Nathan Englander’s first play, “The Twenty-Seventh Man,” is about a struggling, unknown Jewish writer named Pinchas Pelovits apprehended by Stalin’s secret police along with prominent Yiddish poets slated for execution. Englander talked to The Jewish Week about the experience of becoming a playwright.
Jewish Week: You began your career by writing short stories, then wrote a novel (“The Ministry of Special Cases,” about the Dirty War in Argentina), then translated a Haggadah (the New American Haggadah, written with Jonathan Safran Foer), and now you’re a playwright. How does that feel?
Englander: Writing, for me, is about a constant sense of being reborn. It was freeing and life-changing for me to realize that my obligation is simply to “story,” and that my job is simply to put more stories into the world. It’s been fascinating and exciting to see myself as a playwright. Now I can hang a new shingle. I’ve learned a different way to be in the world.
What have been some of the challenges in making this transition to playwriting?
It’s been a massive awakening to a new set of rules. It’s like learning a new language, an utterly new way to communicate. I love the short story because it’s so pressurized. And theater is unbelievably pressurized — it’s so delicate and loaded that if a sentence goes on too long, blood starts coming out of the actors’ ears. It’s also a privilege to work in such a collaborate form; my own logic is not enough — it needs to fit everyone’s logic in order to make sense to them.
Do you identify with the main character in the play, as he is in the process of becoming a writer?
Absolutely. The play is based on my first, grown-up story, that I started writing when I was 19. It’s about Stalin and a bunch of murdered poets, but it’s really about becoming someone else. If Pinchas gets his chance to be a writer at the end of the story, then, after last night, I get my chance to be a playwright. Also, I feel a little like Pinchas in the cell with all those other people, although our “cell” at the Public is a little bigger, and I get to share it with Oskar Eustis (the Public’s artistic director), Barry Edelstein (the play’s director), the actors (including Ron Rifkin and Chip Zien) and so many other talented, seasoned artists.
Why do you think that Stalin’s crimes, including the purges of Jewish doctors and writers, are less known, for example, than Hitler’s?
I don’t know. People didn’t know about what happened in Argentina either, that the regime killed tens of thousands of its own people, that it dropped people out of helicopters. I spent 10 years writing a novel about that. When I first heard this story about Stalin killing these Yiddish writers, it was about 40 years ago; the Berlin Wall was just coming down and the history of this period was just beginning to trickle out. I felt that someone should write these writers a story, since they didn’t get to finish out their own lives and careers.
This play is about Yiddish writers, and you use Yiddish words in many of your stories. What does Yiddish signify for you?
Nobody spoke Yiddish in my home. My unbelievably Yankee, New England grandmother would use Yiddish phrases. Her parents were also born in the States. I think that a lot of it has to do with my Orthodox Jewish education and the cadences of Yiddish; I was taught by people who spoke English with a Yiddishe kopf. They flipped the sentence structures around, but they weren’t flipped to me; that’s just how we talked.
Are you planning to write more plays?
Lincoln Center Theater has commissioned a play based on one of my other stories. And I have other ideas for plays as well. I’m pretty excited to dig into a number of new projects.