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Lives in the Yiddish Theatre

From an article in the New-York Daily Tribune,
dated Dec. 4, 1910.


What the People Like--
Leonid Andreyev's "Anathema."

Leonid Andreyev, playwright.


The American premier of a play by a noted European author is ordinarily a matter of considerable interest in this city--that is, when the dramatist is more or less widely known, when the event is freely advertised and the production is given in English. But when the play is by a Russian, even though he be as brilliant and popular an author as Leonid Andreyev, and the performance is in Yiddish and in a little theatre on the lower East Side, he event may create little comment.

On the night of November 25 there was produced at the Lipzin Theatre, No. 225 Bowery, for the first time in America, Leonid Andreyev's "Anathema." It was done in Yiddish.

The Tribune was the only New York newspaper published in English to print a review of the play. Yet the playgoing public of the lower East Side has been profoundly stirred by this drama and the Jewish press has been printing columns about it. That people who do not understand the mixture of Hebrew and German known as Yiddish should go of their own accord to see a play in this language is not to be expected, but it is surprising how much pleasure one can derive from seeing a play of this sort with one eye on an English translation and the other on the actors. If it be true--and it is--that no play is really a play until it has a audience, then a real play is to be seen at the Lipzin Theatre, where the audience is of as much interest as the actors and the drama itself.

No one aside from Andreyev himself is more competent to speak about the merit of this play than Herman Bernstein, who has translated the original Russian into English, from which the Yiddish adaptation was made. Mr. Bernstein is not unknown to American readers. He introduced the novels of Gorky into this country, has translated several of the works of Tolstoy, has written "The Flight of Time and Other Poems," "In the Gates of Israel," "Stories of the Jews," and "Contrite Hearts"--a novel. He has also done into English several comedies by Anton Chekhov, two of which, "The Challenge" and "The Proposal," were produced by the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and he has adapted from the Russian "The Snow Storm," which has been played in this city. Mr. Bernstein has also been a frequent contributor to the American newspapers and magazines.

In speaking of "Anathema" he said:

"Andreyev told me that while he was not a Jew himself he wanted to portray the Jew as he has never before been pictured. 'The Jew,' he said, 'has always been before the bar of justice--he has either been defended by his friends or attacked by his enemies. He has never been depicted as he really is. I want to portray the martyred Jew of all ages."

"And it is remarkable," said Mr. Bernstein, how he has caught the psychology of his Jewish characters. I asked him, 'How do you know the Jews?' He replied, 'I lived with them for three days at Odessa.' But he said: 'If one sees a man's coat he can tell what he is inside. All it requires is imagination.'"

The original characters in Andreyev's play are Anathema, David and Sarah, David's wife.

"The character of Anathema," said Mr. Bernstein, "represents the spirit of man seeking for truth. He wants to know the unknown. He represents reason and David represents Truth. To David he has attributed the qualities of Christ and subordinated them to the Russian Jew. For this he was accused of blasphemy. He was ex-communicated, and his play was suppressed by the Holy Synod. A special ceremony was presided over by Archbishop Germogen in Kiev. Black candles were lighted and the play was anathematized by cursing Andreyev.

Up to this time the play was one of the most successful that had ever been produced by the Artistic Theatre at Moscow, where Maeterlinck's "The Blue Bird" was first introduced to the world. "Anathema" is rich in Biblical and Oriental poetry. In David and Sarah one can almost hear the old prophets speaking.

In response to a question concerning the life of Andreyev, Mr. Bernstein said that he was graduated from the St. Petersburg University as a lawyer. He tried one case and lost it. Then he attempted suicide, for which he was arrested and imprisoned.

"When he was freed," Mr. Bernstein said, "Andreyev began to write for one of the law journals in St. Petersburg. Soon he published a book of short stories, which caused Gorky to write to a friend and ask, 'Who is the man writing under the pseudonym of Andreyev?' Countess Tolstoy wrote letters to a Russian journal attacking Andreyev for his realism, but she must have forgotten that Count Tolstoy wrote 'Kreutzer Sonata.' The papers took up the discussion. The younger generation defended Andreyev. This brought his stories into prominence and his reputation was made.

"Andreyev kept on writing. His next work was "Red Daughter," a vivid and beautifully written tale of a Russian soldier who went to the Japanese war and became insane. He wrote a modern morality play called "The Life of Man," which was given at the Thalia Theatre, this city, by Mme. Komisarzhevsky and her company of Russian players three years ago. He also wrote 'Black Masques,' the story of a masquerade ball, in which the masques represented the virtues and vices of the host. Another play is of student days, called 'Days of Our Life.' This is one of Andreyev's most successful plays, and he was rather ashamed when he told me that he wrote it in just three days. Another play which he has just completed is 'The Earth Is in Danger,' in which the chief countries of the world are typified by individuals. These men get together--capitalists, ideal revolutionists, anarchists, professional philosophers, republicans and monarchists--because they feel that the world is wrong and that it should be saved. Although Andreyev is only thirty-nine years old, he is one of the most celebrated men of literary Russia."

The success of Andreyev's play among the Hebrews of the lower East Side led to the question: How is it that the people are interested in plays of this quality?

Mr. Bernstein replied: "That is largely due to the influence of one man, Jacob Gordin, who adapted and wrote forty plays, ten of the most important of which have been translated into English. He was born in Russia. He was a journalist. He came here twenty years ago. He didn't know Yiddish, although he was a Jew. Before he came there was no interest in the Jewish drama. The people liked the trashiest and cheapest Yiddish operettas. Gordin learned Yiddish and adapted plays by Hauptmann, Gorky, Tolstoy and Ostrovsky. It was his version of 'Kreutzer Sonata' in which Mme. Kalich acted. He built up his audience as he wrote his plays. The people developed with him. After he died there was a falling off in the demand for good plays. The inferior musical pieces came into vogue again for a time, but the people became disgusted, and at Adler's Thalia Theatre recently they were obliged to revive Gordin's plays. No new dramatist came along to give them Jewish plays of high standard. Now 'Anathema' has come and the people are much aroused. In recognition of Gordin's life and work the people of the East Side are soon to erect a monument to him.


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