“There was once a vulgarian who went to synagogue when he wanted to weep, and to a bawdy-house when he wanted to be merry. But once, when he wanted to weep and be merry at the same time, he put up a theater that combined the synagogue and the bawdy-house into one.”
-- Moyshe-Leyb Halpern, poet


1. The beginnings

Jews came late to popular culture. It wasn’t until the mid-19th century’s “Haskole” movement — “the Jewish Enlightenment” — that there existed a popular Jewish press and widespread consumption of Jewish fiction, poetry, and newspapers. Many of the early Jewish secular writers, like Sholem Aleichem or I.L. Peretz, began their careers writing in Hebrew. But at that time Hebrew was used almost exclusively for religious purposes, and only a very small and highly educated elite were conversant in it. So those writers switched to the language of ‘the people’, the language that over
90% of the Jews in the world spoke at home: Yiddish. Of course, if you really wanted to communicate with ‘the people’, the best way to do it was via theater. In Yiddish. “Yiddish is the perfect language for theater. Its expressiveness is theatrical.” — Joseph Papp, producer

2. The birth of the Jewish theater; and ultimately, GOSET


One form of Jewish theater had existed for centuries: the “Purimshpils”, stagings of the story of Esther (with local in-jokes added) that were presented on the Purim holiday. “Purimshpils” were done in every Jewish community, and continue in religious communities to this day… One day every year. During the Haskole, that all changed. In Romania, in 1876, Avrom Goldfadn started the first professional Yiddish theater
troupe. He also created its repertoire: operettas, either satirical (“Shmendrik”, “Kuni-Leml”) or dramatic (“The Sacrifice of Isaac”, “Bar Kokhba”). Goldfadn’s success was immediate and enormous, and he quickly attracted a host of imitators who dumbed down his formulas and cashed in.

The busiest city in the world for Yiddish theater soon became New York, and the leading playwright following Goldfadn was Russian-Jewish immigrant Jacob Gordin. Gordin wrote a series of tragedies, all Jewish in setting, but inspired by the classics of Tolstoy (“The Kreutzer Sonata”), Shakespeare (“The Jewish Queen Lear”), and Goethe (“God, Man, and Devil”). By 1910 both Goldfadn and Gordin had died, and with a few notable exceptions, the current successes in Yiddish theater were the cliche-ridden musicals and melodramas that had existed alongside their work from the beginning. But a reaction against those plays, a desire for theater less hackneyed and formulaic, soon took hold all over the Yiddish theater world. In New York, Vitebsk-born Leon Kobrin, Gordin’s protege, wrote a series of naturalistic plays about immigrant life. In Warsaw, in 1907, Esther-Rokhl Kaminska co-founded the Literary Troupe. The legendary Hirschbein Troupe began in Odessa in 1908. The Vilna Troupe, creators of
“The Dybbuk”, formed in 1916. In New York, in 1919, Maurice Schwartz started his Yiddish Art Theater. And in 1916, the Jewish Theater Society in Petrograd hired the young director Alexei Granovsky (1890-1937), who in 1919 recruited students into the Jewish Studio Theater. In July 1919, student Shlomo Vovsi (later Solomon Mikhoels) wrote: “At this very time, when the worlds cracked, perished, were replaced by new worlds, a great miracle happened for us Jews—the Jewish Theater was born.”

3. GOSET - an introduction to the Jewish theater (1921-1924).

Moscow, Evsektsiya, Chagall, success.

Granovsky, a student of Max Reinhardt, built his theater from scratch. Rejecting the legacy of the shund, he sought to create a universal theatre. "The stage does not need a Jew, it needs a man," Granovsky taught. In 1920, at the invitation of the Evsektsiya (the Jewish section of the Bolshevik Party), the studio moved to Moscow and in 1921 was transformed into the State Jewish Chamber Theater. Evsektsiya ideologists Moses Litvakov and Abram Efros believed that the theater needed a Jewish, not a universal style. Therefore, Marc Chagall was invited to design the first performances in Moscow, according to Efros, "the most Jewish, of the artists." Chagall designed not only the first performances, but also the interior of the theater. Its main element was the panel “Introduction to the Jewish Theater”, in the center of which is Efros, carrying Chagall to Granovsky. The first great success of the theater was the play “200000” based on Sholom Aleichem (1921), the star of which was Mikhoels. A real triumph was the play “The Witch” based on Goldfaden (1924), in which a new star of the troupe, Veniamin Zuskin, appeared. These successes put the Jewish art theater on a par with the best theaters in Moscow, at that time the world capital of the theatrical avant-garde. 

 

4. GOSET - the state Jewish theater (1925-1927).

Recognition, tour, studio, bankruptcy.

In the second half of the 1920s. the theater gained wide popularity among the Jewish public and recognition of the authorities. In 1925, the word "chamber" disappeared from the name of the theater, from now on it became the State Jewish Theater - GOSET. Every summer GOSET went on tour to Ukraine and Belarus. During the tour in 1925, the theater troupe starred in the film "Jewish Happiness". GOSET tours were a huge success with the provincial public, especially among the Jewish youth. Some of them became Moscow actors after graduating from the GOSET studio, others created their own theaters - the Ukrainian and Belarusian GOSETs. New premieres were successfully held in Moscow: “Night at the Old Market” by Yitzchok Leibush Peretz (1925) and “The Journey of Benjamin III” by Mendel Moyher Sforim (1927). Despite recognition and success, the theater was on the verge of bankruptcy. To improve things, Granovsky decided to go with the theater on a long tour of Europe.  

 

5. GOSET - European tour (1928).

Jewish theater on the European stage.

 

The European tour of GOSET took place from April to December 1928 in Germany, France, Belgium, Holland and Austria. GOSET was neither the first avant-garde Moscow theater nor the first Jewish theater from Soviet Russia to be seen by the European public. In 1923, the Moscow Chamber Theater toured Europe, and in 1926 the Habima Theater played in Hebrew. However, the performances of GOSET enjoyed great success with the public, and critics noted the special approach of the theater to Jewish material and the originality of artistic solutions. European Jews were keenly interested in the Soviet Jewish theater: in Warsaw, actors were invited to the Passover Seder, in Berlin they were invited to lecture about Jews in the USSR, and in Vienna, Sigmund Freud came to get acquainted behind the scenes. At the end of the year, the GOSET troupe returned to Moscow without Granovsky, who remained in Germany.

 

6. GOSET - from Sholom Aleichem to Shakespeare (1929-1941).

Granovsky-defector, new repertoire and audience, "King Lear".

 

Granovsky decided not to return to the USSR. At the end of 1929, Mikhoels became the artistic director of GOSET. 1929—“the year of the great turning point,” the establishment of Stalin’s dictatorship—became a turning point for the theatre. The policy of the cultural revolution in the USSR demanded socialist realism and a "proletarian" repertoire. Ideologically consistent plays by contemporary Jewish authors—David Bergelson, Peretz Markish, Ehezkel Dobrushin—began to appear on the GOSET stage. At the same time, the theater continued to stage Jewish classics—Goldfaden's Shulamith (1937) and Sholom Aleichem's Tevye the Milkman (1939). The production of Shakespeare's "King Lear" (1935) was the first significant success of GOSET after Granovsky, and since then the stage image of Lear has been inseparable in the historical memory of Russian Jews from the personality of Mikhoels. In 1939, GOSET celebrated its 20th anniversary, many theater artists received government awards and honorary titles. But celebrations and honors could not stop the process of assimilation of Soviet Jews, who were less and less interested in the Jewish theater. In 1936, while on tour in Ukraine, Mikhoels wrote: “The theater is poorly visited. Nobody cares about Shakespeare or Goldfaden.”

 

7. GOSET - war (1941-1943).

Interrupted tour, evacuation to Tashkent.

 

The war found GOSET in Kharkov during the summer tour. June 22, 1941 GOSET members left for Moscow. In October 1941, the theater was evacuated to Tashkent, where it opened the season with the play Tevye the Milkman. During the two years of evacuation, GOSET continued to play the old repertoire and prepare new performances. But in their thoughts the GOSET troupe aspired to Moscow, to the native walls of the theater on Malaya Bronnaya. Mikhoels, who managed to visit Moscow in 1942, expressed these thoughts in the following way: “I was in the theater <…> I was on the stage. And it became somehow uncomfortable. It was hard to believe that there was once light in this gaping hole and that there was life and activity. However, everything will work out. I think we will still return to our nests.” On September 11, 1943, GOSET gave a farewell performance in Tashkent—Khamza by Kamil Yashen and Amin Umari directed by Ephraim Leuther—and in October the theater returned from evacuation to Moscow. 

 

8. GOSET - Mikhoels and the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (1943).

Theater and politics, trip to Canada, Mexico, USA and UK.

 

In the summer of 1941, the Soviet government created the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAC), a public organization to mobilize Jewish public opinion and material resources in the West in the fight against Nazi Germany. Mikhoels became the head of the JAC. On August 24, 1941, at a rally in Moscow, Mikhoels proclaimed: “[We are] a generation of the [Jewish] people who have understood what a homeland is <…>, [which] knows no fear, cannot feel like a victim.” At the first plenum in Kuibyshev, members of the JAC spoke not only about the war against the Nazis, but also about the fight against anti-Semitism in the Red Army and in the Soviet rear. In April 1943, the government sent a delegation of JAK—Mikhoels and the poet Itzik Fefer—on a trip to Canada, Mexico, the United States, and Great Britain to promote the anti-fascist policy of the USSR and raise funds for Soviet Jewish victims of the war and to support the Red Army. Mikhoels and Fefer spoke at numerous rallies and raised hundreds of thousands of dollars. The JAC mission was actively supported by the great Albert Einstein. Mikhoels managed to fulfill an old dream - to meet his idol, Charlie Chaplin. Mikhoels passionately urged Chaplin: “Don't believe that apolitical art can exist in the world. The only question is who, what idea, what policy it serves!”

 

9. GOSET - last premieres (1944-1948).

Freilekhs, Prince Reubeyni.

 

After the war, there were significant changes in the policy of the USSR. In 1946, Stalin isolated the country from the outside world. In domestic politics, a course was taken towards Russian nationalism. In 1949, works by foreign authors were banned in Soviet theaters. Among the prime ministers of 1945-1948. in GOSET there were plays by Soviet authors about the war and plays based on Jewish folklore. In July 1945, Zalman Schneer's (Perch) play "Freilekhs" premiered. According to the critic, it was “a noisy and brilliant buffoonery, a sparkling, parade carnival, <…> a wise comedy”, in which there was both the joy of victory in the war, and sorrow for its victims, and the anticipation of a new life. The creators of the performance received the Stalin Prize. Back in 1944, Mikhoels conceived the idea of ​​staging a play based on Bergelson's play Prince Reubeyni. In the new play, he was the director and rehearsed the lead role. He wrote: “The role of Reubeni, the prince of the Jews, is completely merged into my own inner ideological world, and I can take this role with me in my ideological movement in order to become different, stronger.” In 1947, rehearsals were in full swing.

 

10. GOSET - liquidation (1948-1952).

The murder of Mikhoels, the case of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee.

 

In January 1948, Mikhoels went to Minsk to watch the performances nominated for the Stalin Prize. Leaving, he asked not to stop the rehearsals of "Prince Reubeni". Mikhoels returned to GOSET on January 16, 1948, in a coffin. On this day, farewell to the great Jewish artist took place in the foyer of the theater. The official report said that Mikhoels died in a car accident, but many understood that it was a murder. In the poem “Mikhoelsu is an unquenchable lamp”, Markish portrayed Mikhoels as a messiah who suffered for his people. The murder of Mikhoels was a harbinger of the anti-Semitic campaign launched by Stalin at the end of 1948. In the meantime, GOSET continued its work, the theater was named after Mikhoels, and Zuskin became artistic director. In November 1948, the JAC was liquidated and members of its presidium, including Zuskin, Markish and Bergelson, were arrested. They were convicted and shot on August 12, 1952. Due to the noisy anti-Semitic propaganda campaign, the audience was afraid to attend the GOSET performances, and the newspapers stopped publishing announcements about the performances. The last performance, "Herschel Ostropoler", took place on November 16, 1949, and on December 1, GOSET was officially closed. At the same time, the Moscow State Theater School, Ukrainian and Belarusian GOSETs were closed.  

 

11. GOSET - without GOSET (1956-1988).

MEDA and KEMT, legacy of Mikhoels.

 

Since 1956, in the process of political liberalization of the USSR, in an atmosphere of social and cultural "thaw", Jewish culture has again become accessible and even received limited support. In 1962, the Moscow Jewish Drama Ensemble (MEDA) was created. MEDA staged several performances that were previously staged at GOSET. In 1986, MEDA was transformed into a studio theater and received premises in Moscow. However, performances in Yiddish did not attract spectators. In 1987, the theater was given a new name - "Shalom", Alexander Levenbuk became artistic director, Russian became the language of performances. In 1977, the Chamber Jewish Musical Theater (KEMT) was created at the Birobidzhan Philharmonic, but with a rehearsal base in Moscow. Yuri Sherling was the artistic director of KEMT. The most significant work of this theater was the mystery opera Black Bridle for a White Mare (1978). In 1960, the Moscow theater community celebrated the 70th anniversary of Mikhoels in the Actor's House. In 1965, the 75th anniversary of Mikhoels was also solemnly celebrated. Elie Wiesel, who visited Moscow this year, wrote: “If the Jewish theater were revived in Moscow, it would not be difficult for it to fill the auditorium.” History has shown that Wiesel's assumption did not come true, and the next evening in memory of Mikhoels took place in Moscow only in 1989. 

 

12. GOSET - comeback (1989-2021).

Jewish theater after the USSR.

On February 12, 1989, Mikhail Gluz founded the Mikhoels International Cultural Center in Moscow. The opening of the Center in 1989 and the celebration of the 100th anniversary of Mikhoels in 1990 were notable events in the revival of Jewish culture in Russia. In his speech at the opening, Elie Wiesel stressed that the Mikhoels Center "became a reality because Russian Jews retained their Jewish identity." It is symbolic that the memory of the Jewish theater and Mikhoels became the basis of this self-consciousness. In the future, the Center did not play a big role in Jewish social and cultural life. The concerts and theatrical performances organized by him were a vivid presentation of the Russified Jewish culture. The study and understanding of the heritage of the Jewish theater, and not its revival, is the goal of the Mikhoels Readings, which have been held annually since 1999 by the Russian Library of Arts in Moscow. In Moscow, the Shalom Theater continues to stage Jewish performances in Russian. Also, the Moscow Granovsky Theater created in 2013 by Igor Pekhovich plays in Russian. The artistic program of this theater is based on the Granovsky system, based on Chagall's "psychoplasty". In 2019, on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of GOSET, the Granovsky Theater showed a performance based on Mikhoels’s only play “The Builder”, which was considered lost for a long time.