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The Dybbuk
Premiered January 31, 1922
Habima
Original play by S. An-sky (1914)
Translation: Chaim Nachman Bialik (1920)
Direction: Evgeny Vakhtangov
Design: Natan Altman
Music: Joel Engel

The Dybbuk (originally titled Between Two Worlds) is the tragic love story of Channan, a brilliant Talmudic scholar, and Leah, the daughter of the rich merchant Sender. The two were betrothed by their fathers before they were born, but Sender forgot this pact and promised his daughter to the son of a wealthy man. Channan tries to change this fate by employing prohibited rituals of the Kabbalah and is struck dead. His spirit, or dybbuk, possesses Leah’s body to prevent her from marrying another. But the spirit is exorcised through the intervention of a tzaddik (Hasidic sage), who threatens the dybbuk with excommunication. Nonetheless, love proves stronger than religious magic, and Leah dies so that she may join her beloved.

S. An-sky originally wrote the play in Russian for the Moscow Art Theater, but with Konstantin Stanislavsky’s encouragement he translated it into Yiddish―this version was first performed by the Vilna Troupe in 1920. The poet Chaim Nachman Bialik translated the four-act play into Hebrew for Habima. Evgeny Vakhtangov interpreted the struggle of a soul between heaven and earth as a manifestation of a social and cultural revolution against the old religious order. Natan Altman designed the costumes in angular Cubo-Futurist forms that relied on asymmetry to destroy the central axis of the body and intensify the traits of each character. With this, the company’s most celebrated play, Habima became one of the first theaters in Russia to embrace a newly expressionistic acting style.



The Golem
Premiered March 15, 1925
Habima
Original play by H. Leivick (1924)
Translation: M. Caspi
Direction: Boris Ilich Vershilov
Design: Ignaty Nivinsky
Music: Moshe Milner

The Golem was based on the legend of Rabbi Judah Loew, also known as the Maharal (an acronym for Moreinu Ha-rav Loew, or “our teacher the Rabbi Loew”) of Prague (c. 1512–1609). He was a student of the Kabbalah who learned the ineffable Name of God and used it to create a mystical creature out of clay. He endowed this creature, called the Golem, with monstrous strength to protect the Jews against their oppressors and enemies, but eventually the Golem turned on its own people and had to be destroyed. Leivick’s play is an expression of the traditional Jewish quest for the Messiah: the Maharal, impatient with God’s promise of Redemption, takes matters into his own hands. His attempts fail, and Redemption remains beyond human reach.

Habima's production presented the Golem as a symbol of the revolution—a monster created with the best of intentions. This allusion escaped the Soviet censors, but not Habima’s sympathetic Jewish audience. Ignaty Nivinsky’s set design described a foreboding, ruined synagogue. Drawing on Jewish and Russian folklore, as well as contemporary science fiction, his colorful costume designs envisioned beggars, phantasmagorical hybrid creatures, and figures that echoed the ancient amulets and the spirit of the Kabbalah.



An Evening of Sholem Aleichem
Premiered January 1, 1921
State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSEKT)
Based on the Menakhem Mendl stories of Sholem Aleichem
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Marc Chagall

The Yiddish theater’s first production in Moscow combined three short plays from the Menakhem Mendl stories of the Russian Yiddish-language author Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916). An Evening of Sholem Aleichem initially consisted of Agents: A Joke in One Act, Mazel Tov, and The Spoiled Celebration. The last was replaced by It’s a Lie! Dialogue in Galicia in September 1921.

Sholem Aleichem’s themes echoed the ideology of the revolution, which condemned capitalism and religion. According to the actor Solomon Mikhoels, the plays demonstrated the “bankruptcy of the old world when many still believed that everything was in good working order.” Mikhoels himself portrayed Sholem Aleichem’s recurring character, Menakhem Mendl, a luftmentsh or “man of air,” whose failure to find a place in society despite repeated (and often ludicrous) attempts at financial success reveals the inherent corruption of capitalism. For the author, the luftmentsh represented the Jew of the old shtetl.



Agents: A Joke in One Act
Premiered January 1, 1921 (part of An Evening of Sholem Aleichem)
State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSEKT)
Based on the Menakhem Mendl stories of Sholem Aleichem
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Marc Chagall

In this one-act comedy, which takes place in a third-class train car, Menakhem Mendl endeavors to sell life insurance. As with his other ventures, this one ends in failure. He makes his first sales pitch when a gentleman takes the seat next to him. As the conversation between the two unfolds, the audience understands that both are insurance agents. When a third gentleman, another insurance agent, enters the car, the scenario repeats itself. Finally, a fourth man enters the car with his wife and five ill-mannered children. The three agents try to convince him of the necessity of life insurance. When he attempts the same with them, each realizes that they are all insurance agents, and that none of them can make a sale.

Marc Chagall's stage set included a white arch that sprang from the floor, suggesting railroad tracks that carry a toy locomotive up an incline. The Yiddish inscription indicates that this is a smoking car.



Mazel Tov
Premiered January 1, 1921 (part of An Evening of Sholem Aleichem)
State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSEKT)
Based on the Menakhem Mendl stories of Sholem Aleichem
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Marc Chagall

Set in the kitchen of a wealthy home, Mazel Tov features a conversation between the bookseller Reb Alter and the cook Beyle. A kindhearted dreamer, Reb Alter complains that his customers are more interested in socialist literature than in old books, hurting his business. Beyle, a widow in her mid-thirties, is irritated by the world’s injustice. After becoming slightly drunk, Reb Alter "explains" Zionist and socialist principles, about which he has only slight knowledge. A mutual sympathy grows between the two, and the play concludes with their decision to get married. Simultaneously, the servant Fradl and the neighbor valet Chaim decide to do the same.

In his stage set, Marc Chagall rendered the Jewish kitchen dreamlike with an upside-down goat—one of his recurring motifs—and a decorative scheme of Hebrew letters on the fire screen, which refer to the author of the story, Sholem Aleichem.



It’s a Lie! Dialogue in Galicia
Premiered September 1921 (part of An Evening of Sholem Aleichem)
State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSEKT)
Based on the Menakhem Mendl stories of Sholem Aleichem
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Marc Chagall
Set design: Natan Altman

It’s a Lie! Dialogue in Galicia took as its theme the destructive force of gossip. The one-act play is a dialogue between two Jewish men riding in a railroad car whose rumors become more outrageous as the play continues. When one discovers that the other is from the town of Kolomea, he attempts to obtain as much information as possible about the town’s wealthiest resident. The man from Kolomea divulges the facts, but in order not to appear a gossipmonger he prefaces everything with the words “They say” and ends with “But it’s a lie.” Under Aleksei Granovsky’s direction, the two actors used extravagant gestures in the manner of marionettes.

Although Marc Chagall left the theater after the first production of An Evening of Sholem Aleichem—when It’s a Lie! was not yet a part of its repertoire—he designed the set and costumes for the play. His costume designs were ultimately used in the production, but his set designs were regarded as too abstract and were replaced by Natan Altman’s, which are no longer extant.



God of Vengeance
Premiered 1921
State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSEKT)
Original play by Sholem Asch (1907)
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Isaac Rabinovich
Music: S. Rozovsky

God of Vengeance is the story of Yankel Tshaptshovitsh, a Jewish brothel owner who tries to shield his daughter from his immoral occupation. His hopes for her redemption are crushed when she falls in love with a prostitute from his brothel. One of the first European plays to deal explicitly with a lesbian theme, God of Vengeance had already gained notoriety in German, Russian, and English productions before GOSEKT’s performance. Aleksei Granovsky emphasized the play’s didactic and political message—the inherent connection between sinful behavior and capitalism—over its risqué subject matter.

God of Vengeance marked a new artistic direction for the theater after Marc Chagall’s departure. Isaac Rabinovich, who replaced him, designed colorful sets and costumes for the production. He emphasized in his stage designs the dichotomy between the bourgeois propriety of the apartment and the squalor of the brothel beneath it (the setting for the second act), thereby capturing the split between Tshaptshovitsh’s two worlds.



The Sorceress: An Eccentric Jewish Play
Premiered December 2, 1922
State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSEKT)
Original play by Avrom Goldfadn (1882)
Adaptation: Yekhezkel Dobrushin and Moshe Litvakov
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Isaac Rabinovich
Music: Joseph Akhron

The Sorceress: An Eccentric Jewish Play contains all of the hair-raising adventures, improbable coincidences, and magical interventions typical of nineteenth-century Yiddish melodrama. The play opens at the home of a wealthy Jew, Reb Avremtse, where his daughter Mirele is celebrating her birthday. The festivities come to an abrupt halt when a tsarist officer enters to arrests Avremtse. Mirele is left in the care of her evil stepmother, Vasia. Aided by the witch-madam Koldunya (portrayed by Benjamin Zuskin), Vasia kidnaps Mirele and sells her into slavery in Istanbul. The witch coaxes the child away with her raspy-voiced song, “come with me.”

Though the play has a happy ending—Mirele’s beloved rescues her, and her father is released from custody—Avrom Goldfadn’s melodrama was transformed into a harsh critique of capitalism and of the early Yiddish theatrical tradition through acrobatics, comedy, and bombastic music. The production was nonetheless criticized as reactionary by Soviet authorities for returning to the themes of traditional Yiddish theater.

Isaac Rabinovich’s Constructivist set comprised scaffolding, ladders, and platforms built atop and beside one another that allowed for exuberant movements by the actors. The stage resembled a construction site, a symbol of progress familiar to the proletarian audience. Joseph Akhron wrote twenty songs, inspired by his ethnographic studies in the former Pale of Settlement, the area of tsarist Russia where Jews were confined until 1917. The juxtaposition of his traditional melodies with Rabinovich’s modern set emphasized the discrepancy between old and new.



Uriel Acosta
Premiered July 3, 1919
Revived April 9, 1922
State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSEKT)
Original play: Karl Gutzkow (1846)
Adaptation for the 1922 production: Moshe Litvakov and Mark Rivesman
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Natan Altman
Music: S. Rosovsky

Karl Gutzkow’s classic German drama is based on the life of Uriel Acosta, a seventeenth-century Portuguese converso, or involuntary convert to Christianity, who fled to Amsterdam in search of religious freedom. Once there, however, the strict orthodoxy of the Jewish community drove him to suicide. Because of its implied criticism of religion and superstition, the play appealed to Soviet authorities.

The sets by Natan Altman—consisting of black walls and an empty stage, with only a few geometric forms to suggest furniture—reflected the peak of Constructivist design. The abstract set contrasted with the actors’ realistic performance.



200,000: A Musical Comedy
Premiered June 28, 1923
State Yiddish Chamber Theater (GOSEKT)
Based on The Big Win by Sholem Aleichem (1915)
Adaptation: Yekhezkel Dobrushin
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Set design: Aleksandr Stepanov
Costume design: Isaac Rabichev
Music: Lev Pulver

200,000: A Musical Comedy tells the story of Shimele Soroker, a poor tailor who wins 200,000 rubles in the lottery. After becoming rich overnight, Shimele tries to ingratiate himself with the local bourgeoisie by throwing a lavish ball and investing in a movie theater. But he mistakenly writes an extra zero on the check for the theater, pays out more money than he has and loses his newfound wealth. In Sholem Aleichem’s original version, Shimele gives much of his fortune to charity, but in Granovsky’s portrayal Shimele represents the immorality and decadence of the nouveau riche.

The social status of the various characters was underscored by a split stage: workers floated on ladders above the obese bourgeoisie. A highlight of the production was the entrance of Soloveitchik the matchmaker, played by Benjamin Zuskin, who descended onto the stage with a parachute to arrange the marriage between Shimele’s daughter and a wealthy man. This was a visualization of the Yiddish term luftmentsh, or “man of air,” a schemer without substance. The GOSEKT production transformed Sholem Aleichem’s lighthearted and comical treatment of class conflict into a scathing and farcical critique of capitalism.



At Night in the Old Marketplace: A Tragic Carnival
Premiered February 1925
State Yiddish Theater (GOSET)
Original play by I. L. Peretz (1907)
Adaptation and direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Robert Falk
Music: Aleksandr Krein

Written by I. L. Peretz as a mystical play about the dawn of modernity, At Night in the Old Marketplace: A Tragic Carnival was transformed into a tragedy in Aleksei Granovsky’s adaptation. A plotless array of disparate images, it opens on an old shtetl market as night falls. In the course of the play, the market turns into a graveyard, and the living figures of children, drunkards, and prostitutes are replaced by their ghostly equivalents. The wedding of a dead bride and groom brings the play to its eerie climax, as the morning star appears and the dead must flee back to their graves. Throughout the play, a pair of badkhonim, or wedding jesters—played by Solomon Mikhoels and Benjamin Zuskin—provide mocking, blasphemous commentary.

Establishing parallels between the living and the dead, shtetls and graveyards, this production sounded the death knell for the traditional Russian Jewish way of life. The wedding of the dead in the cemetery reinforced the belief that a new beginning cannot arise from a moribund world.

Since the text for the play was only one thousand words long, the burden fell on the stage decoration, the costumes, and the music. Aleksandr Krein’s score incorporated klezmer tunes and religious elements with modern motifs. Robert Falk’s grotesque costumes of dead skeletal figures and living zombies with dripping flesh were among GOSET’s most memorable designs. The artist recalled his preparation for the play: “I went to the Moscow Institute of Forensic Medicine and made sketches of drowned men and the decomposed bodies of those murdered for, in fact, reality is the most fantastic thing.”



Jewish Luck
Film released 1925
State Yiddish Theater (GOSET)
Screenplay based on the Menakhem Mendl stories by Sholem Aleichem
Titles: Isaac Babel
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky and Grigory Gricher-Cherikover
Cinematography: Eduard Tissé
Design: Natan Altman
Music: Lev Pulver

GOSET’s first venture into film returned to Sholem Aleichem’s hapless Menakhem Mendl to portray the dying traditions of shtetl life. Humorous in tone, Jewish Luck manages to maintain an ethnographic quality, depicting the Belorussian village of Berdichev through the lens of the preposterous exploits of Mendl and his assistant, whose love for the daughter of a rich man sets up the principal tension between old and new values. Berdichev, a large Jewish community in the former Russian empire, with its humble buildings, is seen as a half-dead place.

Jewish Luck is at times a prosaic documentary and at times a high comedy, and the balance between the two informs the film throughout. Indeed, the portrayal of matchmaking reveals it as a process which ultimately treats brides as little more than cargo. In the scene when Mendl tries his hand at matchmaking, he accidentally arranges the marriage of two brides—making a pointed criticism of the practice, which Granovsky felt to be archaic.



The Tenth Commandment: A Pamphlet Operetta
Premiered 1926
State Yiddish Theater (GOSET)
Original play by Avrom Goldfadn (1887)
Adaptation: Yekhezkel Dobrushin
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Natan Altman
Music: Lev Pulver

Avrom Goldfadn’s operetta relates the story of two angels, one evil and one good, who wager on the efficacy of the Tenth Commandment, “Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor’s wife.” The evil angel, played by Solomon Mikhoels, argues that the commandment is obsolete and bets that even a righteous person will break it. When he sees the manner in which the German bourgeoisie swap wives, the good angel surrenders.

With settings in heaven and contemporary Palestine and Germany, The Tenth Commandment: A Pamphlet Operetta exposes the corruption and decadence of Western Europe, while mocking traditional Jewish definitions of good and evil. GOSET injected the original material with a heavy dose of Soviet propaganda, criticizing traditional piety, bourgeois values, and Zionism. The evil angel wore the dapper suit of a capitalist businessman, while the good angel was dressed in the outfit of a Hasidic Jew. Nevertheless, the play maintained the operetta form and the humor of Goldfadn’s original. Lyrics written especially for the GOSET production were praised by Soviet critics for their accessibility to a mass audience and their commitment to the revolution.



The Travels of Benjamin the Third: Epos in Three Acts
Premiered April 20, 1927
State Yiddish Theater (GOSET)
Based on an unfinished short story by Mendele Mocher Seforim (1835–1917)
Adaptation: Yekhezkel Dobrushin
Direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Robert Falk
Music: Lev Pulver

GOSET returned to the foundations of Yiddish literature with its production of The Travels of Benjamin the Third: Epos in Three Acts, an adaptation of a work based on Miguel de Cervantes’s Don Quixote. Benjamin and his friend Senderl, both naive shtetl dwellers from Tuneiadovka (Droneville), embark on an adventure to find the “Land of Israel.” After an arduous journey, they arrive in what is in fact the neighboring town of Glupskie (Dimwit Town), which Senderl, a submissive househusband, mistakes for Istanbul. Benjamin and Senderl believe they have walked all the way around the world and back. Benjamin succumbs to a fantastical dream filled with strange creatures and imagines himself a great king, Benjamin III, married to the daughter of Alexander the Great. In reality, the two men recognize that this is their shtetl and that Russia is their rightful home.

By emphasizing the foolishness of Benjamin and Senderl, the GOSET production offered a barely hidden critique of Zionism, of Jewish emigration from Soviet Russia, and of shtetl life. Ironically, when Golda Meir attended a revival of the play in 1948, during the first Israeli diplomatic mission to the USSR, Soviet authorities accused GOSET of espousing the very Zionist sympathies that the play had originally intended to disparage. The composer Lev Pulver incorporated “Hatikvah,” the anthem of Zionism and the future State of Israel, into the play’s traditional Ukrainian melodic motif, thus asserting the Soviet Union as the true homeland.



Trouhadec: An Eccentric Operetta
Premiered January 1927
State Yiddish Theater (GOSET)
Original play by Jules Romains (1923)
Adaptation and direction: Aleksei Granovsky
Design: Natan Altman
Music: Lev Pulver
Choreography: Elena Menes

Trouhadec: An Eccentric Operetta, originally written in French, was the first GOSET production without any explicit Jewish content, and marked the first performance of a work by Jules Romains onstage. Set in a luxurious Monte Carlo casino, the play tells the story of Yves Le Trouhadec, a French professor who gambles to win the love of the Parisian actress Mademoiselle Rolande. After a winning streak at the casinos, Trouhadec stages an elaborate banquet to impress his beloved, but in a run of bad luck he loses everything and is nearly driven to suicide. Then a baron friend offers him the job of police commissioner for the principality of Monaco, and Trouhadec becomes a member of the elite and is determined to marry a baroness—only to abandon his plans when a pregnant Rolande appears, demanding that he take responsibility for his unborn child.

Trouhadec presented a weighty communist critique of capitalism. Evoking the decadent glamour of a Western city, Natan Altman’s set designs included mock streetlights and French-language signs. The advertisement for modes, or fashions, emphasized what the Soviets saw as the Western obsession with consumption. While the flamboyance of Altman’s costumes, based on what he had seen on his travels in France, reflected the excesses of bourgeois life, the play itself revealed the author’s rejection of the value placed on individual wealth in a capitalist society.



King Lear
Premiered February 10, 1935
State Yiddish Theater (GOSET)
Original play by William Shakespeare (1606)
Translation: Shmuel Halkin
Direction: Sergei Radlov and Les Kurbas
Design: Aleksandr Tyshler
Music: Lev Pulver

GOSET's 1935 version of King Lear reflected the widespread popularity of Shakespeare’s plays in Soviet Russia at the time. After Joseph Stalin’s 1932 decree that all artistic endeavors conform to the goals of the revolution, the stature of Shakespeare’s works, translated from Russian to Yiddish by Shmuel Halkin, made them safe vehicles for disguised political commentary. Solomon Mikhoels was able to translate his role as an egocentric and despotic King Lear into a critical portrait of Stalin, who was persecuting many of his original supporters in much the same way as Lear rejects his one loyal daughter.

King Lear marked the pinnacle of Mikhoels’s collaboration with Benjamin Zuskin, who played the Fool. Mikhoels felt that he and Zuskin were not playing two separate roles but two sides of a single role. The interaction between their characters reflected the stark dichotomies that marked Stalin’s Soviet Union. The emphasis on psychological paradox was far removed from the stylization of social types that Granovsky had extracted from the writings of Sholem Aleichem and Avrom Goldfadn.

Aleksandr Tyshler's two-story set depicted a medieval castle with sculpted figures. The play, which confirmed GOSET as one of the world’s leading theaters, would be performed two hundred times in less than four years. Of Mikhoels’s performance, the Shakespearean actor and director Gordon Craig commented, “I understand why we have no Lear worthy of the name in Britain. The reason is quite simple: we have no actor like Mikhoels.”



The audio component is produced by The Jewish Museum in association with Acoustiguide and includes critical commentary by actor and director Liev Schreiber; theater historian Robert Marx; art historian Bella Mayer, who is granddaughter of artist Marc Chagall; and J. Hoberman, senior film critic of the Village Voice and an expert on Yiddish film. Actors from the New York-based National Yiddish Theater - Folksbiene, perform exceprts from plays by the Habima and GOSET theater companies.

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