In the autumn of 1911, Franz Kafka went to see several performances of a Yiddish theater troupe who’d recently arrived in Prague. Mesmerized, he noted down the details in his diaries, dwelling on everything from the costumes of "Mrs K, ‘male impersonator’" to the plots of the melodramas and the "long-drawn-out forward movement" he heard in the melodies of the songs. Over the next few months, while the troupe was stranded in Prague due to money troubles, Kafka became increasingly fascinated by the world of the Yiddish theater — an itinerant subculture that found a home wherever there were enough Yiddish-speakers to support them.
Reading Kafka’s diary entries, which record not only the performances but the friendships he struck up with the actors, one soon realizes how sizable this subculture once was. It had its share of infighting (arguments over who was "the greatest Jewish writer"), its celebrities ("‘the great Adler,’ from New York, the most famous Yiddish actor, who is a millionaire"), and its hardships: "Mrs Tschissik", Kafka writes, "has protuberances on her cheeks near her mouth. Caused in part by hollow cheeks as a result of the pains of hunger, childbed, journeys, and acting…"
Theater in Yiddish had not been around for very long when Kafka discovered it. The first modern Yiddish theater production was staged in 1876 at an open-air garden in Bucharest; its impresario, the poet Avrom Goldfaden (1840–1908), would afterward become a one-man industry, composing operettas that were distributed and performed all through Eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. From the beginning, however, Goldfaden struggled to get audiences to accept serious plays (rather than vaudevillian combinations of music, comedy routines, and melodrama). His own humble ambition was to become "the Yiddish Shakespeare", but he continually found that all audiences wanted was, as he put it, "a good glass of wine and a song".
The translator Isaac Rosenberg’s edition of Six Plays of the Yiddish Theatre, published in 1916, at the height of the First World War, is a document of a later era. By then, Yiddish playwrights — many of whom had been born in present-day Poland or Russia and then emigrated to New York City — had long begun to expand the repertoire beyond shtick mixed with music. Six Plays collects work by four playwrights central to expanding this repertoire.
Peretz Hirschbein (1880–1948), sometimes called "the Yiddish Maeterlinck", became famous for the moody atmospheres and terse dialogue of his drama, here well represented by "In the Dark", in which an odd-job man, his daughter, and his blind mother exchange laments on a winter evening in "two long and narrow rooms in a deep cellar".
David Pinski (1872–1959), who as a boy had been destined for a career as a rabbi in his native Russia, was much celebrated by Yiddish theatergoers and critics in the early decades of the twentieth century. He often wrote on biblical themes, as he does here in "Abigail": the story of a woman who has a love affair with King David. His other great subject, in Goldberg’s words, was "the struggle and tragedy of the Jewish proletariat", as is evident in a second play, "Forgotten Souls".
Sholem Aleichem (1859–1916) — confusingly listed under his birth name, Solomon J. Rabinowitsch — remains one of the best-known Yiddish playwrights. His talents were vast. At fifteen he wrote a Jewish version of Robinson Crusoe and never looked back, composing, over the course of his life, dozens of plays, several novels, an autobiography, and countless stories, including Tevye’s Daughters, which formed the basis for the musical Fiddler on the Roof. The Aleichem play included here, "She Must Marry a Doctor", is pure vaudeville — a proto–Marx Brothers routine in which Abram, the studious and thoroughly modern young man, and Sholom, the old-fashioned matchmaker, couldn’t be more hilariously at odds:
ABRAM: [pompously] The word despot is derived from "despotism"… Now do you understand?
SHOLOM: [Shakes his head.] And what does despotism mean?
ABRAM: Despotism is the same as despot… A despot means a tyrant — despot and tyrant are practically the same, and for heaven’s sake don’t bother me any longer! [*Turns to his books and begins to thumb over the pages.*]
Last but not least, Sholem Asch (1880–1957) — another Yiddish playwright whose work is still regularly performed — is represented by two plays, "Winter", about a self-sacrificing sister, and "The Sinner", an allegorical play about death which takes place entirely in a graveyard. Neither of these, however, give a very good idea of what Isaac Rosenberg calls Asch’s "erotomania", alluding to his masterpiece God of Vengeance, in which a Jewish brothel-keeper tries to become respectable. With its portrayal of Jewish prostitutes, its rough handling of the Torah, and its depiction of a lesbian kiss (the first ever seen on a Broadway stage), God of Vengeance was destined to be shut down on charges of obscenity not long after it premiered in 1923.
Six Plays of the Yiddish Theatre opens a door into a vibrant literary universe not often discussed nowadays. You can find modern translations of plays by some of the same authors here. And you can read more about Yiddish literature in general — and browse a number of texts and images — at the Yiddish Book Center’s impressive Digital Library.