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Stage Left

December 4, 2008 By:
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Front cover of book featuring a costume design by Eugene Nivinsky for "The Golem" by H. Leyvik

Back in June, I wrote about a book that dealt with the Byelorussian city of Vitebsk, the birthplace of Marc Chagall, a terrain that provided the famed artist with a source of inspiration for his paintings. In fact, on the cover of the book, which was called, appropriately enough, Vitebsk, there was a reproduction of one of the painter's most-famous works. "Over the Town" shows a couple, dressed in their provincial finery, floating gracefully in the air, the houses and gardens and trees of -- you guessed it -- Vitebsk lying placidly beneath them.

The book, however, had a completely different, and little-known, tale to tell that was only tangentially related to the placid, fanciful image reproduced on the cover. It seems that, after the Russian Revolution of 1917, 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 was the story that author Aleksandra Shatskikh told with exuberance and in remarkable detail in Vitebsk.

The book was published by Yale University Press, which has now added another Chagall- and Soviet-related title to its list. This time the scene is Moscow, and the subject is again art and experimentation in a time of social ferment. The Moscow Yiddish Theater, which is subtitled Art on the Stage in the Time of Revolution, is the work of Benjamin Harshav, who is professor of comparative literature, J. & H. Blaustein Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature, and professor of Slavic languages and literature at Yale. Chagall is one of his areas of interest, along with various others, quite obviously.

An Allegiance to the Avant-Garde

The Moscow Yiddish Theater came into being just about the time things began brewing in Vitebsk, and it immediately declared its allegiances to the avant-garde and, by extension, experimentation of all kinds. The 1920s, as was so with most of the arts in the newly created Soviet Union, was the theater's period of greatest freedom and achievement, and it would have continued in this vein if the Revolution had not begun, under Stalin's edict, to turn on many of its most-devoted children -- its truest believers -- and, literally, devour them.

The greatest single martyr in this tale has always appeared to be the famed actor Solomon Mikhoels, who was killed by Stalin's thugs in 1948; with him, the institution that he, and its founder and director A. Granovsky, had built and into which they'd both poured their souls and so much of their talent was crushed, and also abolished from the national consciousness for many decades.

The great benefit that Harshav's book provides for those of us interested in such matters is to have brought together a series of writings never before available to readers of English, dealing with the philosophy and aesthetics that were the underpinnings of the Yiddish theater. (These documents have been translated by the scholar and his wife Barbara Harshav.)

There are pieces by Granovsky, Mikhoels and Chagall, of course, but also essays by the great Middle European novelist and journalist Joseph Roth, and the equally great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, another of Stalin's victims. A further highlight are two comic theater pieces that Sholem Aleichem wrote for the troupe.

Murals and Set Designs

The book also brings together Chagall's theater murals, as well as various costume and set designs, the bulk of which were not discovered until after the fall of the Soviet Union.

One often worries with notoriously ephemeral endeavors like the theater, that memory and legend enhance the record of achievement and that the reality will in no way resemble all those anecdotes of artistic glory. And when an element of undeniable sorrow is added to the mix, as in the case of how Mikhoels was hounded and disgraced, then murdered, the worry increases exponentially.

But the Harshavs' book puts such qualms to rest. One can see from the paintings and photos included here the high level of imagination that fueled these productions; all theater-lovers, perusing these documents, will ache with longing to have been present when they were first let loose on the stage.

As Benjamin Harshav writes in his pieces that precede the series of documents, "Two magical slogans guided the new Yiddish theater and gave it immense prestige: 'theater as Art' and 'theater of the State.' Finally, Jews could have an 'art theater' (not unlike Stanislavsky's Moscow Art Theater) echoing the most advanced of the other arts -- painting, literature, dance, music -- and separate from the kitschy Yiddish entertainment stage. And this theater was supported by the State itself -- the alien State that had been the enemy of the Jews for 2,000 years! The Yiddish name for the theater sounded even better -- Moskver Idisher Melukhisher Teatr (literally: Moscow Yiddish Royal Theater). It is hard to imagine the dignity and pride of its supporters. The tangible hope for a new secular and elite Jewish national culture, and the revolutionary spirit that inspired this enterprise, made those involved open to the trends of both political revolution and the avant-garde in art."

This book shows us the high spirits and optimism that marked the theater's beginnings and early achievements; and, alternately, it summons up the ghosts that still haunt its slow, painful demise. 

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