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  • National Theatre as Colonized Theatre: The Paradox of Habima
  • Gad Kaynar (bio)

Time and circumstances have turned Vakhtangov into an almost legendary figure: [along with] Habima, [and] a social revolution, an Armenian director put[s] on a Hassidic play and obtain[s] world renown. Sometimes it seems even to me that Vakhtangov never existed, that he was only a fairy tale. 1

Habima, later Israel’s National Theatre, first gained worldwide fame after Yevgeny Vakhtangov’s legendary production of The Dybbuk in 1922. According to the conventional account, this production and subsequent productions in the 1920s secured Habima’s reputation in Europe and America, while at the same time demonstrating the Zionist ideals of the company and the fundamental tenets of the Hebrew revival movements in Europe and Israel. These tenets included both the resurrection of the Hebrew language and the revival of the interest in the biblical and pre-diasporic past of the Jewish people. Eventually, the company settled in Israel (or, at that time, Palestine under the British Mandate) in 1931. In 1958—on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the state of Israel—Habima assumed the title of national theatre, which was awarded on the basis of the institution’s achievements in its early years. 2

This, I would argue, is the national myth of Habima. It ties together the evolution of the theatre and the Zionist project with the evolution of the state of Israel. Powerful as it undoubtedly is, this national myth rests in large part on the wishful thinking of the leading figures in the Hebrew revival movement and on the romanticized memoirs of the founders of the theatre. Its authority up to the present day also rests in large part on the false syllogism that deduces the social repercussions of performances from themes in dramatic texts; this is the position taken by those Israeli critics who locate Habima’s significance in its Jewish-Hebraic repertory. 3 [End Page 1]

Nonetheless, despite the authority of the conventional account, I suggest that Habima, which was established in Moscow in 1918, in the wake of the Bolshevist revolution, under the auspices of the Moscow Art Theatre (MAT), was not, at least at its inception, the unequivocably Zionist national theatre it claimed to be. Despite the aspirations of its idealistic founders, Menachem Gnessin, previously an actor in Yiddish theatre, Nachum Zemach, a Hebrew teacher, and Hanna Rubin-Rovina, a kindergarten teacher, to create a Hebrew National Theatre, Habima was shaped more directly by the artistic and institutional character of high art theatre in general and the MAT in particular. Under the supervision of Konstantin Stanislavsky and the direction of his students, Yevgeny Vakhtangov, Vsevold Mchedelov, Alexander Diki, and others, MAT cast Habima in its own Russian mold of a European art theatre. It did so with the participation of Habima members; Stanislavsky incorporated the young group into the studio net of The MAT under the direction of his most prominent student, the Armenian Vakhtangov, in response to pressure from Habima founder, Zemach. 4 Without Stanislavsky’s patronage, this effort may have had the same fate as the earlier attempt (in 1913) by Zemach, Gnessin, Rovina, and Yehoshua Bertonov to establish Habima in Warsaw; this enterprise fizzled out in amateurish productions of Mark Erenstein’s “ethnically” Jewish play The Eternal Song and Nikolai Gogol’s Marriage. 5

The Moscow Theatre Habima—as the members called their company during their world tours from 1918 to 1931, including their first performances for Zionist pioneers in Palestine—became one of the leading art theatres of the 1920s. It was essentially cosmopolitan in orientation, despite its title—Biblical Studio—and its stated intention to dedicate itself to Hebrew-only performances of Jewish plays with biblical and messianic themes. 6 It owed its international reputation to its productions of The Eternal Jew, The Dybbuk and The Golem in Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, London, New York, and other theatrical capitals. This reputation was based not on the Jewish themes of the plays nor on Habima’s stilted use of Hebrew, but rather on the stylistic inventiveness of these three productions, and their artistically distinctive engagement with Russian modernism and German Expressionism.

This cosmopolitan orientation...

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