(Vilna Troupe), celebrated and critically acclaimed Polish Yiddish theater company. Soon after the Germans occupied Vilna in 1915, they lifted tsarist restrictions against staging Yiddish theater. With the support of local Jewish communal leaders and some German officers of Jewish origin, a group of young actors, primarily amateurs but including several professional performers from the Russian stage, decided to establish a purely literary Yiddish company. Only professional Yiddish actors could apply for a permit to perform Yiddish theater, so the group invited Matisyohu Kovalski (Koval; 1880–1936), apparently the only professional Yiddish actor then in Vilna, to join them.
The company was officially registered as Fareyn fun Yidishe Dramatishe Artistn (Union of Yiddish Dramatic Artists; FADA); it premiered in February 1916 on a wooden circus stage with Sholem Asch’s play Der landsman (The Countryman). The troupe consisted of Sonia Alomis (Lubotski; 1896–?), Aleksander Azro (Orliuk; 1892–?), Frida Blumental (d. 1947), Yehudis Lares (Rivke Hanenzon; 1882–1926), Leyb Kadison (Shuster; 1881–1947), Noyekh Nakhbush (Bushelevitsh; 1888–1970), Dora Rivkin, Khayim Shneur (Shneur-Khayim Gamerov; 1891–1961), and Sholem Tanin (Tankus; 1892–?). Kadison, a painter from Kovno, was the company’s first stage director. Soon to join the troupe as its fanatically dedicated impresario and manager was Mordechai Mazo (1889–1943), who remained with the company throughout all its subsequent incarnations.
Members of the Vilner Trupe, Poland, ca. 1919, including Dovid Herman (top row, left), M. Kowalski (next to Herman), Shloyme Zaynvl Rapoport (fourth from left), Frieda Blumenthal (next to Rapoport), Chaim Sznejer (to Blumenthal’s left), Sonia Alomis (front row, left), and Leyb Kadison (front row, right). (YIVO)
In September 1917, the company began to perform in Warsaw, to which it moved permanently. It was at this time that it began to be called the Vilner Trupe. Alomis and Azro soon left; in subsequent years, Azro organized theatrical groups that toured widely also using the name Vilner Trupe. At the same time, the original company acquired new members: Henri Tarlo (Henryk Tarło; 1898–?), Bela Belerina (Belleryna, Rubinlicht; 1898–?), and Moryc (Moritz) Norwid (1895–?), students of Polish theater schools; as well as Khane Braz (1895–194?), Yosef Bulov (Joseph Buloff; 1899–1985), Yosef Kamen (Kamien; 1900–1942), Avrom Morevski, Alyosha (Eliyohu) Shtayn (d. 1940s), Miriam Orleska (ca. 1900–1943?), Avrom-Yankev Vayslits (Jacob Waislitz; 1892–1966), and Yokhevet Vayslits (Jochevet Waislitz; 1896–1949).
The creation of the Vilner Trupe was a direct response to demands expressed by Y. L. Peretz and others for a literary, artistic, and “better” theater that would find its place among the great dramatic theaters of Europe. Such a theater would not just entertain, as did contemporary professional Yiddish theaters, but instead create works of national art to address the highest cultural aspirations of the Jewish people. The young members of the Vilner Trupe, primarily self-educated intellectuals of working-class origin, had been raised with socialist ideology and the new Yiddish literature. In creating their company, they broke with established practices of performance and organization. They jettisoned the so-called star system in favor of careful ensemble play, and organized the troupe cooperatively, with profits divided equitably and decisions made by an elected leadership that changed frequently. They also rejected the use of the southeastern Yiddish dialect, which was standard on the Yiddish stage, in favor of the Lithuanian dialect (litvish), considered more literary.
While the Vilner Trupe was quickly hailed by the intelligentsia, what made its reputation was Dovid Herman’s production of S. An-ski’s Der dibek (The Dybbuk), which premiered in December 1920 and went on to unprecedented popularity throughout the world as the representative work of Yiddish theater art. Contemporaries remarked that this play, indeed, forever haunted the company—or better, possessed it. According to some critics, the subsequent work of both the director, Herman, and Orleska, who played the possessed bride Leah, often recalled Dibek performances: Orleska seemed to perform Leah whether her role was that of a market vendor or a dancehall girl.
(Left to right) Noach Nachbush, Miriam Orleska, and Alexander Stein in a Vilner Trupe production of Der dibek (The Dybbuk), Poland, 1920s. (YIVO)
Beginning in 1922, the Vilner Trupe toured widely, performing Der dibek and other plays throughout Galicia and in Vienna. The company spent the years 1924–1927 in Romania, where one of its most celebrated productions was Yosef Bulov and Yankev Shternberg’s adaptation of Osip Dymov’s tragicomedy Der zinger fun zayn troyer (The Singer of His Sorrow), also known as Yoshke muzikant. The play was performed 150 times before audiences that included the Romanian royal court. In 1927, the company split, with a group of actors leaving for the United States and others going off on their own in Eastern Europe. A small group returned to Poland with Mazo and recruited new members, among them graduates of Michał Weichert’s acting studio, including Yankev Kurlender (1904–?), Avrom-Yankev Mansdorf (1902–?), and Moyshe Potashinski (Potaszyński, 1903–?). In 1928, the troupe began guest performances in Warsaw and the following year set off on tours of major Polish cities. In 1931–1932 they performed in Łódź, in 1933–1935 in Warsaw. The company ceased performing in 1935 when it could no longer support itself financially.
In its two decades of activity, the Vilner Trupe attracted the most talented Jewish (and some non-Jewish) theater artists in interwar Poland and adopted a range of styles and theatrical approaches. One can distinguish three phases in its development. The first involved literary and scenic naturalism with modernist elements but also certain didactic tendencies. This repertoire included Yiddish works by Dovid Pinski, Leon Kobrin, Mark Arnshteyn, Sholem Asch, Hersh Dovid Nomberg, Sholem Aleichem, and Jacob Gordin, and translations from Maksim Gorky, Gerhard Hauptmann, Aleksei Tolstoi, Theodor Herzl, and others. A major influence was Konstantin Stanislavsky’s Moscow Art Theater.
Particularly successful was Kadison’s production of Kobrin’s Yankl Boyle, staged as Der dorfs-yung (The Country Boy; 1917), set among Jewish fishermen, and the production of A. Vayter’s Der shtumer (The Mute; 1919), about Jewish intelligentsia after the 1905 Revolution. Vilner Trupe premieres, it was said, always felt like great holidays. At this premiere, not long after the playwright had been murdered by Polish soldiers in Vilna, it felt as though “one did not sit in the Yiddish theater, but in a holy place, a temple of art. . . . The production also demonstrated the first sproutings of the new actor, the intellectual Yiddish actor, who had come to the stage with erudition, with culture, with an entirely new approach to the Yiddish theater” (Vayslits, 1968, p. 39). Several other early productions involved the many-sided talents of Avrom Morevski, who directed and starred in his own translations of Leonid Andre’ev’s Der vos krigt di petsh (Rus., Tot kto poluchaet poshchechiny [He Who Gets Slapped]; 1920) and Karl Gutzkow’s Uriel Acosta (1922), the latter with scenery and costumes by Henryk Berlewi.
Hersh Dovid Nomberg (left) with Vilner Trupe actor Chaim Sznejer, Warsaw, ca. 1920s. (YIVO)
The Vilner Trupe’s second period began with Der dibek and involved the use of symbolism, stylized folklore, and a kind of historical romanticism. Herman’s production of Yankev Preger’s Der nisoyen (The Temptation; 1927) presented the tragic consequences of the love of a Polish nobleman’s daughter for the son of a Jewish tailor. Kidush ha-shem (Sanctification of [God’s] Name; 1928), directed by Weichert, stage design by Władysław Weintraub, and music by Henekh Kon, was based on Sholem Asch’s novel of the same name set during the Khmel’nyts’kyi’ uprising of 1648–1649. Its atmosphere was that of powerful religious ecstasy that leads an entire Jewish community to embrace martyrdom. The production was a popular success and remained in the company’s repertoire for two years.
In October 1928, the Vilner Trupe staged Peretz’s “dream-play” Bay nakht afn altn mark (Night at the Old Marketplace), which had never been produced during Peretz’s lifetime and had only been staged by the Moscow State Yiddish Theater in 1925. The production was directed by Herman, with stage design by Weintraub, music by Jozef Kaminski, and choreography by Lia Rotbaum. Over the next two years, Weichert directed a series of acclaimed productions that included Shaylok, Yisroel Shtern and Mark Rakovski’s translation of The Merchant of Venice;Yidn-shtot (Jewish Quarter), by the young Yiddish and Hebrew poet Arn Zeitlin, set in a medieval German ghetto; and Moyshe Lifshits’s A mayse mit Hershele Ostropolyer (A Tale of Hershele Ostropolyer), a burlesque comedy about the legendary wandering jester of the early nineteenth century.
In 1930, Herman directed H. Leyvik’s Der goylem (The Golem), a verse play about the exploits of the legendary Jewish creature in the sixteenth-century Prague ghetto. Stage design, music, and choreography for these productions were by Weintraub, Kon, and Lia Rotbaum, respectively (Adam Graber choreographed Shaylok). These and other Vilner Trupe productions were attended and highly praised by Polish theater people, among them, the critic Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński.
Members of the Vilner Trupe performing Grine felder (Green Fields) by Perets Hirshbeyn, Riga, 1928. Photograph by Ed. Krautz. (YIVO)
In its third phase, like other companies of its time, the Vilner Trupe turned to productions with powerful dramatic conflicts based on contemporary social and political issues. The company’s key stage director during these years was Jakub Rotbaum. His first production for the Vilner Trupe, which opened in January 1930, was Shvartse geto (Black Ghetto), based on his translation of Eugene O’Neill’s All God’s Chillun Got Wings, with stage design by Andrzej Pronaszko and music by Kon. The following year, Rotbaum directed a new version of Dovid Bergelson’s Di broytmil (The Mill, also known as Der toyber [The Deaf]), about the tragic fate, framed in a larger social context, of an old, isolated, and crippled worker; the stage design was again by Pronaszko, the choreography by the director’s sister Lia Rotbaum. In 1932, Rotbaum directed Bunt in oysbeserungs-hoyz (Revolte in Erziehungshaus [Revolt in the Reformatory]) by the German writer Peter Martin Lampel, a protest against the awful conditions in correctional institutions. Rotbaum’s 1933 version of Sergei Tret’iakov’s Shray, Khine! (Rychi, Kitai! [Roar, China!]), which had previously been mounted on the Polish stage in one of Leon Schiller’s “monumental” productions, was a great popular success, staged 150 times in Warsaw alone. The modernist stage design was by Szymon Syrkus, the music again by Kon.
Years after directing Der dibek, Herman expressed the goal of Yiddish theater in the following words: “The better Yiddish theater should be for modern Jews what the study-house [besmedresh] used to be for the pious Jew” (Nakhmen Meyzl, “Dovid Herman,” Literarishe bleter 21 [21 May 1937]: 329–331). The Jewish artists of the Vilner Trupe would certainly have agreed.
Aleksander Azro, “Der onheyb,” in Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes: Poyln, ed. Itsik Manger, Yonas Turkov, and Moyshe Perenson, pp. 23–34 (New York, 1968); Melech Ravitch (Melekh Ravitsh), “Dovid Herman,” in Mayn leksikon, vol. 2, pp. 217–219 (Montreal, 1947); Melech Ravitch, “Miryam Orlesko,” in Mayn leksikon, vol. 2, pp. 200–202 (Montreal, 1947); Melech Ravitch, “Yankev Vayslits,” in Mayn leksikon, vol. 2, pp. 224–226 (Montreal, 1947); Zalmen Reyzen (Rejzen), “Der yidisher teater in Vilne,” in Vilner zamlbukh, ed. Tsemakh Szabad, vol. 2, pp. 165–174 (Vilna, 1918); Nahma Sandrow, Vagabond Stars (New York, 1977), pp. 213–221; Leon Templer, “Tajemnica ‘Wileńczyków,’” Nowy Dziennik no. 135 (20 May 1931): 7; Yankev Vayslits, “Der gang in der velt,” in Yidisher teater in Eyrope tsvishn beyde velt-milkhomes: Poyln, ed. Itsik Manger, Yonas Turkov, and Moyshe Perenson, pp. 35–49 (New York, 1968); N. Wejnig, “Piętnaście lat ‘Trupy Wileńskiej,’” Miesięcznik Żydowski 1.4 (1930–1931): 359–364; Zalmen Zylbercweig (Zilbertsvayg), “Vilner trupe,” in Leksikon fun yidishn teater, vol. 1, cols. 704–717 (New York, 1931).
Translated from Polish by Michael C. Steinlauf