Page 20 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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CENTURY ago Yiddish drama was still largely book-drama
because a Yiddish stage was non-existent. Today Yiddish
drama is again largely book-drama because no Yiddish theater can
gain a permanent foothold anywhere. But throughout most of
the century the Yiddish drama was mated with the Yiddish
theater and played a significant role in the cultural life of the
Jewish masses.
In 1876, the Yiddish theater was born and Abraham Gold-
faden was its father. For a quarter century he dominated this
theater as dramatic author, musical composer, stage director and
producer. Then followed a quarter century during which eminent
dramatists such as Jacob Gordin, David Pinski, Peretz Hirshbein
and Sholem Asch expanded the range of subject-matter, added
greater subtlety to the dialogue and deepened character-analysis.
This period of most intense dramatic activity was followed by a
quarter century of the theater’s waning influence as a cultural
expression of Jewish life. The end came with the closing in
1950 of the Yiddish Art Theater in New York by its director,
Maurice Schwartz, and though great dramas continued to be
written by aging masters such as David Pinski and H. Leivick
and by younger disciples, they reach audiences primarily through
the printed page.
A century ago clowns and Badchonim were entertaining at
weddings, and festive occasions and Purim plays were being per-
formed by amateurs in private homes. But the Maskilim or Men
of Enlightenment, who wrote more serious drama, could at best
look forward to a few readers. Isaac Baer Levinsohn’s satiric
Die Hefker-Velt
circulated for sixty years in handwrit-
ten copies before it was finally published by Sholom Aleichem in
1888. Abraham Baer Gottlober’s fine comedy
Der Dektukh
written as early as 1838, but was available only in manuscript
form. Israel Aksenfeld did succeed in printing two Yiddish play-
lets during his lifetime. But Shlome Ettinger’s far better comedy
was still unpublished at the time of his death in 1856.
Not until 1862 did pupils of the Zhitomir Rabbinical Academy
attempt to act out this play on the basis of a surviving manu-
script. The main role was assigned to a young man of promising
stage talent, Abraham Goldfaden.