The History of the Yiddish Theatre


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From the New-York Tribune Illustrated Supplement of January 12, 1900.



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 political undertakings.

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 ones.

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 English.

"The Ghetto," a Yiddish play at the People's Theatre.

As played at the People's Theatre.

 One 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 People's Theatre.



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.
photo, right: Boris 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."

Bertha Kalich.

 Bertha Kalich,
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.

photo, right: 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.

On the 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.








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