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YIDDISH THEATRE 101: THE PLAY IN HISTORY

Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theatre

 

Maurice Schwartz was one of those towering figures of the Yiddish stage. He was not only a terrific actor, he directed, produced, staged, managed.... He did most everything for his assembled Yiddish Art Theatre over the many decades of its existence. Per Zalmen Zylbercweig's biography of Schwartz in his opus, the "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre," he writes about him:

He was born in Sedikov (Zhidachov), Ukraine. At the age of nine --as he recounts in his memoirs, he sang as an "alto" with the local cantor R' Ahrele and then with another in Biala Tserkov. Througj a choirboy who later became the opera singer, he became known to cantors for theatre songs. He subsequently went off to travel with his mother and the other children through Liverpool to his father in America, but due to a history with a "half (one-way) ticket", he had to remain by himself in England, and at eleven years of age, he went away to work in a rag factory in London.

He became sick from the difficult work, and he lost his last means of support and became an ordinary vagabond, who roamed pointlessly around the streets, the night spent in the underground trains, went around in torn clothes and detached like a homeless bum. With time he began to sing with a cantor and also became caught up in Yiddish theatre and saw Malvina Lobel as "Shulamis" which left an exceptional impression on him. At last his father arrived in London and took him over to America.

In New York Schwartz began to learn in the Baron Hirsch school on East Broadway, but the impression that Yiddish theatre left him no longer relaxed. He pressed his desire for the theatre in "imitating" the people from his environment. For his bar mitzvah he mixed in (inserted) into the drash (his bar mitzvah lecture) a demanding monologue of "Kabtsn'zon un Hungerman" which he had heard and learned. Schwartz, with the help of his uncle Mendel, a theatre patriot, secretly attended the Yiddish theatre, taken from his father into his rag shop, learning in the evening with a German teacher, who read German classics to him and also Shakespeare, heard by going to the shul, schlepped around the Yiddish theatres, neglected the work for his father, leaving home, slept on the benches in the gardens of New York, was on several days a "messenger" belonging to the "Western Union Telegraph Company", returned home again took to working with his father, sang during work with the workers the theatre songs, which he had heard in the theatre, and [during] Shabbes "he made theatre" for the worker by "imitating" the actors. Schwartz became a frequent theatre attendee, and an ardent follower of Mogulesko, then he became excited about the other stars, such as Kessler and Adler et al., and as he pressed on.

"From each day on [seeing Kessler in 'East Side Ghetto'], my patriotism to my Kessler received an entirely new use. I felt that I must not be a blind slave, just to belong to a band of patriots (blind fans). I wanted to be the Chasid for each good actor, and the Yiddish theatre was then chock-filled with great actors. I had love for the Feinmans, I was in love with Moskowitz's art of speaking on the stage. He was also appealing for his Beautifully, proud figure. For me, I was also taken with Elias Rothstein and the comic Samuel Tornberg. However, in the presence of the Kessler patriots, they dared not utter the other actors' names."
 

In an article Maurice Schwartz wrote circa 1938, entitled, "Two Decades of the Yiddish Art," he talks about his Yiddish Art Theatre:

The Yiddish Art Theatre is now twenty years old. But it seems as though only yesterday I played with David Kessler, that gifted artist, who himself never quite recognized or understood the fundamental powers of his great acting ability. It was in his theatre that I first felt the urge to tear myself away from the old, primitive Yiddish theatre, with its many virtues and more numerous faults, and evolve a new form of dramatic art, where aspiring young Yiddish actors and serious dramatists could find an opportunity for their artistic expression.

The world at the time was recovering from the scourges of the World War. As a consequence the theatre was hard hit; many brilliant actors, musicians, dramatists and painters were sacrificed in the struggle for a better world. President Wilson’s fourteen points awakened a hope for a world of peace, a world where mankind might be free to live and work and create things beautiful, and permit the soul of the artist to develop to a new and flourishing renaissance.

Fired with enthusiasm to help in the building of this new and better era, I organized the Yiddish Art Theatre. I felt that in this great free land we, as Jews, must not only help in the building of skyscrapers but also aid in the uplifting of art, literature and the theatre.

In the United States the Yiddish actor was given unlimited scope and opportunity for developing both on the English and Yiddish stages. Here the Yiddish actor had no fear of having his passport revised at a moment’s notice or suddenly requested by the authorities to leave the country. Here, undisturbed, he was able to give free vent to all his dramatic expression; to sing and perpetrate the folk songs created in the Diaspora; to live out a peaceful existence in the drama of life. Immigrants came to the United States in a steady flow; the gates of our country were not yet closed; humanity flocked in the golden land of freedom and opportunity. It was during that epoch that the Yiddish Art Theatre was founded….

…. It is not for me to point out the accomplishment and mistakes of twenty years’ work. The field of dramatic criticism is large and wide and theatregoers now read criticisms with the same interest as they view a performance. However, the Yiddish Art Theatre fervently has sought to aid the young actor to emerge from the depths of his own doubts. The dramatist, the musician, the painter, each has found an open door and a waiting platform.

The Art Theatre consistently has tried to give every artist his “place in the sun.” Free of political drama, it has tried in each production to create and achieve individual expression and to reflect and interpret the joys and sorrows of Jewish life everywhere.


Maurice Schwartz and his Yiddish Art Theatre
the First Season, 1918-1919
from the Museum of the City of New York

In this educational series, the Museum of the Yiddish Theatre strives to share with its followers an array of Yiddish plays -- not the scripts of the plays themselves, but synopses, i. e. summaries of the actions of the plays, as well as other interesting information about the productions, such as the names of those in the cast, critics' reviews of the production, still photographs from the show, and the like. It is hoped that you, the valued museum "visitor," will read each of the Museum's presentation with care, and use your imagination to optimal effect. You may like to imagine yourself as an attendee of a certain production: you might want to consider what was occurring in the world (or in the city) during that time, even what might have been going on within your own family the night of the performance. Perhaps, by participating in this experience, you also might gain the desire to learn more about the playwright and their own life experience that might have influenced their writings or the subject matter of the play, e.g. the Russian revolution, Jewish family life in Europe or in the United States, a religious theme, or simply the Jewish experience. You may wish to learn more about Maurice Schwartz and his Yiddish Art Theatre and the members who once found themselves a member of his troupe.

The Museum hopes that all of this will enlighten you and pique your interest in the Yiddish theatre.

Below is a listing of thirty-one plays once staged by the Yiddish Art Theatre. Please read the information provided and gain a sense of what themes the playwrights used to produced their writings, learn about the troupe and its actors, and perhaps you might imagine what it was like to be part of the play, or be part of the audience.... Enjoy the "journey"!

 

     Yiddish Art Theatre Productions:

 

 

 

     
       

 

 

 

Museum URL: www.museumoffamilyhistory.com/moyt/main.htm.       Museum e-mail address: yiddishtheatre@museumoffamilyhistory.com.

The Museum of the Yiddish Theatre is a division of the Museum of Family History.

 




Photograph courtesy of the Museum of the City of New York.

 

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