Two Yiddish Playwrights

By Sandrow, Nahma | Midstream, July-August 2002 | Go to article overview

Two Yiddish Playwrights


Sandrow, Nahma, Midstream


From the creation of the Moscow Yiddish State Art Theater (GOSET) in 1919, till its doors were bolted in 1949, Yiddish theater was one of the showpieces of Soviet culture. The Moscow Yiddish State Art Theater (GOSET), founded under a Central Theater Committee and Yevsektsia (the Yiddish Section of the Commissariat for Jewish Affairs), was the best and best known of a national network of state Yiddish companies. At its crest in the 1930s, over twenty such companies flourished, performing primarily new plays and adaptations of old plays.

Sholem Aleichem's Tevye the Dairyman and a version of Mendele's The Travels of Benjamin the Third were GOSET's greatest triumphs (aside from King Lear); the same two plays were presented over and over, partly because they were pre-Revolutionary and somehow managed to stay for a while outside history, and partly because they were identified with the great actors Shloyme Mikhoels, (killed in 1948) and Binyomin Zuskin, (killed in 1952). However, many of the plays that now seem to have been the strongest in the Yiddish repertory were rarely or never performed. For example, the works of Jacob Gordin and H. Leivick, two major Yiddish playwrights profoundly sympathetic to the Revolution, were largely absent from the Soviet Yiddish stage. This article will explore some of the reasons, both stylistic and ideological, for their absence.

Jacob Gordin (1853-1909) was the first serious Yiddish dramatist, best remembered for his most popular melodramas, God, Man, and Devil, and Mirele Efros; or, the Jewish Queen Lear. He began his literary career by writing anti-tsarist articles in the Russian press. He participated in Am Olam, a spiritual brotherhood dedicated to working the soil and left for America in 1891, just minutes ahead of the tsarist police. On the Lower East Side, he switched to Yiddish and became a journalist and lecturer of enormous personal authority and influence.

In 1891, the intelligentsia scorned the new institution of Yiddish theater as parochial and vulgar trash--in a word: shund. They despised it aesthetically, and they resented it became it demeaned Jewish culture. Just as he believed in an Am Olam, through which Jews would rise out of their backward, isolated state and join everyone else in international brotherhood and enlightenment, so too Gordin conceived of a higher and more universal Yiddish drama. From the moment he--as he later recalled--sat down "as a scribe sits down to copy out a Torah," he created a serious repertory, in the process drawing intellectuals into Yiddish theater as audiences and as artists.

Although Gordin campaigned to elevate Yiddish drama through his writings and lectures, it was his plays that were his primary accomplishment. These were primarily melodramas of high quality; virtue triumphed against evil only after considerable suspense, intensified by music but relieved by colorfully comic minor characters. Gordin included in his mission the purification of the Yiddish language; although characters speak the level of Yiddish that suits their class and nature, his better plays avoided high-flown Daytshmerish and set-piece tirades in order to maintain the illusion that real people are living their lives on stage. Gordin brought to Yiddish theater the ideals of verisimilitude and fidelity to text, and he won his actors' loyalty by creating for them juicy and vivid roles.

Just as Soviet art theory demanded that art teach a lesson--in the words of a Central Committee Special Resolution: "Dramatic literature and the theaters must ... contribute fully to the further development of the best sides of Soviet Man's development"--Gordin too wrote from a didactic impulse. Characters represented political or philosophical positions. King Lear's loyal son-in-law, whose university training enables him to cure the old man's blindness, demonstrates a higher virtue than the disloyal sons-in-law who want his money but give him nothing. …

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