Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Joseph Kessler


K. was born in 1881 in a small town near Budapest, Hungary. At the age of ten he immigrated with his family to America. Due to a great need at home, he very early began to work in a cigarette factory for $1.50 a week. From these small earnings, he nevertheless used to visit the gallery of the Yiddish theatre and was so "captured" with the theatre that a little later on he entered into one of the dramatic clubs and dedicated a lot of time to playing in theatre. Despite the protests of his parents, he decided to be a professional actor.

At the age of seventeen he began to act in the Windsor Theatre. He became popular as an actor and played for fourteen years in New York, having the opportunity to play many years with Jacob P. Adler, whom he considered as his theatrical rabbi. Then K. became by himself a theatre entrepreneur in various cities across America, and went to play in London. As A. Frumkin recalls, in the summer of 1912 K. played in London in the Paragon Theatre, then carried himself over to Berlin, Antwerp, Paris and other cities, but he didn't do business anywhere. Until he returned to London and, together with Dinah Feinman, took over the Paragon Theatre and led a struggle with the other Yiddish troupe, which was under the auspices of Morris Moskowitz and M.D. Waxman, who had played in the Pavilion Theatre.

Celia Adler recalls that when Moskowitz traveled to South Africa (1913-1914), K. took over the directorship of the Pavilion Theatre


and engaged as his female star her mother Dinah Feinman, and in the troupe her sister Lili Feinman and her husband Ludwig Satz.

About K.'s acting of the day, "Criticus" (Morris Meyer) writes:

"He did not own those elastic, artistic powers to be able to play that steamy role, and he should correctly perform it. Mr. Kessler's great omission indeed was that he had played everything, played every role, if she had taken him or not. By many he failed really only because we saw him in roles, which were it not adopted, most in dramatic character roles, in roles that called for strong men who were crippled by a great deal of pain, then people noticed that he is an significant talent and understood the psychology of such expressed types, not only in movement, but also in mimicry.

An inclination for something better, an aspiration to pull out of the abyss of the shund ("trashy" plays) that the Yiddish theatre had sunk into. Mr. Kessler nevertheless noted this. From time to time he put on better plays. He even showed a strong inclination for classical drama. As he may not have succeeded with the production of these plays, in comparison to the productions on the English stage and on the stages of other nations of the world, it is nevertheless a significant fact that it was important that in the Yiddish theatre such plays were performed, which the Jewish audience could go to see. We owe a thanks to Mr. Joseph Kessler for this."

K. returned to America, and in the beginning of the First World War he acted for ten weeks on the English stage, and in July 1915 he performed in English, in Ossip Dymow's one-acter, "Harmatn-fleish."

In 1917 K. played in Chicago, where he also acted as "Hamlet."

In 1918, together with Harry Krohn, he managed a Yiddish theatre in St. Louis, where he directed H. Krohn's melodrama, "Libes-berg."

In May 1922 K. traveled back to England, where he put on Yiddish productions in the English province, and since 26 June 1922 he began to play in London's Pavilion Theatre, where he staged a series of plays, such as "Hamlet," Asch's "Motke the Thief," "Unzer gloybn," "Trilby," playing in the main roles.

In 1922 K. was the first to stage in London Ansky's "Dybbuk" (playing the role of "Meszhulach.") About his production Morris Meyer writes that "it was only a realistic and folglekh, a superficial production. Nevertheless, it oysgekumen interest."

In March 1923 K. staged here Sholem Aleichem's "Hard to Be a Jew" (playing the role of "Ivanov"), and H. Krohn's play, "Klasn-kamf."

In May 1923 K. traveled to South Africa, where he gave a series of productions in Yiddish, and later he went back to London.

About this period, Morris Meyer writes:

"In the maintaining of the Yiddish theatre in London, Mr. Joseph Kessler played an important role. Here in London he bestowed powers to the Yiddish theatre, more than other Yiddish actors or directors. ... No extensive fields for Yiddish theatre, here he didn't find it, but here with all his power he searched out plays and created a possibility that a Yiddish theatre here may exist on a permanent basis. He hadn't contributed much to the local development of Yiddish theatre, but to the existence of a Yiddish theatre in London, he certainly helped incredibly much.

... He returned here just at the moment when the Yiddish theatre was literally dying, drowning, when we had already even said Kaddish for the Yiddish theatre, and he had did it, raised the dead. He had taken to the work with great power and energy and brought new plays and actors and just had displayed a wonder: restoring the Yiddish theatre on its feet and operating it with success for a new period."

In January 1924 K. gave a series of Yiddish productions in Paris, and later he turned back to London, where he had managed with the Pavilion Theatre.

K. returned again to America, where he took over the McKinley Square Theatre in the Bronx, New York (1925-26 season.) In June 1926 he once again played with Blumental in London's Pavilion Theatre, where he once again took over the theatre, staging here a series of new plays. As in 1926, Z. Libin's, "Children of the Earth," and his comedy, "Kaptsen, vu krikhstu?" Morris Meyer writes that K. had the play staged with a tremendous success.

About the period Morris Meyer writes:

"It is a well-known fact that the Pavilion was closed and considered for sale, but Mr. Kessler and br minn had raised the dead. ...already and that Mr. Kessler had rescued the Yiddish theatre from going under, he gained the alemens recognition and estimation. ... He had nevertheless thereby not only saved the institution, where the Jewish population had a possibility to be entertained in Yiddish, but he also had made it possible for many Jewish institutions and groups to have benefits, and this meant stopping living their existence and activity. This is a very big thing, what must be recognized. It could be that would Mr. Joseph Kessler have remained only an actor, he would have developed in a strong, artistic way. He nevertheless had great abilities as an actor, and when he would concentrate only on that, he would have become an artist, also in better zin of speech, indeed in artistic zin. However, Mr. Kessler was not only an actor, but he was also a theatre director and a stager of plays. This means that he had stopped working on his own personal development, but he also had given his time and strength for these plays and or the development of others. By this he had umfarmeydlekherveyze zikh alone, that is his own abilities, had to be ignored."

In 1928 K. staged in his theatre Schiller's "The Robbers" (playing the role of "Franz Mar"), Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" (playing "Shylock"), and Leon Kobrin's "Back to his People" (playing the role of "Dr. Black"). In the summer time, he guest-starred in his repertoire in Paris, and for the 1929-30 season he directed again at the Pavilion Theatre in London, where he also staged Krohn's play, "A Life for a Life."

K. later turned back to America, where on 22 February 1933 he passed away in New York.

Morris Meyer characterized him as such:

"After that Moskowitz ascended to the English stage, Joseph Kessler settled here (in London). Here he was director in the Pavilion Theatre and played mostly roles for many years. He had without a doubt many contributions here to the maintain here a permanent Yiddish theatre, but unfortunately he hadn't created a better theatre. He had mostly staged sensational melodramas, although from time to time he staged better and zoger very good plays.

Joseph Kessler had just begun his theatre career with an inclination toward the good. He virtually was the first actor on the Yiddish stage (in London), who had staged such classical plays as 'Hamlet' and 'Romeo and Juliet' by Shakespeare, 'The Robbers' by Schiller. He had played the main roles in the plays, and he had, without a doubt, actor's ability. He was, however, gehindert by two things toward his success as an artist in better zin. He didn't possess the necessary intelligence for higher arts, and had a broad expression, which had redirected the fortrogn from the literary monologues. Already the place of his speaking has not managed to sufficiently good literary and artistic. Already the art of his speaking was not sufficient enough literarily or artistically, except that it had lacked the needed undulations. Thus he felt better in melodramas, in which we always speak in a loud voice, and that sounded rude and too strong, could not make it out, because after all, it is rude and exaggerated virtually everything that came before them. It also prevented him from taking an artistic play in which he was strongly weighted, and did not take every role.

However it must be told that when Joseph Kessler played melodramatic heroes, such roles that had suited him, he was not bad. He acted as 'Eikele mazik' in Shomer's play with the same name. He acted well as the main character in Leon Kobrin's 'Back to his People,' also as the superstitious farmer in Libin's 'Children of the Earth,' and other such roles.

For this Joseph Kessler receives credit. He gave away to the Yiddish theatre his health and his life. He went off to London after many years to play a sick and broken person. He, dukht zikh mir, not even having travel expenses had to borrow money. He went of to America. There he no longer acted, and he suffered and died."

Another London critic, under the pseudonym of "Der man fun di baks," tried in his characterization to explain K.'s approach to the theatre:

"In life--a human being without a defilement [gal.] With a lovely smile he often met someone with a word of comfort. On the stage, at rehearsals, he is just opposite this. Strict, sharp, not nakhgebnd, and is meticulous khkhut speculation, actually a robber (gzln.) In life he caresses his glances, and the eyes smiled. Behind the curtains he sticks his glances sharply as shpizn, which in both cases he was serious. ... he had love for the theatre arts as art, without pnius, without personal eygenzukht, and therefore he was so strict to everyone who had a relationship to acting. ... the advantage of seriousness at times proved itself on the stage, not only at rehearsals. On the stage, when he lived through this type through which he performed, he had however also in his mind the other players, and when the great singers "broke the ear" with a false tone, so that there would not be a hole in their heart a false movement of the actor [?] He will toil in his acting. He cannot otherwise endure it, and it annoyed him when it is elsewhere. This is, without a doubt, a virtue, but a fault that one could often discern. .... Mr. Kessler has love for the arts, even more for the gourmet who patentirn zi. But because he has love for the arts, he maintains that medicine must be mixed with sugar, if they don't wish to take it. And he has love for the Jewish public as his children, and therefore he often gives them candy [gashvarg], but not anything harmful, only appetizing um zi eyntsugevenen to something greater."

  • B. Gorin-- "History of Yiddish Theatre," Vol. II, p. 273.

  • A. Frumkin-- A yidishe theater-milkhome in london, "Forward," N.Y., 12 November 1912.

  • Kritikus [Morris Meyer]-- H' yozef kesler tsu zayn hayntigen ehren abend, "Di tsayt," London, 10 November 1913.

  • Morris Meyer-- "Di tsayt" un dos pavilion theater, dort, 2 December 1913.

  • S. Dingol-- Nuyorker yidishe "stars" in london, "Forward," N.Y., 6 May 1914.

  • Louis Reingold-- Der shlos fun yidishen theater sizon in london, dort, 3 June 1914.

  • Bn-a [Sokhatsevsky]-- H' yozef kesler in "hamlet," "Di tsayt," London, 28 June 1922.

  • M.M.-- Sholem ash's "motke ganev," dort, 5 November 1922.

  • M.M.-- H' yozef kesler als svengali, dort, 8 December 1922.

  • Kritikus-- H' yozef kesler's abshieds abend, dort, 10 May 1923.

  • A. Brahinsky-- H' yozef kesler's yubileum, dort, 30 November 1923.

  • N. Frank-- H' yozef keslers forshtelungen in pariz, dort, 7 January 1924.

  • N. Frank-- Ven men vil shteygen hoykh, "Der tog," N.Y., 8 February 1924.

  • M. Osherowitz-- Yozef kesler dertselt interesante zakhen vegn yidishn theater in afrika, "Forward," N.Y., 21 August 1924.

  • Kritikus-- Bagaysterte oyfname fun h' yozef kesler, "Di tsayt," London, 17 June 1925.

  • Bn-A-- H' yozef kesler in dem "vatshman," dort, 21 June 1925.

  • M. Kleinman-- Vegn yidish theater, dort, 1 June 1927.

  • Kritikus-- Di ershte farshtelung fun kesler's nayem yidishn theater sezon, dort, 8 June 1927.

  • Kritikus-- Tsum kumenden sezon fun yidishn theater in london, dort, 15 July 1925.

  • Avi Efrim-- Yozef kesler vegn zayn bazukh in poyln, "Lodzer tagenblat," Lodz, 18 September 1927.

  • Der man fun di baks-- Theater miniaturen, "Yidishe post," London, 2 December 1927.

  • Morris Meyer-- H' yozef kesler un dos yidishe theater, "Di tsayt," London, 18 January 1928.

  • Morris Meyer-- Shekspier's "koyfman fun venedig," dort, 19 March 1928.

  • N. Frank-- Yoze kesler's ershter oyftrit in foly dramatik, "Parizer haynt," Paris, 20 June 1928.

  • Areyengeyer-- Der "nes" in pavilion theater, "Di tsayt," London, 10 June 1928.

  • Sh. Pan-- "Di royber" fun shiler oyfgefirt fun yozef kesler, "Di post," London, 20 January 1928.

  • Morris Meyer-- "Libe tsum yidshn theater!, "Di tsayt," London, 16 January 1929.

  • Kritikus-- H' y. kesler in "der farbrekher," dort, 18 January 1929.

  • Sh. Pan-- "A leson in libe" oyfgefirt fun yozef kesler, "Di post," London, 22 May 1929.

  • Kritikus-- Der erefenung fun pavilion teater, "Di tsayt," London, dort, 18 December 1929.

  • Morris Meyer-- H' yozef kesler un dos yidishe theater in london, dort, 18 December 1929.

  • [--]-- H' kessler's letste forshtelung, dort, 23 December 1929.

  • Zalmen Zylbercweig-- "Album of the Yiddish Theatre," N.Y., 1937, p. 26.

  • Morris Meyer-- "Yidish teater in london," 1942, pp. 100, 111, 115, 136, 137, 148.

  • Celia Adler-- "Celia Adler Recalls," New York, pp. 342, 403, 587.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 4, page 2925.

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