The seventy-seven Yiddish plays in this collection range from ten page vignettes to four-act extravaganzas. They were written by celebrated writers such as Sholem Aleichem and Jacob Gordin (the first important "serious" Yiddish playwright), and popular wordsmiths such as Abraham Shaikewitz Schomer and Joseph Lateiner, whose reputations have been eclipsed by time. Some of the writers represented in this collection are unknown to us; among them are many amateurs whose works may never have been produced, but which nevertheless provide an important glimpse into grass roots involvement with Yiddish theater.
Given its modern form by Abraham Goldfadn in 1876, the professional Yiddish theater transcended its traditional roots within twenty years. It developed out of archaic styles of drama resembling the medieval mystery and mummers' plays into modern theatrical forms exemplified by the plays of Ibsen, a major source and influence for Gordin. Goldfadn is acknowledged as the father of both "serious" and "popular" strands of Yiddish theater. He specialized in operetta and the creative reworking of plots and melodies from pre-existing sources.
Popular Yiddish theater has remained true to these beginnings. Plot elements have been drawn directly or indirectly from European sources such as Plautus, Gilbert and Sullivan, and Viennese operetta--one of the plays is even called "The Merry Widower." Others are obvious adaptations of classic American melodramas such as "East Lynne," "Ten Nights in a Barroom," or the "You Dare Call Yourself Mother" outbursts of popular English dramatist Arthur Wing Pinero.
Jacob Gordin is among the better-known writers represented in this collection. Influenced by mainstream European theatrical traditions, he scored notable successes with his Yiddish adaptations of Goethe's "Faust" ("Got, Mensh un Tayvel") and Shakespeare's "King Lear" ("Mirele Efros," subtitled the Jewish King Lear; it is frequently revived today). Most of the plays in this collection are contemporaneous with "Der Dybbuk" (the 1910s-1920s) or Y.L. Peretz's symbolist dramas, "Bay Nakht afn Altn Mark" and "Di Goldene Keyt." They beg comparison with such examples of high literature, however, because they were designed to be both popular in intent and vernacular in expression.
These plays are distinctively North American creations which use the folkways of Jewish Eastern Europe as a means of evoking nostalgia and generating instant humor. Old-world folkways were transplanted onto American soil and refreshed with each new boatload of immigrants. Beset with the influences of America's pervasive popular culture, Jews used the Yiddish language to hold onto the familiar while adjusting to a new environment. Yiddish helped them develop and sustain networks of information, community help, and creative expression.
In a world of upheaval and cultural transition, the folkways embedded in Yiddish theater were a source of stability, and predictably evoked responses from audiences. Yet Yiddish theater plots also reveal a wild, incongruous sense of the fantastic. Sometimes they draw upon the standard, but often startling, situations common to most European folk literature--stock devices like the rediscovery of "long-lost" or "dead" parents, spouses, and siblings. Other conventional elements include the withholding of vital information from the audience in order to heighten tension, or the signaling of comic relief through the introduction of characters with speech defects and physical infirmities. From time to time, elements are introduced that are less familiar to modern audiences steeped in English-language narrative conventions. For instance, characters are made to repeat a single unchanging and inevitable catch-phrase again and again, regardless of circumstances. Elements like these have precedents in Yiddish folklore.
Most of the plays in this collection employ techniques, jokes, plots, and characters that transcend any particular American ethnic tradition. Indeed, Yiddish theater reflects and absorbs a host of mutli-cultural influences. Only half-a-dozen plays, if one judges them by script alone, are so quintessentially Jewish (and Eastern-European Jewish at that) that they could not have been written about any other immigrant or ethnic group. Performance style and the inclusion of theater music underscored the recognizably "Jewish" nature of the written material.
Yiddish theater style and music, like the language itself, are syncretic and draw upon many ethnic traditions, working them into a memorable product defined less by uniqueness of content than by a pervasive "attitude." In this collection, only Sholem Aleichem's "Tevye," set in Russia, can be said to have originated any of the conventions it employs.
Yiddish plays were usually commercial ventures and were designed to bring in the greatest number of spectators by giving each member of the audience-- "Moyshe," as the typical patron was called by Yiddish theater people--what Moyshe already knew he liked. Sometimes the plays conveyed visions of intense suffering and glory. More frequently, however, Moyshe demanded, and was given, relatively accurate versions of his own problems and aspirations, often with a comic twist.
Few of the plays in this collection deal more than superficially with Jewish concerns per se; a full seventy-five percent contain virtually no mention of religious custom, ceremony, or practice. Still, they are written in Yiddish. This means they are full of Yiddish-speaking characters (often highly assimilated professionals) who continue to speak Yiddish as a matter of course. This is particularly significant in an immigrant community surrounded by the English-speaking mainstream, where most people chose to be addressed as John or Anne instead of Yankl or Khane.
The Yiddish of virtually every play with an American setting--about seventy-five percent of the collection--is suffused with English words and expressions. Sometimes English is even used for extended dialogue, especially among members of the "younger generation." Malapropisms and misunderstandings are standard humorous devices in the plays. The playwright's skill in utilizing correct or idiomatic English is usually balanced by his or her fluency in slang or comic English. Indeed, much of the American Yiddish theater's style lies in its ability to manipulate many permutations of Yiddish, English, and "Yinglish" in dramatically appropriate places. The audience was expected to understand all the English dialogue and to share the author's opinions about what constituted good and bad English.
Immigration, adaptation to a new land, assimilation, and the contrast between European and American ways are standard topics for the plays set in North America. In Berkowitz's one-act play, "The Townsmen," for instance, a recently immigrated Russian is assured by his Jewish former-townsman that, in America, "we Jews run the show." Conflicts emerge over marriage arrangements (Gastwirth, "The Green Teacher") and over different generational mores (Small, "From Happiness to the Gallows") .
These plays reveal ambivalence about both old ways and new. Jewish life in Europe, warmly remembered as it was, is intertwined with the memories of poverty, pogroms, war, and powerlessness. The new ways in America are portrayed as incomprehensible and often immoral. Plays set in America are laced with themes or motifs dealing with crime, speculation, seduction, gambling, marital breakdowns, and the repudiation of parents by wayward children. In these dramas, young American Jews also display a proclivity for romances with gentile partners--a serious, even scandalous, breach of the typical religious and cultural mores of the time. If Jewish young people manage to become American without descending into criminal life, they still run the risk of neglecting the very traditions their parents emigrated to preserve. This is a central and recurring dilemma throughout the plays in this collection.
Yet America is America, and Russia--the birthplace of most of the Yiddish theater audience in the early twentieth century--is hell. One play, written before America's entry into World War I, is overtly pro-German. The logic seems to be that anyone shooting at the Czar's Russians can't be all bad. Conversely, Schnitzer's "The Mother's Sin," set in eighteenth-century Germany, and Schorr's "What Men Are," a musical comedy set in New York, each features panoramas of America's greatness. Schorr's work includes figures his audience would have found heroic, such as Christopher Columbus and Teddy Roosevelt.
Except for seven one-act plays, none of the plays in this collection could have been presented within the fuller context of a vaudeville or variety show. The Yiddish theater was centralized in New York, although its influence radiated throughout American urban centers. It had its own theaters and a highly-stratified star system. This institutional independence encouraged the presentation of single, evening-length entertainments. The plays were structured to be inclusive, and are conceived of as a coherent whole. The script is always the central experience even if, as in the case of Schomer's "Green Millionaire" (a popular vehicle for famous actor Boris Thomashefsky), the play contains an entire afternoon prayer service. If the audience was paying to see Tomashefsky or Jacob Adler--among the most celebrated actors of their time--why would they want to have to sit through an act of trained dogs, or other vaudeville novelties, before getting to see the star performers?
Vaudeville had its stars, too, of course, but the nature of vaudeville was episodic. Vaudeville performers were primarily comedians or song-and-dance people who, however celebrated, shared the bill with animals, acrobats, jugglers, adagio dancers, trick fiddlers, and the like. The vaudeville stage could be appreciated by many immigrants without a sophisticated command of the English language. Jews were no exception; Yiddish speakers could go to the nearest vaudeville house and absorb as much of it as they wanted. And go they did, as both patrons and performers. Yiddish theater was not vaudeville. It occupied a different niche in the world of entertainment. It provided Yiddish-speaking immigrants with a culturally specific mirror of themselves, their history, and their problems. It was a familiar tool with which to view not only America, but the outside world with which they had had a limited relationship for centuries.
The flowering of Yiddish theater in America was swift and sudden. Its decline was just as swift. Yiddish playwrights, such as those represented in this online collection, voiced the needs, anxieties, and aspirations of their people in a language which even they, perhaps, realized their grandchildren might never speak. Yet, while the Yiddish-speaking population has declined dramatically in recent decades, there are still some active Yiddish theater troupesin New York City, Montreal, Israel, Romania, and Poland, for example--that continue to entertain enthusiastic audiences.