Natan Al’tman’s set design for Le Trouhadec by Jules Romain, Moscow State Yiddish Theater, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)

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Stage Design

Theater historians have often characterized the modern Yiddish theater as an entertainment form that has relied heavily on spectacular visual scenic design and grotesque renderings of the Jewish past. This characterization applies to many of the best-known Yiddish-language performances during what might be called its Silver Age (1918–1940) but does not accurately describe productions presented in its Golden Age (1876–1918) or the decades that preceded it.

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)

The earliest examples of performed Yiddish drama in the nineteenth century took place in outdoor taverns, cafés, and wine cellars. The basic set pieces were rarely more than ordinary tables and chairs, assembled on elevated platforms. Like the purim-shpils that inspired them, the first Yiddish comic sketches were largely aural and character-driven. They required only a few obvious indicators of time and locale: a rich man’s study, a tsarist police station, an old stable, a besmedresh (bet midrash) foyer, a desolate well, a wedding reception hall, a cemetery. Even Avrom Goldfadn’s elaborate biblical epics borrowed directly from the scenic traditions of East European folk theater, which used painted backdrops to signify royal chambers, throne rooms, ancient city streets, and mountain redoubts. More significant for the Yiddish actor and playgoer were costuming and hand props. A feather helmet, handkerchief, book, or umbrella would immediately inform the audience whether the character was a heroic soldier, a peasant woman, a down-at-his-heels intellectual, or a pathetic ne’er-do-well.

As the Yiddish theater outgrew its itinerant and improvisational roots, stage design became increasingly naturalistic and detailed. Plays depicting third-class steerage and working-class kitchens typically were mounted with real, three-dimensional objects and appropriate furniture. Change came after World War I when mass audiences began to abandon the Yiddish theater’s nostalgic repertoire of melodrama and musical comedy. Beginning in 1918, the Yiddish theater in Soviet Russia, Vilna, Warsaw, and New York attracted a new generation of practitioners and supporters. Influenced by the modernist movements in Europe, young Jewish directors established art theaters that utilized newly trained ensembles of performers, writers, and set designers. In Moscow, Marc Chagall created a surreal-looking auditorium with symbol-laden panels and distorted stage images of prerevolutionary Jewish life for the State Jewish Theater (GOSET). After Chagall resigned, Aleksandr Granovskii, GOSET’s founder, engaged a stable of avant-garde Russian Jewish designers—Natan Al’tman (1889–1970), Isaac Rabinovich (1891–1961), Robert Fal’k (1886–1958), and Aleksandr Tyshler (1898–1980)—to craft monumental dreamscapes that showcased the acrobatic skills of his troupe. These phantasmagorias transfixed Soviet critics and non-Jewish spectators as well as its Jewish audiences.

Set design by Isaac Rabichev for Get (Divorce) by Sholem Aleichem, Moscow State Yiddish Theater, 1924. (Hillel Kazovsky)

Other Jewish visual artists designed sets and costumes for the Polish Yiddish stage in the interwar period. They included Moyshe Apelboym (Maurycy Applebaum; 1886–1931), Yitskhok Broyner (Icchok Brauner; 1887–1944), Fryc (Fryderyk) Kleinman (1897–1943), Roman Rozental (1897–1942), Józef Śliwniak (1899–1942), Janusz Trefler (1898–1944), and Władysław Weintraub (1891–1942). Polish stage designers also collaborated with Yiddish companies such as the Vilner Trupe and Yung-teater. A particularly celebrated production was Mark Arnshteyn’s Polish version of H. Leyvik’s Golem, staged in the Warsaw circus arena amid a constructivist set designed by Andrzej Pronaszko and Szymon Syrkus. And in the 1936 Yung-teater production of Boston, about the Sacco and Vanzetti trial, Michał Weichert did away with a conventional stage altogether, presenting instead a sequence of 44 brief scenes illuminated by spotlights, separated by blackouts, and staged on every side of the seated audience.

Suggested Reading

Boris Aronson, “Yidisher teater-kostum,” Tealit 3 (1924): 17–19; Bernard Gorin, Di geshikhte fun yidishn teater, 2 vols. (New York, 1918); Joseph C. Landis, ed., Memoirs of the Yiddish Stage (Flushing, N.Y., 1984).