Page 21 - Jewish Book Annual Volume 18

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Goldfaden began as a Maskil under the influence of Gottlober,
his teacher at the Zhitomir Academy. But it was not until he
came to know the achievements of the Broder Singers that he
conceived of drama as living theater for the masses rather than
as a written exercise of scholarship.
The Broder Singers derived their name from Brody, a Galician
trading outpost. There the folksinger Berl, nicknamed Berl
Broder, entertained since the 1850’s visiting Jewish merchants
with dramatic songs and monologues in which he impersonated
various ghetto types and callings. From Brody and Eastern
Galicia, he wandered on to Russia and Rumania, singing his
ditties and acting out his impersonations. His success gave rise
to a host of imitators who entertained at inns and picnic grounds
throughout Eastern Europe. By 1876 their repertoire included
songs not only by Berl Broder but also by more talented poets
such as Gottlober, Velvel Zbarzher, Yoel Linetsky, Eliakum
Zunser, and, to an ever increasing extent, by young Goldfaden.
In Jassy, a Rumanian Jewish center, Goldfaden, then a strug-
gling journalist, heard his songs sung and saw them acted out in
costume by impersonators to the hilarious applause of overflow-
ing audiences in the town’s largest garden-restaurant. The thought
occurred to him that the dramatic effect could be heightened if
the songs were combined with prose dialogue and woven into
an interesting plot.
Goldfaden3s First Performance
Thus, in October 1876, the first performances took place. Hav-
ing only two actors at his disposal, Goldfaden prepared merely
a scenario. As in the commedia dell’ arte, the exact words were left
largely to the inspiration of the moment on the stage. The actors
were given the plot, the songs and general instructions what
to talk about, but not precisely what to say. The audience
was spellbound by the rapid succession of actions and inter-
spersed lyrics—an entirely novel experience. The initial success
spurred Goldfaden to project an entire series of comedies in
other towns. He engaged additional personnel from among
wandering singers and cantors’ assistants whom he undertook to
train as actors. He even dared a more radical innovation: the
acting of feminine roles by women rather than by men disguised
as women. His troupe was in great demand. With every passing
year it expanded its range, travelling throughout Eastern Europe.
Soon other troupes of itinerant actors were formed, either under
his guidance or in competition with him. Most of these flourished
and planned ever expanding repertoires—when suddenly catas-
trophe struck.
For, in 1883, the Russian government, becoming aware of this
new influential medium for stirring emotions, determined to put