The Museum of

       the yiddish world

The Yiddish Theatre
As excerpted from the New York Tribune, January 14, 1900


As played in the People's Theatre
Lower East Side, New York City, New York
cir 1899-1900


The Russian immigrant on 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 for them. Mothers must frequently divide their attention and miss the poetic pictures on the stage while ministering to the material wants of the little ones.

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. 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 Divisionist 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. 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.

photo: Boris Thomashefsky, author-actor-manager and writer of "The Ghetto."


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."


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.

To gain a correct idea of the Yiddish theatre one must see it, and that it may be thoroughly appreciated 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.


photo: Bertha Kalich, star of the Thalia Theatre.

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 one who wishes to pay a little more than for chairs in the orchestra.



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