Last week’s Oscar winner, The Artist, is about that liminal moment in cinema history when the silent movie became the talkie. It was also a salient reminder of the continuing influence of the Jewish community in Hollywood. The producer of The Artist is the indomitable, Harvey Weinstein.
Nicholas Wright’s new play, Travelling Light, is concerned with another liminal moment in cinema history – the moment when the still photograph became a moving picture and motion pictures were born. The play also highlights the fact that the birth of modern film took place within the Jewish community. These cinematic pioneers became the pilgrim fathers and mothers who took their new invention to America and laid the foundations for the Hollywood factory of dreams of Louis B Mayer and Samuel Goldwyn.
Travelling Light sees in the bustling life of the shtetl, the small town, the embryonic beginnings of cinema. A scene in the play, where the would be director, Maurice Montgomery, and his female assistant, realise that a length of continuous film can be spliced and glued together to form a new narrative is presented as significant as the invention of the combustion engine. It’s a wonderful Eureka moment. Man using his intellect, creativity and ingenuity to produce something that would provide another light with which we might interpret the world around us.
But why did the community of the shtetl become the focus for such inventiveness and creativity? In a programme note, the writer, Eva Hoffman, points to the moral centre at the heart of the shtetl:
Everyone within the shtetl’s small compass knew each other; and although there was clear social hierarchy, based on the values of wealth and religious learning, the importance of charity meant that not even the poorest or the most improvident were entirely rejected from the communal net. On the Sabbath, those who could not afford a proper meal were taken in by their more prosperous neighbours; and on those evening, the shtetl really did become a united organism, with Sabbath candles visible through each home’s windows....
What accounted for this outburst of inventiveness and creativity? Perhaps it was precisely the encounter between traditionalism and modernity; the disciplines of piety and religious reasoning colliding with new, turbulent social realities...such confrontations can liberate surprising forces of imagination and thought...
Travelling Light is a sentimental reimagining of the early days of cinema. All those eureka moments – editing, casting, continuity, cinematography, finance, etc – are celebrated with real warmth and humour in Wright’s play. When I next walk into the local cinema multiplex, I’ll remember with a new clarity the huge contribution that small Jewish communities made in providing pleasure, entertainment and stimulation to those millions of us who simply love the movies.
Travelling Light by Nicholas Wright is currently on at the National Theatre, London.