Yiddish Theatre in Europe

The short-lived yet influential movement.

Print this page Print this page

Turbulent Times

In Eastern Europe in that unstable half century, local governments were powerful but short lived, and governments and even borders kept shifting. With rampant discrimination against Jews, and local governments often seeking opportunities for extortion, Yiddish theatre faced the constant threat of suddenly becoming illegal. This forced actors to move often.

The May Laws of 1882, controlling and oppressive laws that prompted mass emigration, led Yiddish culture to become truly international. Many actors moved away from Europe but regularly returned to tour, just as plays continued to be performed in Europe even after the playwright immigrated to another continent.

Yiddish actors were soon known for their emotionalism, energy, and truth in characterization, and evoked passionate loyalty from their fans or "patriotn." Among the early stars best loved in Europe were Ester Rokhl Kaminska, Ida Kaminska, Joseph Buloff, Avrom Morevsky, and in the USSR, Shlomo Michoels.

Gordin's Contributions

The earliest commercial plays were folksy and unsophisticated, but in 1891 Jacob Gordin set out to reform repertory and production methods. Educated in Russia, though he spent much of his life in New York, Gordin wrote high quality melodramas in the style of Tolstoy. Among the best known are God, Man, and Devil and Mirele Efros.

Many of Gordin's works were translated and performed in various European languages, as continued to be the case with many Yiddish playwrights from then on. By elevating Yiddish theatre, Gordin attracted the Yiddish intelligentsia, and Yiddish drama became associated with aspirations to high secular culture and in some sense with modern Yiddish identity.

The Interwar Period

By the mid-twentieth century, Yiddish theatre had its own repertory, with its own cultural allusions and even its own classics, such as the early plays of Goldfadn and Gordin. A variety of popular entertainments developed including operettas, dramas, comedies, revues, and cabaret, from the lowbrow to the witty and sophisticated. More intellectually ambitious fare was also offered, in the same range as the contemporaneous European avant-garde, including naturalism and symbolism.

The forms most characteristic of Yiddish drama were large intense melodramas, domestic plays of tears and laughter, and expressionist creations with more or less explicit political overtones; the majority of plays in all genres wove in some music. Plots and themes touched on all human experience, and not all plays were even about Jewish characters. However, many plays explored specifically Jewish experiences, current or historical, and Jewish problems of loyalty and identity. Translations and adaptations of non-Yiddish plays, from Shakespeare to the contemporary hits, also reached the European Yiddish stage.

The best known serious Yiddish playwrights of the early 20th century included I.L. Peretz, who was also extremely influential through his encouragement of younger playwrights, Sholem Aleichem, David Pinski, Peretz Hirschbein, and Sholom Asch.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Nahma Sandrow

Nahma Sandrow is the author of Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater and God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation, as well as Kuni-Leml, the award-winning off-Broadway musical based on Yiddish theatre material. She writes and lectures on Yiddish and American theatre as well as a range of other subjects.