How a Yiddish Theater Troupe Became a Global Brand
By BETH HARPAZ
In 1915, a small group of young Jews began staging shows exclusively in Yiddish in the war-torn city of Vilnius, Lithuania. Within a year, their Vilna Troupe was a “household name,” and by 1924, dozens of Vilna Troupe actors were performing throughout Europe and the United States. Professor Debra Caplan (Baruch College) details their history in her new book, Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy.
Their success eventually grew to encompass 10 troupes, and established a “global brand” offering shows around the world. Audiences included many non-Jews, but spectators didn’t have to understand the dialogue. To tell their stories, the troupe relied heavily on visual arts — set design, costumes, and staging — along with an acting style inspired by German expressionism and the naturalism of Konstantin Stanislavski’s famed Moscow Art Theater.
The troupe’s itinerancy was central to its innovation and success, Caplan explained in an interview on CUNY’s Indoor Voices podcast. They could leave town if a play flopped, but travel also exposed them to new ideas. Signature productions included The Dybbuk, a dark, mystical tale of a bride haunted by her dead lover, and a Yiddish version of Eugene O’Neill’s Desire Under the Elms.
Caplan’s research included a data visualization animating the geography and relationships that shaped the Vilna Troupe. That visualization, she said, shows the group’s members as “a central node in a vibrant artistic network that connected hundreds of influential artists around the world and across the 20th century.” Member Ben Lumet, for example, was the father of Sidney Lumet, acclaimed director of Dog Day Afternoon and 12 Angry Men. And the troupe’s fans included Albert Einstein, playwrights George Bernard Shaw and Eugene Ionesco, and Broadway director David Belasco.
The Vilna Troupe declined in the 1930s amid several factors, including the Great Depression, audience preferences for movies over theater, the decline of Yiddish, and the rise of anti-Semitism. At least 45 Vilna Troupers died in the Holocaust.
“Yiddish culture may not have had a country of its own,” Caplan wrote, “but for a brief moment in time, the Vilna Troupes’ theatrical empire had the world at its feet.”
Explore This Work
Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy
University of Michigan Press, 2018
Colleges and Schools
“Visualizing the Vilna Troupe”
“How the Vilna Troupe Took Yiddish Theater Global” (Forward.com)
Podcast: “Beth Harpaz Interviews Debra Caplan” (Indoor Voices)