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A Tale of the Theater

March 26, 2009 By:
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Chagall and the world he fashioned in his art are becoming something of a cottage industry for Yale University Press. Not surprisingly, this ever-resourceful publishing house has proven itself up to the challenge. In fact, in the space of two seasons, it has issued three separate and quite distinct titles that deal with the Russian-born Jewish artist.

First was Vitebsk, a very specific look at the Byelorussian birthplace of Chagall, which often was used as the actual physical terrain of his paintings and was a continual source of inspiration throughout his career. This particular book, however, though it featured one of his most famous images tied to the city on its cover, was about something else entirely -- the fact that, after the Russian Revolution, Chagall returned to his hometown as Art Commissar and helped to usher in a period of intense experimentation in all sorts of artistic endeavors.

This idyllic period lasted only five years; after that, the artists quarreled with one another, Moscow started promoting the Soviet realist style rather than experimentation, and the revolution began turning on many of its staunchest adherents, devouring them whole. But while it lasted, the book makes clear, the mood in Vitebsk was very near ecstatic.

The second in this trio of Chagall-related books was The Moscow Yiddish Theater: Art on the Stage in the Time of Revolution, a work by Benjamin Harshav, a professor at Yale.

Allied With the Experimental

The Moscow Yiddish Theater came into being just about the time things began heating up in Vitebsk, and the troupe -- actors, directors and artists -- immediately declared their allegiance to the avant garde and to experimentation of all kinds. But within a decade or so -- and mostly because of leading actor Solomon Mikhoels' efforts to establish Jewish life in the Soviet Union and his growing allegiance to Zionism -- the theater and its participants soon fell victim to Stalin. Mikhoels himself was killed by the dictator's thugs in 1948, though his death was officially said to have occurred in a car accident.

Throughout this tale of triumph and disaster, told feelingly by Harshav, certain of Chagall's theater murals, as well as various costumes and set designs by other artists, were reproduced, the bulk of them having only come to light since the fall of communism in the USSR. The book, in a smaller space than its companions, managed to embody much of the high spirits and optimism that were set loose during the theater's early years, while never loosing sight of this storied theater's slow, painful demise.

As for the most recent Yale volume, it is titled Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, and is tied to an exhibition that just wrapped up at New York's Jewish Museum. It covers some of the same territory as the two previous works, especially the Harshav book, and yet, if only thanks to its astonishing illustrations, it's a jewel quite unlike the others.

The work is edited overall by Susan Tumarkin Goodman, senior curator at the Jewish Museum, who also contributes one of the five substantive essays on various aspects of the theater's work and Chagall's influence. Not surprisingly, Harshav is one of the other essayists.

The net is also thrown much wider in this work than in either of the others. Though there is a wonderful chapter in the Vitebsk volume on the theatrical activities in that bustling city (with some comment about what was happening in Moscow), the newest book considers both the Moscow Yiddish Theater (also known as Goset) and the Habima theater, which utilized Hebrew only, and their tussle to dominate as the national Jewish theater in the Soviet Union. Goodman makes it clear that while the two vied for supremacy, other forces were set in motion to undo them both.

"Despite its early support of the Soviet government," writes Goodman in her essay, "Goset was unable to forge a lasting Yiddish secular culture. Soviet reality eventually created a climate where Jewish history and religion became taboo, relations with Jews in other countries were virtually severed, and pro-Jewish sentiments could at any time be denounced as antisocialist, bourgeois nationalist, or formalist. Furthermore, any institutional evidence of Jewish cultural awareness could not survive for long in an atmosphere of growing anti-Semitism, which Stalin himself nurtured."

But before Mikhoels was murdered and the theater was dismantled -- and even during the 1930s, when the political pressure upon these institutions was severe, all of it emanating from the top -- the joyous outpouring of artistic vision was undeniable. And it is captured here in splendid bursts of color in the illustrations that fill the book, which, while being a lovely art object in itself, unfortunately ends up telling an all-too-tragic tale. 

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