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The Habima in New York

Maxim Gorky on the Habima

Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) was a Soviet/Russian author and political activist. His plays have been performed by many, including the theatrical troupe of Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre. The Theatre produced "The Lower Depths" in 1919, "Meschane" in 1921, and "Middle Class People" during the 1928-9 theatrical season.

Maxim Gorky on the Habima, 1926:

"A vivid example of irresistible force is the Habima Theatre. It has been created by young Jews guided by Zemach, an artist of value, and by a stage manager of genius, I might say, Vachtangoff. This remarkable work was organized by them among hunger and cold in a constant fight for the right to express themselves in the language of he Bible, the language of Bialik's genius. All the artists of Habima are young men and women forced to earn their bread by hard toil.


Autographed photo of Maxim Gorky,
Courtesy of the New York Public Library

I know what difficulties and obstacles these people had to overcome, what energy they have used in their fight with the stupidity, the envy, the hatred, but I will not speak of suffering when I can speak of the victory of the spirit. We have spoken of evil, this only fortifies it in our life. Has not the time come to overlook our sufferings? I saw three times at that Theatre, the play in two acts of Pinski, "The Eternal Jew," and I was present at the dress rehearsal of Ansky's "Dybbuk." The title part in Pinski's play was performed by a remarkable artist, Zemach, who gave a formidable picture of a prophet of the time of the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus. He played with superhuman power and conviction. Without understanding the language, and struck only by Zemach's force and sonority, I lived all the suffering of the prophet whose words do not reach the hearts of the people he loves. I felt the great despair of a loving heart.

The grey shadow of the curtain vanished. It seemed as if the stage, separating the present from the distant past, had disappeared and a colorful and picturesque market near the walls of a little city of Judea appeared to our eyes. One could see from the gates the valley sweltering in the torrid heat and a lonely, dusty palm tree on the horizon. From that moment on the irresistible force of beauty seizes your heart, plunges it into the life of the Jewish city, carries it into the past, twice millenial, and the heart lives the terrible day of the destruction of Jerusalem. Your reason asks, "What does mean to you, Russian atheist, Jerusalem or Zion? What does mean the destruction of the Temple?" But the heart trembles with sadness before the suffering of the prophet who foresees the woes of the people, and before the light-hearted stupidity of the people who laugh at the words of the prophet.

One feels the suffering of others as deeply as one's own, because on the stage several young talented people live, more really than in real life, the life of wolves, where the human being defends himself and defends what he loves, and is so often forced to be a hypocrite and a liar. I speak of the Jew, of the one who is persecuted, like a rat by the dogs, by his own kin and by strangers, and still endeavors, being gifted with talent by nature, to love with passion that same country where he is persecuted, the country of the pogroms.

This astonishing performance reminds me, by its beauty and harmony, of the best years of the Moscow Art Theatre, when these admirable artists were young and animated by the faith in the sanctity of their work, but the artists of Habima, it seems to me, having a great advantage over those of the Moscow Art Theatre of the same epoch; their art is not inferior, but they have more passion, more ecstasy. For them the Theatre is a rite, and one feels it immediately. The words, the gestures, the music--everything is deeply harmonious--and in all that burns the great wisdom that only art and talent can light.

A great amount of work has been put into this Theatre and a new, magnificent proof of magic force of Jewish art and talent has been created. Habima is a Theatre the Jews can be proud of."

MAXIM GORKY
 

Credits: Exhibition photographs courtesy of the New York Public Library, Billy Rose Theatre Collection. Play reviews and clippings courtesy of the New York Times.

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