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Theatre Journal 52.3 (2000) 434-436
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Yiddish Proletarian Theatre:
The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925-1940
God, Man, and Devil:
Yiddish Plays in Translation
Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925-1940. By Edna Nahshon. Contributions in Drama and Theatre Studies, no. 85. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998; pp. x + 260. $59.95.
God, Man, and Devil: Yiddish Plays in Translation. Translated and edited by Nahma Sandrow. New York: Syracuse University Press, 1999; pp. ix + 321. $49.95 cloth, $24.95 paper.
Can a play steeped in Jewish culture from the "old country" and written in Yiddish--a language associated with extinction--still attract a contemporary American theatre audience? And how did a Yiddish theatre collective in exile uphold and undermine the development of the Yiddish theatre and its repertory in America? Two new books focus on aspects of the Yiddish-speaking stage and its American performance history, specifically in New York. Nahma Sandrow (author of Vagabond Stars) has compiled an anthology of plays, originally written in Yiddish, but published or performed in New York, while Edna Nahshon's study covers fifteen years of Yiddish proletarian theatre. These books, read in tandem, highlight the complexities of Yiddish theatre and its relationship to America. Sandrow presents plays of varied styles, while pointing to dramaturgical possibilities for these plays in American theatres. Nahshon devotes her study to the ideals and pitfalls of a Yiddish workers theatre linked to the American Jewish communist movement during the 1920s and 1930s. Nahshon suggests the inherent shortcomings of a theatre initiative whose exclusive tie to radical communist ideology dictated the repertory and theatrical presentation at the expense of creativity, play scripts, and audience appeal.
In the preface to her painstakingly detailed history of the New York-based workers theatre known as Artef (the acronym for the Arbeter Teater Farband), Nahshon refers generally to the Yiddish theatre as "a genuine people's theatre" (x). During the 1920s and 1930s, Yiddish-speaking working-class and immigrant Jews gravitated toward Yiddish theatres to see their values and concerns reflected onstage. The American Jewish community welcomed the idea of a Yiddish art theatre for workers. But the Artef constituted a radical subculture, alienating some of its early supporters. Only within the context of Jewish American communism may one understand the history of the Artef as a "cohesive continuum rather than an episodic series of seemingly unrelated productions" (xiii). Its political orientation shaped its acting style, repertory, organization, and relationship to what Nahshon calls a "politically homogeneous audience" (xiii). This Yiddish theatre was not a theatre for all people. The rank-and-file devotees of the Artef were young, "relatively un-Americanized" post-World War I immigrants (15), more captivated with the Russian model of revolution than with nostalgia for the Yiddish culture they left behind or the precepts of American democracy. Their artistic ideal was to create an acting ensemble modeled on literary collectives. To this end, the Artef initiated intensive training studios. Under the tutelage of directors from the Habimah stage and the choreographer Michel Fokine, actors studied literature, expressive movement, declamation, and Yiddish. Such preparation bolstered their desire for a permanent art theatre. But in 1928 when the collective presented its first Party-sponsored mass spectacles glorifying the Russian revolution, the ideology behind the ideal of "high art" was evident: expose the class struggle and free oneself from "bourgeois institutions."
Nahshon meticulously documents the Artef history in a chronological narrative that includes information on American communism and registers the phases in the theatre's rise and fall. Excerpted stage reviews from Yiddish newpapers accompany lengthy plot summaries. The author's comprehensive research, however, suffers from a sometimes tedious cataloguing of details about people, principles, and productions within the collective, making it difficult to determine which details are most important and which might be extended footnotes. There are fascinating accounts of the dilemmas facing the theatre, however. In chapters six through eight, for example, Nahshon maps a major conflict...