God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation

God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation

God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation

God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation


God, Man, and Devil is an anthology of five Yiddish plays in translation, plus two additional independent scenes, all written by well-known playwrights in the first quarter of the twentieth century.

The settings range widely -- a luxurious parlor, a haunted graveyard, a farmyard, a sweatshop on strike, a subway, and the boardwalk of Atlantic City. The plays evoke tears and laughter through melodrama, expressionism, satire, fantasy, farce, suspense, and romance. But all consider the same question: what is life's moral purpose? And all display theatrical flair that made Yiddish audiences such passionate fans of their dramas and their stars.

Translated and edited to make them more accessible for both reading and performance, the plays are accompanied by prefaces and notes to help students of theater and of Jewish culture by providing historical context, production histories, and elucidation of references.


I picked these plays because I like them. They do not add up to a full representation of the scope of serious Yiddish drama. Too many styles are missing: no mystical symbolism, for example; no heroic history; no slice of grim life; no love story interspersed with romantic and comical duets. (The two additional scenes in the appendix are there primarily to show off the raucous quality occasionally characteristic of Yiddish theater, especially in popular performance.) Nevertheless, an examination of these five plays and playwrights can show a great deal about Yiddish drama.

The five playwrights had much in common. All were born in the nineteenth century and lived into the twentieth. All began writing in Eastern Europe and moved to New York. (Pinski eventually moved to Israel.) All used several languages comfortably, as did most of their audiences, and were aware of theater being made by their contemporaries in other languages. All wrote in other forms as well as drama and in more than one style. All these writers were aware of political movements of their time, and most of them personally participated in various politically left-wing efforts to make the world better.

All the plays in this volume consider some version of the question: What makes life morally good and worth living? They do so in a variety of modes, sometimes aiming for tears, sometimes for belly laughs. But all, even the comedies, are typical of the literary Yiddish repertory in their essentially serious approach to human behavior.

My intention is to convey a sense of the complexity and creativity of Yiddish drama in the short span of less than seventy years when serious professional dramatists were writing for the serious professional stage. It seems artificial to organize an overview of this repertory chronologically or thematically, since the authors were contemporaries and all shared worlds, concerns . . .

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