The Vilna Troupe (Yiddish: Vilner trupe ווילנער טרופע; Lithuanian: Vilniaus trupė; Polish: Trupa Wileńska; Romanian: Trupa din Vilna), also known as Fareyn Fun Yiddishe Dramatishe Artistn (Federation of Yiddish Dramatic Actors) and later Dramă şi Comedie, was an international and mostly Yiddish-speaking theatrical company, one of the most famous in the history of Yiddish theater. It was formed in and named after the city of Vilnius (Vilna) in the Russian Empire, later capital city of Lithuania. Distinctly Modernist, and strongly influenced by Russian literature and by the ideas of Konstantin Stanislavski, their travels in Western Europe and later to Romania played a significant role in the dissemination of a disciplined approach to acting that continues to be influential down to the present day.
Founded in 1915 or 1916 during World War I, the troupe began with the deserted Vilna State Theatre as their base, toured Kovno, Białystok and Grodno, and soon moved to Warsaw. Their repertoire epitomized the second golden age of Yiddish theater, with works by S. Ansky, Sholom Aleichem and Sholem Asch, as well as Molière, Maxim Gorky, Henrik Ibsen, plus some Jewish-themed plays by non-Jews, notably Karl Gutzkow's Uriel Acosta. Their uniform Lithuanian Yiddish stood in contrast to the mix of dialects often heard in Yiddish theater at the time.
They were the first to stage Ansky's The Dybbuk. Early versions of the play were written variously in Russian and Yiddish, but Russian director and method acting pioneer Stanislavski (who first encountered the work in Russian) made several suggestions to Ansky. One of these was that for the sake of authenticity the piece should be in Yiddish. Stanislavski's death prevented the play from being produced at the Moscow Art Theater. At the time of Ansky's death, on November 8, 1920, the play was complete but had never been professionally produced. As a tribute to Ansky, the Vilna troupe, under the direction of David Herman, utilised the 30-day period of mourning after his death to prepare the play, which opened December 9, 1920, at the Elysium Theatre in Warsaw. Its unanticipated success established the play as a classic of modern Yiddish theater.
They toured extensively; they played in New York City, London and Paris. Their 1923 London production of Sholem Asch's The God of Vengeance at the Pavilion Theatre, Whitechapel was shut down by the censor (who had originally passed it based on an English-language synopsis). The play includes a portrayal of a lesbian relationship, which is the most favorably portrayed relationship in this rather dark play.  Among the members of the troupe was Joseph Green, later a Yiddish-language filmmaker.
In 1923, the Vilna troupe came to Bucharest at the invitation of Isidor Goldenberg of the Jigniţa Summer Theater. At the time, the troupe included actresses Hanna Braz, Luba Kadison, Helene Gottlieb, Judith Lares, Hanna Mogel, and Miriam Orleska, and actors Alexander Stein, Joseph Buloff, Aizic Samberg, Joseph Kamen, Jacob Weislitz, Leib Kadison, Samuel Schäftel, Benjamin Ehrenkrantz and Haim Brakasch. The director of the company was Mordechai Mazo. Author, businessman and Zionist activist A. L. Zissu was instrumental in helping the transition and was reportedly the company's main financial backer after 1923. Zissu was the brother-in-law of the Romanian poet Tudor Arghezi.
According to playwright and cultural promoter Israil Bercovici, their disciplined approach to theater impacted not only Romanian Yiddish theater but Romanian theater generally. Their audience went beyond the usual attendees of Yiddish theater: they drew the attention of the Romanian-language press, the Romanian theater world, and of "men of culture" generally. An August 23, 1924 article in the daily newspaper Adevărul noted: "Such a demonstration of artistry, even on a small stage such as Jigniţa and even in a language like Yiddish ought to be seen by all who are interested in superior realization of drama." Romanian literary critic Paul Cernat argues that the Vilna Troupe acted as a ferment for the local avant-garde, Expressionist environment, and by extension, for cutting edge Romanian literature. Cernat noted that while most Romanian avant-garde shows were "simple playful curiosities", "expressionist aesthetics were not without consequences on the [new Romanian] theatrical texts".
In Cernat's view, the Vilna Troupe accomplished this in tandem with various local companies and promoters. Among the latter, he cites Zissu, Benjamin Fondane, Ion Marin Sadoveanu, Armand Pascal, Sandu Eliad, Scarlat Callimachi, Dida Solomon, George Ciprian and various authors affiliated with Contimporanul magazine. Citing cultural historian Ovid Crohmălniceanu, Cernat also concludes that the branch of Expressionism favored by the company followed a distinct path, having its roots in Hasidic Judaism.
The Vilna Troupe was instantly made notorious by its staging of The Deluge, a work by Swedish-born dramatist Henning Berger, which was positively reviewed by the prominent literary magazine Rampa. The Deluge was a headliner by the company, until it was replaced by Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths (August 1924) The artistic praise did not pay the bills, and touring elsewhere in Romania only made the financial picture worse. According to modernist author Mihail Sebastian, the actors' commitment and the quality of the shows contrasted heavily with the venues they were touring. Sebastian referred to one of the latter as "once destined for Jewish pornography", and recounted how news of the Vilna Troupe "miracle" had spread by word of mouth. The situation was aggravated when the actors had to take a break from performing at the Jigniţa, following the death of its female owner, Sofia Lieblich. During that period, several actors left their temporary home in Romania, most of them settling in the United States.
Their fortunes were salvaged by a 1925 production of Osip Dymov's Der Zinger fun zayn troyer ("The Singer of His Sorrow"), created in collaboration with Jacob Sternberg's troupe. Der Zinger… was another critical success: writer Victor Eftimiu called it "a model of stylized realist theater", while dramatist Ion Marin Sadoveanu argued that it was comparable to "the best scenes" produced in France by the acclaimed director Jacques Copeau. It was an unprecedented hit, and ran at length at Bucharest's Central Theater. On their 40th show with the play, the actors were rewarded with portraits specially drawn by caricaturist Jacques Kapralik. The company was by then also being reviewed by the modernist platform Integral, and especially by its two main columnists, Ion Călugăru and M. H. Maxy, both of whom later chose to become directly involved in its activities. Their initiative followed their dissatisfaction with the choice of Der Zinger fun zayn troyer and in particular with Joseph Buloff's directing: the magazine accused Buloff of having "abused color in order to complete a null text." For a while, Călugăru replaced Mazo as director of the troupe, while Maxy provided the scenic design for several productions.
The positive reception indirectly helped establish close cultural connections between the newly-emancipated Jewish-Romanian community and sections of the ethnic Romanian majority. Cernat notes that this was in glaring contrast to a parallel phenomenon, "the recrudescence of antisemitic manifestations, particularly among the students". Solidarity with the company and the Jewish community at large was notably expressed by left-wingers such as Arghezi, Gala Galaction, N. D. Cocea and Contimporanul editor Ion Vinea.
In an article for the leftist magazine Lupta, Victor Eftimiu also expressed his opinion that the cultural renaissance heralded by the Troupe could enforce cultural patriotism and nationalism among Romanian Jews, and thus make "Jewishness" prove itself more worthy than "the braggadocios" of other nationalist discourses. Writing in the Warsaw Yiddish-language Literarishe Bleter during the run of Der Zinger…, Joseph Buloff was amazed at the positive reception that Yiddish theater received among the gentiles of Bucharest. Buloff noted that the Romanian actor Tanţi Cutava was equally comfortable acting in French and Yiddish as in his native Romanian, that he often heard ethnic Romanians singing songs from the Yiddish theater over a glass of wine, and that Romanian writers and artists invited Yiddish actors to their get-togethers, all of which apparently formed a stark contrast to Warsaw at that time. Following the November 1924 establishment of an Amicii teatrului evreiesc (Friends of the Jewish Theatre) association designed to help the troupe recover from its financial slump, several such clubs were set up by Jews and non-Jews in various Romanian localities.
The company also registered success when, in late 1925, it decided to reinstate The Deluge as its headliner. Apparently, the production was the work of several directors, and underwent significant changes from one staging to another, in both direction and assignment of roles. It earned further praise from critics, especially after Luba Kadison replaced Orleska in the play's sole female role. (Buloff and Leib Kadison, who had been assigned the title roles in the original variant, had by then withdrawn.) Der Zinger… and The Deluge were followed by successful Bucharest productions of David Pinsky's Melech David un zaine Froien (King David and His Women) and Tolstoy's The Living Corpse. Pressured, in part, by a 32% tax on performances by foreign troupes, by the end of 1925, the troupe had decided to reconstitute themselves as a Bucharest-based troupe, taking the Romanian-language name Dramă şi Comedie.
Dramă şi Comedie
"The wandering troupe from Vilna will stay put... after an era of prolonged touring", reported Integral. "They will fix on a program, which will no longer oscillate between melodrama and an expressionist mural. Apparently, the prospect launched today is precise: a new group tending to go along the route of modern innovation. 'No compromise with lack of taste—no compromise with bad taste': a shout that justifies an existence and would be worthy of realization."
The "no compromise" slogan came from the statement of program, really more of an artistic manifesto, with which the reconstituted group launched itself. The same document also declared the troupe's intent "to offer the masses and intellectuals simultaneously an institution of culture". The new troupe included such actors as Braz, Kadison, Lares, Orleska, Stein, Buloff, Kamen, Weislitz, Schäftel, and the Kadisons from the 1923 roster, plus Noemi Nathan, Joheved Weislitz, Jehuda Ehrenkranz, Samuel Irish, Simha Nathan, Sholom Schönbaum, Henry Tarlo, and Simi Weinstock.
However, Dramă şi Comedie would play only one full season of theater (1925–26), with some remnants struggling on another year. Their productions, beginning with Alter Kacyzne's Ger tzedek ("The Neophyte") and including Nikolai Gogol's Marriage, were critically acclaimed, but never matched the commercial success of Der Zingher…. Directed by Sternberg, and endorsed by writers Arghezi, Felix Aderca and Alfred Hefter-Hidalgo, the Marriage production was also at the center of a dispute in the literary community, due to its innovative aesthetics. Integral reacted when some spoke of it as an example of the constructivist "pure theatre" guidelines theorized by Contimporanul, and instead explained it as an example of "synthetic" theatre.
During that period, the staging of Ger tzedek was criticized by Contimporanul chronicler Sergiu Milorian, who saw in it proof that traditional "Yiddishist" plays were "unperformable", while arguing that the contribution of painter Arthur Kolnik in "the science" of scenic design was the show's only merit. After the sudden and unexpected death of actress Judith Lares, director Mazo left for Warsaw, and then Vilna. The troupe continued briefly with Luigi Pirandello's Man, Beast, and Virtue in the 1926–27 season.
After the breakup of Dramă şi Comedie, there were several revivals of the Vilna Troupe in New York City over the next decade or so. The first of these was a revival of The Dybbuk at the Grand Theater in April 1926. In late summer 1926 they were at the Liptzin Theater performing Rasputin and the Czarina.
In March 1929, they were playing Clement Gottesfeld's Parnuse ("Business") in The Bronx, New York. The production moved in May to the Yiddish Folks Theater at Second Avenue and East 12th Street, near the center of New York's main Yiddish Theater District of the time. Director Jakob Rotbaum began his professional career staging Eugene O'Neill's works with the troupe in 1930.
Shows continued to be produced in Bucharest under the Vilna Troupe name even after 1927. Following the breakup of Dramă şi Comedie, a play The Flood was put on at the Baraşeum theater, which was loosely the story of the Vilna troupe. In a March 1929 article for Cuvântul newspaper, Mihail Sebastian announced that the company was returning to Bucharest. In early 1930, company actors also staged Isaac Leib Peretz's A Night in the Old Marketplace, later described by Crohmălniceanu as one of the "memorable dates in the history of European Yiddish theater", alongside 1925's Der Zingher fun Zain Troirer. The production, directed by Sternberg, was the subject of a "literary trial" in the intellectual community: Sternberg's radical modernist approach was scrutinized by the more reserved authors Camil Petrescu and Barbu Lăzăreanu, but their accusations were denied merit by a pro-avant-garde group comprising Maxy, Sandu Tudor and Ilarie Voronca. References to the troupe and its role were also present in Maxy's overview of modernist performances in Romania, published by unu magazine in February 1931.
In January of the following year, the fate of the company was also discussed by Sebastian, in his column for Cuvântul. The writer, who had followed the Vilna Troupe's activities over the previous decade, was reviewing Joseph Kamen's return to the Romanian stage with another group of actors. Remembering his impression of the original troupe's shows, Sebastian spoke of its "melancholic destiny": "ever since then, death, dissipation and perhaps fatigue have passed through all these things. [J]udith Lares, who sleeps her eternal sleep in some town in Transylvania. [Buloff], who confronts an infamous public in America. Stein, lost in some place I don't recall."
The company disbanded again in 1931. Still, several members of the troupe continued on occasion to perform together in the United States. In September 1936, Sonia Alomis, Alexander Asro and Noah Nachbush performed a program of short pieces at the New School for Social Research, which The New York Times said "remind[ed] us that they are still an active force in [Jewish] theater." Among the plays performed were Sholom Aleichem's Kapores, Mikhail Artsybashev's one-act Jealousy, Der Tunkeler's Should I Marry, or Shouldn't I?, and Veviorke's A Philosopher—A Drunkard. Several members of the troupe participated in a 1937 New York revival of The Dybbuk, directed again by David Herman.
The Vilna Troupe's success with The Deluge had made various Romanian intellectuals seek to preserve the text in a Romanian-language translation. This was first attempted in 1928 by an author named Iosif Vanciu, but its staging by the National Theatre Cluj received bad reviews.  During the final stages of World War II, following the King Michael Coup (August 23, 1944), the project was resumed by Baraşeum and Sebastian, resulting in a loose adaptation based not on Berger's original, but on the text as performed by the Vilna Troupe. In his stage program for the play, Sebastian offered additional praise to his predecessors, but noted that, although "excellent", the Vilna Troupe's text had to be adapted for being too "sketchy".
- Sonia Alomis (alternatively Alumes)
- Alexander Asro (also spelled Aleksandr Azro)
- Jacob Bleifer
- Joseph Buloff
- Moses Feder
- Joseph Green (originally surnamed Greenberg)
- Leib Kadison
- Luba Kadison
- Josef Kamen
- Matus Kowalski
- Jacob Lubotsky
- Mordechai Mazo
- Noah Nachbush
- Lea Naomi
- Chaim Shneier (also known as Chaim Hamerow)
- Eliosha Stein
- Sholom Tanin
- Miriam Veide
- Freda Vitalin
- Pola Walter
- Pascal 2006
- Roshwald & Stites 2002
- Bercovici 1998, p. 125 says 1915; Liptzin 1972, p. 411 says 1916, as does Pascal 2006
- Bercovici 1998, pp. 125–26.
- Roskies & Werman 2002, p. xxii
- Fisher 2002, p. 143
- Olin Downes, "VILNA TROUPE REVIVED On the 20th Anniversary of Its Founding 'Dybbuk' Is Given", The New York Times, February 24, 1937, p. 18.
- Mazower 2005; this is the citation for the name of the theater.
- Bercovici 1998, p. 126.
- "LONDON NOTES: Special Cable to THE NEW YORK TIMES", The New York Times, October 28, 1923, p. X2.
- Bud Coleman, "The God of Vengeance Opens on Broadway", excerpted from Great Events from History: Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender Events (Lillian Faderman, Yolanda Retter, Horacio Roque Ramírez, eds., December 2006; ISBN 978-1-58765-263-9), Salem Press. Accessed online December 10, 2008.
- Edelman 2003
- Bercovici 1998; Cernat 2007, p. 275
- Cernat 2007, p. 275
- Bercovici 1998, especially pp. 126–8; the Adevărul quotation is on page 128
- Cernat 2007, pp. 269, 275
- Cernat 2007, p. 269
- Cernat 2007, pp. 269–74
- Cernat 2007, p. 276
- (in Romanian) "Potopul—valuri, valuri" ("The Deluge—wave after wave"), Realitatea Evreiască nr. 280-81 (1080-81)
- (in Romanian) Mihail Sebastian,  "Atitudini. Trupa din Vilna se reîntoarce" ("Attitudes. The Vilna Troupe Is Back")], Realitatea Evreiască nr. 277 (p. 1077)
- Bercovici 1998, p. 128 et. seq.
- Bercovici 1998, p. 131; Cernat 2007, p. 276
- Bercovici 1998, p. 131
- Cernat 2007, p. 277
- Cernat 2007, pp. 276–77
- Bercovici 1998, p. 132
- Integral nr. 6-7/1925, quoted in Bercovici 1998, pp. 132–33 Partly rendered in Cernat 2007, p. 275
- Bercovici 1998
- Cernat 2007, p. 279
- Untitled item, The New York Times, April 7, 1926. p. 26.
- "75 years ago", The Forward, August 31, 2001; "Archived copy". Archived from the original on November 7, 2001. Retrieved 2005-01-23.
- Advertisement, The New York Times, March 2, 1929, p. 21 says they are performing at the Intimate Playhouse, 180th St. & Boston Road in the Bronx. A further ad March 16, 1929, p. 24, quotes a testimonial from Eddie Cantor. "Theatrical Notes", May 16, 1929, p. 39, states that the production is moving to the "Yiddish Folks Theater".
- Steinlauf 1993
- Cernat 2007, p. 273
- W.S., "A Yiddish Program", The New York Times, September 28, 1936, p. 14
- (in Romanian) Mihail Sebastian, "Potopul. Programul de sală" ("The Deluge. Stage program"), Realitatea Evreiască nr. 280-81 (1080-81)
- "Vilna Troupe give odd Yiddish drama", The New York Times, January 29, 1924. Review of the Vilna Troupe's NY premier of The Dybbuk, including a cast list. Reproduced online at Museum of Family History, accessed online 2008-11-06.
- The New York Times, April 7, 1926, p. 26, in a quick note of a revival of The Dybbuk at the Grand Theater.
- Bercovici, Israil (1998), O sută de ani de teatru evreiesc în România ("One hundred years of Yiddish/Jewish theater in Romania") (2nd Romanian-language edition, revised and augmented by Constantin Măciucă ed.), Bucharest: Editura Integral (an imprint of Editurile Universala), pp. 125–43, ISBN 973-98272-2-5
- Cernat, Paul (2007), Avangarda românească şi complexul periferiei: primul val ("The Romanian avant-garde and the peripheral complex: the first wave"), Bucharest: Cartea Românească, ISBN 978-973-23-1911-6
- Edelman, Rob (2003-01-10), "Joseph Green: 'I Knew Exactly What I Wanted'", The Forward, archived from the original on February 8, 2003
- Fisher, James (2002), The Theater of Tony Kushner: Living Past Hope, Routledge, ISBN 0-415-94271-3
- Liptzin, Sol (1972), A History of Yiddish Literature, Middle Village, NY: Jonathan David Publishers, ISBN 0-8246-0124-6
- Mazower, David (2005-04-19), "A. Henryk Berlewi[Henrik Berlevi] (1894–1967)", The Mendele Review: Yiddish Literature and Language (a companion to Mendele), 9.005, retrieved 2008-11-06
- Pascal, Julia (2006-05-19), "Obituary: Luba Kadison", The Guardian, retrieved 2008-11-06
- Roshwald, Aviel; Stites, Richard (2002), European Culture in the Great War: The Arts, Entertainment and Propaganda, 1914-1918, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-01324-0
- Roskies, David G.; Werman, Golda (2002), "Introduction", in Roskies, David G.; Werman, Golda, The Dybbuk and Other Writings by S. Ansky, Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-09250-4
- Steinlauf, M. (1993-11-23), "International Conference on Jewish Theater in Poland", Mendele: Yiddish Literature and Language, 3.142, retrieved 2008-11-06
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