The emergence of Hebrew theatre predates the state of Israel by nearly 50 years. The first amateur Hebrew theatre group, called The Lovers of the Hebrew Stage, was active in Palestine from 1904-1914. The first professional Hebrew theatre, Habimah (The Stage), was founded in Moscow in 1917 and won worldwide acclaim with its production of The Dybbuk. Following its international success, Habimah moved to Palestine in 1931, where it became the National Theatre. Just before Habimah’s arrival, actor and director Moshe Halevi founded the Ohel Theatre in 1925 as a workers’ theatre dedicated to socialist issues as well as biblical themes. Performing in the land of the Bible, its actors sought to link the once glorious biblical past with their hopes for a Zionist future.
The first Hebrew plays from Palestine tended to focus on pioneering themes. For example, Shin Shalom’s Dan the Guard (1936) and Ahron Ashman’s This Land (1942) both explored the physical and mental hardships suffered by newcomers trying to build a country. Many of the Hebrew plays written at this time depicted relatively harmonious communities, whose major task was to establish roots in the promised land. As was common in American and Canadian pioneering drama, early theatre pieces in Palestine focused on relocating an entire group of characters to a new setting.
Challenges of a New State
After 1948, Israeli theatre began to reflect the realities of life in a new and politically unstable state. At that time, Israeli drama began to explore and portray what would become its two most common motifs: the Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli conflict. These themes have imprinted their marks on Israeli drama since its inception.
For example, in Moshe Shamir’s He Walked in the Fields (1949), the main character is a young Kibbutznik who has a love affair with a Holocaust survivor but soon after dies in Israel’s War of Independence. The sweeping success of this production was primarily due to the way it evoked Israel’s political andsocial reality. The production also marked the historical and thematic shift between Palestinian Jewish theatre and Israeli theatre. For the first time a sabra (native Israeli) wrote about sabras in an idiomatic and contemporary Hebrew.