Forging a Hero for a Jewish Stage: Goldfadn's Bar Kokhba

Article excerpt

The emergence of Jewish theater under Abraham Goldfadn permitted an esthetic recuperation of the Past not outside of history as in Biblical Purimshpils but inside history. Goldfadn wanted his audience to retrieve from the stage their lost memory of Jewish sovereignty and in the case of his play, Bar Kokhba, recover an image of Jewish dignity and nobility and a model of Jewish heroics for the present: a Jewish military hero. The old/new Jewish hero reflects the aristocratic ideals drawn from Western theatrical traditions but made "Jewish" by its placement in an Israelite setting: the Romantic hero leading his people to defeat Rome and to establish independence. The play, constructed on the nineteenth-century melodramatic form of the five-act "well-made" play, touches all the bases that would evoke pride and revive memories of Jewish wholeness, authenticity, and greatness as opposed to the present fragmented and weak Jewish audience. The play introduced the classic love triangle, the mutual passions of Bar Kokhba and Dina but tragically destroyed by Romans and traitors. Thus Goldfadn tied the personal trauma to the national one, revealing his goal of employing Western form to celebrate Jewish life and history through the esthetics of stage production. This play marks the beginning of Yiddish theater celebrating Jewish history and heroics and providing through art a new Jewish secular identity by which to encounter the present with a vision of the restored nation in the future.

When Abraham Goldfadn's "musical melodrama," Bar Kokhba, reached the boards on May 5, 1883 in Odessa, the Jewish world in Russia faced the consequences of the assassination of Alexander II in 1881, the May Laws of 1882, and the series of pogroms which had coursed throughout Southern Russia for the previous two years.(1) The mood of the Regime had changed from cautious progress to atavistic reaction. Tensions in the Empire were real. By the Ukase of September 14, 1883 barring Yiddish theater in Russia, Goldfadn's troupe and theatrical undertakings were dashed. Bar Kokhba, it was asserted, was the cause of the Ukase. Enemies of Yiddish theater, the Orthodox and the Jewish elite of St. Petersburg supposedly argued that this play inspired sedition.(2) As of this moment, there is no documentary evidence of who the denunciators, if any, were or of their putative interpretation of the play.

Abraham Goldfadn's theater rapidly evolved in the seventies from a comic/satiric theater of contemporary Jewish folk types to a theater of national expression in the early eighties. Following Mitteleuropa Enlightenment doctrines absorbed by the Haskala and witnessed on Gentile stages, Goldfadn sought to use the theater as a mode of expressing a Jewish national vision of itself, its history and historical recuperation, and as a model for the new secular culture. Theater was more than entertainment; it had a noble didactic purpose. The contemporary realities no doubt helped this evolution. Ansky in his Memoirs remarks that Goldfadn took to heart the murmurings of the Petersburg Jewish intelligentsia which encouraged a quality theater "and took to writing nationalist dramas on historical themes."(3) Although unprovable, Ansky's remark reflects Goldfadn's theatrical evolution. Certainly Bar Kokhba became, in the words of Zilbertsvayg, "one of the key plays of Yiddish theater throughout the world."(4)

Bar Kokhba serves as a template in esthetic form (through plot, character, theme and allegory) to assert Jewish self-consciousness by providing a theatrical catharsis and an ideological intent. The play has been continuously performed -- and alas, transformed [farbessert!]. This play, then, marks a passage in Goldfadn's treatment of character for, putting aside folk types, he fuses his creative imagination with borrowed theatrical models of nobility in this historical play to project a Jewish cultural national ideal. These figures of both noblesse and nobility are reinscribed as a vision of a people in their homeland as opposed to the decentered figures of Exile. …