March 6, 2009 / 11:06 AM / 10 years ago

Exhibit offers look at Russian Jewish theater

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - A vivid glimpse into the tumultuous history of the Russian Jewish theater is on view in a new exhibit at The Jewish Museum.

With more than 200 theater-related items, “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949” provides a window onto one of the Soviet Union’s most important expressions of Jewish culture, a theater mostly hidden from the outside world after the 1920s by an Iron Curtain.

The Jewish theater movement included a Hebrew and a Yiddish-language theater. Habimah, the Hebrew language theater, proved less successful with Russian Jewish audiences because Hebrew was the language of prayer, not of everyday conversation. It toured Europe in 1926 and relocated to Palestine where it became the national theater of Israel.

The State Yiddish Theater, known as GOSET, flourished until it was crushed in the years after World War Two.

The exhibit runs until March 22 before moving to the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco. It includes murals painted by Marc Chagall for the original home of GOSET, costumes, photographs and film clips of its most famous member, the actor Solomon Mikhoels, who became its director.

One clip shows Mikhoels playing King Lear. There is also a short film of his sham state funeral after his murder in 1948 by agents of Stalin’s secret police.

Susan Tumarkin Goodman, the show’s curator, talked to Reuters about how the show came to fruition.

Q. What led you to the subject of this exhibition?

A. “In 1995, while preparing an exhibit on Russian Jewish artists 1890-1990, I came across this treasure trove of works from the Jewish theater, both the Hebrew and Yiddish Theater, at Moscow’s Bakhrushin State Central Theater Museum.

“This was a really rich collection that had never been studied or seen because, except for the Chagall murals, the works were in storage. The exciting thing about showing the Chagall murals in the context of this exhibition is that they are seen in connection with the GOSET Yiddish theater for which they were commissioned and in conjunction with other works - sets and costumes - commissioned for that theater.

Q. Does the exhibition have both an artistic and an historical story to tell?

A. “The exhibition is very much about the art, but the theater also becomes a window into Soviet Jewish life and illuminates the shifting social and political situation from the optimism of the early Bolshevik period to Stalinist repression.

“The Hebrew and Yiddish theaters really flourished immediately after the revolution because they were encouraged by the Bolshevik regime which thought the theaters would spread socialist propaganda. An incredibly rich body of work emerged in a very short time.

“But in 1928, Stalin’s ‘Cultural Revolution’ clamped down on avant-garde art. In 1929 most Yiddish schools and cultural institutions across the Soviet Union were closed. Still, the Yiddish theater company continued to mount productions until it was liquidated in 1949, the year after Mikhoels was killed.”

Q. Shakespeare’s “King Lear” was one of GOSET’s most famous productions. Why did a Yiddish theater turn to “Lear?”

A. “Like other theaters of the time, GOSET turned to Shakespeare because, politically, it was safer to go back in time than to comment on contemporary life. GOSET’s set for “King Lear” evoked The Globe Theater, but the play was also done as a veiled critique of Stalin who was persecuting the original supporters of the revolution, the intellectuals, in the same way that Lear rejected his one faithful daughter.

“One reason that GOSET was allowed to function all of those years was that its directors were critical of pre-revolutionary Jewish life and incorporated socialist propaganda into all the plays. They talked about the evils of capitalism and said traditional Jewish life was over.

“But the Yiddish theater company and also the Hebrew company were able to insert other messages past the censors who did not know Hebrew or Yiddish. There were covert messages and allusions. The audience, which was Jewish, understood, but the censors didn’t.”

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