Zrelishscha (Entertainment), no. 89 (June 1924). The cover of this Moscow journal features a montage by I. Makhlis celebrating the GOSET (Moscow State Yiddish Theater), with Aleksandr Granovskii as the locomotive that pulls the train and actor Solomon Mikhoels as the conductor atop the engine. (YIVO)

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Granovskii, Aleksandr Mikhailovich

(1890–1937), director of the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (Gosudarstvennyi Evreiskii Teatr; GOSET). Aleksandr Granovskii (Yid., Aleksander Granovski) was born into a wealthy merchant family in Moscow that moved to Riga while he was an infant. There he was raised in an assimilated environment. Beginning in 1910, he studied theater in Saint Petersburg, where he was influenced by the avant-garde and experimental theater of the Russian Silver Age. He continued his studies under the tutelage of Max Reinhardt in Germany, and developed an appreciation for theater as spectacle. In 1914, he returned to Saint Petersburg and began directing theatrical productions, including Macbeth, Faust, and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Sadko.

Granovskii’s involvement with Yiddish theater began in 1917 when, without speaking Yiddish himself, he became director of the newly formed Jewish Theatrical Society of Saint Petersburg. Under its auspices, he led the Jewish Chamber Theater, which was formed with the ideal of creating an amateur Yiddish art theater. Granovskii recruited young Jewish actors and trained them in the modernist style he had learned from Reinhardt. For its premiere performances in Petrograd in 1919, the theater presented three short plays by Sholem Asch, as well as Di blinde (The Blind), a translation of Les aveugles by the French symbolist Maurice Maeterlinck, and a short piece by Solomon Mikhoels, a member of the troupe. The choice of repertoire was intended to demonstrate the theater’s ability to cross the boundary between what Granovskii regarded as parochial Jewish culture and cosmopolitan European art.

Set design by Robert Fal'k for Mendele Moykher-Sforim's Kitser masoes Binyomin hashlishi (The Brief Travels of Benjamin III), produced by Aleksandr Granovskii, Moscow State Yiddish Theater, 1927. Oil on canvas. (GDC 989. 313889; © Federal State Institution of Culture "A.A. Bakhrushin State Central Theatrical Museum," Moscow)

In 1920, Granovskii moved the theater to Moscow, where, with state sanction, it soon became the Moscow State Yiddish Theater. Granovskii sought to use the theater to present popular Yiddish plays in modernist frameworks. His first success came in 1921 with his adaptation of a series of one-act plays by Sholem Aleichem, entitled Sholem Aleykhem ovnt (An Evening of Sholem Aleichem). This success was followed by performances of Avrom Goldfadn’s Di kishef-makherin (The Witch) in 1922 and Sholem Aleichem’s Tsvey hundert toyznt (Two Hundred Thousand) in 1923. All these plays used the satire of the original stories to mock aristocratic and bourgeois values. Granovskii trained his actors in biomechanics, which were acrobatic dances intended to simulate the movements of machinery. He was successful in recruiting premiere artists and musicians, such as Marc Chagall and the composer Joseph Achron. He also directed the film Yidishe glikn (Jewish Luck; 1925), based on the writings of Sholem Aleichem.

Later in the decade, Granovskii achieved new successes with original adaptations of Yiddish favorites, such as his renditions of Y. L. Peretz’s Bay nakht afn altn mark (Night in the Old Marketplace) in 1925 and Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s Masoes Binyomin hashlishi (Travels of Benjamin III) in 1927. His symbolist presentations rendered the plays barely recognizable to critics familiar with the originals. Nevertheless, these productions were immensely successful and earned extensive critical acclaim within the Soviet Union and abroad. The New York Times critic C. Hooper Trask wrote of his Benjamin III: “it was one of the most originally conceived and beautifully executed evenings in the modern theater” (24 June 1928). Granovskii was heralded as one of the foremost experimental directors in the Soviet Union. German dramatist Ernst Toller called him “one of the most talented directors I have encountered” (“Gruss ans Jiddische Staatstheater,” in Ernst Toller, Joseph Roth, and Alfons Goldschmidt, Das Moskauer Jüdische Akademische Theater [Berlin, 1928], p. 7).

During the theater’s triumphant European tour in 1928, Granovskii defected to Germany. There he directed films, including Das Lied vom Leben (The Song of Life; 1931) and Die Koffer des Herrn O. F. (The Trunks of Mr. O. F.; 1932). He also directed plays at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. In 1933, Granovskii moved to Paris, where he started his own cinema production company and continued directing films. He died suddenly in 1937.

Suggested Reading

Lois Adler, “Alexis Granovsky and the Jewish State Theatre of Moscow,” The Drama Review 24.3 (September 1980): 27–42; Béatrice Picon-Vallin, Le théâtre juif soviétique pendant les années vingt (Lausanne, Switz., 1973); Jeffrey Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater: Jewish Culture on the Soviet Stage (Bloomington, Ind., 2000).