From the New-York Tribune Illustrated Supplement of January
CLASSIC AND ROMANTIC DRAMA IN EAST SIDE
One of the unions recently
formed on the East Side was organized for the protection of
the interests of the actors who are employed in the three
theatres patronized almost exclusively by the Russian Jews of
that part of the city. These Thesbians complain that their
work is hard and their compensation small, and that they are
treated by their superiors like sweatshop workers, and not
with the courtesy that is due to artists." On the other hand,
the managers say that the union was called into existence not
to correct abuses nor to guard against tyranny, but because
some East Side agitators wanted to take revenge on the
managers for their refusal to aid the agitators in their
One of these
managers said, "We see more of the Actors' Union in the
newspapers than we do in our theatres. If we allowed our
authors to write and our actors to declaim things to suit
these labor leaders, and if we let our programmes be used as
campaign sheets, we should probably never hear anything about
the Actors' Union. As it is, our actors have not struck, we
are playing to full houses and as long as the co-operative
plan is in operation we fear no trouble."
The co-operative plan makes the actors
partners of the managers as far as the receipts are concerned.
The gross receipts are divided into two equal parts, of which
the management receives one, the other being divided among the
actors in keeping with their importance.
The Russian immigrant of the East Side has the help of his
family in his work, and his family usually shares his
pleasures. He has little inclination in the direction of
sprees, and while some of his countrymen frequent the coffee
houses where they play games and smoke, and others go to the
clubs of which there are many in the district, nearly all the
toilers of the sweatshops go to the theatre; and they go, not
singly or in pairs, but in family groups. For that reason a
Yiddish theatre audience is unlike that of any other playhouse
in the city. In some instances the children are not old enough
to appreciate the play, and are taken along only because there
is no one at home to care fo rthem. Mothers must frequently
divide their attention and miss the poetic pictures on the
stage while ministering to the material wants of the little
Another peculiarity of the Yiddish
theatre is that its receipts go to the management directly
only two nights in the week. On Friday and Saturday nights and
Saturday matinees the houses receive the greatest patronage.
The storekeepers close their places of business on Friday at
sunset, and after coming from the synagogue they look for
amusement. The strictest Sabbatarians see no wrong in going to
the theatre. On these nights the best plays are produced and
the highest prices are realized; at the matinees the regular
prices are cut in two. On Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and
Thursday evenings the houses are turned over to societies,
lodges or to religious organizations, at prices ranging from
$100 to $250. The prices are graded in keeping with the play
and the number of people in the cast.
The troupes in these theatres are composed of people who come
from Russia, Rumania and Galicia, and they all speak the
corrupt German which is known as Yiddish. The plays in which
they appear range from Shakespeare and Goethe to those with
local color, which are written by the "house author," for each
theatre has its own playwright and composer, who write several
plays each season. The homemade plays are a mixture of
religion and New-York life, in which the author always shows
how the poor Russian may become a valuable American citizen.
In these plays the comedian usually makes his greatest hits by
using a jargon which is a mixture of Yiddish and Bowery
LAST SCENE IN "THE GHETTO."
As played at the People's Theatre.
of the most popular of these plays, "Chaim in America," was
performed at the Thalia Theatre last week, and another, "The
Ghetto," by Thomashefsky, had a long and successful run at the
The East Side pushcart man, the
little shopkeeper and the prosperous merchant, the
sweatshop worker and the Division-st. milliner, the
jewel and gold bedecked wife of the successful ward
politician, are all represented in their true colors in
these plays; but behind all, pointing a moral and
reminding them of their duties as citizens and men, is
the rabbi or the religious teacher, pointing out the
ills that follow sin, and in some of the popular plays
laying particular stress on the crime of apostasy.
photo, left: Boris
Thomashefsky as "Hamlet," at the People's Theatre, 1901.
Thomashefsky, Author-actor-manager and writer of "The
Ghetto" (see above).
The "bad man," the "scheming villain," is
often an apostate, whose career in the part is made unusually
burdensome by the hisses which greet him every time he
appears. These plays are popular, and draw large houses, but,
as the business manager of one of the theatres says, "These
people want philosophical works, and a manager who would try
to palm off trash on them would soon learn that he had made a
mistake. And, what is more, they want morally clean plays, and
would not bring their families to listen to works like some
that are produced on other stages."
Leading lady at the Thalia Theatre.
Among the plays that have been
produced at the People's Theatre this season are
"Hamlet," "The Merchant of Venice" and "Romeo and
Juliet," and the same company performed "The Bohemian
Girl," "Carmen," "Der Freischütz" and "Bluebeard."
Bertha Kalich, the star at the Thalia Theatre, has
appeared as Ophelia, Fedora, Magda, and as the heroine
in a number of religious plays.
Bertha Kalich as Hamlet, at the Thalia Theatre, 1895.
Courtesy of the New York Public Library Digital Gallery.
To gain a correct idea of the Yiddish
theatre one must see it, and that it may be thoroughly
appreciated [by] other senses than that of sight must be drawn
upon. The crowds in the lobby resemble those which are seen in
the clothing district when a strike is on, and the air is
thick with cigarette smoke. Inside, men and women are talking
and visiting and paying little attention to the orchestra.
Boys with trays of candy, cakes, fruit and "soft drinks" do a
paying business, and sell their wares in the body of the
house. The opening lines of the actors are usually lost,
except to those people who sit far in front, and demands for
silence come from all parts of the auditorium. Sometimes these
are in the form of the hissing "Pst! pst! which one hears in
all European theatres, and sometimes the more imperative "Ruhig,"
"'Smaul halten!" or "Still!" are heard. Then comes the play,
and close attention on the part of the audience, frequent
applause and boisterous laughter and sniffles are sure to
reward the efforts of the actors.
nights when the theatres are run by the management and not by
private societies, the prices of admission range from $1 to 25
cents. The boxes are rarely sold to one party, but seats in
them are for sale to any who wishes to pay a little more than
for chairs in the orchestra.