Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925–1940.
By :Edna Nahshon.
Publisher :Westport: Greenwood Press, 1998. 260 pp.
Edna Nahshon, Professor of Yiddish at the Jewish Theological Seminary, takes us through the history of the Artef, the radical Yiddish dramatic troupe based in New York during the heyday of the Yiddish theater in America. Begun in the mid-1920s as a study group of amateur worker-actors (at one time there were nine separate studios with over 120 students), in the 1930s the troupe went professional, putting on at least two and often three new plays per season. With such plays as Jacob Mostel's Strike, Shmuel Godiner's Jim Kooperkop, Avrum Vevioka's Diamonds, and Maxim Gorky's Egor Bulychev and Dostigaev and Others, Artef spread propaganda to the masses. Since the Artef is alive almost exclusively in archival material and secondary scholarship on radical or Yiddish theater, this book is a welcome event in Yiddish studies.
Ideologically Artef was far left; its hope was a Communist society here in America. As a troupe, its role was "agit-prop," to agitate and propagandize, to serve as the cultural representative of radical workers. In fact, most of its tickets were pre-sold through worker unions and, at least in its early years, Artef gave presentations at political events. Its first large-scale production was Mass Play and Ballet of the Russian Revolution, which appeared at the Lenin memorial celebration in Madison Square Garden on January 21, 1928.
Although Nahshon refrains from treating the paradox of ideology versus artistic quality in radical Yiddish theater, the book raises important questions on this issue. It appears from her study that when one of the two had to be sacrificed, it was always aesthetics, since ideology was the raison d'être of the company. As one might expect, the troupe often put on plays that were ideologically acceptable, but without artistic merit; examples are Avrum Vevioka's The Steppe on Fire or Mark Daniel's Four Days.
Artef's greatest artistic and commercial successes were connected with the talented productions of director Benno Schneider. Schneider, who had been active in the Zionist Habima troupe in Moscow, wed aesthetic excellence to revolutionary ideology with his interpretation of Aristocrats, an adaptation of Sholem Aleichem's Mentshn. Incidentally, Schneider earned such a positive reputation with Artef that he received offers to direct on Broadway, a promotion that cost the radical Yiddish theater dearly.
The end of the Artef was gradual, and its causes were closely associated with the reduced role of Yiddish in American life. But there were bright lights before the darkness. During the "days of the Popular Front," when the Communists formed associations with less radical leftist parties, the Artef attracted a larger audience, which led to an optimistic expansion that later was responsible for huge financial losses. The darkness occurred at the end of the thirties, when the number of Yiddish speakers began to diminish. The last performance of the Artef was on July 7, 1941. Nahshon poetically describes the end: "A flicker. The last spark. The flame died" (204).
Although this work is well-researched, Professor Nahshon strangely fails to distance herself from Artef's politics. Her silence reveals her approach of empathizing with her subject, which prevents her from placing the radicalism of the Artef and its pro-Soviet orientation in historical perspective. For example, she often sides with the Artef viewpoint, quoting without authorial commentary the carping of Artef managers against the "bourgeois" theater on Second Avenue and against liberals or other less non-radicals. Moreover, it is a shame that Nahshon does not deal with the issue of Jewish content, considering the reader aware of the fact that for the members of the Artef the Jewish religion was something retrograde and inimical. Nevertheless, the troupe spoke in Yiddish and put on the stage adaptations of the works of Mendele and Sholem Aleichem. Therefore, even if Artef's sponsors spurned religion, it seems necessary to discuss what role they assigned to Jewish national identity.
To sum up: Professor Nahshon has done a fine job giving us a tour through the history of Artef and in this narrow task she deserves the highest praise. The flaws in this book reflect an absence of broader speculation. Nevertheless, the scholar of diaspora Jewish thought and culture who tries to answer the big questions will be extremely grateful for Nahshon's excellent research.
University of Nebraska
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