Benjamin Harshav: The Moscow Yiddish Theatre
Yale University Press, 2008, £30
The Moscow State Yiddish Theatre (Moskver idisher melukhisher teater), usually referred to by its Russian acronym, Goset, was one of the crown jewels of modern Jewish creativity. Its story has the making of Shakespearean drama: daring, uplifting and tragic. It is a tale of innovative artistry, personal talent, Jewish commitment, political shenanigans, great hopes and broken promises which ends with assassination and institutional liquidation.
During its lifetime (1918–50) and the decades following its brutal demise, the theatre has been the subject of several books of scholarly and semi-scholarly nature, as well as personal memoirs, written in Yiddish, Hebrew, Russian, French and German. Essays in English appeared every so often in specialized academic journals, yet in the absence of an English-language monograph, Goset remained below the radar. Two reasons for this relative obscurity appear to be the cultural tensions created by the Cold War and the fact that the theatre never toured Britain or the United States.
This situation began to change sixteen years ago. In 1992, the Guggenheim Museum presented Marc Chagall and the Jewish Theatre, an exhibition that captivated New York, and later Chicago, with a display of the large mural paintings Chagall had prepared for Goset’s first home in Moscow. The fate of the murals was tied to the oblivion to which the Soviet authorities had consigned the theatre: after its demise in 1950, the murals had been rolled up and left in storage in the State Tretiakov Gallery in Moscow; Goset was written out of theatre history. Chagall himself did not know if his work had survived, and only in 1973, when he returned to the Soviet Union for the first time since 1922, did he reunite with the murals and apply his signature to the canvases.
Interest in Goset was enhanced by en masse emigration of Russian Jews — including family members of the theatre’s leadership — to Israel, America, and Western Europe, where they created disaporic communities that were greatly interested in their Russian/Soviet roots. In 2000, historian Jeffrey Veidlinger published the first English-language history of Goset, taking advantage of archival materials that had become available since the fall of the Soviet Union. The saga of Goset and its artists has also inspired Jewish artistic works, notably an opera and a couple of stage plays. Last but not least, a new exhibition, titled Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theatre, has recently opened at the Jewish Museum in New York and is attracting numerous visitors.
Benjamin Harshav, professor of comparative literature at Yale University, has chaperoned and enhanced the growing interest in Goset since his involvement in the 1992 Guggenheim exhibition. Prior to the exhibition, he conducted research in Moscow and wrote an important essay on the Chagall murals for its catalogue. His attractive new book, The Moscow Yiddish Theatre: Art on Stage at the Time of Revolution, contributes handsomely to the literature on the now celebrated artistry of the Moscow State Yiddish Theatre.
The history of Goset consists of a prologue, two main acts and an epilogue. Founded in 1918 in St Petersburg, its creative path was carved out by Alexander Granovsky, its artistic director, a brilliant regissueur who had studied with Reinhardt in Berlin and collaborated with Maxim Gorky and Fedor Chaliapin before fully devoting himself to the creation of a modernistic Yiddish theatre. Granovsky, a cerebral director, had no interest in illusionist literary theatre and was keen on developing a new theatrical vocabulary that synthesized text, rhythm, movement, sound and visual devices. This approach reflected the new spirit of the Russian theatre. It was fascinated by machine-age contructivism and the notion of the crowd as hero, adored the carnivalesque and experimented with non-western theatrical practices. While Stanislavski was revered as the grand old man of the Russian stage, it was Meyerhold and his system of biomechanics, which demanded rigorous acrobatic training for actors, that was fresh and appealing. When such modernistic practices merged with traditional Jewish materials, the results were innovative and exciting.
The most celebrated period in the life of the theatre began with its move from St. Petersburg to Moscow, where it began to perform in January, 1921. There, in the capital, Granovsky and his actors, well-trained in acrobatics, captivated the art world with an original and iconoclastic theatrical language that they applied to classical Yiddish works, notably Goldfaden’s operetta The Witch, Sholem Aleichem’s 200,000, I. L. Peretz’s Night in the Old Market and Mendele Moykher Sforim’s The Voyage of Benjamin the Third. Shortly after the move to Moscow, Chagall became associated with Goset. He decorated the theatre with his now famous murals, and applied his folksy modernism to the design of sets, costumes and make-up, influencing the aesthetic of Goset productions and sharpening its acting style.
The theatre’s creative chapter lasted until 1928, when the Soviet authorities ended Goset’s triumphant tour of central Europe and Granovsky decided to defect to the West. The company returned to Moscow, where the government began to intervene in artistic matters, implementing a policy that would lead to the imposition of Socialist Realism as the officially required style. Actor Solomon Mikhoels was appointed director. He was a phenomenal actor but not a great director. This, and the increasing stringency of policies governing the arts, caused Goset to lose much of its original artistic edge, while Mikhoels, a wise politician, immersed himself in navigating the murky waters of the Stalinist regime. In 1934, after a few lacklustre years of forgettable productions, Mikhoels stunned the theatre world with his breathtaking rendition of King Lear, with Benjamin Zuskin, his perennial sidekick, in the role of the Fool. It was Mikhoels’s crowning role, marking him as a Shakespearean interpreter of the first order. It is most fortunate that segments of his performance were recorded on film. To this day, the old and grainy images convey the power of an exceptional performance. The story behind this extraordinary production is uniquely Russian: it was conceived by Les Kourbas (neé Oleksander), the most important Ukrainian theatre director of the twentieth century. Kourbas, known as the Ukranian Meyerhold, knew Yiddish, and Mikhoels had been trying for years to get him to work with Goset. He finally did so in 1933, but before completing his work was arrested as a counterrevolutionary and executed four years later (1937). The production was finished by the more conventional director Sergei Radlov, a party favorite, who was given full credit for the stage direction.
During the Second World War, Mikhoels became a prominent Jewish leader. He became involved in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, travelled to the West and the United States and established contacts with Jewish organizations outside the Soviet Union. He was to pay dearly for his involvement. On the night of 12 January 1948, Mikhoels was murdered in Minsk on direct orders from Stalin, the murder camouflaged as a traffic accident. Some 10,000 people paid their respects when the body lay in state in the auditorium of Goset. But the theatre was doomed and a year later it was liquidated. On 12 August 1952, actor Benjamin Zuskin, Mikhoels’s right hand and friend, was executed with eleven other Jewish Soviet writers and intellectuals.
In his book, Harshav focuses on the period up to 1928, setting the intellectual and artistic context for a deeper understanding of the theatre’s achievements at its most creative stage. The book consists of two main parts. The first part includes two essays by the author: ‘The Yiddish Art Theatre’ and ‘Chagall’s Theatre Murals’. The rest of the book includes translations from Yiddish and Russian of source materials, as well as translations of two skits by Sholem Aleichem produced by Goset. The book includes a bibliography and two generous sections of beautifully produced colour plates. Of these, the first is devoted to works by Chagall and other designers who worked for Goset, while the second offers a potpourri of set and costume illustrations and images, including those prepared by Robert Falk for Granovsky’s production of The Travels of Benjamin the Third, sketches by Alexander Tyshler for the 1935 production of King Lear, designs prepared for the Belorussian, Ukranian and Birobidjan State Yiddish Theatres, and five sketches by Eugene Nivinsky for Habima’s 1925 Hebrew-language production of The Golem.
One of Nivinsky’s costume illustrations for The Golem appears on the visually arresting cover of the book, though the book is devoted to Yiddish, not Hebrew, theatre. It is easy to understand Harshav’s eagerness to reproduce all the gorgeous pictures included in the book, all of them from the Bakhrushin Theatre Museum in Moscow; yet, at times one has the impression of a child who won’t let go of any single piece of candy. True, Harshav mentions the Habima in his essay, and notes briefly that ‘Jewish’ and ‘Yiddish’ mean one and the same in Russian, an argument that may explain his deliberately vague title ‘Moscow Yiddish Theatre’ rather than ‘The Moscow State Yiddish Theatre’ which was Goset’s official title. This double meaning of ‘Jewish’ is reminiscent of older people who, years ago, would say that someone sopke ‘Jewish,’ by which they meant ‘Yiddish’. For today’s reader, however, this double meaning is anachronistic and confusing.
I wish Harshav had provided us with an explanation for his choice of source materials as well as a brief introduction to the excerpts he selected, the cumulative effect of which borders on hagiography. The same applies to the raison d’être of the two Sholem Aleichem skits. Such authorial clarifications would give the book a more focused rationale. This being said, the author and the publisher must be praised for this sumptuous volume, which enhances our understanding and appreciation of a sterling example of Jewish creativity at its very best.