The High Priestess of Anarchy

The High Priestess of Anarchy

Ted Merwin’s column appears monthly. He writes about theater for the paper and is the author of the award-winning “Pastrami on Rye,” a history of the Jewish deli.

“Anarchism,” the Lithuanian Jewish activist Emma Goldman predicted in her autobiography, “will make an end to the struggle for the means of existence.” In Lorna Lable’s one-woman show, “Emma Goldman: My Life,” a poor girl’s dream to free all of humanity from suffering and want comes vividly to life.

The play runs Friday evening at Metropolitan Playhouse in the East Village.

Directed by Karen Case Cook, “Emma Goldman: My Life” follows Goldman from her arrival in New York from Rochester, where she had first settled after arriving from Lithuania, to her deportation to the Soviet Union during the Red Scare following the First World War. It chronicles how she became what the newspapers called the “high priestess” of anarchy through her sensational, crowd-galvanizing speeches, which, along with her vitriolic articles, made her the most controversial woman in America.

Along the way, the 90-minute play shows Goldman’s involvement in a plot with her lover, Alexander Berkman, to murder industrialist Henry Clay Frick; her spirited public defense of Leon Czolgosz for the assassination of President William McKinley; and the numerous other controversies in which she was embroiled, which ultimately led to her deportation along with 248 other radicals.

In an interview, Lable told The Jewish Week that Goldman’s “only weapon was words,” which she wielded in the cause of freedom, especially for women, whom she believed should have access to birth control. “She was warm, passionate, strong and dynamic,” Lable said, “and her intensity rages through me as soon as I step onto the stage.”

While Lable (who was seen in a bit part in the Ben Stiller movie, “Keeping the Faith”) doubts that Goldman ever said one of the most famous quotes that is attributed to her, “If I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution,” Lable is herself a dancer, and she brings fluid, graceful movement to her portrayal of a woman who was known for her frank sexuality and celebration of her body.

Goldman has been portrayed numerous times on stage and screen, most notably by Maureen Stapleton, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance in Warren Beatty’s 1981 film, “Reds.” She is also the subject of a new biography by Vivian Gornick, “Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life” (Nextbook).

According to Cook, Goldman’s love for America knew no bounds, despite her anarchist philosophy. After becoming disillusioned with Bolshevism and winning the right to leave the Soviet Union, Goldman ended up living the rest of her life in Canada. “She loved the United States so much,” Cook said, “that she used to stand on the border and look into the United States and weep.”

“Emma Goldman: My Life” runs this Friday evening at 8 p.m. at Metropolitan Playhouse, 220 E. Fourth St. For tickets, $15, call the box office at (212) 995-5302 or visit

read more: