Lives in the Yiddish Theatre


Moritz Morrison
(Moshe Kohn)

Born circa 1885 in Galatz [Galaţi], Romania. His father was a Russian Jew, his mother was born in Romania. In his early years he wandered off to Germany and Austria, where he learned in Mitele and in more veteran institutions, not completing any one of them since he was drawn to the stage.

One of his teachers was the Jewish historian Professor Graetz. M. heard several languages, such as German, French, later Spanish, Italian and eventually English. Although in his early youth Yiddish was spoken at home, he later became completely estranged from the Yiddish language.

Debuting as an actor in 1878 in Westphalen, Germany, where he called[?] but not feeling any great enthusiasm, he did not remain for long in the local troupe.

Without a means to make a living, M. barely (killed any opinions?), where he entered into a theatre house. Here he caught the attention of Mbinim, took to study the classical repertoire that then was in style, and in the span of a short time he already was shown in responsible roles.

M. acted for three years in the Meininger troupe, then he toured with troupes and often as a guest-star across various large cities in Germany, Austria, guest-starring in Romania and acting in the imperial theatre in Peterburg, where he had great success. Later he also visited other large cities in Russia, though he became especially popular with the German theatre public in Berlin and Vienna.


At the end of the eightieth year of the twentieth century(?), M. arrived in America and acted for four seasons in the German Irving Place Theatre in New York. Boris Thomashefsky, who then was acting in Philadelphia, noticing in the press releases that M. was a Jew, endeavored to be introduced to him and to take him away from New York, but he wasn't successful. In 1891, according to Thomashefsky, when he had acted in Phladelphia, M. came to him behind the curtains. "An entirely ordinary, poor tramp with torn clothing, brodiage, a vagabond, sorrowful, lame, twisted, farmers' boots of the cheap sort. His pants were torn, were a little too short, from the shoes he looked like an old man. His coat was torn. Through his sleeves could be seen his naked hand and a plain farmer's shirt of the cheap short. The buttons were torn off, but there appeared to be expensive silk underwear. His face was burnt by the sun, like a true farmer with a large, blackened face, and a fine tsekampter beard..."

According to Thomashefsky, M. declared to him that the Christian stage performers had driven him from New York. The stage director has said to him during a rehearsal: "Herr Morrison, the Jews speak." M. left the theatre and no longer send for him, and in several days he read that he was rejected from the German theatre because the German attendees wanted to have a German, not any Yiddish theatre. He was too ashamed to return, and he returned back from Europe. And out of shame he cashed in [his] acting card and drank [?] And without any means of earning money he went away to Chicago. Here he had, through an ad in the newspaper, zikh fardungen not far from the city, in a form as a day worker for twelve dollars a month, which he however did not receive payment.

M. spent three months with Thomashefsky. Within this time he made up the actors, and they helped them dress. Many times he helped the stage workers put together the scenery, and sometimes he even swept the stage.

Once when M. had complained to Thomashefsky that it is very boring. Thomashefsky made a proposal to him that he should begin to act for him in Yiddish. However -- as Thomashefsky tells it --- "Morrison became pale, his hands and feet were trembling, his eyes had shed tears. He made with the lips like it was torture for him to speak. All of a sudden he was exhausted and went off to the kitchen [cook], and we soon hard a horrible roar like a wounded bear. He was hit in the heart and cried: "I am a Yiddish actor! I, Moritz Morison! Who should I play? "Dovid Velvel" as the "Khlutsh," Papus or Tsingetan? Boris, you have grieved me! Boris, you want my entire career to break; Moritz Morrison a Yiddish actor! -- and he burst into tears."

Several days later M. apologized, and he declared that he is ready to act in Yiddish, but shortly thereafter he again withdrew sufficiently[?] for its strange characters that were presented in the Yiddish theatre. Through the initiative of Thomashefsky, M. received the opportunity to perform once in the German play, "The Two Partners," for theatre director Halis in Chicago, and both the press and public took to him warmly.

Soon after the production M. -- according to Thomashefsky -- again disappeared, and around 1903 happened again in New York at the Thalia Theatre: "The beard was not no large as before, the clothing no longer like a farmer, only a bit torn up, tsekneytshte, the shoes worn out. It already was cold and his clothes were summerlike, in a straw hat, and under his arm he bore a small paper box..."

In the box there were M.'s used wigs from "Othello," "Hamlet," "Kean" and "Shylock," and he [then] asked to borrow ten dollars, which he received on a pawn. Soon thereafter he went off to a wine cellar, [and] two days later he again received and stuttered that he wanted to act in Yiddish theatre If not, there is no other option than to commit suicide. He wants to play his roles in German, when the other members of the troupe wanted to play in Yiddish. "I have -- Thomashefsky tells further -- talked it over with Finkel, about Morrison's acting, and it remained with us that we should try one show and see how the world will take to that show. We were scared that the Jews would be afraid of the Germans. The test was made. Morrison performed in "Acosta" with Yiddish actors in a Yiddish theatre. The public took to him with great excitement. After each act they applauded him very much, and after the third act it was very feast-like. They simply broke into applause. Morrison thanked them with a beautiful German speech, and mixed in several Yiddish and Hebrew words. The public was very agitated and screamed, "Morrison" and applauded. ... And from the production on, from that day on, Morrison became a Yiddish-German actor. Simply said, a Yiddish actor who spoke German ..."

About M.'s performances on the Yiddish stage, B. Gorin writes:

"The effect of the better drama spread in such a way throughout the entire stage, and the reputation and material condition of the Yiddish theatre became such, that the great Yiddish actor who had played in the nations of Europe had cast an eye on him. The first of several actors were Moritz Morrison, an imperial, king-like (?) actor from the Romantic School. He came to guest-star in the German theatre, and from there he lost himself in the Yiddish stage, but he never performed in the classical repertoire. He alone played in German, and the other actors broke their tongue in the German roles, and from then on almost every year came and gave a certain number of productions. In the last years of his life he entirely was dependent on Yiddish theatre."

On 12 December 1903 M. performed in the People's Theatre as "Othello" ("Iago" -- Boris Thomashefsky, "Desdemona" -- Malvina Lobel); on 1 January 1904 as "Hamlet" ("Ophelia" -- Malvina Lobel). On 29 January 1904 as "Kean"; on 30 January 1904 as "Uriel Acosta"; on 11 March 1904 at the Grand Theatre as "Franz" in Schiller's "Der roybers (The Robbers)" ("Karl" -- Jacob P. Adler, "Amalia" -- Sara Adler), and on 31 March 1905 in the Grand Theatre (together with Sara Adler) in "Narciss and Madame De Pompadour" by Brachfogel.)

 [pdf pg. 234] Soon thereafter M. again went off to Europe where he guest-starred in various cities. Thomashefsky writes as such about M.'s production in Karlsbad: "He acted in 'Kean." I was his bit manager. I had to talk to the cashier and remove the "marks," which came to him. I've had very few to take, because the loner was a sorrowful person, but Morrison was honored very much that night. In the theatre, there sat in the loge area Joseph Keintz, Director Conrad from New York, and the London darling Birnbaum tri (?). In the second loge sat the Prince of Orleans (?), with his family."

Thus for many years M. used to return to America to guest-star on the Yiddish stage, and at the start of summer he would return to Germany.

In 1910 M. guest-starred with Malvina Lobel across the American province, and on 5 March 1911 he again performed in New York in his earlier repertoire, and also in Shakespeare's "King Lear."

In February 1911 he played again across the American province, and on 5 March 1911 he performed again with Thomashefsky in the People's Theatre in "The Robbers," again traveling across the province and playing in March-May 1912 in Kessler's Second Avenue Theatre in his prior repertoire, and on 1 May 1912 as "King Richard III" by Shakespeare. In October 1912 he continued to play his repertoire in the Lipzin Theatre, then for a long time in other New York theares, and across the province, doing very bad business.

On 8 January 1915 M. performed in Thomashefsky's National Theatre in George Ahnet's (sp) drama, "Libe un shtoltz (Love and Pride?) (translation by Moshe Schorr), and acted often at the start of the 1915-6 season in Kessler's Second Avenue Theatre.

On 23 January 1916 M. acted in Yiddish in Henryk Ibsen's "Di gayster (The Ghost)" for Maurice Schwartz's testimonial, and on 3 March 1916 he acted in Lateiner's "A korbon fun libe (A Victim of Love?)." In November 1916 he again acted in his repertoire in Bessie Thomashefsky's People's Theatre.

About M.'s last days in Yiddish theatre, Boris Thomashefsky writes: "He became sick from grief and had begun to use measures to sustain himself.... when he became melancholy, and the bitter sorrow and the elderly had deeply criticized him, the legs were breaking and the bust had ..... Morrison quickly caught the fleshl with piln, which he had built....aruntershlungen one or two, and ten minutes later Morrison had again been redeemed[?], his eyes had acquired a brilliant fire. He had aroused himself in his entire being, and again for several hours became the former Morrison... On 5 June 1917 he acted in his last production, "Othello," for me in the theatre. I was then in Chicago, but they told us that it was a terrible production. After the third act, Morrison became broken... He fell, rolling one foot after the other, but it did not help him. A well-known doctor stuck him with needles and gave various measures. With his last effort he ended the last act."

On 28 August 1917 M. passed away in New York and according to his will -- was brought to his gravesite next to Sigmund Mogulesko at Washington Cemetery in New York [Brooklyn.]

Lead Pencil [B. Botwinik] portrayed M.'s last years on the Yiddish stage: "The last two to three years of his life he had the former [stage-] king of Europe, Dora Benefislech [?], acting in the Yiddish theatres. The last time a friend of the European princes had barely called on a poor Jew to buy him a ticket for thirty-five cents for his performance. The German productions were no longer despised by the Yiddish audience. Also the Yiddish actor and the Yiddish actress did not want to play in Morrison's German repertoire. It was difficult to bring the Yiddish tongue to German.  Every Yiddish actor used to take part in a Morrison production. This German has already prepared for the public. In addition, Morrison became weaker and weaker. His firm-built body was crumpled and bent. His formerly powerful voice had fallen. Something broke in his throat and his voice sounded like a beat in a broken pot."

B. Gorin characterized M. as an actor and his role on the Yiddish stage: "Moritz Morrison was a well-known figure and not only in the theatre circles, where he knew everyone, and everyone knew him, but also with the outstanding theatre public. It was enough  that he should appear in a Yiddish theatre as a spectator, and every eye responded from the stage to him and everyone applauded him. He was a proud star before he reached the Yiddish stage, proud with his art, proud with his creation, and proud with his career, and his Yiddish colleagues gave him a great respect, like someone named them on a foreign stage. In the same time they manifested a kind of fear for him, because he had his caprices. But after that he began to appear on the Yiddish stage, The more he was used to it and the more people got used to it, the more respect fell upon him. ... but under all circumstances he remained the artist who loved his art and related the stage with the deepest respect of the priest to his temple. To him it was a proper job to play. He was included in the show, What he gave, with love and with life, and he was not allowed to come out of his role at the break. ... The entire time that Morrison gave performances on the Yiddish stage, playing one of the same pieces that he knew orally, each time it was as he wanted to perform a new piece. ... Morrison was a romantic actor and had felt like a fish in water in the classical drama in which human passion was portrayed in dense colors, when he wanted to appear in a realistic piece and needed to portray he passion of an average, modern, human being. He would lose the soil from under his feet. His heroic bearing, his harsh voice, his dense intonations, would absolutely not be prepared for such a role, and an ordinary, average Jew would come out of an Othello or Hamlet. ... First of all, in recent years, after seeing Schildkraut here, as the latter played in the mother tongue, Morrison had a desire to play in Yiddish for his brothers. A few years ago, he told me that he could speak Yiddish just like any other Jew, and that he thinks of the rightness to play in a Yiddish play using the pure mother tongue. It is good for him that he did not execute his plan. ... It was too late for him to break his tongue in Yiddish. Besides that, as mentioned above, he would have turned a realistic character into a romantic spirit. Morrison, until the last day of his life, remained a stranger on the Yiddish stage. He had never grown up with her [Yiddish]. With his education, with his art, with his language. he felt foreign and remained foreign on the Yiddish stage."

Ab. Cahan characterized him this way: "He was a German actor, not a Yiddish one, and as a German he acted for us. ... when Morrison wanted to learn how to act in plain [simple] Yiddish, he might have lost seventy-five percent of his popularity with us. ... After his manners and pronunciation, it was seen that this is a playwright who went to the cheder of a teacher of the Berlin and Vienna theatres. This has already made Morrison quite isolated from all Yiddish actors. ... he played in the classical manner. He has declared, but he has declared beautifully ... They loved to see him in classical scenes, Indeed, in those matters where one has to declare, where his lovely voice with his beautiful German language resonated with classical boldness and solemnity. ... His popularity was a good thing for our theatre. He was a kind of connection between it and the greater European stage. it was good that our theatre visitors used to hear a must-have pronunciation and see worthy, civilized movements. The theatre where he used to play was always packed, which is to say, that he had with our audience a true grace, and this grace was good."

Boris Thomashefsky writes about M.'s career: "He struggled with the world arts, he looked to make sensations, the world should speak of him, the newspapers should write about him. However, it didn't help. He was a bad manager and did not know how to hold the honor of the theatre, which he had so greatly acquired. He committed a great deal of effort in his time. In his greatness he jumped too high and then fell too deep. And the truth is that his coming to Yiddish theatre had given him the last push. The German stage didn't want to know more about him, from Europe he was sacked, and even the small German stages in America: such as Cincinnati, St. Louis, Milwaukee, even if they didn't want to leave Morrison because he was too much for himself."

In the necrology in "Morning Journal" there was remarked: "To the Jewish audience he had strongly taken off as "Kean" and was his greatest call in Yiddish theatre. His greatest admirers came from Austria (meaning central Galicia), probably because they had heard of seen him, when he was in his brilliance on the German stage, and also because the German language was more known to them, as were the Jews in other countries."

Reuben Breinin even addresses M.'s Yiddish erudition:

" ... His (Morrison's) letter, near by, were filled with quotations from various classical poets. His German was literary, even too literary, overly artistic, almost like his acting on the stage, full of dignity, ringing phrases and the intention to impose, To arouse with his exuberance. ... On that evening (a Zionist evening in 1898 in Marienbad) I had my first acquaintance with Morris Morrison. I became as though stunned when this 'leading man,' who by and large had performed in Christian circles and was currently able to quote many separate selections of the Mishnah. He was faultless. Morrison also understood me when I spoke in Hebrew. How did he come to this? -- I asked him. His answer: "What is the wonder? At times I am a student of Isaak Hirsh Vays and lecturer Meir Ish Sholom in Vienna."

Joel Entin writes:

"Some American Jews will remember him. Although he did not play for the great people, although his language and his repertoire destined him to become the pet of the great masses. However, there was not a single theatre in New York, and he was not brought to the utmost ecstasy of tragic genius. Morrison brought the most tragic ecstasy to the Yiddish stage with full hope. Playing in the German language, and in non-Yiddish plays, he had thus, with his short episodes, at times in the middle of the season, but the joints to the lock (אבער מייסטנטיילס צום שלוס), made the Yiddish stage much richer. He has, on the Yiddish stage, with which he had no classical kinship, brought out European classicism. And to all, for all the purposes of his own roles, there was pure pure coalition, imperfect classicism, There was no corruption of, no shriveled Shakespeare, No cut out and He gave Yiddishless Schiller, but genuine, true, With all their gestational grandeur, With all their ideal beauty, notwithstanding its strangeness, After all, he added to the Yiddish theatre very seriously and well. He worked for the good of both the artist and the person, both on stage and in social traffic."

Jacob Kalich recalls: "He [M.] has, for example, answered regarding my question of why he doesn't act in his roles in Yiddish, only German:

"Knowing that he will speak to Jews in Yiddish, the Jew has no regard for him. ... Remarkably, such an appearance in this time on the Yiddish stage, as he was that figure with so many skilled intellectuals and talents, not a single page has contributed to our theatrical history, but nothing new, But no new will or form was created, not looking at what most of us thought was possible. Therefore, indeed, because he came to us, not out of love and not in love, but in suppressing a spiritual program. He seized himself in the voice of Israel and did not know its meaning. ... He did not want to speak Yiddish, so as not to lose the respect, and in the meanwhile lose everything. "

  • B. Gorin -- "History of Yiddish Theatre Vol. II, p. 169.

  • Y. Kritikus [Kirschenbaum] -- Morison un malvina lobel, "Der kanader adler," Montreal, 3 March 1910.

  • Z. Kornblith -- "Shylock" un vi moris morison ferteytsht ihm "Di yidishe bine," N. Y., 8 April 1910.

  • M. D. [Dantsis] -- Morits morison als "kenig lier," "Di yidishe bine," N. Y., 15 April 1910.

  • Jacob Kirschenbaum -- Kunst un kinstler, "Di yidishe velt," Cleveland, 27 June 1915.

  • Bessie Thomashefsky -- "Mayn lebens geshikhte," N. Y., 1916, pp. 166-170, 244, 260-61.

  • Ab. Cahan -- Morits morison's role oyf der yidisher bine, "Forverts," N. Y., 29 August 1917.

  • Y. Entin -- Morits morison, "Di varhayt," N. Y., 29 August 1917.

  • Jacob P. Adler -- A yidisher kinstler geshtorbn, "Morning Journal," N. Y., 29 August 1917.

  • Boris Thomashefsky  -- Thomashevsky beshreybt vi azoy er hot zikh bekent mit morisonen, "Forverts," N. Y., 30 August 1917.

  • Y. Z. Shubin -- A fershtoytener, "Der tog," N. Y., 30 August 1917.

  • Lead Pencil [B. Botwinick] -- Morris morrison, "Forverts," N. Y., 31 August 1917.

  • Boris Thomashefsky -- Morrison hot amol gemuzt ferlozn di bine un veren a farmer, dort.

  • Boris Thomashefsky -- Thomashefsky als morison's menedzsher, "Forverts," N. Y., 1 September 1917.

  • Reuben Breinin -- Moris morison, "Yidishe togblat," N. Y., 4 September 1917.

  • Boris Thomashefsky -- Vi azoy morison iz gevorn a hushv oyf der yidisher bine, "Forverts," N. Y., 5 September 1917.

  • B. Gorin -- Morits morison, "Morning Journal," N. Y., 5 September 1917.

  • Jacob Kalich -- Moris morison, keniglikher shoyshpiler, geshtorbn a betler, "Der teater shtern," N. Y., 1 December 1926.






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Adapted from the original Yiddish text found within the  "Lexicon of the Yiddish Theatre" by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Volume 2, page 1248.

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