Jewish Culture and Art: Theatre

“…if Yiddish theater was destined to go through its infancy in Russia, and in America grew to manhood and success, then London was its school.”[35] In London in the 1880s, playing in small theatre clubs “on a stage the size of a cadaver”,[36] not daring to play on a Friday night or to light a fire on stage on a Saturday afternoon (both because of the Jewish Sabbath), forced to use a cardboard ram’s horn when playing Uriel Acosta so as not to blaspheme,[37] Yiddish theatre nonetheless took on much of what was best in European theatrical tradition.

In this period, the plays of Schiller first entered the repertoire of Yiddish theatre, beginning with The Robbers, the start of a vogue that would last a quarter of a century. Adler records that, like Shakespeare, Schiller was “revered” by the broad Jewish public, not just by intellectuals, admired for his “almost socialist view of society”, although his plays were often radically adapted for the Yiddish stage, shortening them and dropping Christian, antisemitic, and classical mythological references[38] There were several smaller Jewish theatre groups in Manchester and Glasgow.[39]

Adler, Jacob, A Life on the Stage: A Memoir, translated and with commentary by Lulla Rosenfeld, Knopf, New York, 1999, ISBN 0-679-41351-0.

Theatre going was an important part of life, offering temporary relief from the strains of wartime for all sections of the populace in the UK during WWI. 1914 brought new challenges to British theatre. Audiences found it hard to get to the theatre due to air raids blackouts, and lack of transport. There were also restrictions on alcohol.

Amusement tax added to the ticket price was introduced in 1916. Many managers cancelled evening performances and increased matinees. The Criterion theatre at Piccadilly Circus was underground and attracted audiences by advertising that it is bomb proof. Others like the Victoria Palace Theatre continued as usual by agreement with the artists and musicians. 

Heartbreak House by George Bernard Shaw was published in 1919 and shown at Garrick Theatre in November 1920.  It deals with issues of conflict between the upper classes and working classes at the start of WW1 and the causes that lead to the war. 

During this period there were intense theatrical activities in most large European towns. These were profoundly influenced by the war and intended to foster feelings of national unity and patriotism. This was followed by escapist entertainment. In the last years of the war, the note of pessimism increased. Both sides had a self-imposed boycott of all plays that came from enemy states. Some plays were staged within a patriotic framework such as the national anthem, soldiers’ songs or introductory speeches. The wartime plays contributed to general cultural war mobilisation. The notion of sacrifice was encouraged especially by women to support the war and the home front. 

The British all-volunteer army had to be expanded at the beginning of the war. Many young men were under pressure to join the British Expeditionary Force. On the stage, there was an aggressive move against pacifists. In the review called By Jingo if we do, at London Empire Theatre 19th October 1914 offensive jokes or allusions were made against pacifists. In October 1914 the comedy, The Coast, at Vaudeville Theatre in the West End, was set in a typical upper middle-class family full of selfishness and chauvinism, except for the eldest son John who warns the family about the dangers of war. 

Exhibition about WWI theatre – courtesy of Gateways to the First World War

The critics reacted against it. Then there were the traces of war in escapist entertainment. People needed to laugh and diversion as the war went on.  Escapist comedies were created such as Tonight’s the Night by Paul Reubens. It premiered on Christmas Eve 1914 on New York’s Broadway with the cast and production of London’s Gaiety Theatre and in London April 1915.

Another musical, called Betty by Paul Reubens, was inspired by Cinderella and opened on Christmas Eve in 1914 in Manchester and in April 1915 in London. Only Girl with music by Victor Herbert opened in London Apollo Theatre September 1914. 

The play Chu Chin Chow was produced by Oscar Asche at His Majesty’s Theatre on 3rd August 1916, showing at the time of Battle of Verdun and the Somme, it demonstrated the taste for escapist comedies set in exotic places.  In April 1918, the Grand Theatre in Brighton, East Sussex put on the play Deliver the Goods.

Shows at Brighton theatres in 1918
Source: Brighton Argus, April 1918

Information about modern Jewish Theatre can be found here: