As a playwright with an interest in both sports and history, Samuel Bernstein became intrigued with the story of Avery Brundage, the only American to ever serve as president of the International Olympic Committee.
Before he assumed that position in 1952, Brundage competed in the 1912 games, then headed the Olympic movement in the United States. He was said to be an admirer of Adolf Hitler, and he used his powerful influence to prevent the American team from boycotting the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin in protest of Hitler’s racist and anti-Semitic ideology.
The Nazi leader wanted the 1936 Olympics to showcase the strength and superiority of Aryan athletes over people he considered “subhuman.”
His wish was not to be.
Two members of the American Olympic team, Jesse Owen and Ralph Metcalfe, were African-Americans. Two others, Marty Glickman and Sam Stoller, were Jewish. Although Owens won four gold medals and Metcalfe won a silver medal in the games, neither Stoller nor Glickman was permitted to compete. “They were told just before the race they were not going to run,” said Bernstein in a July 18 phone interview from his home in Framingham, Mass.
When he told his wife, Arlene, in 2003 about his fascination with Brundage, she encouraged him to turn it into a play.
A decade later, the New Jersey native will have his two-act drama, Olympics Uber Alles, produced Off-Broadway at St. Luke’s Theatre in Manhattan; it is scheduled to run from Aug. 27 to Sept. 21.
Born in Jersey City and raised in West New York, Bernstein attended Cornell University as an undergraduate, then Brandeis University to earn a PhD in dramatic literature.
In between teaching English and creative writing at Northeastern University in Boston for the past 53 years, Bernstein has written and produced some 20 plays.
To create Olympics Uber Alles, he collaborated for two years with a student, Marguerite Krupp.
“We studied Brundage and various other dignitaries — people of prominence in many countries, people holding high positions — who had acted in a manner that was discreditable,” he said.
He and Krupp met twice a week at bookstores and coffee shops in the Boston area, reading parts of their script aloud.
“People would gather around us to listen, and they would ask us, ‘What is going to happen?’” he told NJ Jewish News.
Stewart Schneck of North Caldwell plays Glickman as an older man, and considers his character “really a mensch.” He told NJJN “this play is a tribute to brave souls who took it on the chin and gave up their shot at the Olympics.”
The play combines Brundage and other historical figures with “two main characters who were made up by me,” he said. They are a male Jewish professor and a female Catholic museum curator who team up to research the exclusion of Glickman and Stoller some eight decades after the Berlin Olympics took place.
The mystery of their exclusion — Was it anti-Semitism? A question of performance? Interference on the part of Brundage? — is at the heart of the drama.
One aspect of the drama involves “the separate struggles of the professor and the curator against the prejudices of their upbringing as they search for truth and find meaning in their own developing relationship,” Bernstein said.
After the work was completed in 2005, Bernstein and Krupp received a grant from Boston University and staged its first reading at a theater on campus.
Eventually, Krupp left the project “and over the next seven years I rewrote it and raised money” to finance a production staged at MIT in Cambridge.
“I want people from New Jersey’s Jewish community to come to Manhattan to see my play if they want a powerful revelation of the Jewish past and encounter some of the beauty and the glories of being Jewish,” said Bernstein.
“They will come to see that some current issues affecting Jews relate to what happened in the past, and they will be, I hope, very much engaged in both some historical figures’ biases and experiences and the interactions between the male Jewish professor and the female Catholic museum curator.”
Bernstein added that Olympics Uber Alles audience members will also “learn something about the dynamics of decision-making in powerful institutions — both Jewish and non-Jewish. That is also quite absorbing.”