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

§ 52. Jacob Gordin

Yiddish drama took a decided turn for the better with the appearance of the first play (Siberia) by Jacob Gordin (1853–1909), the acknowledged reformer of the Yiddish stage. Born in Russia, he received a liberal though irregular education. When he came to New York in 1892 he was already a reformer and a fairly well recognized Russian writer. His acquaintanceship with the noted Jewish actors Adler and Mogulesko prompted him to try his hand at play-writing. His first play met with success and it laid the foundation of his career as Yiddish playwright. Gordin took the Yiddish drama in America from the realm of the preposterous and put a living soul into it. The methods of Goldfaden, Hurwitch, and Lateiner were not entirely abandoned; dancing and songs unrelated to the plot still occupied a prominent part in the play. But the plots were no longer of the blood-curdling, impossible kind, and the characters were living persons. Under the influence of his plays, Jewish actors began to regard their profession as one which calls for study and an earnest attitude. But while his achievements are invaluable as those of a reformer, his work is not intrinsically great. With all the realism of his situations, with all the genuineness of his characters, he was rather a producer of plays for a particular theatrical troupe than a writer of drama. That his comic characters generally stand in organic relation to the play is one of his chief merits. Of his many pieces (about 70 or 80) only a score or so have been published, and some of these are worthless as literature. Mirele Efros, Gott Mensch un Teufel, and Der Unbekanter are among the best of them.

Gordin’s successors and disciples have not advanced the Yiddish stage beyond realistic melodrama. The two better play-wrights supplying it, Leon Kobrin and Z. Libin, both display a knowledge of theatrical and histrionic requirements, but as literature their dramatic productions are inferior or at best mediocre. In the case of Kobrin one may observe a struggle between the writer of temperament and the producer of melodramas “made to order.” Even in his “problem plays” the melodramatic elements prevail.