The St. Petersburg State Theatrical Library houses the surviving archives of
the Czarist censorship office, which includes all extant copies of plays
submitted to the censor in Russian, French, German, Yiddish, and other
languages. Although the collection of Yiddish censorship copies is one of the
smallest of the library92s collections, with its over 2,500 texts it
represents one of the largest repositories of Yiddish plays in the world. The
vast majority are handwritten manuscripts; only about 270 are printed texts.
Besides its size, this collection is particularly significant because contains
a considerable portion of the repertoire of a specific period (1895-1917) and
region (Imperial Russia).
The following description is based on extensive research at this collection.
As preparatory work for my study on Yiddish theatre and censorship in Imperial Russia, I have begun to create a database of the librarys entire holdings of Yiddish plays.
The collection spans the last 37 years of the Czarist Empire. The earliest
manuscript is a copy of Uriel Acosta , which was censored in 1880; the last
one is Malkele soldat, approved in April 1917, shortly before the
abolishment of the Czarist censorship office. However, this time frame is
somewhat misleading since there seem to be only four extant texts sent in
between 1880 and 1895. During this period many Yiddish plays were submitted to the censorship office in Warsaw and are therefore not part of this collection, but a significant number of plays were sent to St. Petersburg.
These seem to be lost. The period from 1895 through 1902 is represented by a little ove r 100 manuscripts, which according to my initial estimate account
for about 15% of the total submission of plays. For the years 1903 to 1917 the
collection seems to be close to complete.
As is well known, the Czarist authorities (to be precise, the Department of
Police of the Ministry of Internal Affairs) banned Yiddish theatre in August
1883, forcing Yiddish troupes to submit plays in German and to play under the
guise of German companies. Although theatre lore asserts that the ban was
lifted in the wake of the revolution of 1905, this was not the case. In fact,
it seems that the Department of Police never lifted the ban. Nonetheless,
starting in the summer of 1907 the censorship office decided unilaterally to
allow submissions in Yiddish, creating a legally ambiguous situation. The
censorship copies provide vivid illustration of these changing policies. All
manuscripts submitted before the summer 1907 are in Latin characters, the
majority in regular German. During the years right before and after the 1905
revolution, the censor became somewhat more lenient in regards to language and while all submissions still had to be in Latin characters, quite a few texts
were submitted (and permitted) with traces of Yiddish syntax and vocabulary.
Between 1907 and 1917, a significant number of plays were submitted in Hebrew characters. (Just as works in Latin characters ranged from regular German to daytshmerish to transcribed Yiddish, works in Hebrew characters could range from regular Yiddish to transcribed German.) Even after 1907 many directors continued to send in copies in Latin characters, probably because it was still easier to get permission for performance from local authorities if one could show an approved German text. In addition, I have located 17 printed works in Hebrew, most of which are translations from Yiddish. (Russian or Polish translations of Yiddish plays are kept in a different collection.)
We are all aware that Yiddish plays were often staged under multiple titles
and that authorship was not always acknowledged. In fact, many American
Yiddish plays were known under different titles in Eastern Europe. Thus
Lateiner's Di grinhorns became known in Eastern Europe as Mishke un
Moshke or as Di eyropeyer in amerike.
Working with this collection makes this confusion of titles and authors abundantly clear. Since company directors often put their own names as authors or adapters on the title page 97 ,usually without acknowledging the original author -97 and used various titles for the same source, it becomes very difficult, if not impossible, to determine the original author and/or play.
For example, the Dos yidishe kind published in 1911 as a play by Lateiner was, according to the Leksikon fun yidishn teater , actually written by Shomer. I found a copy of Das yidische Kind by Kaminski which seems to be Shomer's play and Das ydische Kind postensibly written by Gordin, but this is clearly a different play.
But which one of Gordin's 70 plus plays is it? Or maybe it isn't Gordin's at all;
because of his popularity he was often credited with plays he did not write.
However, Der Feter Schmeril und die Mime Sprinze by Lateiner is indeed based on Shomer's play Dos yidishe kind. Then there is also a play called Die Muhme Sprinze .adapted by Fishzon, but this does not seem to be related to any of the above plays. Nor is it related to Sprinze die Odessaer Mekler in which is Shomer's Kokete damen. And how can we know from the title al one that Heintige Kinder is the same play as Ungehorchsame Kinder but that Undankbare Kinder is a different play ,in fact, Gordin's Der yidisher
kenig Lir Is your head spinning yet So is mine.
On the other hand, this practice of putting the company director's name on
the title page can help us to a certain degree to reconstruct the repertoire
of individual companies. For example, there are over 100 texts with Avrom
Fishzon's name. Other names of company directors include Sam Adler, Julius
Adler, Yankev Spivakovsky, I. Gusik, Avrom Kaminski, Yitskhok Zandberg, Heshl ,Eppelberg, Yehude-Leyb Boymvol, Solomon Genfer, Yankev Tsipkus, Dovid-Moy she Sabsay, Sholem Tsuker, Nokhem Lipovski, Leyzer Rappel, Yoysef-Herman Korb , Aba Kompaneyets, and Meyer Mishurat.
During the early Soviet years the library created complete author and title
catalogues for the collection. However, several drawers were lost, rendering
both catalogues incomplete. During the past two years, Yulia Prestenskaya ,
the librarian responsible for the collection, has been working on completing
the author catalogue. Of course, the catalogue gives the author names as they appear on the title pages; thus it has about 100 entries for Goldfaden while I have identified almost twice as many Goldfaden plays. The ratio is much better for Gordin, who was acknowledged as author in about 90% of the
The vast majority of submissions are full-length plays (operettas, melodramas,
dramas, comedies, and farces); only about 8% are 1-acts. Other texts submitted for performance and represented in the collection include compilations of songs, couplets, monologues, or poetry. There is also a handful of so-called 93 kino deklamatsyes texts spoken to accompany silent movies. Most o f the texts bear the censor's marks: they usually include a dated stamp giving or denying permission for performance. Plays that were permitted with cuts have mark s of the censor's red pencil with which offensive words or passages were crossed out.
The collection includes texts by all major Yiddish dramatists of the period.
The three best-represented ones are Goldfaden, Lateiner, and Gordin with -97 according to my estimates so far -97 some 200 submissions each. Based on the numbers of submissions, Goldfaden's most popular plays were Shulamis ,Bar Kokhba and Di kishefmakherin ; Lateiner's were Di nakhtvandlerin (or Sore Sheyndl) and Mishke un Moshke , while Gordin's were Khasye di yesoyme and Di gebrider Lurye . Other well-known names include the full owing writers of the early repertoire: Nahum Meir Shaykevits
Moyshe Hurwitz, Yoysef-Yehuda Lerner, and Moyshe Richter; several playwrights who worked in New York such as Leon Kobrin, Zalmen Libin, Isidor Zolotarevsky and David Pinski, and those writers in the Russian Empire who began writing plays after 1905 when hopes ran high that Yiddish theatre would be legalized: Sholem Aleichem, Isaac Leib Peretz, Peretz Hirschbein, Sholem Asch, Ossip Dymov, Hersh-Dovid Nomberg, and Mark Arnstein. Among the less known writers are Mordkhe Rivesman, Yankev Vaksman, Berish Bekerman, Saul Hokhberg, and Yitskhok Nozhik. There is also a manuscript translation by Max Weinreich of Ben Ar ye's Am sgole and an early play by Zalmen Zylbercweig, Farmakhte oygn oder a lebn on libe .
Plays adapted or translated from foreign sources include The Weavers by
Hauptmann, Hunger by Yushkevitsh, The Father by Strindberg, Jean and
Madeleine by Mirbeau, The Jews by Chirikov, An Enemy of the People and
Ghosts by Ibsen, and in printed editions The New Ghetto and Our Kechche by Theodor Herzl ,The Power of Darkness by Tolstoy, and some of hekhov's
one-act plays. Furthermore, there are translations of plays by Sofie Biela,
Hermann Sudermann, and Sam Benelli among others.
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