YIDDISH THEATRE 101 > THE YIDDISH PLAYS > THE PLAY IN HISTORY  >  JOSEPHUS                                                 

JOSEPHUS1, by Lion Feuchtwanger

Introductory Note: "In the novel 'Josephus', on which the present play is based, Lion Feuchtwanger depicts on a vast canvas the uprising of the Jews against their Roman oppressors, a revolt which resulted in the downfall of the Jewish State and the destruction of Jerusalem with its Sanctuary. For four years (66-70 C.E.) the Jews held out against the Roman legions led by Vespasian and his son Titus; and when they succumbed at last, it was due to internal strife no less than to the might of Rome. So elated were the Romans by their victory that they built an arch of triumph in Rome to commemorate it. The arch is still standing, but there are no Romans left now to look at it. The Jews survived--and write novels about the great national drama enacted in those days.

In the center of this drama, first as participant and then as eyewitness, stands the enigmatic figure of Josephus--priest, general, and prince of Jewish historians and apologists. He was governor of Galilee in the first year of the uprising; he was in command of the Jewish troops besieged in the fortress of Jotapat; and when that stronghold was captured and he fell into the hands of the Romans, he saved himself from the common fate of war prisoners by prophesying that Vespasian would presently be crowned emperor of Rome. Convinced of the hopelessness of the struggle, he now endeavored to bring about peace between the Jews and the Romans, only to be met by his brethren with the cry of 'traitor.' After the fall of Jerusalem, he settled in Rome, adopted Emperor Vespasian's middle name 'Flavius,' and devoted the rest of his life to literary work, writing, among other things, a history of the war with Rome in which he immortalized the heroism of the Jews."2

The Yiddish Art Theatre opened "Josephus" on 30 November 1933 at the Yiddish Art Theatre, 189 2nd Avenue (and 12th Street. This is a play in two parts and twenty-six scenes. The stage version and direction was by Maurice Schwartz. Settings by Robert Van Rosen. Incidental music by Leon Koutzen. Dances arranged by Lillian Shapero. Costumes designed by Alexander Nemeroff and Saul Raskin. Ben-Zion Katz, Stage Manager. Wigs by Zauder Brothers. Costumes executed by Eaves. Ben Spitzer, master of wardrobe. Edwin A. Relkin and Sigmund Weintraub, Personal representatives for Maurice Schwartz.


photo: Maurice Schwartz as Josephus.

Excerpts of some newspaper reviews:

  • "Lion Feuchtwanger is one of the most skillful of historical novelists; Maurice Schwartz is one of the most assiduous adapters of novels, and often historical novels for the stage. ... The production is a credit to the Yiddish Art Company and its director." -- New York Times

  • ... 'Josephus' is the most ambitious of the Yiddish Art Theatre's productions this fall. Its action traverses a generation; it presents a large canvas of Roman and Jewish history of the time of Nero and attempts to relate this complicated panorama of wars, intrigue and oppression to a central character, Josephus Ben Matthias, afterwards Flavius Josephus, the historian. It is offered in two parts with twenty-two ably contrived scenes. The cast is large, numbering almost 100. All of this has been intelligently directed. ... The lighting, the scenery and the costumes, choreography and other production details of the show were of the best." -- New York Herald Tribune

The cast for this production of "Josephus" included the following players:

Pincus Sherman, Charlotte Goldstein, Isaac Swerdlow, Morris Strassberg, Morris Silberkasten, Anatole Winogradoff, Maurice Schwartz, Albert Stone, Rubin Wendorf, Benjamin Fishbein, Eli Mintz, R. Thall, Michael Gibson, Mark Uri, Robert H. Harris, S. Pincus, G. Michael, Lazar Freed, Miriam Goldina, Julius Adler, Ben Zvi Baratoff, Morris Belafsky, Y. Rose, William Goldberg, Izidore Casher, Wolf Goldfaden, Helen Zelinska, Lilie Caplan, Michael Rosenberg, Solomon Krause, Ben Basenko, Max Honig, H. Harris, L. Weintraub, Judith Abarbanel, Yasha Rosenthal, I. Kauffman, Isaac Rothblum and Wolf Mercur.

Here are some photographs of the actors in costume for this production (from the "Josephus" theatre program):


Emperor Vespasian
(Izidore Casher)

King Agrippa
(Lazar Freed)

Mistres Caenis
(Helen Zelinska)

Dorion the Captive
 (Judith Abarbanel)

John of Giscals
(Ben Zvi Baratoff)

Simon Bar Giora
(Julius Adler)

Titus of Rome
(Wolf Goldfaden)

Demetrius Libanus (Morris Silberkasten)

Justus of Tiberias
(Anatole Winagradoff)


Johanan Ben Zakkai
(Michael Rosenberg)

Philip Talassos
(Michal Gibson)


Claudius Reginus
(Morris Strassberg)


So, here is the synopsis of Feuchtwanger's "Josephus". The name of the actor or actress who portrayed a particular role is indicated in parentheses:



SCENE 1. Demetrius Libanus (Morris Silberkasten), Rome's most popular actor and favorite of Empress Poppaea though an ardent Jew, is entertaining a number of admiring friends at his home. Josephus (Maurice Schwartz), newly arrived from Jerusalem, is ushered in. He informs the company that he has been commissioned by the Sanhedrin in Jerusalem to secure the release of three of its members imprisoned in Rome. Libanus promises to use his influence with the Empress to bring about their liberation.

SCENE 2. Josephus and Libanus visit the three Jewish prisoners (Rubin Wendorf, Benjamin Fishbein and Eli Mintz) in their cell. The actor, profoundly moved by their wretched condition, tells them that the Empress has agreed to secure their release provided he would promise to appear in the role of the Jew Apella, a stock low-comedy character of the Roman stage, the prototype of the "stage Jew" of American burlesque. He has promised to do so, although with misgivings, since every performance of the Jew Apella has hitherto been attended with riots against the Jews by Roman mobs.

SCENE 3. A number of Jew-hating Roman statesmen are assembled at the home of Philip Talassos (Michael Gibson), Minister for Oriental Affairs. They express their chagrin at the release of the three Jewish dignitaries. Their spirits rise when a courier arrives with a message from Nero, now sojourning in Athens, in which the Emperor states that he has accepted their recommendation to issue an edict depriving the Jews of Caesarea of their majority in the city council, a majority they now hold because the right to vote is restricted to men of property. The meeting is cut short by news of the death of Empress Poppaea.

SCENE 4. Josephus, who makes his home with Caius Barzaarone (Pincus Sherman) while in Rome, is writing the history of the Maccabees, while his host's daughter, Irene (Charlotte Goldstein), looks lovingly on. Justus of Tiberias (Anatole Winagradoff), King Agrippa's representative in Rome, enters and chides Josephus for obtaining the release of the three Jewish dignitaries at the cost of the Jews of Caesarea. A dispute arises between the two men. Josephus, emotional and fiery, believes in an aggressive policy toward Rome; Justus, intellectual and cool-headed, favors a policy of conciliation.

SCENE 5. Gessius Florius (S. Pincus), Roman governor of Judea with headquarters in Caesarea, summons the people of that city and reads to them the imperial edict depriving the Jews of their majority in the municipal council. A riot ensues, in which the governor is assassinated, and thousands of Jews are massacred.

SCENE 6. Nahum (G. Michael), a half-mad prophet, appears in the streets of Jerusalem and exhorts the people to rise up against their Roman oppressors.

SCENE 7. At the palace of King Agrippa (Lazar Freed) in Tiberias. The King tells his sister, the wondrously beautiful and voluptuous Berenice (Miriam Goldina), of his vain effort to dissuade his people from taking up arms against the Romans. Berenice, too, is ready for peace at any price with Rome, provided the Temple is spared. Justus arrives with disturbing news from Jerusalem; the Zealots, the party favoring war with Rome, triumphed over the aristocratic peace party headed by the High Priest Anan (Morris Silberkasten) and massacred the Roman garrison; and when the forces of Cestius Gallus, after a long siege of Jerusalem, raised the siege and retreated north, a band of Jewish volunteers under the command of Simon Bar Giora (Julius Adler), fell upon them and inflicted heavy losses. And now Jewish governors have been appointed for the various provinces of the country with orders to defend them against the Romans. Chagrined that all this was done without consulting him, the titular ruler of the country, King Agrippa regretfully declares that he, as the ally of Rome, would now have to make war upon his own people. A band of armed Zealots, led by Simon Bar Giora, invade the palace and smash the statuary in it, statues being "graven images" and hence forbidden to Jews.

SCENE 8. In Rome, Emperor Nero has appointed Vespasian--burly and undignified but exceedingly capable and crafty commander of the expeditionary force that is to be sent to Judea to crush the rebellion. A farewell party is given at Vespasian's home on the eve of his departure for Judea. There is much carousing and dancing.

SCENE 9. At the headquarters of Governor Josephus at Magdala in Galilee. There is friction between him and Jannai (Y. Rose), the co-governor. The latter resents his partiality to the Zealots and his fraternizing with brigands, like John of Giscala (Ben Zvi Baratoff) and Sapita of Tiberias (Morris Belavsky), who now carry on their depredations under the Zealot banner. He threatens to go to Jerusalem to denounce his colleague to the Council of Prisets, whereupon Josephus places him under arrest. Simon Bar Giora, John of Giscala, and Sapita are ushered in. Josephus criticizes them for certain unauthorized acts and tries to restrain their martial spirits, but in the end succumbs to it himself and vows to fight Rome to the bitter end.


SCENE 1. At the Roman camp in front of the besieged fortress of Jotapat, the last surviving Jewish stronghold in Galilee, where Josephus and his men have held out for 43 days. The heroic resistance offered by the Jews fill the Romans with wonder and admiration. Among the Jewish prisoners taken, there is a beautiful young girl named Mara (Lillie Caplan), whom Vespasian selects to minister to his pleasure while dooming the rest to be crucified or sold into slavery. He is lightly wounded by an arrow shot by a Jewish soldier.

SCENE 2. A wood nearby, dotted with many crosses to which Jewish prisoners are nailed.

SCENE 3. Atop the walls of Jotapat where the brave defenders, though without food and water, are determined to hold out until the rainy season, so as to prevent Vespasian from marching on Jerusalem this year. Sapita jumps off the wall and single-handed destroys one of the Roman battering rams, but is mortally wounded as he reaches again the top of the wall. His dying words seem to question Josephus' loyalty. Finally the Romans effect a breach in the fortifications, and the defenders flee.

SCENE 4. Josephus and a handful of soldiers, all maddened by thirst, hide in a cave, where they are captured by a detachment of Roman soldiers under Paulinus (H. Harris).

SCENE 5. In Vespasian's tent. The drunken commander tries to take his pleasure of the captive Mara, but, to his annoyance, she faints away at his touch. Josephus, rather the worse for the manhandling he has received from the Roman soldiers while passing through the camp is brought in. He tells Vespasian that the reason he permitted himself to be captured alive is that he wished to see with his own eyes the man who would soon be Emperor of Rome. Vespasian is impressed and spares his life. He attaches him to his staff as interpreter, and meanwhile sends him to persuade Mara to submit to Vespasian's embraces.

SCENE 6. In Mara's tent. Josephus urges her to yield to Vespasian, as Esther did to Ahasuerus, in order to save her people; but Mara prefers death to dishonor. Vespasian, who is fond of coarse jokes as well as women, conceives the idea of making Josephus marry the girl and then taking her for himself.

SCENE 7. At the Temple in Jerusalem. In the presence of a large multitude, the High Priest Anan excommunicates Josephus for violating the Levitical law which forbids a priest to marry a captive girl.

SCENE 8. On the road to Jerusalem. John of Giscala and a number of Jewish soldiers from Jotapat who have eluded the Romans, denounce Josephus as a traitor for going over to the Romans.

SCENE 9. At Vespasian's headquarters in Caesarea. Nero having committed suicide and been succeeded by several weak Emperors, a number of Roman politicians have come to Caesarea to induce Vespasian to seize the throne. (For at this time, the general with the strongest legions had the best chance.) Princess Berenice arrives to pay her respects to the new man of destiny, Vespasian. In the hope of thereby saving her people and the Temple, she yields to Titus's Love.

SCENE 10. At Vespasian's headquarters in Caesarea. Vespasian is proclaimed Emperor. On this speedy fulfillment of Josephus' prophecy, Vespasian strikes off the shackles he has been wearing as a war prisoner and bestows upon him his middle name, "Flavius."

SCENE 11. At Titus' villa in Alexandria, where Josephus is recuperating from the effects of the flogging. Vespasian comes to say goodbye to his son, as he is leaving for Rome while Titus is to return to Judea to command the Roman expeditionary force. Josephus chooses to go back to Judea with Titus rather than accompany Vespasian to Rome. Dorion (Judith Abarbanel), an Egyptian dancing girl whom Titus has brought to entertain the guests, vows her love for Josephus and declares her readiness to embrace Judaism in order to be able to marry him.

SCENE 12. At the Roman camp before Jerusalem. For months now the legions of Titus have besieged Jerusalem without being able to overcome the resistance of her heroic defenders. The capture of the city is rendered more difficult because of Titus's promise to Berenice and Josephus to refrain from any action that might endanger the Temple. This is resented by the Roman soldiers, whom the long siege and the many casualties in their ranks have made restive. Titus summons Jewish representatives for a final peace parley. Through Josephus, who acts as his spokesman, he offers to spare the city if the Jews will lay down their arms and disband their army. The Jews decline his terms and submit counter proposals, the first of which is that Josephus, Agrippa, and Berenice be delivered up to them for punishment as traitors. The parley breaks up and the Jewish delegates return to Jerusalem. Immediately thereafter Josephus is wounded by an arrow shot from the city walls.

SCENE 13. The heroic defenders are driven by hunger to eat the few remaining sacrificial lambs of the Temple--a grave sin. They sing and dance at the feast and fail to notice that the Temple is burning. Josephus appears with his writing tablet to record the passing of the glory that was Jerusalem. 


1 -- From the play program for "Josephus", Yiddish Art Theatre, 1933. Courtesy of YIVO.

2 -- Synopsis arranged by Maximilian Hurwitz.





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

Copyright Museum of the Yiddish Theatre.  All rights reserved.