The ‘Key’ To ‘Kaddish’

The ‘Key’ To ‘Kaddish’

Mourning and madness in stage version of Ginsberg’s elegy for his mother

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.

He was not a practicing Jew, but Allen Ginsberg’s poetry was deeply religious in its mystical energies, shimmering visions and profound longings for transcendence. Nowhere is this more apparent than in “Kaddish,” Ginsberg’s incantatory, surrealistic elegy for his mother, written in 1959. Now comes “Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)” as a one-man play starring Donnie Mather in a new production in the East Village. When it ran at the New York Fringe Festival in 2009, Ellen Wernecke of Boston’s Edge newspaper lauded “Kaddish” for bringing the openly gay Beat poet to “luminous, intimate life” and called Mather simply “mesmerizing.”

“Kaddish” has been done onstage before Mather’s version. Ginsberg turned the poem into a screenplay, but it was never filmed. However, Robert Kalfin adapted the screenplay for the stage and presented it in 1972 at the Chelsea Theater Center of the Brooklyn Academy of Music; it was later translated into Hebrew and produced by the Habima Theater in Israel.

Directed by Kim Weild, Mather’s 80-minute “Kaddish” is based on the first two parts of the four-part poem, which begins with memories of Ginsberg’s mother, Naomi, as a young immigrant from Russia and proceeds through her disintegration into madness and commitment to a mental institution. The subtitle of the play refers to a line in the poem in which Ginsberg recalls a letter from his mother that referred to a mysterious key “in the sunlight at the window” and that exhorted him to get married and not do drugs.

Mather, who has a degree in theater from Western Kentucky University, has performed in plays by Shakespeare and Chekhov as well as solo shows like “A Show of Force,” based on texts about war by authors ranging from Sun Tzu to Malcolm X. He began working on “Kaddish” after his own father passed away in Kentucky and he felt a lack of religious ritual to guide him and his Protestant family through the mourning process.

In an interview, Mather compared his play to Tennessee Williams’ “Glass Menagerie,” noting that both are “memory plays” in which the audience witnesses a kind of “exorcism” in which the character “goes through something in the act of reliving or recounting his memories, and he comes through the other side having changed or gained a better understanding of his life.”

Mather pointed out that unlike the Mourner’s Kaddish, which glorifies God, Ginsberg’s poem “exalts madness.” Ginsberg “wrestles with the notion that his madness may be his muse” at the same time as he copes with his own possible share of culpability for his mother’s mental state, given that he authorized her lobotomy. Losing a parent, he added, “puts you in an introspective place that makes you acknowledge your connection to who and where you came from. You reaffirm your identity on your own terms. You move through the world in a slightly different way.”

“Kaddish (or The Key in the Window)” runs through Oct. 9 at the New York Theatre Workshop’s 4th Street Theatre, 83 E. Fourth St. Performances are Tuesday through Saturday at 8 p.m. and weekends at 3 p.m. For tickets, $18 ($13 for students and seniors), call Brown Paper Tickets at (800) 838-3006 or visit

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