January 29, 1984
I.B. SINGER TALKS TO I.B. SINGER ABOUT THE MOVIE 'YENTL'
By I.B. Singer
In the 1950's, Isaac Bashevis Singer wrote a story titled ''Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,'' about a rabbi's daughter with ''the soul of a man and the body of a woman.'' The young woman, Yentl, is so hungry for learning that she defies Talmudic law by disguising herself as a man in order to attend a yeshiva, or religious school. The story, set in 19th-century Poland, was adapted for the stage in 1974 and recently became the basis of a multimillion-dollar Hollywood musical produced and directed by Barbra Streisand, who also plays the title role. In the following article, styled as a conversation with himself, Mr. Singer gives his reaction to Miss Streisand's ''Yentl.''
Question: Have you finally seen the Yentl movie?
Answer: Yes, I have seen it.
Q: Did you like it?
A: I am sorry to say I did not. I did not find artistic merit neither in the adaptation, nor in the directing. I did not think that Miss Streisand was at her best in the part of Yentl. I must say that Miss Tovah Feldshuh, who played Yentl on Broadway, was much better. She understood her part perfectly; she was charming and showed instinctive knowledge of how to portray the scholarly Yentl I described in my story. Miss Streisand lacked guidance. She got much, perhaps too much advice and information from various rabbis, but rabbis cannot replace a director. The Talmudic quotations and allusions did not help.
Q: Did you enjoy the singing?
A: Music and singing are not my fields. I did not find anything in her singing which reminded me of the songs in the studyhouses and Hasidic shtibls, which were a part of my youth and environment. As a matter of fact, I never imagined Yentl singing songs. The passion for learning and the passion for singing are not much related in my mind. There is almost no singing in my works. One thing is sure: there was too much singing in this movie, much too much. It came from all sides. As far as I can see the singing did nothing to bring out Yentl's individuality and to enlighten her conduct. The very opposite, I had a feeling that her songs drowned the action. My story, ''Yentl the Yeshiva Boy,'' was in no way material for a musical, certainly not the kind Miss Streisand has given us. Let me say: one cannot cover up with songs the shortcomings of the direction and acting.
Q: Is it true that you wrote a script of the play which Miss Streisand rejected?
A: It is true, and when I read her script and saw the movie I understood that she could not have accepted my version. In my script Yentl does not stay on stage from beginning to end. The leading actress must make room for others to have their say and exhibit their talents. No matter how good you are, you don't take everything for yourself. I don't mean to say that my script was perfect, or even good. But at least I understood that in this case the leading actress cannot monopolize the stage. We all know that actors fight for bigger parts, but a director worth his name will not allow one actor to usurp the entire play. When an actor is also the producer and the director and the writer he would have to be exceedingly wise to curb his appetites. I must say that Miss Streisand was exceedingly kind to herself. The result is that Miss Streisand is always present, while poor Yentl is absent.
Q: How do you feel about the writing?
A: It is not easy to make a film from a story. In most cases it is impossible. The great plays such as Shakespeare's, Moli ere's, Ibsen's, Strindberg's were written as plays. My Aunt Yentl used to say to my Uncle Joseph, ''In a pinch I can make from a chicken soup a borscht, but to make from a borscht a chicken soup, this is beyond any cook.'' Those who adapt novels or stories for the stage or for the screen must be masters of their profession and also have the decency to do the adaptation in the spirit of the writer. You cannot do the adaptation against the essence of the story or the novel, against the character of the protagonist.
Let's imagine a scriptwriter who decides that Mme. Bovary should end up taking a cruise along the Riviera or that Anna Karenina should marry an American millionaire instead of committing suicide, and Dostoyevski's Raskolnikov should become a Wall Street broker instead of going to Siberia. This is what Miss Streisand did by making Yentl, whose greatest passion was the Torah, go on a ship to America, singing at the top of her lungs. Why would she decide to go to America? Weren't there enough yeshivas in Poland or in Lithuania where she could continue to study? Was going to America Miss Streisand's idea of a happy ending for Yentl? What would Yentl have done in America? Worked in a sweatshop 12 hours a day where there is no time for learning? Would she try to marry a salesman in New York, move to the Bronx or to Brooklyn and rent an apartment with an ice box and a dumbwaiter? This kitsch ending summarizes all the faults of the adaptation. It was done without any kinship to Yentl's character, her ideals, her sacrifice, her great passion for spiritual achievement. As it is, the whole splashy production has nothing but a commercial value.