his plays in Yiddish originally, not the typical playwright the Players championed.  The casting of B. W. Huebsch (as he’s listed in the program) as The Villain was not only a provocative part of this production, but may explain the probable connection to the play.  Benjamin W. Huebsch (1875-1964) was quickly becoming one of the most important publishers of modern literature in America, being the first to publish controversial writers like D. H. Lawrence and James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.  A self-made publisher, who came from the printing business rather than as an editor or salesman, Huebsch made a name for himself “catering to the tastes of an educated, cosmopolitan reading public then just emerging.”(7)  Known for supporting cultural activities and radical politics, eventually become a founding member of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), he took ads for his publications in less main-stream periodicals like The Masses and The Little Review, giving him familiarity and contact with many in the Players.  Huebsch’s Jewish heritage, and “entering a profession that had been traditionally hostile to Jews,”(8) connected him to the politically savvy plays of the Jewish experience by Pinski, and, in 1915, he published Pinski’s The Treasure, translated by Ludwig Lewissohn.  In 1920, Huebsch would publish The Dollar in a collection of Pinski’s work titled Ten Plays and translated by Dr. Issac Goldberg; a note at the beginning of this volume states that the original translation of A Dollar was made by Joseph Michael, but was revised by Dr. Goldberg.  The version or translation used by the Players is not listed in the program.

Cheryl Black, in The Women of Provincetown, has published a photo of a rehearsal of The Dollar with six members of the cast in what appears to be a scene early on in the play.  Black’s conjecture is that the woman standing in front of the stage on the house left side with her back to the camera is Nina Moise, directing, and that Pinski is standing on the opposite side from her on the house right side.  If this is true, this would be the only evidence that Pinski was involved in the production, and given the Players’ commitment to the playwright, with Pinski living in New York City at the time, this certainly is possible.(9)  The photo in Black’s book seems to have been printed in reverse, as indicated by the reversed writing on the bottom of the picture (Provincetown Players at 139 McDougal St. “The Dollar”).  Identifying who people are is helped by their general adherence to the stage directions in the script and in knowing many of their faces through other photos of the Players.  In the center is B.J. O. Nordfeldt as The Comedian, carrying the valise.  Stage right of him, seated on a trunk, is The Tragedian, played by Pendleton King.  The Old Man, played by David Cummings, whom the stage directions says shares the trunk as seat with The Tragedian, is standing furthest stage right in front of the trunk.  The Heroine, played by Mary Pyne, is standing stage right, and the Ingenue, played by Margaret Bailey (Noni), is seated on the “ground” just stage right of her.  Assuming this moment captured in the photo is soon after the entrance of the first six characters, then one assumes that the man sitting down stage left is Huebsch playing the Villain.  He seems to have his face darkened, as if in blackface makeup, lips outlined in white.  While it is difficult to make out, it is possible that the other three men are in blackface as well; given that their characters are part of an acting troupe, this might explain why.  The set, designed by Nordfeldt, seems vivid in detail and dimension as it depicts a forest, created with layers of set pieces on the sides as plants and trees and a painted backdrop of hills in the distance.  A low-lying cut-out of painted rocks and ground extends the length of the entire stage at the downstage lip, in a sense framing the scene, and dead center is a sign indicating directions to the nearest towns as called for in the play’s stage directions.  What one is struck by, as Moise indicated earlier, is how small the actual stage is, particularly in depth, and yet how strong a picture has been created by Moise’s staging of the actors.  The photo may be depicting a dress rehearsal since all of the characters appear to be in costume, the standout being Mary Pyne as the Heroine in a wide vertical-striped jacket over a white skirt, topped with a wide-brim white hat.

While Kenton calls The Dollar “none too much in itself,” she says that in the hands of Moise “it became an expertly played, smooth-running comedy.  For the first time on that experimental stage a trained director had been in full charge of one play and the result spoke for itself . . .”(10)  Moise is somewhat self-deprecating about her ability, writing that “although I didn’t know much about stage direction, the rest of them knew less.”  While she acknowledges the company’s vision and flare for plays, she notes that while a few have instinctive acting ability, “no one had the remotest idea of what stage technique meant.”(11)

Copyright 2007, Jeff Kennedy.

(1) David Rosenthal, “David Pinski: Dramatist, Poet and Builder (on the 125th anniversary of his birth),” Jewish Frontier, Vol LXIV, No. 5 (September 1997) 26.

(2) Issac Goldberg, The Drama of Transition: Native and Exotic Playcraft (Cincinnati: Stewart Kidd, 1922) 379.

(3) David Pinski, “The Dollar,” Contemporary One-Act Plays: With Outline Study of the One Act Play and Bibliographies. ed. Roland Lewis (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1922) 323.

(4) “Moods of the Drama,” The Nation, Vol. 110, Issue 2864 (May 22, 1920): 694. The critic also wrote that “his mind is more fixed on bare intention than on the stuff of life.”

(5) Pinski 323. The Treasure became one of Pinski’s most popular plays, staged in Germany by Max Reinhardt in 1910 and produced by the Theatre Guild in New York in 1920. 

(6) “Moods of the Drama” The Nation.

(7) Max Putzel, The Man in the Mirror: William Marion Reedy and His Magazine (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1963): 170.

(8) Catherine Tuner, Marketing Modernism, Between the Two World Wars (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2003): 48.

(9) In a New York Times announcement on January 26, 1917, Pinski, with Ludwig Lewissohn, is mentioned as having newly translated from Polish a play that was scheduled to be performed in New York by Hedwig Reicher on February 4.  New York Times, January 26, 1917: 7.

(10) Kenton 50.

(11) Nina Moise, letter to Edna Kenton, letter 140.2:5, Fales Collection, Bobst Library, New York University.