The explanation, when it finally came, seemed almost as confused as the chaos the incident had triggered. The facts were mostly not at issue: On the night of Wednesday, Nov. 14, a non-Equity touring company of Bartlett Sher’s 2015 Broadway production of Fiddler on the Roof finished playing its first act at Baltimore’s Hippodrome Theatre without incident. The house lights were just coming up for intermission when a man seated in the balcony began to shout, “Heil Hitler! Heil Trump!” Coming less than three weeks after a gunman shouting anti-Semitic slogans had murdered 11 people at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life Synagogue, the drunk man’s shouts naturally created a degree of panic. Assuming he was armed, many spectators dashed for the exits, while others hunkered down in their seats or, more bravely, shouted back. Reports differ on whether or not the man’s arm was raised in the Hitler salute.
The incident was quickly ended. Ushers surrounded the man and turned him over to the theater’s security guards, who escorted him out and delivered him to Baltimore police, who issued him a “stop ticket,” which carries no penalties and requires no court appearance, and sent him on his way. After everyone had calmed down, the Fiddler performance resumed, without incident, though in an atmosphere of greatly heightened tension. The man, 58-year-old Anthony M. Derlunas II, of Joppa, Md. (roughly half an hour’s drive from Baltimore), admitted that he had been drinking heavily before the performance. He later apologized for his actions, explaining, improbably, that the pogrom scene which closes Fiddler’s first act had evoked his resentment of Trump’s anti-immigrant policies, and that his shouts were meant to be taken satirically. “The thing that I can’t stand,” he told The Baltimore Sun in an interview two days after the incident, “is Trump spreading hatred, and what did I do? I spread hatred.” His action was, he said “beyond a mistake.”
The convoluted rationale behind Derlunas’ explanation has been met with widespread dubiety, for obvious reasons. It’s hard to imagine anyone, however drunk, thinking that a shout of “Heil Hitler!” at a performance of Fiddler on the Roof could be construed as satirical. Nor is the Baltimore Police Department’s response wholly explicable. Derlunas was let go, a police spokesman said, because his speech did not threaten anyone directly, and so was protected under the First Amendment. But, again, it is hard to perceive the shout of “Heil Hitler!” at a performance of Fiddler as anything but a direct threat, especially coming so soon after the Pittsburgh massacre, it is more readily conceived as the equivalent of shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theater—the very definition of speech that is not constitutionally protected. (The Washington, D.C., office of the Anti-Defamation League, in a statement, urged the Baltimore City State’s Attorney to press charges against Derlunas.)
But the incident’s ramifications go beyond the issue of Derlunas’ motives or the police response. They underscore the unsafe nature of our once-sheltered existence. Fiddler on the Roof, itself now 54 years old, is a musical that memorializes—and celebrates—a vanished past. Even its depiction of a pogrom is a rather mild one, perpetrated with a degree of reluctance by the local gentiles, who have always lived on terms of cautious neighborliness with the town’s Jews, under instruction from czarist officials. In about a dozen various productions of Fiddler over the years, I don’t recall ever being frightened at the pogrom scene. It is, intentionally, a far cry from the truly virulent hatred of Russia’s Black Hundreds and the destruction wrought on Jewish shtetls by Cossack troops. In the agonizing Mendel Beilis case, the czarists even went so far as to dredge up the ancient myth of ritual murder as a slander against Russia’s Jews, just as white nationalists have dredged up the long-dead Nazi postures and cries of “Heil Hitler!” When a nation is in a transitory state, as ours is, old nightmares recur.
Because I have spent much of my life working with Kurt Weill, for some of whose music theater works I provided the standard English translations now published in the Kurt Weill Edition, the misguided shout at the Fiddler intermission in Baltimore immediately brought to my mind one very specific incident: On November 26, 1933, the French soprano Madeleine Grey performed in an orchestral concert at Paris’ Salle Pleyel, at which she gave the French premiere of three songs by Kurt Weill, excerpts from his last work produced in Germany, Der Silbersee (Silverlake), with lyrics by the playwright Georg Kaiser. The first two passed with no comment beyond general applause, but the third was the provocative “Ballad of Caesar’s Death,” which ends with this stanza (approximate translation): “Let no man be led by the delusion/ His is worth more than another’s life/ Caesar wished to rule by the sword/ But was himself cut down by the knife.”
And at that point, someone in Grey’s audience—who happened to be the composer and music critic Florent Schmitt—shouted, “Vive Hitler!,” which means “Long live Hitler” in French. And when Grey took the general applause which had followed the song as a cue for encoring it, Schmitt and his companion (and apparently several other people) repeated the shout of “Vive Hitler.”
This was a significant event, and widely reported in the Paris press, for Grey, Jewish herself (born Madeleine Grunberg), was not an unknown interloper clutching a batch of new German theater songs. Since 1919, she had been one of France’s leading recitalists, working closely with the likes of Gabriel Fauré and Maurice Ravel. Among the many works she had premiered were the latter’s Chansons Madécasses and Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. Composers loved her strong, clear voice, with its penetrating tone and immaculate diction. For her to be premiering works by Weill, a newcomer to the Paris scene noted for his pop hits, was no mean compliment. Grey’s presence in the Salle Pleyel that day constituted a welcome from Paris’ tight-knit musical establishment—a welcome called sharply into question by Schmitt’s hostile outburst.
Schmitt himself, by contrast, was an equally well-known figure in that scene but something of an outlier, famous for holding all of Paris’ many musical circles in contempt, and for giving voice to that contempt in the concert hall. This trait, along with his sprawling works, both rhythmically and harmonically extravagant, had earned him a degree of respect but also a certain amount of loathing. (Erik Satie had told a group of young musicians, “I would sooner kill myself than orchestrate as badly as Florent Schmitt.”) While most of the city’s musical press condemned Schmitt’s outburst, there were some who defended his right to vent his opinion, even in such inflammatory terms, and a few who went so far as to agree with him. One critic reported hearing Schmitt say, on leaving the concert, “We have enough bad musicians in France without Germany sending us all her Jews.” Lucien Rebatet, arts critic for the ultranationalist and anti-Semitic newspaper Action Française, deplored the content of Schmitt’s outburst while agreeing—as a fervent anti-Semite—with its motives.
As World War II drew nearer, Schmitt became increasingly involved with pro-Nazi organizations. When France fell, he represented music in Groupe Collaboration (“Collaboration Group”), the name of which, says a French historical website, “is self-explanatory.” Under Goebbels’ aegis, Schmitt made propaganda tours of Germany. When the war ended and France struck back against its collaborationists, his music was banned from performance or publication for a year. It was during this time that his work, once frequently programmed, began to fall into the relative obscurity where it now rests.
There is no real analogy between Schmitt, a prominent figure in the musical capital whose principles he attacked, and Derlunas, a comparative nobody in a city of modest cultural claims, whose only previous brush with fame was a 2012 arrest for driving with a suspended license. Baltimore is a city of considerable controversy these days, mostly involving the acrimonious relations between its police force and African-American residents; but the acrimony is certainly not as widespread or extreme as the fevered political atmosphere of 1930s Paris, filled with contending political parties and receiving a steady stream of refugees—including world-famous cultural figures—from its newly Nazified neighbor nation. To this frenetic condition, no city in America has come—yet.
But there are those, including the dangerous idiot in the White House, who would like to drive us all into that condition, playing on our fears and encouraging us to distrust each other. The Fiddler company that was playing in Baltimore moved on to Pittsburgh, where the news came that, the day before Thanksgiving, a young man had aimed a BB gun at theatergoers waiting to get into the Benedum Center, where Fiddler was playing. The theater’s chief security officer caught him and held him pinned to the ground until police arrived. Thankfully no one was injured, but the charges the gunman faces are deeply serious, and Pittsburgh does not need any more grief than it has already sustained this year.
None of us, in fact, needs any more grief. The extreme efforts that some seem to put into escalating our anxiety level would be puzzling if one couldn’t easily read the pernicious motives behind it. Schmitt and his friends could at least convince themselves that they had a thousand-year-old cultural tradition to defend, but America—a nation built by immigrants on a legal premise of equality for all citizens and freedom for all religions, can make no such claim. Diversity is America’s story, and always was. The difference between Schmitt’s Europe and Derlunas’ USA is the difference between a mere bigot and a potential terrorist. Derlunas, like Schmitt, merely shot off his mouth. But if he had been a creep with a weapon instead of a drunk with a misguided impulse, America would have become a different place that Wednesday night—and not one in which the grandchildren of Anatevka’s Jews could have taken any comfort.