Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Guest Blog Post from James Buchanan's Blog

Due to technical difficulties, I couldn't access this post at James's Blog. I've decided to post it here as a brief introduction to the Yiddish Theater and cross-dressing within its context.

James asked if I could speak about cross-dressing in the Yiddish theater since one of the stories in Bend in the Road has this as a central theme. But to even briefly discuss this practise, the holiday of Purim must also be presented and its influence on Yiddish theater.

Although the very thought of men or women wearing each other's clothing is abhorrent and prohibited in traditional Jewish custom, there was one time during the year when this was allowed. Most rules relaxed on Purim, and cross-dressing and inebriation became permissible . In fact, among the most orthodox of Jewish groups, cross-dressing is a popular and accepted activity in many instances during the holiday. If one is aware of this reversal, then the idea of cross-dressing in Yiddish theater becomes more easily understood.

A wonderful article from My Jewish Learning,, gives more detail about the holiday, but there are just a few points from the article worth mentioning here.

"The holiday of Purim is one of the Jewish tradition's most beloved communal celebrations...Purim is a holiday where celebrants are obligated to be happy--and to drink until they are unable to tell the difference between Mordecai [the hero] and Haman [the villain].

The Book of Esther reflects a number of important features of the Persian culture, which are also found elsewhere in the Bible, above all in the book of Daniel. These features, satirized in the Book of Esther, include a mock representation of Persian rites of gluttony, drinking, exuberant public eroticism, abnormal pomp and display of richness, and bowing to idols or men...The biting content of Purim performances and the socializing, mockery, dressing up, and carousing surrounding them often provide an important forum for boundary-crossing on issues of gender, sexuality, authority, and relations with the non-Jewish world."

Is there any question then why Purimshpiels inspired the beginning of Yiddish theater?

At its height, Yiddish theater's geographical scope was comparably broad: from the late 19th century until just before World War II, professional Yiddish theater could be found throughout the heavily Jewish areas of Eastern and East Central Europe, but also in Berlin, London, Paris, and, perhaps above all, New York City.

Modern Yiddish theater's roots include the often satiric plays traditionally performed during religious holiday of Purim known as Purimshpiels, first performed in the late eighteenth century

Often satiric and topical, Purim players were traditionally performed in the courtyard of the synagogue, because they were considered too profane to be performed inside the building. These made heavy use of masks and other theatrical devices; the masquerade (and the singing and dancing) generally extended to the whole congregation, not just a small set of players. While many Purim plays told the story in the Book of Esther commemorated by the Purim holiday, others used other stories from Jewish scripture, such as the story of Joseph sold by his brothers or the sacrifice of Isaac. Over time, these well-known stories became less a subject matter than a pretext for topical and satiric theatre. Mordechai, [originally a heroic figure], became a standard role for a clown. [Bercovici, 1998, 24, 27]

What most consider the first professional traveling Yiddish theater group was founded in 1876 by A. Goldfaden in Iasi, Romania. Soon, more such traveling artistic troupes began appearing. Despite the tsarist ban in effect from 1878-1905 on performances in Yiddish, they continued performing in a "pseudo-German" language at cafes, or outdoor cafes in the summer, in the cities throughout the Kingdom of Poland and Russia. One of the first of such performances was Shmendrick by A. Goldfaden, staged in 1880 in Lublin by the Spiewakowski Troupe of Odessa.

Goldfaden's troupe began as all-male; while they soon acquired actresses, as well, it remained relatively common in Yiddish theatre for female roles, especially comic roles, to be played by men. (Women also sometimes played men's roles: Molly Picon was a famous Shmendrick.) Many early Yiddish theatre pieces were constructed around a very standard set of roles: "a prima donna, a soubrette, a comic, a lover, a villain, a villainess (or "intriguer"), an older man and woman for character roles, and one or two more for spares as the plot might require", and a musical component that might range from a single fiddler to an orchestra. [Sandrow, 2003, 11] This was very convenient for a repertory company, especially a traveling one. Both at the start and well into the great years of Yiddish theater, the troupes were often in one or another degree family affairs, with a husband, wife, and often their offspring playing in the same troupe.

Goldfaden's career also took him to Imperial Russia, Lvov, and New York City. Within two years of Goldfaden's founding of his troupe, there were several rival troupes in Bucharest, mostly founded by former members of Goldfaden's troupe. Most of these troupes followed Goldfaden's original formula of musical vaudeville and light comedy, while Goldfaden himself turned more toward relatively serious operettas about biblical and historical subjects, especially after his own company left Bucharest for an extended tour of the cities of Imperial Russia.

(The above material was gleaned from several articles found on the Jewish Theatre site )

So, we have the origins of the theater troupe in "In the Lion's Den", the first story in Bend in the Road and the cross-dressing of Daniel, one of the main characters in the story. I hope you'll take a journey with the troupe and Daniel past the "bend in the road".

1 comment:

  1. What an interesting post, Jeanne. Now you've got me wondering about potential connections between Yiddish theatre troupes and vaudeville.