Home  »  Volume XVIII: American LATER NATIONAL LITERATURE: PART III  »  § 51. Theatrical Conditions

The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
VOLUME XVIII. Later National Literature, Part III.

XXXI. Non-English Writings I

§ 51. Theatrical Conditions

At first the American Jewish theatre ministered to the crude wants of the coarser elements among the immigrants, who sought diversion rather than art. The actor as a professional was hardly yet differentiated, and the performers on the stage were of a kind with the hearers. The public did not value the labours of the dramatist, taking the actors to be the improvisors of the songs and the “prose.” But the actors regarded the playwright as the chieftain of their tribe. The institution of the “retained” author at the theatre became firmly established, and outsiders could not get a hearing with the theatrical managers. The names of A. Goldfaden, I. Shaikewitz, J. Lateiner, and M. Hurwitch are worth mentioning in connection with the beginnings of the Yiddish drama in America. Goldfaden is considered the founder of the Yiddish theatre. All of them had been practised in their craft before they came here. They knew their audience from the old Ghetto and understood perfectly well how to suit its tastes. Their plays were mostly adaptations from the inferior European stage. The most preposterous plots, a few songs of the salacious and sentimental pseudo-nationalistic kind, a comedian for the display of whose “stunts” the action was frequently and arbitrarily suspended—these were the elements of which a Yiddish “show” was concocted. Pseudo-biblical plots were greatly in vogue, the material of these also being handled quite unceremoniously. It must be said, however, in justice to Goldfaden, that his “historical operettes” Bar Kochba, Doctor Almosado, and particularly Sulamith are imbued with a genuine folk-spirit, and the songs in these plays are of a tender plaintiveness that is characteristic of the best Jewish folk-songs. Goldfaden composed both music and text.