The Eternal Road (1937), an enormous and ultimately unsuccessful piece of musical theater propaganda, attempted to place the Jewish people on an historical pathway connecting Biblical heroes, European pogroms, and entry into a promised land. The piece begins with a group of contemporary Jews huddled in a synagogue while a pogrom rages outside. The persecuted group debates religious questions and retells Biblical stories, which are played out by figures on the upper stage levels. At the denouement, local authorities send the group into exile, and the entire company proceeds up the “eternal road,” a massive, five-level stage set. Intended to raise awareness for the plight of Jews in Nazi Germany, The Eternal Road was critically successful and commercially somewhat viable, but production costs were so high that they bankrupted the producer.
This paper shows how multiple elements of the opera—libretto, music, original staging, set design, sound design, and production history—work to digress away from and defer a final ending. This operatic deferral, I argue, can be analyzed similarly to the way scholars have analyzed digressive literary works, and can shed light on 20th century adaptations of wandering Jew mythology, here reimagined as a formal element. By deferring the ending of the story, the fictive theatrical space tries to hold back an oncoming catastrophe. The theme of infinite deferral carries through Max Reinhart's staging, Kurt Weill's music, Franz Werfel/Ludwig Lewisohn's libretto, the set design by Norman Bel Geddes, innovations in sound technology by Leopold Stokowski, and the virtuosic production acrobatics Meyer Weisgal performed to keep the show afloat. By digressing in both content and concept, The Eternal Road presents a tragic version of a wandering text.