The Archive, the Repertoire, and Jewish Theatre: Zygmunt Turkow Performs a National Dramatic Heritage


  • Zehavit Stern Tel Aviv University



How can one construct a dignified theatrical heritage in a culture with no dramatic canon, on-going theatrical institution or government support? Is it possible to create modernist theatre in a social environment eager for cheap entertainment? In this article I strive to address these questions through a close look at two multi-layered performances staged at the Warsaw Tsentral Teater (Central Theatre) in the 1923-1924 season: Serkele and Der priziv (The Military Conscription). Directed by Zygmunt Turkow and performed by a young ensemble that was about to evolve in the following year into the VYKT theatre (Warsaw Yiddish Art Theatre), these experimental shows re-claimed folk performance (and especially the purim-shpil) alongside nineteenth century Yiddish closet drama (written by Shloyme Ettinger and Sholem Yankev Abramovitsh [Mendele Moykher-Sforim]). They thus drew on both the popular “repertoire” and the more prestigious “archive” of Yiddish theatre – to use Diana Taylor’s terms – enlisting the two opposite poles of her influential dichotomy for the sake of one common endeavour: to invigorate and elevate modern Jewish theatre. The theatrical events discussed in this paper, I argue, complicate and challenge Taylor’s theory and the common binaries on which she draws, such as “The West” vs. the “subaltern” or the colonizer vs. the colonized. Ultimately, Turkow’s efforts to enhance the viewers’ aesthetic sensibility and historical awareness shed light on the unique path of modern Yiddish culture and the stateless Jewish nationalism; its quest for a usable past and its heroic struggle to promote – or perhaps fabricate? – notions of cultural continuity.

Keywords: Yiddish theatre, theatre, modernism, performance, Jewish nationalism, heritage, folklore, purim-shpil






Monographic Section