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Israeli Theatre :The revival of the Hebrew language
By Edna Nahshon

EDNA NAHSHON is assistant professor of Hebrew at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is the author of Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925-1940 (Greenwood, 1998) and of From the Ghetto to the Melting Pot: Israel Zangwill's Jewish Plays, (forthcoming).
Dr. Nahshon has contributed entries to the American National Biography, a milestone publication sponsored by the American Council of Learned Societies; written the entry on theater in Israel for the Encyclopedia of the Modern Middle East and the entry on Yiddish theater for Jewish American History and Culture. Her work was included in Yiddish Language and Culture, Then and Now, The Politics of Yiddish, Jewish Studies in a New Europe and Di Froyen: Women and Yiddish. Professor Nahshon has delivered academic papers at over twenty conferences and congresses. Her most recent paper, "The Performance of Justice: Yiddish Mock Trials" was delivered in July 1999 at the International Academic Workshop on Yiddish Drama, Theatre, and Performing Arts organized by the Oxford Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies at Oxford University and the European Science Foundation.
Her impressive academic credentials have afforded her a YIVO Fellowship, the International Fellowship in Jewish Studies of the Memorial Foundation and a grant given by the American Council of Learned Societies. In 1999 she received a Skirball Visiting Fellowship from Oxford University's Centre for Hebrew and Jewish Studies and JTS's Stroock Fellowship.
From 1990 to 1998, Professor Nahshon was chair of JTS's Hebrew department. She is currently the historical adviser to the television project, "The Life and Death of the Federal Theatre" produced by the Educational Film Center and Multi-Media Consultants.
Dr. Nahshon studied at Tel Aviv University and Columbia University. She holds a PhD in Performance Studies from New York University. she is
Editorial Board Member of All About Jewish Theatre Email Address: ednahshon@jtsa.edu  

Israel, with a population of 6.3 millions (4.9 million Jewish citizens,
1.1 Arab citizens) has an exceptionally vibrant theatrical scene: in 1999
nearly three and a half million theater tickets were sold for dramatic
performances, most of them produced in Hebrew by the country’s major theatres.
Israel’s three largest theaters are the Habimah Theater (688,000 tickets sold in
1999), the Cameri Theater(679,000 tickets in 1999), and Beit Lessin (498, 000
ticket in 1999), all of them based in the city of Tel Aviv. Israel’s
theatrical activity is conducted by the following institutions: 9 major theatres
(including one in Yiddish and one in Arabic), 12 small theatres, 5
children’s theatres, and various special projects and festivals. Nearly half of
the operating budget of the Israeli theaters derives from public funds,
with the major theatres depending heavily on subscriptions (in 1999, the
theatres sold 119,00 individua! l subscription, guaranteeing 760,000 tickets).
Theatrical enterprise increased significantly in the 1990's. ( For example in 1994
Habimah sold 366,078 tickets, the Cameri, 466,834 tickets).
The modern Hebrew theater began in the late 19th century, in
conjunction with the rise of Zionism that emphasized the revival of the Hebrew language
as the chief instrument of the new national renaissance. The first modern
Hebrew language production in then Ottoman-ruled Palestine was a translation
of Moshe Leib Lilienthal’s Yiddish play “Zerubavel” staged in 1889 in a
Jerusalem school, to be followed by various small scale school and amateur
productions. In 1904 an amateur group, “The Lovers of the Dramatic Art” formed in
Jaffa. It went through several transformations and name changes, the last one
being “The Lovers of the Hebrew Stage” which produced 26 plays between 1908
and 1914. Two other such groups, bearing the same name were formed in 190! 9
and 1910 in Jerusalem and Petach-Tikva. In the absence of original Hebrew
scripts, most of these groups’ repertoire consisted of Hebrew translation of
Yiddish and European plays.
A historic step toward the formation of a Hebrew art theater took place in
Bialystock in 1912 when Nahum Zemach organized an amateur group that
would form the kernel of the Habimah theater, Israel’s National Theater since
1968. The Habimah, established in Moscow in 1917 became an affiliate studio
of the Moscow Art Theater with its artistic style shaped by Evgeny Vakhtangov,
a gifted Russian stage director of Armenian decent who was Stanislavsky’s
protégée. Vakhtangov’s expressionistic style, a combination of Stanislavsky’s
realism of emotion and Meyerhold’s theatricalism found full _expression
in Habimah’s renowned production of “The Dybbuk” (1922). Habimah left
Moscow in 1926, visited Palestine in 1928, and after extensive touri! ng settled
permanently in Tel Aviv in 1931. Concurrent theatrical activity took place in Palestine

(under British rule 1917-1948). In 1924 the TAI (Teatron Eretz Israeli) opened in Tel
Aviv, a new city established in 1911. The actors, wishing to further their
theatrical education, traveled to Berlin where their first production,
“Belshazzar” by Henie Rochetand, received enthusiastic critical reviews. The TAI’s
return to Tel Aviv in 1925 marked the beginning of a new era of professional
theater with well-trained actors. Other theatres followed: Ha’Ohel (The Tent),
a workers’ theater was established in Tel Aviv (1925-1967, and H’Kumkum
(The Teapot), a satirical cabaret was established in 1927, to be replaced by
the long-lived “Ha’Matateh” (The Broom) in 1928. The arrival of the
Habimah, considered the exemplary Hebrew art theater, inaugurated a new chapter
in the history of the local stage. From that moment, Tel Av! iv became the
absolute center of the Hebrew stage, and the Moscow-inspired style of the
Habimah was to determine the face of the Israeli theater for years to come.
Given the scarcity of original Hebrew plays, about half of Habimah and
Ha’Ohel’s repertoire during the 1930's consisted of adaptations of
European Biblical plays, and translations of notable Yiddish plays, the other
half of current and classical European plays by, among others, Gorky, Capek,
Buchner, Hasek, Ostrovsky, Schiller, Moliere and Shakespeare. The 1940's were a
period of solidification , construction and growth: In 1940 HaOhel moved to
its permanent 1,100 seat hall, and in 1945 the Habimah moved to its
similar size new home. The theater’s central role in the cultural life of the
600,000 Jewish community in Palestine can be gleaned from the 1946-47 season
during which the combined sale of the Ohel, Habimah and the Matateh reached
half a million tickets.

Toward the mid-1940's a new generation of native Hebrew speaking actors
became dissatisfied with the expressionistic and pathos-filled style of the
older, mostly Russian born actors, and in 1944 they organized a group that
would soon develop into the Cameri Theater. The new theater, strongly influenced
by Brecht and modern trends in Western theater, wished to produced current
plays in a chamber-like space, using native Hebrew and more natural acting
style. The Cameri made history in 1948 with the first play to premiere in the
recently established State of Israel, Moshe Shamir’s “He Went in the
Fields.” It was the first native drama to focus on current events and present as
its protagonist a native kibbutz member who was fighting in the then raging
War of Independence.

The 1950's were characterized by the strong influence of Brecht and
Pirandello and by the creation of French-inspired small avant-garde theatres that
produced plays by Beckett, Sartre, Genet and Ionesco who had strongly
influenced Nissim Aloni, Israel’s first major native playwright. The
1960's were a particularly vibrant period when newly-created small mobile
troupes that focused on the art of the actor and were committed to a
modernistic repertoire whose style had a major impact on the institutional
theatres. The period was also typified by the rise of commercial producers of light
comedies and of the independent impresario Giora Godik who specialized in
lavish production of international musicals such as “May Fair Lady,”(1964) ,
“The King and I” “Man of La Mancha,” “Fiddler on the Roof” and the immensely
popular native musical “Kazablan.”(1966). Godik’s empire collapsed in
the early 1970s, and though occasionally the major theatres and some
independent producers continued to produce international musical hits such as
“Caba! ret” and “Les Miserables” musicals are not considered the forte of the
Israeli stage. The 1967 war transformed the country. In its aftermath, serious native
drama increasingly focused on current political and social theme. Hanoch
Levin’s biting anti-war satire “Queen of the Bathtub”(Cameri, 1970) created a
national uproar that forced the theater to close it down. The theater became
increasingly politicized in tandem with the national trauma that
followed the 1973 Yom Kippur War. This tendency came to the fore in the
naturalistic docudrama developed by Nola Chilton at the Haifa Municipal theater, in
the spectacular tragicomic poetic plays of Nissim Aloni at the Habimah, and
in the grotesque portrayals of Israeli society and bourgeois life of Hanoch
Levin, presented first at the Haifa Theater and later at the Cameri. Native
drama that legitimized the marginalized members of society flourished
especially at the Ha! ifa Theater. In addition to Hanoch Levin, the theater also gave
rise to a new generation of playwrights, notably Joshua Sobol, Itzik
Weingarten, Hillel Mitelpunkt, and Yosef Bar-Yosef. In the 1980's the Israeli
theater began to tackle serious societal and political issue, notably the
Holocaust, religious-secular tensions, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The
politically-engaged work of the Haifa Theater ended with Joshua Sobol’s
“The Jerusalem Syndrome” (1988), a scandal celebre that forced the
Theatres’s leadership to resign. The Haifa’s fiasco led to a period of
retrenchment and increased emphasis on production values as typified by the enormous
success of the Cameri’s production of “Les Miserables” (1987). While The period
saw a sharp increase in fringe productions, commercial independent producers
largely disappeared as the major public theaters developed carefully balanced
repertoires that combined serious ! drama and popular hits.

In 1990 the intensifying Palestinian conflict appeared first in fringe
production, such as “Re’ulim” (“Masked-Faced Terrorists”) that in 1990
won the first prize of the Acre Festival and was consequently adopted by the
Cameri Theater where it played for two years. Within a short while the Cameri
increased significantly its production of topical social and political
themes with Mittelpunkt’s “Gorodish”, Even-Or’s “Fleisher” (1993), Danon and
Levy’s “Shaindele”(1993) and Lerner’s “Pollard.” (1995). In the 1990's women
came center stage as playwrights and directors, most prominent among them
Tzippi Pines, director of Beit Lessin and Edna Mazya, noted playwright and
director. Major newcomers in the 1990s were Rina Yerushalmi’s Itim Ensemble
founded in 1989. Yerushalmi’s work is strongly influenced by Peter Brook,
Grotowski and Barba. Her productions with the Ensemble ! - Hamlet, Woyzcek, Romeo and
Juliet, and her Bible Project ” consisting of the two production
“VaYomer. VaYelech”, “VaYishtachu. VaYerra” created a milestone in the drama
scene of Israel. Since its 1989 successful fringe production of “Hamlet,” the
Itim Ensemble is working affiliation with The Cameri Theater. Another
sensational newcomer is the Gesher (Bridge) Theater, founded in 1991 by recent
immigrants from the ormer Soviet Union, and directed by Yevgeny Arye who fused
traditions of Russian theater with an innovative theatrical approach. Gesher,
performing in both Russian and Hebrew won the Israel Theater 1996 Best Production
Award with Joshua Sobol’s “Village.” Other notable productions include
Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” Chervinsky/ Kaniuk’s “Adam
Resurrected,” Dostoevsky’s “The Idiot” and Babel’s “City: Odessa
Stories.” At the close of the century the theater remained a highly popular
med! ium that through an elaborate system of public subsidies, institunalized
subscription and frequent touring keeps the art accessible to the general
population. The big repertory theatres present a repertoire that combines international
hits, the classics, often in modern adaptations and native drama, the latter
being the most popular with Israeli audiences. The theatrical repertoire of
1999 consisted of 295 plays, 215 of them original Israeli plays, the others
translations/adaptations of mostly current American and British plays
and revivals of the classical repertoire (Shakespeare, Goldoni, Schiller,
Ibsen, Brecht). The theater establishment is investing energetically in
future cadres of playgoers through numerous extra-curricular activities such
as tours, workshops for teachers and students, meet the artist events, and
pre and post performance discussions.

> Abramson, Glenda, Drama & Ideo! logy in Modern Israel, Cambridge, 1998.
> Beb-Zvi, Linda ed. Theater in Israel. Ann Arbor, 1996.
> Carmeli Abraham & Shavit, Zohar, “The Public Theatres in Israel, Annual
> Report 1999” (In Hebrew). Tel Aviv, 2000.
> Kohansky, Mendel, The Hebrew Theater: Its First Fifty Years. New York, 1969.
> Levy, Emanuel, The Habimah - Israel’s National Theater, 1917-1977. New York, 1979
> Taub, Michael ed., Modern Israeli Drama in Transition. Portsmouth, 1993.

Related Links:

  • The Golden Epoch of Yiddish Theatre in America : A Brief Historical Overview
  • The Development of Israeli Theatre– a brief overview

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