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Friday, April 15, 2011

The birth of revi-teater in an evil edict?

Mike Aylward has written a paper on the Gimpel family, which established a theater dynasty in Lemburg (Lvov) in the mid-19th century. It lasted for many decades and hundreds of recordings were made of their work before World War I. Aylward's paper is a wonderful read. I was struck by this passage:

Despite threats of violence from many religious groups, bitter opposition from the Lemberg kehilla and the usual reluctance of the Austrian authorities to allow any kind of Jewish theatrical activity, Gimpel finally [was granted] ... a license to operate a permanent Jewish theatre. He was not, however, given a free hand to do as he wished. Under the terms of the licence he was allowed to stage only 'one-act plays, farces, song concerts, operettas and plays with a pronounced folk character performed in the Jewish jargon'.

Such restrictions were not peculiar to Lemberg but standard practice throughout the AustroHungarian Empire. As Nahma Sandrow notes, referring to conditions at the turn of the century: 'In Vienna, for example, a German Yiddish was permissible for performances, provided that the show was not a drama but strictly variety vaudeville, so plays had to be chopped up every five minutes by songs, dances, or acrobatics, and act curtains were out of the question.'

If this was the norm, then the prevalence of shund [Yiddish word for trash especially theatrical] should not be attributed wholly ... to some kind of moral or aesthetic shortcomings on the part of Yiddish playwrights, nor to the grasping nature of theatre impresarios eager to fill seats by pandering to the vulgar tastes of 'the common people'.

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