Subsubsubseries 3. Vilna Troupe, 1916 - 1937
Scope and Contents
This series contains materials related to performances and activities of theaters and theater troupes, organized by geographic location. Some files also pertain to a variety of local organizations that presented theatrical events and concerts, as well as organizations that promoted and supported Yiddish or Hebrew theater. The last subseries, Yiddish Theater (General) and Unidentified Materials, contains a small grouping of materials not related to specific localities, including manuscripts, clippings, and unidentified materials.
The materials in this series consist predominantly of theater programs; ephemera such as fliers, invitations, and tickets; and newspaper clippings (occasionally scrapbooks). The series contains, in all, an estimated 1700 to 1800 programs. The programs pertain to plays; revues; recitations; concerts, including cantorial concerts; dance performances; honorary evenings; and various special events of local organizations.
To a lesser extent, there are also publications and periodicals; and sometimes generic correspondence such as letters to supporters and fundraising letters, and, occasionally, manuscripts of articles about the given theater troupe, typically intended for publication in newspapers. (Some of the latter items were evidently donated by Zalman Reisen, editor of the Vilner Tog.)
The materials of the above types found under any given heading for a theater troupe, theater, or organization, are typically of mixed provenance, collected by various different individuals.
This series also occasionally includes small amounts of original records of theater troupes, such as correspondence and financial records.
Original letters from troupe members or leaders addressed to the literary historian and newspaper editor Zalman Reisen are found in the files for the Vilna Troupe (Folder 533); and "Ararat" (Folder 596). In the case of the Varshever Yidisher Kunst-Teater (VYKT), there is a small amount of original correspondence received by the troupe, including a letter from Richard Beer-Hofmann (Folder 500).
Fragmentary financial records are included for the Vilna Troupe, 1922 (Folder 538); and a ledger book for the "Baveglekher Yidisher Dramatisher Teater," 1921-1922, under the geographic heading for Warsaw (Folder 633). (According to an entry in Zylbercweig, VI: 4993, the latter troupe was founded by Jonas Turkow.)
Other notable provenance-based groupings of materials in the subseries for Poland are found under the following city headings:
Łuck (Lutsk, Ukraine): papers of the theater director Abraham Kolodny related to the "Yidishe Fraye Bine," 1910-1920 (Folders 621-622), along with theater programs likely collected by him.
Brześć nad Bugiem (Brest, Belarus): a scrapbook documenting performances of the Brisker Dramatishe Studye, 1927-1929, created by M. Sarwer (Sarver), the group's artistic director, along with programs evidently collected by him (Folders 696-697).
Częstochowa: receipts of impresario N. Zolotarew related to a tour of Lidia Potocka (Folder 668).
Also noteworthy is a scrapbook pertaining to a 1934 revival of the experimental Yiddish puppet theater "Khad Gadyo" in Łódź (founded in 1922, a collaboration between and Moyshe Broderzon and the artist Yitskhok Broyner); it contains the script of the performance, photographs and clippings (Folder 615).
Troupes represented with the most substantial amounts of materials include:
In Subseries 1. Poland, under the sub-heading "Poland by Theater Troupe": Varshever Yidisher Kunst-Teater (VYKT); Varshever Nayer Yidisher Teater (VNYT); the Vilna Troupe; Yung Teater/Nay Teater; and the "Kleynkunst," or revue theaters "Azazel," "Ararat," "Sambatyon," and "Yidishe bande."
In Subseries 4, United States, the Yiddish Art Theater, New York (directed by Maurice Schwartz).
In Subseries 6, Palestine (Eretz Israel), the Hebrew theaters Habimah and Ohel, respectively.
In the case of these major theater troupes, most of the material related to them is gathered under their name heading, found under the geographic locality with which they are primarily associated; however, the materials found there also include items pertaining to their tours in other parts of the country or region, and internationally.
On the other hand, files for specific towns, cities, or countries, in general contain many programs and clippings pertaining to guest appearances of individual performers, as well as smaller ensembles and troupes, who are based somewhere else.
Clippings are generally classified according to the main topic of the article (i.e. not necessarily according to the locality where it was published).
It should be noted that throughout the series, a distinction is usually made between professional theater and concerts, on the one hand, and amateur theater, or 'dramatic circles' on the other; when materials are related to amateur groups that distinction is typically specified in the heading. The distinction is especially clear in the subseries for Poland, which includes a separate sub-subseries for Amateur Theater (this follows the scheme established by Jonas Turkow during his preliminary organization of these materials at the YIVO Institute in New York).
Finally, as background, it should be noted that the programs that form the backbone of this series in representing the troupes, theaters, and localities, were among the materials that were organized and cataloged by Jonas Turkow at the YIVO Institute for Jewish Research in New York, in the late 1950s to mid 1960s. They bear stamped or handwritten item numbers (falling within the range 175167 to 177690) that Turkow assigned based on his initial sequencing of them in alphabetical order according to the names of the authors of plays (with concert programs grouped together at the end). Subequently, he selected certain programs to form groupings under peformer names (see Series II, subseries 1. Programs) and others to form groupings under the names of theater troupes and geographic headings (constituting the present series). The selection of the programs found in this series under general geographic headings, for particular towns, cities, and countries (as opposed to headings for the featured performer or director, as in Series II) thus reflects the arrangement devised by Turkow, documented in the cross-references he provided on his catalog cards for the programs. For further details, see the Scope and Content Note for Series I, Subseries 2, Programs.
- 1916 - 1937
- Ṿilner trupe (Organization)
Language of Materials
In Yiddish, Polish, German, English, and Romanian, with some French and Dutch, and occasional Russian.
The collection has been digitized and is available online without restrictions. The physical collection is closed.
In fall 1915, when the German military occupied Vilna during the First World War, it lifted the restrictions on Yiddish theater that the Czarist authorities had imposed during the war. A small group of amateur actors in Vilna formed, with the intention to found a Yiddish theater. Among them was Leib Kadison (then known as Shuster) and Sholom Tanin, of Kovno, both of whom had previously been active in amateur theater in their hometown, and local Vilna actors, including Alexander Asro, Sonia Alomis, Frida Blumental, Noah Nachbush, and Chaim Shneur, who all had also performed previously in amateur circles. With some effort, mainly under the leadership of Asro and Kadison, and with the assistance of Matisyahu Kovalski, the only member who was a professional Yiddish actor, the troupe obtained a permit to perform, under the name Fareyn fun Idishe Dramatishe Artisten (FADA; Union of Yiddish Dramatic Artists). It was organized on a cooperative basis. M. Mazo was the business manager.
The troupe premiered on 18 February 1916, in a former circus building, performing Sholem Asch's "Der landsman" (The Countryman); the next evening they performed Peretz Hirschbein's "A farvorfn vinkl" (A Forsaken Corner). The early productions, under Kadison's direction and with Asro mentoring the actors, employed a naturalist style of acting, looking to the Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavsky as a model; the performances met with great success. Among other works performed that season were H. D. Nomberg's "Mishpokhe" (Family), Asch's "Got fun nekome" (God of Vengeance), David Pinski's "Yankl der shmid" (Yankel the Smith), and Mark Arnstein's "Der vilner balebesl" (The Young Gentleman of Vilna), as well as several plays by Jacob Gordin. Beginning in November 1916 German military officials allowed the troupe to perform in the Vilna municipal theater. Despite the markedly positive reception of its productions, FADA still struggled financially under the harsh economic conditions of wartime Vilna. In May 1917 the troupe went on tour in the Russian province of Kovno (Kaunas), and then to Polish towns and cities, including Suwałki and Białystok, with a repertoire that included Hirschbein's "Di puste kretshme" (The Empty Inn), Leon Kobrin's "Der dorfsyung" (The Village Youth) and Ossip Dymow's "Der eybiker vanderer" (The Eternal Wanderer), as well as dramas in translation by Leonid Andreyev, Mikhail Artsybashev, Ludwig Fulda, and Tolstoy. Finally, in fall 1917, they managed to arrange to visit Warsaw, where, with the encouragement of German authorities, Yiddish theater was flourishing. The famed actress Esther Rachel Kaminski, who was based there, had encouraged them to come, after having seen them perform in Białystok. It was during this first stay in Warsaw that the troupe became known as the "Vilner Trupe" (Vilna Troupe) and began to establish an international reputation. The style of their productions developed away from naturalism to a more experimental and modernist approach.
In Warsaw, the actor and director David Herman joined the troupe, and for his first production directed Peretz Hirschbein's "Di neveyle" (The Carcass). In March 1918 the Vilna Troupe performed in Łódź and then toured in other Polish localities. Upon the outbreak of the German Revolution in fall 1918, two of the troupe's founding members, Alexander Asro and Sonia Alomis, who were now a married couple, left Warsaw to return to their native Vilna, while the rest of the troupe returned to Warsaw. The departure of Asro and Alomis, which was partially due to conflicts with the troupe manager M. Mazo, represented the first division within the troupe that led to multiple branch groups of actors performing under the name Vilna Troupe.
In Vilna, at the time that it was occupied by Soviet forces, Asro and Alomis organized their own troupe, which received government sponsorship as a Yiddish state theater. The troupe, including Abraham Teitelbaum, Shloyme Kon, and Joseph Buloff, performed there through April 19, when Polish forces captured the city. In late 1919, Asro and Alomis, along with Rose Birnbaum (Zhelazo), Eliezer Zhelazo, and others, became part of a troupe formed under the auspices of a newly founded Yiddish theater society in Vilna, which performed a series of plays staged and directed by Mendel Elkin. In summer 1920 the theater society invited director David Herman, along with other Vilna Troupe actors, to come to Vilna; however, due to the occupation of the city by Russian Bolshevik forces, the plans for a new production did not come to fruition. Herman and several of the actors returned to Warsaw. Asro and Alomis went to Kovno, where they performed for a short time, and, later, to Berlin.
The Vilna troupe members who had returned to Warsaw in fall 1918 established themselves there on a cooperative basis at the Elizeum Theater, under the management of M. Mazo. At the Elysium, Herman directed Hirschbein's "Tkies kaf," Arthur Schnitzler's "Liebelay," and, in 1920, the premiere of S. Ansky's "Der dibek" (also titled "Tsvishn tsvey veltn"), which was first performed on 9 December, at the end of the thirty-day mourning period following Ansky's death. "Der dibek" (The Dybbuk) proved an enormous success and had a long run that also attracted attendance of the non-Jewish public.
Among the actors who joined the Vilna Troupe during these first few years in Warsaw were Morits Norvid, Henri Tarlo, Miriam Shik, and Yankev Shidlo, all of whom were former students of Herman; and Bella Bellarina and Miriam Orleska, who had studied at the Polish drama school in Warsaw. Other new members were experienced Yiddish actors, including Leah Naomi, Eliezer Zhelazo, and Abraham Morewski (who had earlier acted on the Russian stage).
Along with "Der Dibek," the troupe's further season included Sholem Asch's "Amnon and Tamar" and "Der zindiker" (The Sinner), both directed by Mendel Elkin, in March 1921. In 1921 they also went on tour across Eastern Europe, including Poland, Romania, Transylvania, Bessarabia, and Czechoslovakia, performing "Der dibek" hundreds of times. Productions in 1922 in Warsaw included Sholem Aleichem's "Shver tsu zayn a yid" and H. Leivick's "Shmates" (Rags), both directed by Leyb Kadison; and Karl Gutzkow's "Uriel Akosta," translated and directed by Abraham Morewski. That year they also guest starred in Lwów (Lviv), in Galicia, then in the fall went on to Vienna, where they performed for six months at the Roland-Bühne (Roland Stage), under the auspices of the Viennese Jewish association "Freie Jüdische Volksbühne" (Free Jewish People's Theater).
In 1923 Mazo's Vilna Troupe traveled to Bucharest, where, at the invitation of Isidor Goldenberg, they performed from July to September at the Jigniţa Summer Theater. The troupe members included: Leib and Khane Kadison, Luba Kadison, Alex Stein, Joseph Buloff, Henri Tarlo, A. Samberg, Helena Gotlib, Jacob Waislitz, Miriam Orleska, Yosef Kamen, Judith Lares, Chaim Shneur, and Khane Braz. Samberg directed Asch's "Motke ganev" and Sholem Aleichem's "Dos groyse gevins." Through the end of the year the troupe toured in other Romanian cities, including Cernăuți (Chernivtsi). In February 1924 they returned to Cernăuți at the invitation of a Yiddish theater society there that had offered to support them, but were barred from performing after the outbreak of anti-Semitic incidents. In the summer of that year, the Kadisons departed from the troupe, and the remaining members returned to Bucharest. After directing a production of Moliere's "Der karger" (The Miser; translated by A. Einhorn), A. Samberg also left the troupe.
Following an interlude on tour in the provinces, Mazo's troupe again settled in Bucharest, at the Central Theater. There, in 1925 Joseph Buloff directed his and Jacob Sternberg's adaptation of Ossip Dymow's "Der zinger fun zayn troyer" (The Singer of his Sorrow), which was a critical success; the troupe toured with the play in the provinces that summer. For the 1925/26 season a local society formed to help support the troupe, which began to advertise itself under the Romanian-language name "Dramă şi Comedie" (Drama and Comedy); and the poet and dramatist Jacob Sternberg, then residing in Bucharest, became the director. Actors Simkhe and Noemi Natan, and Shmuel Iris also joined the troupe. The season opened with Alter Kacyzne's "Der dukus" (The Duke), staged by the author. Further productions included Gogol's "Khasene' (Marriage), directed by Sternberg, and N. Evreinov's "Der iker" (The Main Thing), directed by Alex Stein.
After just one season, with costs outpacing earnings, the local society backing the "Dramă şi Comedie" theater failed financially; the troupe again became independent under the name Vilna Troupe. In Bucharest, Buloff subsequently staged his adaptation of "Shabtsi Tsvi" (based on works by Sholem Asch and Jerzy Żuławski; shortly later he and Luba Kadison left for the United States. The same year, in Cernăuți, A. Stein staged L. Andreyev's "Der gedank" (Thought); he also left the troupe in 1926.
After Stein and others left, the remaining troupe members, still under the management of M. Mazo, returned to Poland. In the following years, the troupe tended to change its composition frequently, with multiple actors departing, new actors joining, or previous members re-joining, from one season to the next.
After touring the Polish provinces, the troupe arrived in Lwów, where in August 1927, David Herman directed Jacob Preger's "Der nisoyen" (The Temptation); at that time the members included: Miriam Orleska, Chava Eisen, Chaim Brakarz, Rachel Holzer, Yitshak Hober, Jacob and Yokheved Waislitz, Simkhe Weinstock, M. Mazo, Abraham Morewski, Noemi and Simkhe Nathan, Yosef Kamen, and Nadia Kareni.
From Lwów, the troupe traveled to Kraków, and finally to Warsaw, where they opened at the Elysium Theater in March 1928, with the following members: Orleska, David Birnbaum, Helena Gotlib, Esther Goldenberg, Zalmen Hirshfeld, Jacob Waislitz, Ruth Torn, David Licht, Yankev Mansdorf, Noemi and Simkhe Natan, A. Samberg, Yosef Kamen, Dina König (Kamen), Yankev Kurlender, Batsheva Kremer, Esther Rappel, Perl Ruth, and Shmuel Sheftel. In May of that year Michael Weichert staged his adaptation of Asch's "Kidesh hashem," in an elaborate production that included innovative use of light projections. In October 1928, David Herman undertook a staging of I. L. Peretz's complex symbolist drama "Bay nakht afn alten mark" (At Night in the Old Marketplace), a project that he and Mazo considered as early as 1921 but had not pursued. In December 1928, Mazo's troupe guest starred for the first time since its founding in its namesake city, Vilna, where the society Fraynt fun Yidishn Teater (Friends of the Yiddish Theater) published in their honor a brochure entitled "Undzer bine" (Our Stage).
In the course of 1929 Michael Weichert staged several acclaimed productions, including Shakespeare's "Shaylok" (Shylock; Merchant of Venice), in the Yiddish adaptation by Israel Shtern and Mark Rakovski, performed in Warsaw, in February; and a new play by contemporary writer Aaron Zeitlin, "Yidn-shtot" (Jewish Quarter), set in a medieval German ghetto, which the troupe performed in Białystok, in November.
Arts professionals who collaborated with the Vilna Troupe included the painter Henryk Berlewi, who designed posters and stage for "Der dibek" and "Uriel Akosta" in 1920/21; Władysław Weintraub, who designed sets and costumes in the 1928/29 season; and composer Henech Kon who composed score's for the troupe's productions of "Kidesh hashem" and "Shaylok."
This branch of the Vilna Troupe, under the management of M. Mazo, continued to perform and tour regularly in Eastern Europe until around 1935. In the 1930s, the troupe's principal director was Jakub Rotbaum, and productions often drew their dramatic conflicts from contemporary social and political issues. Rotbaum staged "Shvartse geto" (Black Ghetto), his own Yiddish translation of Eugene O'Neill's All God's Chillun Got Wings in January 1931, and later the same year, David Bergelson's "Di broytmil" (The Mill), both during an extend stay of the troupe in Vilna. His 1933 production of Sergei Tretyakov's "Shray, Khine!" (Roar China!) was a popular success that the troupe performed 150 times in Warsaw alone.
Another significant thread in the story of the Vilna Troupe concerns the activities of Alexander Asro and Sonia Alomis in the years following their move to Berlin in 1921. There they made contact with a group of German Jewish intellectuals (Sammy Gronemann, Hermann Struck, Hans Gosler, Arnold Zweig, and Herbert Eulenberg, among others) who were enthusiastic about Yiddish theater and formed a society to support a troupe in the city. Asro and Alomis were joined by other actors from the Warsaw branch of the Vilna Troupe, including Chaim Shneur, Bella Bellarina, Eliezer Zhelazo, Rose Birnbaum, Moishe Feder, Herz Grossbard, Frida Blumental, and David Hamburger, as well as director David Herman. Beginning in fall 1921, this troupe performed for eight months at the former Brothers Herrnfeld Theater on Kommandantenstrasse, under the name Yidish Kinstler Teater (German: Jüdisches Künstlertheater; Jewish Art Theater). With Herman directing, the repertoire included Peretz Hirschbein's "Di puste kretshme" and S. Ansky's "Der dibek." Herman then embarked on a tour over Western Europe with a company drawn from both the Warsaw-based Vilna Troupe and the Berlin group.
At the invitation of Boris Thomashefsky, the troupe traveled to the United States for a tour, arriving in New York in January 1924. The members at that time were Asro, Alomis, Bella Bellarina, Jacob Bleifer, Joseph Green (Grinberg), Miriam Weide, Frida Vitalin, Pola Walter, Rose and Eliezer Zhelazo, Sholom Tanin, Jacob Lubotzki, Leah Naomi, Noach Nachbush, Moishe Feder, Matisyahu Kovalski, and Chaim Shneur. After several months in New York and a tour around the country, Bellarina and Shneur departed from the troupe, and Leib and Khane Kadison and Reuben Wendorff joined. The troupe then set off on a second tour, including a six month stay in Los Angeles.
For the 1926/27 season the troupe opened at the Liptzin Theatre in New York, with members: with the members Asro, Alomis, Walter, Wendorff, Lubotzki, Tanin, Feder, Leib and Khane Kadison, Naomi, Jacob Shigorin, and several members of the Hebrew Actors' Union of America – Annie Shapiro, Yitskhok Bliefeld, Moishe Silberstein and Itsik Hershkowitz (prompter). During that season Asro and Alomis left the troupe. Some of the remaining members, including the Kadisons, Birnbaum, Zhelazo, and Wendorff, joined by Noach Nachbush, among others, organized themselves on a cooperative basis and performed in the Bronx, at the Intimate Playhouse in the 1928/29 season; and, joined by Joseph Buloff and Esther Neroslavska, at the America Theatre, in the 1929/30 season.
Besides these two main branches of the Vilna Troupe, the company managed by M. Mazo, and the one led by Asro and Alomis, there were other various groupings of the troupe's members who went on to establish themselves in new circumstances under the banner of the "Vilna Troupe." Debra Caplan provides the following overview of ten 'official' Vilna Troupe branches:
the original Vilna Troupe (1915-1918) Alexander Asro and Sonia Alomis's Vilna Troupe (1918-1926) Mordechai Mazo's Vilna Troupe (1918-1935) American Revival Vilna Troupe #1 (1926-1927) Waislitz, Buzgan, and Shapiro's Vilna Troupe (1926-1927) the Bronx Vilna Troupe (1928-1930) the Belgium Vilna Troupe (1929-1930) Alex Stein's Vilna Troupe (1930-1933) American Revival Vilna Troupe #2 (1932-1933) American Revival Vilna Troupe #3 (1936)
Bułat, Mirosława M. "Vilner Trupe." YIVO Encyclopedia of Jews in Eastern Europe. 2 November 2010. yivoencyclopedia.org.
Caplan, Debra. Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2018
Mickuté, Jolanta. "The Vilner Trupe, 1916–30: A Transformation of Shund Theater – For the Sake of National Politics or High Art?" Jewish Social Studies. Vol. 22, No. 3 (Spring/Summer 2017), pp. 98-135.
Zylberzweig, Zalmen (ed.). "Vilner trupe." Leksikon fun yidishn teater. Vol. 1. New York: Elisheva, 1931. cols. 704-717.
1 Linear Feet (2.4 boxes; 45 folders)
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