The opening of Kushner’s nearly eight-hour magnum opus is unusual because it does not introduce us to any of the play's main characters. It does, however, introduce many of the major themes of the play, such as stasis versus change, the place of religion (and Judaism in particular) in modern life, and assimilation versus cultural specificity. Rabbi Isidor Chemelwitz gives a eulogy at a funeral that we later find out is for Louis’s grandmother. But when we first encounter this monologue at the opening of the play, its purpose is intentionally unclear.
This excerpt is from the 2003 HBO miniseries based on Kushner's play. The series was directed by Mike Nichols, and the rabbi in this scene is played by Meryl Streep.
Suggested Activity: Without providing any contextual information, and before assigning the entire play, ask students to read Act 1, Scene 1, to themselves. Then, ask them to read the same monologue aloud in small groups. Encourage students to guess what the play’s themes are based on their reading of this monologue alone. Discuss: why does this monologue appear at the beginning of the play? What purpose does it serve and what ideas does it raise? What questions does it leave the reader with, whether about the character of the rabbi, the play, or the world it depicts?
Next, watch the video as a class. Ask students to consider how the monologue is presented in the video. How is the rabbi characterized? How is the congregation portrayed? What visual and audio details are used to bring the scene to life? Which parts of the text are left out? Ask students how this portrayal compares to what they had pictured in their own imaginations when they read the scene.
For a more in-depth study of the scene, ask students to think about how they might perform the monologue differently from the way Meryl Streep performs it. What choices might they make to convey the meaning of the text to an audience? Once students have made notes about these choices, they can perform the scene for one another in small groups.