Peretz Hirschbein, Yiddish Theatre and possible parallels with the History Plays

Hirschbein, actor and dramatist founded the first Art Theatre in Odessa in 1908 which produced plays in Yiddish. His first play, having been written in Hebrew, was Miriam. His most important plays; the Blacksmith’s Daughter (1915) and Green Fields (1919) are idylls of Jewish country life and according to the Oxford Companion to the Theatre, the second was considered to be one of the greatest works of Yiddish drama. It was translated into English by Joseph C. Landis in 1966 as The Dybbuk and other Great Yiddish plays. (In Jewish folklore, a dybbuk (Hebrew: דיבוק‎) is a malicious or benevolent possessing spirit believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person.)

The culture of the Eastern European Jews was permeated with music, song, and dance. These latter features commonly in the Yiddish theatre, and emerged at its earliest point in Warsaw in the 1830s. During Purim, a religious holiday, plays told the story from the Book of Esther and were known as Purimspiels. Purim, is when Hamantaschen are made with many different fillings, including prunes, nut, poppy seeddateapricotapple, fruit preservescherrychocolatedulce de lechehalva, or even caramel or cheese. There was a song called, Mein Hut der hat drei Ecken, which in Hebrew school related to Hamen’s three cornered hat; the shape of the pastry.

Also, there is a fairly well known production of quite another film which is also called The Dybbuk which has been translated into Yiddish, Hebrew, German, Polish, English, Ukranian, Swedish, Bulgarian, Czech, Serbian, French and Japanese. There are several significant or interesting points about the film. Firstly, produced in 1937, it features Gerschon Sirota, whose voice was considered heavenly by Caruso. Some of Sirota’s pieces (including ‘Ata Nigleita’) are compared in quality to Traviata and Madam Butterfly. The plot involves an arranged marriage and deals with intergenerational strife interwoven with mystical themes and experiences of possession. It was written by Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport who was known as S.Ansky who also came from Odessa, was interested in folklore and ethnography, and wrote the oath or song which became the anthem of the Jewish Socialist Bund party. Ansky also was a Socialist representative in the 1917 Russian Assembly. Odessa was clearly a lively centre for the discussion of theatre, history and politics particularly in the Jewish community which also included Simon Dubnow, another person worthy of further research.

My interest in these issues was sparked by starting to read (and in the process turning to the Oxford Theatre Companion) Shakespeare’s King John and its relation to the genre described as the ‘History Play’. It occurred to me that one obvious way of thinking about the question is to compare and contrast the genre in other, mostly European, cultures. Not at all an easy task! Clearly there are links with issues such as ideology, religious practice and belief, creating a tradition and reflecting back upon its cultural memories and so developing or reinforcing earlier myths. We have also just seen the gory preview scenes from Ironclad, based on the historical King John, and reviewed in yesterday’s Daily Mail, by Chris Tookey, “Ironclad desperately wants to be a historical blockbuster along the lines of Braveheart. Sadly, it has more in common with Monty Python and the Holy Grail” Some historical facts about King John are given at http://www.middle-ages.org.uk/king-john.htm

It is striking reading in The New Cambridge Edition (L.A.Beaurline) of King John, how the play influenced what has been called the archaeology of staging. Apparently, before Charles Kemble took over Covent Garden there was little interest in getting costumes historically correct. This matter was of great importance to Kemble and with James Robinson Planché (27 February 1796 – 30 May 1880) consequently attention to scenery being historically authentic developed commenced with productions of King John.

I wonder how Yiddish plays were originally performed and with what scenery. It is very well known that Yiddish Theatre was a great influence upon Kafka. Their comparatively recent development perhaps illustrates their cosmopolitan narratives of identity, including of course, Zionism. Possibly Shakespeare’s History plays are virtually sui generis. Early History plays in Germany evolved written by men like Andreas Gryphius (1616 – 1664) a lyric poet and dramatist. A notably significant figure is Schiller who wrote historical plays with support from Goethe. For instance, he wrote an interesting and sympathetic play about Mary Stewart in which Elizabeth appears thoroughly ruthless.

To conclude with two provoking essays from the Guardian, the first written by Jonathan Bate about Shakespeare’s history plays, “As history, the plays paint a panorama of England, embracing a wider social range than any previous historical drama, as the action moves from court to tavern, council-chamber to battlefield, city to country, archbishop and lord chief justice to whore and thief.” Still more can be read and enjoyed at:-http://www.guardian.co.uk/culture/2010/may/29/shakespeare-jonathan-bate-simon-callow Of course, when it comes to knowledge of drama, languages and cultures there is the redoubtable George Steiner who gave a characteristically ironic interview at http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2008/apr/19/society

What became of Hirschbein? Well in the early 1940s Hirschbein moved to Los Angeles, here he wrote a feature film, “Hitler’s Hangman” (1943) and generally worked on propaganda. Now what did Olivier produce in the following year? “A colourful and highly stylised version which begins in the Globe Theatre and then gradually shifts to a realistic evocation of the Battle of Agincourt”, oh yes, Henry the Fifth!

The intellectuals of Odessa

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