For 30 years — until Stalin brutally pulled the plug on avant-garde creativity — Jewish artists, actors, choreographers, writers and musicians joined in an unprecedented collaboration, drawing from the grotesque and comedic melodrama of Yiddish folklore to produce daring, cutting edge theater.
More than 200 works of theater art and ephemera salvaged from this short-lived, but powerfully imaginative period following the Bolshevik Revolution, can be viewed together for the first time beginning Nov. 9 in “Chagall and the Artists of the Russian Jewish Theater, 1919-1949” at The Jewish Museum in New York.
The theater productions of this period “derived from a sense of Yiddish sensibility,” said Susan Tumarkin Goodman, senior curator at The Jewish Museum. “In writing, there was a sense of the grotesque and the absurd. They were living through tough times. It was comedic relief to go to the theater and see these circus-like productions, with actors climbing up on ladders, and swinging from the rafters. It was an extraordinary spectacle.”
Featured in the exhibit are six of Marc Chagall’s famous theater murals, which the artist was commissioned to create in 1920 for the interior of the GOSET Jewish Theater in Moscow. Although this is not the first time the murals have been exhibited, it is the fist time they will be displayed in context, in a gallery that replicates the size of the theater that they once adorned.
GOSET is a Russian acronym, which stands for Moscow State Jewish Theater.
“Chagall was pleased to have the opportunity to work with the entire space, and he covered the entire theater,” said Goodman.
The murals are “huge,” Goodman said, noting the dimensions of one entitled “Introduction to Jewish Theater” being approximately 25 feet wide and 9 feet high. The mural depicts portraits of imaginary characters, as well as real people, including the artist himself and members of his family, said Goodman.
The exhibit includes watercolor, gouache and crayon drawings of various costume and set designs, notably, Chagall’s drawings for GOSET’s first production, “An Evening with Shalom Aleichem.”
In addition to Chagall, artists featured in the exhibit include Natan Altman, Robert Falk, Ignaty Nivinsky, Isaac Rabinovich, and Aleksandr Tyshler.
Two Moscow-based theater companies comprised the Russian Jewish theater movement: Habima, which performed in Hebrew, and whose shows centered around the themes of Zionism; and GOSET, which performed expressionistic dramas in Yiddish. In 1926, Habima left Russia for Palestine, and eventually became the national theater of Israel.
Despite being performed exclusively in either Hebrew or Yiddish, the shows were popular among diverse audiences and earned international critical acclaim, Goodman said.
“Even though audiences didn’t understand the languages, they were so taken with the sets and the acting and the expressiveness, and the rich visual effects and emotional intensity conveyed by these performances,” said Goodman.
Rare film footage of early performances, posters, and photographs of productions and actors all contribute to replicating the feeling of being a part of the Russian Jewish theater experience.
“It’s great to see it come to life,” said Goodman, who noted that a short video clip depicting the great actor Solomon Mikhoels drinking a cup of tea was “brilliant.”
Goodman discovered many of the items on exhibit while she was at Moscow’s Bakhrushin State Central Museum putting together another exhibit in the early 1990s. She also collected relevant works from France, Israel and the United States.
In 1932, Stalin decreed that the only approved form of artistic expression was Socialist Realism, and many artists involved in the avant-garde theater movement began producing “safer” works. In 1935, GOSET produced a Yiddish version of “King Lear,” which became its most critically acclaimed success. Mikhoels portrayed Lear, and was hailed as the “greatest Lear of all times” at that point, Goodman said.
The exhibit features a clip of Mikhoels’ portrayal of Lear, near the end of the play, when Lear’s eldest daughter Cordelia dies.
“Mikhoels gives a scream that tears your heart out,” said Goodman.
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)