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Reconsidering the Decline of the New York Yiddish Theatre in the Early 1900s

  • Judith Thissen (a1)

In seeking to explain the decline of Yiddish drama in America after its “first Golden Age” (1892–1902), contemporary critics and later historians have primarily blamed the rapid proliferation of vaudeville and moving pictures. Above all, the collapse of literary drama has been described as a direct consequence of the growing popularity of Yiddish variety shows among Jewish immigrant audiences.The Yiddish press, socialist papers in particular, frequently blamed the Yiddish music halls for the decline of literary drama. The tone was set by Abraham Cahan, the editor of the Jewish Daily Forward (Forverts) in a series of articles that appeared in the Tsaytgayst, the Forward’s weekly supplement, in October 1905. Bernard Gorin, the first historian of the Yiddish stage, also concluded that success of the music halls destroyed the movement for a better Yiddish drama. Di geshikhte fun yidshen teater, 2 vols. (New York: Literarisher ferlag, 1918), vol. 2, 178–80. Others followed his lead. For instance, Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977; Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1996), 161. Recently, Nina Warnke presented a far more elaborated analysis of the rise and decline of Yiddish literary drama, but again she does not seriously challenge the predominant view that the Yiddish music halls were to blame for the crisis in the Yiddish theatre. Nina Warnke, “Reforming the New York Yiddish Theater: The Cultural Politics of Immigrant Intellectuals and the Yiddish Press, 1887–1910” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, May 2001), esp. 195. In film history, it is widely assumed that the movies killed ethnic theatre (both “legitimate” and vaudeville theatre). E.g., Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), 103. The fact that the cultural and financial position of the “legitimate” Yiddish stage declined in a period in which Yiddish music halls flourished and moving pictures achieved large-scale commercial exploitation certainly suggests a correlation between these phenomena. Yet, as I will argue, there were also more structural economic forces at work in shaping the fate of the American Yiddish theatre, forces that were determined by the stringent conditions of the ethnic marketplace.

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Theatre Survey
  • ISSN: 0040-5574
  • EISSN: 1475-4533
  • URL: /core/journals/theatre-survey
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