views updated May 21 2018


post-biblical period
from 1600 to the 20th century
    United States
    Jews in the Musical
    The Jew as Entertainer
yiddish theater
    Premodern Performance in Yiddish
    Haskalah Drama
    Broder Singers
    The Goldfaden Era
    Westward Exodus
    The Gordin Era
    New York to World War ii
    Latin America
    The Art Theater Movement in Eastern Europe
    Interwar Poland
    Soviet Yiddish Theater
    Other Centers
    The Late 20th Century


Neither biblical nor talmudic literature contains anything which can be described as "theater" or "drama" in the modern sense of these terms. The Song of Moses (Ex. 15), with its choric refrain in the Song of Miriam, has often been cited as containing the rudiments of drama, which began as a combination of song and dance. The same has been suggested for the Song of Songs, and various attempts have been made with limited success to arrange this book for performance. It would be rash to suggest that writers of the Bible were quite untouched by the Athenian drama which had developed on the fringes of the Israelite world in the fifth century b.c.e. The Book of Job (dating probably from the fifth or fourth century b.c.e.) conforms in a general way to dramatic principles. It is written largely in dialogue, it shows expression of character, and it contains dramatic incidents. If there were in biblical writing tendencies toward formal dramatic composition, they reached their furthest development in Job. However, presentations of the Book of Job on the stage have fallen short of proving that it was written for performance.

post-biblical period

Dramatic intentions are not manifest in post-biblical writing, except in the work of *Ezekiel of Alexandria, who lived in the first century b.c.e. and wrote tragedies on biblical themes. He wrote in Greek, and the known fragments of his work owe their survival to non-Jewish scholars. On the whole, post-biblical literature is without any works intended for performance in a theater. But the rabbis were fully aware of and generally disapproved of the theaters, amphitheaters, and circuses that existed in their Hellenistic-Roman world. They discouraged attendance at the theater except in certain circumstances. The Midrash indicates contemporary opinion when, in reference to the Bible story of Joseph in Egypt, it quotes two rabbis relating how, on the day of the Nile festival, a day of theatrical performances which all flocked to see, Joseph "went into the house to cast up his master's accounts" (Gen. R. 87:7).

The rabbis of the Talmud taught that one should not go to theaters or circuses because sacrifices were offered in honor of the idols. Where no such sacrifices were offered it was still prohibited to be present since persons watching the clowns and buffoons performing would transgress the prohibition against sitting in "the seat of the scornful" (Ps. 1:1). Nevertheless Rabbi Nathan thought Jews should be allowed to attend circuses and shows to watch gladiatorial contests since the members of the audience usually had the right of saving the life of the victim (Av. Zar. 18b).

Other evidence suggests that though the pious kept aloof from the theater, many others did not. It is considered that one of the purposes of Ezekiel of Alexandria in writing his biblical tragedies was to divert Jews from attendance at pagan theaters. This indicates that Jews were regularly to be found among the theater-going public.

Women were forbidden to go to shows of any kind. There is a touching passage in the Midrash (Ruth R. 2:22) in which Naomi tells Ruth that if she insists on conversion to Judaism, she will have to deny herself certain pleasures. "My daughter," she says, "it is not the custom of the daughters of Israel to frequent theaters and circuses."

The theaters that arose in Palestine during the Hellenistic period were largely swept away by the Maccabean War (167 b.c.e.), but a revival of forms of entertainment took place in the next century under Herod, and the larger cities including Jerusalem had theaters, amphitheaters, and hippodromes. These were gentile institutions. There was no attempt at creating a Jewish playhouse.

By the second century of the Christian Era, performance of tragedy had practically vanished from the Palestinian theater, and had been replaced by buffoonery, ribaldry, and coarse comedy which sometimes ridiculed Jews and their customs (Lam. R. 3:13). The hostility of the rabbis was such that they declared it sinful for a Jewish workman to take part even in the building of a stadium or amphitheater (Av. Zar. 16a).

In Rome during the time of Nero (first century c.e.), there were Jews on the Roman stage as well as in the auditorium. A Jewish actor *Aliturus (or Alityros) is known to have been among the emperor's favorites. He is mentioned by *Josephus without any apparent surprise at finding a Jewish actor in high favor in court. The sarcophagus of an actress, Faustina, in the Roman catacombs of the first or second century c.e. displays Jewish symbols and the word "shalom" in Hebrew. Another player, Menophilus (first century), lampooned by the Roman epigrammatic poet Martial, appears to have been a Jewish comedian. In the third century the rabbinical scholar Simeon b. Lakish (also known as Resh Lakish) earned his living as a strong man in a circus at Sepphoris, as related in the Talmud (bm 84a; Git. 47a, et al.). All this suggests that Jews were not uncommon in the theatrical profession. As Jews became increasingly unpopular, however, during the Jewish War, they, like the early Christians, tended to conceal their origin.

Jewish theatrical activity at this early period thus remains largely conjectural. The Bible, nevertheless, played a very positive role both as a source of dramatic inspiration and as an influence on content in all forms of theatrical representation. The Bible has had a primary and enduring role in the history of the Western theater. In the first place it provided the starting point of modern theater in the medieval mystery plays, and secondly it continued to provide subjects and ideas to which playwrights, poets, composers, and choreographers have turned again and again. (See *Bible, in Arts.)

In the history of the Jewish theater, the mystery play has great relevance. The two came into contact in Italy in the early Renaissance period when the ducal heads of the city-states often sponsored the entertainments held at ducal weddings or other festive occasions. In their ghettos the cultural life of the Jewish communities tended to follow the gentile pattern. The Purim play was a counterpart to the kind of show the gentiles enjoyed at their carnivals (see *Purim-Shpil). In time it was turned into an elaborate theatrical presentation played by Jewish theatrical companies who acquired considerable fame. (See also below: The Jew as Entertainer.)

In Italy, in the 16th century, Mantua became famous for its court pageantry and was the center of the new Italian drama. The Jewish community, about 2,000 people, often provided and most likely paid for dramatic spectacles for ducal entertainments. On Fridays, the performances began early since they had to end before Sabbath. The Jewish company of the Mantua ghetto acquired a high reputation as did companies in other Italian cities where there were Jewish communities. The Venetian diarist, Marin Sanudo, records on Saturday, March 4, 1531, the day after Purim, that "there was performed among the Jews in the 'Geto' a very fine comedy; but no Christian could be present by order of the Council of Ten. It ended at ten o'clock at night." This was almost certainly an annual event, which gentiles must have attended in earlier years, thus arousing the disapproval of the Council. In 1489, as a special request, the story of Judith and Holofernes from the Apocrypha was staged in Pesaro by the Jewish community at its own expense as the main show in the elaborate wedding celebrations of Giovanni Sforza, lord of Pesaro, to the sister of the marquess of Mantua.

In 1525 two obviously famous Jewish actors, Solomon and Jacob, were sent for from Ferrara to act in a comedy at a great banquet given by Cardinal Ercole Gonzaga in Mantua. By 1525 participation of Jews in state performances was regarded as a normal thing. In 1549 the Jews presented a comedy at the wedding of Duke Francesco in Mantua. In 1563 they performed Ariosto's I Suppositi, in 1568 Le Due Fulvie by Massimo Faroni of Mantua. In 1583 they presented a comedy Gli Ingiusti Sdegni by Abbé Bernado Pino with dances by the Jewish ballet master, Jacchino *Massarano. Under Duke Vincenzo of Mantua (from 1590) the Jews were required to perform almost annually. As many as 80 members took part in one performance. The success of the Mantuan community's theater company was due in large part to one man, Leone Portaleone Sommi, an impresario, well known all over Europe, who stands at the threshold of modern times and modern theater.

[Lewis Sowden]

from 1600 to the 20th century

The Jew's participation in 17th-and 18th-century theatrical productions was at best insignificant. As a stage character, however, the Jew, portrayed by non-Jewish actors, became a popular figure in the European theater. He was generally a villain, although occasionally, in plays by authors opposed to Jew-baiting, a supernoble being. Jewish actors, until 1900, were isolated figures, facing prejudice and often abuse. It was not until the second half of the 19th century that Jews gained prominence as actors and directors in Europe and in the United States and made their mark as they had in other professions.


The bleak period is typified by the theater in England, where the Shakespearean age had made drama the most important art form in the country. Jews, who had been expelled in 1290, were little known in England until their return in the mid-17th century, but they were known on the stage. Early representations of Jews as villains gave way to stage characters who, because they were Jews, were either usurers or fools, and almost always ridiculous.

The first English secular play which included a Jewish character was The Three Ladies of London by R.W. (possibly Robert Wilson), published in 1584, in which a Jew, portrayed as decent and honorable, was nevertheless defrauded. Shortly afterward, *Marlowe's The Jew of Malta (1591) and *Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice (1596), in both of which a Jew was the villain, set a pattern which was to endure. There are on record 80 plays published in England from 1584 to 1820, in which at least one character was recognizable as being Jewish; most of them were written after 1700. After 1800 plays with Jewish characters appeared at the rate of almost one year. (See *English Literature.)

Shakespeare's Shylock was first played comically, until, in 1741, the Irish actor Charles Macklin caused a sensation by defying tradition and playing him as a tragic character and according to the original text.

When the English theaters, closed by the Puritans in 1642, were reopened after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, King Charles ii extended his protection to Jews, and playwrights were therefore discouraged from lampooning them. More important than mere protection was the fact that King Charles continued Cromwell's benevolent policy of allowing Jews to resettle in England. This meant in fact that Jews could now live and work openly in the country. It was some time, though, before Jews made their way in the theater. Samuel Pepys' Diary for Aug. 12, 1667, refers to a "Mrs. Manuel, the Jew's wife, formerly a player," and praises her as "a mighty discreet, sober-carriaged woman"; but it is probable that Mrs. Manuel was not herself Jewish.

The first Jewess to win a name on the English stage was Hannah *Norsa, daughter of an Italian Jew from Mantua who kept a tavern in Drury Lane. She played the part of Polly Peachum in The Beggar's Opera in 1732 with great success. Another popular actor on the London stage was *Leoni (Myer Lyon), a singer who made his debut at Drury Lane on Dec. 13, 1760, in a play called The Enchanter. When Leoni played the lead in The Duenna by Richard Sheridan it could not be performed on Friday night as Leoni sang in the Duke's Place Synagogue. When it opened in 1775 at Covent Gardens at Leoni's insistence, the name of the principal male singing part was changed from Cousin Moses to Don Carlos.

Both Leoni and another actor who played the part of the rich and absurd Isaac Mendoza in The Duenna are reported to have used the exaggerated foreign accent that had become standard for Jewish characters from at least 1715, when the character Mordecai used it in Charles Knipe's A City Ramble. Among the leading actors who played accented Jewish roles was Ralph Wewitzer who played in Garrick's and Edmund Kean's companies and who may have been of Jewish birth. The broken accent was considered hilarious by 18th- and 19th-century audiences. From the end of the 18th century on, however, there were several plays of importance that presented Jews in a favorable light, among them those by C.Z. Barnett (1802–1890), a Jew who was a playwright and an actor.

A small number of Jewish performers who became known as "Astley's Jews" also played at Astley's circuses at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century. Chief of the troupe was Jacob De *Castro, a comedian, who wrote an autobiography, Memoirs (1824).

One book changed the atmosphere for Jews in the arts and profoundly influenced their portrayal. In Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens drew Fagin as an unrelieved picture of evil, which set the tone in drama for most of the rest of the 19th century. The first adaptation of Oliver Twist reached the stage in 1838, the very year of the novel's publication. Fagin was followed by an almost unrelieved procession of Jewish stage distortions, and even helped to popularize a lisp for stage Jews that lasted until 1914.

Nevertheless, the Jews were beginning to protest. They comprised a considerable portion of theater audiences at the time, and during one performance in 1839 their resentment overflowed into a disturbance that drowned the play completely. A riot stopped Dibdin's Family Quarrels at its 1802 opening when the audience took offense at a Jewish reference. Jews often expressed their disapproval of a play by staying away. A revival of The Jew of Malta in 1818 led to a Jewish boycott of London theaters for the rest of the season.

In contrast to their portrayal on the stage, Jews were winning distinction as actors, singers, and even writers. Maria Bland, an actress, won fame at Drury Lane toward the end of the 18th century. Mary Anne Goward Keeley (1806–1899), her husband, Robert Keeley (1793–1869), and Henry Sloman (Solomon; 1793–1873) played in London theaters. John *Braham sang at Covent Garden and in 1835 built St. James' Theatre. Edward Stirling (1811–1894) and Morris Barnett were actors and playwrights. Adelaide Neilson (1846–1880) appeared twice on tour in the U.S.

The Jewish stereotype on the London stage was finally broken in 1914 by three plays that treated Jews in some depth: Israel *Zangwill's The Melting Pot, Harold F. *Rubinstein's Consequences, and Herman Scheffauer's The New Shylock. In 1922 came Galsworthy's Loyalties, which treated the Jew and the prejudices surrounding him with dignity and objectivity. Leon M. Lion the actor-producer, played in a revival of the play in 1928.

With the rise of the Nazis on the Continent, the Jew became a tragic figure and could no longer be treated on the English stage in a spirit of caricature or ridicule. Jewish actors came to the fore without having to aver or deny their Jewishness, among them Alfred Marks, Alfie Bass (d. 1987), David Kossoff, Yvonne Mitchell, and Leonard Sachs. Among directors the most important was Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree (1853–1917).


In most 19th-century French plays Jews were either caricatured or romanticized, the men portrayed as ugly, old, and dirty, and the women as noble, beautiful, and heroic, but there were three important exceptions. Le Juif by Marc-Antoine-Madelaine Desaugiers (1772–1827) produced in 1823 included the benevolent character Isaac Samuel. The playwright Adolphe Philippe d'Ennery (1811–1899), who had been a public notary and was said to be a Jew named Jacob, criticized the convention that a Jew must be grotesque and repulsive. Catulle *Mendes (1841–1909), whose father was a Jew, painted a sympathetic Jewish character in Les Mères Ennemies (1880). But there was no Jewish character in French drama as memorable as the English Shylock or the German Nathan the Wise.

Foremost among France's Jewish actors was Sarah *Bernhardt who, though Roman Catholic by upbringing, was proud of her Jewish heritage; and Eliza (*Rachel) Felix who died young, having become famous as an interpreter of French classic roles.

There were, of course, many more Jewish actors on the French stage: René Alexandre (1885–1945) who was noted for Corneille and Victor Hugo roles; Harry *Baur who began at the Grand Guignol and went over to films; George Berr (1867–1942), an actor, director, and author of fame whose beautiful voice contributed to his success; Marthe Brandes (1862–1930) whose original name was Josephine Brunschwig, and whose grace was famous; Daniel Gelin (1921–2002), a Comédie Française stage actor and director of films; Robert Hirsch (1921– ), actor; Romanian-born Edouard Alexander de Max (1862–1930) who became well known in roles of young tragic figures like Schiller's Don Carlos; Simone Simon (1914–2005), equally at home on stage and screen; Gustave Hippolite Worms (1836–1910); the athletic Eugène Silvain (1851–1930), noted for his Roman profile; and Suzanne Reichenberg (1853–1924) who for 30 years specialized in young roles. Jules Claretie (1840–1912), dramatist and journalist, was from 1885 to 1912 the administrator of the Comédie Française. Gustave Cohen (1879–1958) was the great French historian of the theater.

In a special category belong Jean Gaspard Deburau (1796–1846) and his not-quite-so-famous son Jean Charles (1829–1873). Jean Gaspard, whose father Philippe Germain (1761–1826) had a theater of marionettes, was born in Bohemia in 1811 and came to Paris where he became a mime at the Théatre des Funambules ("Theater of the Tightrope-Walkers"), which once had been a circus. He created Pierrot, a new type which, because of its originality and the excellence of the performer, became a sensation overnight. He himself wrote the plays in which Pierrot was the tragic hero, and his art of pantomime was considered unique. His son continued in his father's career with success, but did not equal his reputation.


In no other country in modern times did the theater play as important a role as in Germany (see *German Literature). And in no other country did the Jew figure so prominently in dramatic literature, in acting or directing. His beginning was early and on a hostile note. In 1573 97 boys, five to 17 years old, performed a play called Ein Schoen Christlich new Spil von Kinderzucht in Ensisheim (Upper Alsace). The play, written by Johann Rassern, the parson of Ensisheim, tells the story of two boys, one of whom, spoiled by his mother and corrupted by a Jew, Ulmann, ends his life on the gallows. An unknown artist illustrated the manuscript with 63 woodcuts which depict the action of the play: Ulmann and the boy at a dice game; Ulmann dragged to the gallows; and Ulmann being removed from there by the devil (F.R. Lachman, Die "Studentes" des Cristophorus Stymmelius und ihre Buehne, 1926).

In 1616, Das Endinger Judenspiel, dealing with the trial and burning of Jews for murder after the disappearance of a Christian family, was performed in Endingen (Baden). Following that Andreas Gryphius (1616–1664) presented his Horribilicribrifax (1663; after Plautus' Miles Gloriosus) featuring the boasting Jew Issachar; and, decade after decade from 1634, the Bavarian Oberammergau Passion Play has been staged, latterly in the face of energetic Jewish protests. The 17th and 18th centuries produced a considerable number of villainous or at least reprehensible Jewish figures in dramatic literature.

Nevertheless, Germany, at a relatively early time, provided exceptions to the general attitude. Die Juden (1749), written by Gotthold Ephraim *Lessing, boldly attacked Christian prejudice. Much more important, however, was Lessing's Nathan der Weise (1779) in which Jewish, Christian, and Muslim characters present the idea that virtue is not bound to religion and that all religions are equally important. The play was banned from the stage for a number of years. A considerable number of writers for the stage followed Lessing's example and created sympathetic Jewish figures in their plays. The caricatured Jew remained popular in the 19th and 20th centuries. An example is quoted by S.M. Dubnow (Die neueste Geschichte des juedischen Volkes 17891914, vol. 2, p. 12): in 1815–16, a very bad comedy, Die Judenschule or Unser Verkehr had enormous success. A popular actor, Wurm, aping the Jewish "jargon," and mocking Jewish peculiarities, was applauded nightly. When the play was scheduled to be produced in Berlin, Israel *Jacobsohn obtained a prohibition against the performance from Chancellor Hardenberg. The public became furious and held nightly demonstrations until the prohibition was revoked.

It was only toward the end of the 18th century, the time of the Emancipation, that Jewish actors appeared on the German stage. Their number, however, increased rapidly, a fact noted by the German actor and historian of the theater, Eduard Devrient, in his Geschichte der deutschen Schauspielkunst (5 vols., 1848–74). It seems that Jacob Herzfeld (1769–1826), who was admired by Goethe and Schiller and corresponded with both, was the first serious Jewish actor on the German stage. He was followed by members of three generations of his family. Eduard Jerrmann (1798–1859) had equal success on the French and on the German stage, Heinrich Marr (1797–1871) was the first Mephisto, Anton Ascher (1820–1884) the first Jewish comedian. Moritz Rott (1797–1867), Ludwig *Dessoir, and especially the Polish-born Bogumil *Dawison, followed by Siegwart Friedmann (1842–1916), Maximilian Ludwig (1847–1906), and the Budapest-born Max Pohl (1855–1935) were outstanding actors in Germany. Adolf von *Sonnenthal, born in Budapest, was the uncontested star of the Vienna Hofburg-theater.

Great stage managers soon began to appear in the German theater. Berlin was without doubt one of the two capitals of world theater, the other being Moscow. Hebrew actors from Palestine who met in Berlin gave the first performance of Henie Rochet's play Belshazzar and created the Teatron Ereẓ Yisre'eli. While in other European countries all theaters of importance were concentrated in the capital, in Germany leading theaters existed in more than a dozen cities, many under Jewish managers who often doubled as outstanding stage directors. An important development in stagecraft was brought about by the Jewish director of the theatrical company of Duke George ii of Saxony Meiningen (1826–1914), Ludwig *Chronegk, who, when the Meininger toured the country, staged more than 250 plays, introducing new precision, discipline, and natural behavior and creating a closely knit ensemble. In the company were Ludwig *Barnay who later had a theater of his own in Berlin, and Hungarian-born Leopold Teller (1844–1908).

The next step in the development of the German stage was taken by another Jewish director, Otto *Brahm (Abrahamsohn), who became a pioneer of the naturalistic theater. Emanuel Reicher (1849–1924) and Else Lehmann (1866–1940), among others, acted under his direction. Together with two other Jews, the publisher Samuel *Fischer and the critic Alfred *Kerr, Brahm prepared the way to fame of such non-Jewish authors as Frank Wedekind and Gerhart Hauptmann.

The name of Max *Reinhardt, who moved away from Brahm's naturalism and allowed free play to fantasy, became closely associated with a great number of Jews acting under his direction: Victor Arnold (1873–1914), Ernst *Deutsch, Max *Pallenberg, and Rudolph *Schildkraut were among them. At the same time there were actors like Elizabeth *Bergner, Maria Fein (1896–1965), Alexander Granach (1890–1945), Paul Graetz (1890–1966), Ludwig Hartau (1872–1922), Peter *Lorre, Fritzi Massary, Grete Mosheim (1905–1986), Luise Rainer (1912– ), Gisela Werbezirk (1875–1956), and many others. The last director who changed the outlook of the theater in Germany before Hitler's rise to power was Leopold *Jessner, pioneer of expressionism on the stage. It was under his direction that actors like Fritz *Kortner reached the zenith of their careers.

During the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th centuries many names of Jewish theater directors in Berlin and elsewhere became widely known. Carl Friedrich Cerf (1771–1845) created the first private theater in Berlin; Victor *Barnowsky, Oscar Blumenthal (1852–1917), and Gustav Lindemann (1872–1960) in Duesseldorf are among them. Alfred Kerr was the most notable representative of a generation of Jewish theater critics who had enormous influence on the development of the theater in Germany and made the reviewing of plays a quasi-independent art form. Romanian born Ernst Stern (1876–1954) was, during the last pre-Hitler decades, Berlin's and Reinhardt's most honored scenic artist and stage designer. Jewish audiences played an important, sometimes decisive role, as developments after Hitler's take-over illustrate. On April 10, 1933, the Berlin correspondent of the Daily Telegraph reported: "The theaters are beginning to suffer from the impoverishment of the Jews, who have always been lavish patrons. A new production at the Deutsches Theater, enthusiastically praised by the entire press, has been taken off after a few performances before a nearly empty auditorium."

When Hitler came to power, there were about 2,400 Jewish actors and theater directors in Germany. On April 1, 1933, an organized anti-Jewish boycott began and Jewish actors were ousted. These actors and the public reacted by forming the *Juedscher Kulturbund ("Jewish Cultural League"). From 1933 on, Jews who fully understood the situation and were able to do so, left Germany; but "the Jewish Cultural League from 1933 to 1938 (in a limited way until 1941) supported three theater ensembles, an opera, two symphonic orchestras, one cabaret, a theater for Jewish schools, some choirs, numerous chamber music groups, and lectures and art exhibits. About 2,500 artists (actors, singers, instrumentalists, poetry readers, directors, dancers, graphic and plastic artists) and lecturers belonged to this organization set-up, and nearly 70,000 people in about 100 cities formed the public, the largest voluntary union of Jews in Germany" (H. Freeden, Juedisches Theater in Nazideutschland, 1964, p. 1). The first performance, on Oct. 1, 1933, was Lessing's Nathan der Weise. When Allied Powers reopened the Deutsches Theater in Berlin in 1945, the first performance was again Nathan der Weise. The director was Vienna-born Fritz Wisten, one of the few surviving members of the Juedischer Kulturbund. Very few Jewish actors and directors returned to Germany after the war; the most important of those who did were Fritz Kortner and Ernst Deutsch.


Jewish theaters in the Italian ghettos continued their performances until well into the 18th century. Later on, a few Jewish playwrights appeared on the scene. Among the actors, Gustavo Modena (1803–1861) was an interesting personality, a revolutionary who had to flee Italy and was only able to return after an amnesty had been granted. He was especially brilliant in recitation. Giovanni Emanuel (1848–1902) toured in Berlin, Vienna, and Russia, but had his greatest triumphs in Shakespeare and Schiller parts in South America. Claudio Leigheb (1848–1903), who specialized in comedy roles, was an actor's son. Giuseppe Sichel (1849–1934) helped to make French comedy popular in Italy. Enrico Reinach (1851–1929) mostly played the part of the young lover. Virginia Reiter (1868–1937) achieved fame largely thanks to her Jewish features which could give dramatic expression to any kind of emotion and to her beautiful voice. Anche Oreste Calabresi (1857–1915) was equally at home in drama and in comedy. Ugo Piperno (1871–1922) acted on the stage and in a number of films. The great Italian historian of the theater, Alessandro d'Ancona (1835–1914), was a Jew.


In Holland, writer and dramatist Herman *Heijermans (also Heyermans) dedicated his prose works and his plays to the problems of the proletariat and the lower middle class, especially Jews. In one of his plays, Ghetto (1898), the role of Sachel was played by the Jewish actor Louis de Vries (1871–1940) who was also a director and theatrical organizer. He was outstanding in such roles as Shylock, Hamlet, Fuhrmann Henschel, and Higgins in Shaw's Pygmalion. Holland's most outstanding actors, however, belonged to the Bouwmeester family which provided actors from the second half of the 18th century to the first half of the 20th. The first acting members of this family were Frederik Adrianus Rosenveldt (1769–1847), a comedian, and his son Frederik Johannes Rosenveldt (1798–1867) who married Louise Francina Maria Bouwmeester. Their children took their mother's name. Louis Frederik Johannes *Bouwmeester (1842–1925) came to be considered Holland's greatest actor. Other acting members of this family include Theodora Antonia Louis Bouwmeester (1850–1939), who acquired fame as Schiller's Maria Stuart, as Madame Sans-Gêne, and in other roles; Frederik Christianus Bouwmeester (1885–?), and Lily Bouwmeester (1901–1993), a stage and film actress.


In czarist times, Jewish actors on the Russian stage in Moscow and St. Petersburg were usually members of foreign touring companies. But there were Jewish actors in the provincial troupes mostly under Russian names. Some of them had come from the Yiddish theaters when they were closed by czarist edict in 1883 and most of them took Russian names (if not baptism). The lifting of the ban for a few years before the Russian Revolution changed the situation little, though the rising film industry did provide further scope. By 1914, Ossip Runitsch, who had started on the stage, had become a star of the Russian cinema. A well-known Jewish player in czarist companies was Alla *Nazimova, who left for the U.S. in 1905. The revolution brought other Jewish personalities into the open. Zinaida Raikh, the wife of V. Meyerhold, the Russian director, achieved a triumph in Meyerhold's production of The Lady of the Camellias in the 1930s. She was murdered in her Moscow flat in 1940 after Meyerhold's arrest and execution by Stalin's agents. After the Stalinist period, the outstanding Jewish actor on the Russian stage was the comedian Arkadi Raykin.

[Lewis Sowden and

Frederick R. Lachman]

United States

The theater in the United States, especially on New York's Broadway, was during the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century strongly influenced by Europe and especially by England, but gained independence fast and developed largely under the stimulus of Jewish directors and players. An early if atypical figure was the actress Adah Isaacs *Menken, who created a sensation in the title role of Byron's Mazeppa in 1861. Before the end of the century, the playwright David *Belasco and the producers *Frohmans brothers were important names in the New York theater world, the first of the great line of personalities that was subsequently to arise on Broadway.

Jewish influence in a city with a growing Jewish population was among the sources from which the New York theater was enriched. During the 1890s, Yiddish theater was developing rapidly on Second Avenue and growing into a training ground for actors, among them personalities such as Paul *Muni, who were inevitably to turn their eyes toward Broadway. Another source of trained actors was the music hall or variety theater. It abounded in Jewish comedians and sent much talent to the "legitimate" stage. Derogatory references to Jews were largely absent from the music halls because of the pressure from Jewish performers.

The early and middle years of the 20th century saw the rise of Jews to unequaled prominence on Broadway, where they distinguished themselves as actors, playwrights, song-writers, and composers. Early outstanding figures were the playwrights Clifford *Odets, Elmer *Rice, S.N. *Behrman; the showman Billy *Rose; and the producers *Sam and Jed *Harris. Others were Arthur Leroy Kaser, who wrote monologues, Elmer C. Levinger, who wrote 19 short plays about Jewish history before World War ii, and Samson Raphaelson, who in 1925 wrote The Jazz Singer about a Jewish boy who had to choose between being a cantor and a musical comedy actor. Al *Jolson made the lead role famous. Later in the century playwrights who were Jewish made a major impact on the drama. (See also *United States Literature.)

Of the hundreds of Jews who achieved fame as actors and actresses in the half-century from 1920, practically none remained basically a stage actor. Writers, producers, directors, and actors divided their time between stage, film, and television, whereby the importance of film and television continuously increased. In addition, on the stage, the musical absorbed a high percentage of the Jewish theatrical people, and a number of them, such as the *Marx brothers or the *Ritz brothers, stayed on the thin borderline between acting and entertaining. There are a few, among the many, who remained equally at home in all the media, Zero *Mostel, Danny *Kaye, and Sid Caesar among them.

Among the producers were Max Liebman, discoverer of Danny Kaye and Sid Caesar; and Alexander H. Cohen, who became known as Broadway's "Millionaire Boy Angel" and produced more than 30 stage shows in New York and London. During the 1960s Mike *Nichols became one of the outstanding stage and film directors. Jules Irving and Herbert Blau, who had founded in the early 1950s the Actors' Workshop, an avant-garde group in San Francisco, became in 1965 co-directors of the Lincoln Center Repertory Theater in New York. Blau resigned that post in 1967. Florenz *Ziegfeld and the *Shubert brothers, Mike Todd, Lee Strasberg, and many others were important and successful producers, directors, and teachers of generations of actors. Boris *Aronson, who began his career in the Yiddish theater when he came to New York in the early 1920s, became America's best-known stage designer. Jean Rosenthal was the leading lighting designer of the theater in the 1950s and 1960s.

[Mark Perlgut]

Jews continued to play a prominent role in the New York theater, particularly on Broadway, largely through the ownership of theaters. The Shubert organization, run by Gerald Schoenfeld and Bernard *Jacobs, controlling the largest houses, which offered the prospect of higher profits, were a significant force in the economics of the theatrical offerings. Despite the absence of Joseph *Papp, who had died, his Public Theater continued to present provocative Shakespeare comedies and dramas and other works. Arthur Miller died in 2005 but his major works, including Death of a Salesman, All My Sons, and A View from the Bridge, were produced throughout the United States. Younger Jewish playwrights, like Tony *Kushner, Jon Robin Baitz, Richard Greenberg, and Wendy *Wasserman emerged as serious dramatists.

[Stewart Kampel (2nd ed.)]

Jews in the Musical

The musical comedy, later called musical play or simply musical, has its sources in the European operetta and in vaudeville. The musical comedy moved from England to the United States where in the 20th century the genre expanded and underwent its greatest development. Already in the earliest forms of musical theater, the revue or vaudeville, Jews had played an important role: Florenz Ziegfeld with his Ziegfeld Follies, which, between 1907 and 1931, introduced many singer-actors and composers like Irving *Berlin and Jerome *Kern. Elaborate revues were presented by the Shubert brothers, theatrical entrepreneurs who, by 1956, owned 17 theaters on Broadway and about half of the nation's legitimate theaters. In the field of operetta, Rudolf Friml and Sigmund *Romberg, both immigrants from Europe, dominated: Friml, born in Prague, with The Firefly (1912) and Rose Marie (1924), Romberg, Viennaborn, with The Student Prince (1924) and The Desert Song (1926). Jerome Kern, whose works include the Princess Theater Shows (1915–18), was one of the earliest composers for musical comedy. So was Irving Berlin with Yip, Yip, Yaphank (1918). He and producer Sam H. Harris built the Music Box Theater in 1920 and here they put on their sophisticated and lavish Music Box Revues (1921–24).

The 1920s saw composers such as Richard *Rodgers, George *Gershwin, and Arthur Schwartz (d. 1984), with Lorenz Hart, Oscar Hammerstein ii, E.Y. Harburg, Howard Dietz, Ira Gershwin, George S. *Kaufman, and Morrie Ryskind as lyricists and librettists. The team of Rodgers and Hart became one of the most fruitful in American musical history, producing 27 musicals. Dietz wrote the music for the Grand Street Follies (1925). George Gershwin, one of the most celebrated composers of the era, wrote, in addition to several large works for orchestra, the music to more than 20 Broadway musicals. His brother, Ira, wrote the lyrics for many of George's shows.

Early important examples of the musical play were Dearest Enemy (1925) and A Connecticut Yankee (1927), both by Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart; still more important was Showboat (1927) by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, based on a book by Edna *Ferber, and destined to become a classic of the American musical theater.

Musical plays of the 1930s mirrored the reality of American life, the slump and the Depression; Of Thee I Sing (1931), a satire on American politics by Morrie Ryskind (d. 1985), George S. Kaufman, and George and Ira Gershwin, was the first musical to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. Kurt *Weill was the composer for Johnny Johnson (1936), an anti-war comedy, and for The Eternal Road (1937), a pageant of Jewish history produced by Max Reinhardt. George Gershwin reached a new high with Porgy and Bess (1935). Pins and Needles (1937), an amateur revue presented by the heavily Jewish International Ladies Garment Workers, became a Broadway hit. Harold Rome wrote most of the music and lyrics.

In the 1940s the American musical play came fully into its own. Pal Joey (1940), a Rodgers and Hart work, was an "adult" musical, one of the first to deal with the seamy side of life. Lady in the Dark (1941), dealing with the hitherto theatrically unexplored world of psychoanalysis, had libretto by Moss Hart, score by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Ira Gershwin, and was produced by Sam Harris.

In 1943 Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II wrote Oklahoma, which fully demonstrated the use of music in telling a story and delineating character. It was followed by other productions equally triumphant in the new form: Carousel (1945) and South Pacific (1949 Pulitzer Prize winner) both by Rodgers and Hammerstein; Annie Get Your Gun (1946; music by Irving Berlin); and Brigadoon (1947), with book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner.

Jewish writers and composers continued to make brilliant use of the musical play in the same years. E.Y. Harburg wrote the lyrics for Finian's Rainbow (1947). Frank Loesser wrote the music and lyrics for Guys and Dolls (1950). The Pajama Game (1954) and Damn Yankees (1955) were hits by the songwriting team of Richard Adler and Jerry Ross. The Threepenny Opera (1954) with score by Kurt Weill, and libretto modernized by Marc Blitzstein, had a fabulously successful off-Broadway revival. It ran for over six years. Frederick Loewe composed for Alan J. Lerner's My Fair Lady (based on Shaw's Pygmalion) in 1956. Leonard *Bernstein, who had had earlier successes such as Wonderful Town (1953), introduced new trends in West Side Story (1957). The Sound of Music (1959), another Rodgers and Hammerstein collaboration, brought a story of the Nazi invasion of Austria to the musical stage. In 1961 How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, with words and lyrics by Frank Loesser, was the fourth musical play to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama. The 1964 hit Fiddler on the Roof emphasized once more the Jewish contribution to the new form in a play based on Yiddish stories by Shalom Aleichem, with a score by Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, and choreography by Jerome Robbins. Zero *Mostel created the role of Tevya and the play had one of the longest runs of the 1960s. Milk and Honey (1961), with music and lyrics by Jerry Herman, was a musical with an Israel setting starring Molly Picon. Herman also contributed the smash hit Hello Dolly! (1964), Mame (1965), and Dear World (1968). No Strings (1962), about an interracial love affair, had music and lyrics by Richard Rodgers. Among performers, Barbra Streisand skyrocketed to fame as the Broadway singing sensation of the 1960s through her roles in I Can Get It For You Wholesale (1962) and Funny Girl (1964). Subsequently Julie *Taymor made a significant impact on the Broadway musical with her daringly original staging of The Lion King, a musical that had a long life. And the grandson of Richard Rodgers, Adam Guettel, began a promising career as a Broadway composer with A Light in the Piazza.

In other countries, too, Jewish talent was attracted by the scope offered in the musical. In England, one of the most successful stage shows of the 1960s was Oliver! with lyrics and music by Lionel Bart and the book based on Dickens' Oliver Twist. It was followed by the same composer's Blitz in 1962. In South Africa, the African musical King Kong was produced and directed by Leon Gluckman in 1959 with a story by Harry Bloom. It reached London in 1961.

In Israel too the musical play proved a success in the commercial theater. One of the first such hits was the Chamber Theater's production of King Solomon and the Cobbler (1966) based on a play by Sami Gronemann. Giora Godik, after winning the public with American musicals, presented the all-Israel musical play Casablan in 1967. Since that time musicals have been a staple of Israeli theater.

[Harvey A. Cooper]

The Jew as Entertainer

From the early Middle Ages on, entertainers were mimes, storytellers, clowns, singers, dancers, acrobats, jugglers, and tamers of wild animals. Beginning in the 13th century, or even earlier, Jews in Italian cities were compelled to participate in the carnival-time buffooneries as mounts for soldiers or for the general populace. The Corso degli ebrei ("race of the Hebrews") became a regular carnival feature. Jews played their role as clowns or buffoons for the diversion of powerful men in the Christian world, and from the 16th century on, in the Muslim world (e.g., for the sultan in Constantinople). The role in most cases was not a chosen one. Vagrant mimes, musicians, players, and jugglers began to appear in Europe as early as the 11th century. They were called minstrels in England and France, Spielleute in Germany. Jews grouped together and began to entertain predominantly Jewish audiences. Their performances became particularly associated with Purim festivities. The professional jokers were called leẓim ("mockers"), or later on, marsheliks ("buffoons"). During the 14th and 15th century, some of these leẓim gradually developed into actors; their performance evolved into the Yiddish word-drama which originally was based on biblical themes.

For a long time, however, the entertainment performed between the acts of a play was more popular than the play itself. During these interludes the performers were in their element, clowning as rabbis, medical men, pharmacists, midwives, or even as devils, at times severely mocking Jewish peculiarities. The leẓim-marsheliks continued, together with the Purim plays, until far into the 19th century. Their name gradually changed to badḥanim ("fools"). They appeared in the Jewish settlements in Galicia, later on in the Jewish villages of Russia, the Bukovina, and Romania. A new type of itinerant entertainers assumed the name of the place they had come from and were called *Broder Singers. In comic disguises, they sang, danced, and, occasionally, performed short one-act plays.

In modern times, entertainment has developed into a world of its own, and an extremely high percentage of its population is Jewish. London's music halls produced artists such as Lottie Collins (1866–1910). In Berlin Hermann Haller (1872–1943) became famous as creator of revues and shows. Florenz Ziegfeld in New York with his spectacular Ziegfeld Follies gave the first big chance to artists such as Fanny Brice and Eddie *Cantor.

In addition to Jewish professional entertainers in the 20th century in Europe and the U.S. who often were actors as well as entertainers (Jack Benny, Milton Berle, Victor Borge, Danny Kaye, the Canadian comedian team Johnny Wayne and Frank Shuster), there were artists who specialized in forms of entertainment which had very little or nothing to do with acting: the magician Samuel Bellachini; the clown Grock; the athletes Josef and Siegmund Breitbart; Harry *Houdini, escape artist; Harry Reso, the step-dancer; Sophie *Tucker, the last "red hot Mamma," and an immense number of others for whom, more and more, television became an ideal forum.

[Frederick R. Lachman]

yiddish theater

Theatrical performances in Yiddish have taken place for at least half a millennium, and in modern times have spanned six continents. Yiddish drama and theater absorbed virtually every major trend that emerged in Western drama, and Yiddish playwrights and performers have been deeply influenced by, and have exerted their own influence on, the drama and theater of broad swaths of Europe, the Americas, and to a lesser extent, Australia and South Africa. For millions of Yiddish speakers, theater has long been a lively form of entertainment, but it has always been something more than that as well. Particularly at its height, from the late 19th century to the middle of the 20th, the Yiddish theater provided millions of Jewish theatergoers with a powerful tool to help understand the ever-changing world in which they lived.

Premodern Performance in Yiddish

For many centuries, Judaism placed significant barriers in the way of the development of a full-fledged, professional Jewish theatrical tradition, and as a result the process was slowed significantly. Similar to early Christian commentators like Augustine and Tertullian, the rabbis of the talmudic period and the early Middle Ages harbored a deep suspicion of theater, influenced in no small measure by the excesses of Roman entertainments. In the Christian world, such objections were overcome by pedagogical necessity, as theater came to fill a void left by the illiteracy of the masses in ways that few sermons could. The fact that antisemitic attitudes figured prominently in medieval Christian drama did little to endear the theatrical art to Jewish authorities, however.

Yet long before scripted dramas were written and performed in Yiddish, Yiddish speakers could enjoy the performances of entertainers who performed at Jewish events, particularly weddings. In German-speaking countries arose the figure of the leyts or marshelik (influenced by the German Narr, "fool"), known in Slavic countries as the badkhn. This was part of a wider fabric of performers in the medieval Jewish world, including magicians who performed at fairs, wandering troubadours, and wedding musicians (at times interchangeable with the badkhn). Over time, the leytsim and badkhonim developed their own repertoire of wedding songs, riddles, parodies, and serious and comic songs; the leyts thus became an important forebear of the Yiddish musical theater. The collections of Menachem Oldendorf and Isaac Wallich preserve examples of the medieval badkhn 's repertoire.

Scholars have been unable to determine with precision when formally scripted performances in Yiddish began taking place. A number of texts in Old Yiddish, including some in both the Oldendorf and Wallich collections, seem suitable to performance, but whether they were put to such a use is not clear. Certainly by the end of the 16th century, however – and possibly much sooner – dramatic dialogues were being publicly performed in Yiddish. A short farce, Dos Shpil fun Toyb Yeklayn, Zayn Vayb Kendlayn, un Zeyere Tsvey Zinlekh Fayn ("The Play of Deaf Yeklayn, His Wife Kendlayn, and Their Two Fine Children") was performed in Tannhausen in 1598, probably as an interlude within a larger performance. While this play was a farce that commented on contemporary social types, the dominant type of work performed in Yiddish from the Middle Ages to the 19th century was the purimshpil ("Purim play"). Extant manuscripts of Yiddish poems about the Purim story date back to the 15th century, and printed versions as early as the 16th; it is generally believed that performances of the purimshpil date back as least as early as the late 15th century. The earliest extant manuscript of a performance text of a full-scale purimshpil is an Akhasheyresh-shpil ("Ahasuerus Play") dating to 1697. This play and many others retell the Purim story in a spirit of earthy irreverence befitting the jovial mood of the holiday; the humor of such plays relied heavily on scatological and sexual jokes and puns, which not infrequently drew the wrath of religious and communal authorities. By no means all Purim plays, however, were based on the Book of Esther; other popular subjects included the sale of Joseph into slavery, the binding of Isaac, David and Goliath, and Samson and Delilah.

The form of the earliest extant purimshpil resembles the German Fastnachtspiel in many ways, including not only the aforementioned profanity and eroticism, but the central role of a narrator (here known as the loyfer, shrayber, or payats). The traditional purimshpil was performed entirely by men and boys – often yeshivah students. Since most performances took place in the homes of wealthy families, the plays needed to be short so that companies could make their rounds. Masks and primitive costumes were the norm, and extant early texts do not tend to indicate changes of costume or scenery. Beginning in the 16th century, purimshpiln gradually became more elaborate, and in some places, they expanded beyond the one-day festival itself, with performances being offered for up to two weeks on either side of the holiday. By the early 18th century, purimshpiln reflected many trends in the contemporary European theater in literary style, subject matter, and scene design. Most of the extant Purim plays from the period indeed resemble Baroque Staatsaktionen far more than they do the folk plays that preceded them: their plots are complex and politically charged, their language ornate (Latinate and French-influenced); one of the plays is identified as an opera; another is provided with a description of the instrumentation of the orchestra that accompanied the performance. Nevertheless, the plays maintained a connection with Purim and were performed during the appropriate season. Though the development of the modern Yiddish theater altered the function of the purimshpil among Yiddish speakers, it did not altogether supplant this performance form, which continues to be staged to this day, particularly in many Ḥasidic communities.

Haskalah Drama

The carnivalesque atmosphere that prevailed on Purim was critical for loosening restrictions that made it impossible for theatrical performance to take root in the Jewish community during the rest of the year. Though women could still not perform in public on Purim, that holiday at least suspended the traditional prohibition (from Deut. 22:5) against men wearing women's clothing, and it was common for yeshivah students – whose traditional learning equipped them well to make learned, extempore ad libs – to perform the roles in Purim plays. As long as the Jewish community as a whole adhered to rabbinic law, however, Jewish theatrical performances would have to remain confined to one season only. The sea change that transformed the place of theater in the Jewish world came about in the late 18th century, when the Haskalah movement was born in Germany. In essays, pamphlets, fiction, poetry, and drama, the maskilim exhorted their fellow Jews to become less insular, to integrate more fully into European society (at least to the extent that the law and their non-Jewish neighbors allowed), and to reap the fruits of secular thought in politics, philosophy, science, and the arts. While the movement initially met with fierce resistance from religious Jews, it ultimately paved the way to new forms of religious expression and a new orientation toward the non-Jewish world.

Although no professional Jewish theater existed when the Haskalah began, a number of maskilim voiced their polemics in dramatic form – possibly with the intention of performances in literary salons or Jewish schools. This phenomenon began with two of the leading figures of the Berlin Haskalah, Isaac Euchel and Aaron Halle-Wolfssohn. Both Euchel's Reb Henokh, oder Vos Tut Men Damit? ("Reb Henokh, or What Can Be Done with It?" ca. 1792) and Wolfssohn's Leichtsinn und Frömmelei ("Frivolity and False Piety," ca. 1796) helped set the tone for decades of Haskalah dramas. Both of these satires make rich use of a wide palette of social types and attitudes, and varying levels of language. Almost all subsequent Haskalah plays were comedies; among the most accomplished and influential were the anonymous satire Di Genarte Velt ("The Duped World," ca. 1810); Solomon Ettinger's comic melodrama Serkele (1838), featuring a gallery of comic types ranging across the social spectrum; Avrom Ber Gottlober's grotesque and wickedly anti-ḥasidic Der Dektukh, oder Tsvey Khupes in Eyn Nakht ("The Bridal Veil, or Two Weddings in One Night," 1839); several comedies and melodramas by Israel *Axenfeld written in the 1830s and 1840s, including Der Ershter Yidisher Rekrut in Rusland ("The First Jewish Recruit in Russia," ca. 1840), which in fact expresses considerable ambivalence about the goals and methods of the Haskalah; and S.Y. *Abramovitsh's scathing social satire, Di Takse ("The Tax," 1869).

Broder Singers

The 1850s also saw the rise of a type of performer known as the Broder Singer. Taking their name from the Galician city of Brody (or Brod) – the home town of the reputed "father" of the form, Berl Broder (Berl Margulis) – Broder Singers would come to play a direct role in the formation of the modern, professional Yiddish theater. Like the purimshpil, the performances of the Broder Singers became more elaborate over time. Initially, songs telling a story – often based on familiar character types and situations from everyday Jewish life – were accompanied by facial expressions and gestures. From there it was a short step to embedding the songs into theatrical situations with a couple of performers, quick changes of costume to suit the characters described in the lyrics, and simple makeup. As the Broder Singers' fame grew, so did their geographical reach. They spread throughout Galicia and Romania, and from there into Russia. The repertoire and performance styles of the most renowned of these figures, including Berl Broder and Velvl Zbarzher, inspired the first generation of professional Yiddish playwrights.

The Goldfaden Era

Though Yiddish companies managed to perform in places like Warsaw (in the 1830s and 1860s) during seasons completely unconnected with Purim, such efforts met with stiff resistance from Jewish community leaders, and left no direct legacy. Abraham *Goldfaden, on the other hand, would earn the title of "Father of the Yiddish Theater" by forming the first relatively stable professional Yiddish troupe and proceeding to write its plays, compose its music, and direct the actors. Goldfaden's background prepared him in many ways for the task. He claimed to have begun composing songs as a young boy and was a published poet and dramatist by the time he completed his rabbinical studies in the 1860s. His first full-length play, Di Mume Sosye ("Aunt Sosya," 1869), bore the clear influence of Ettinger's Serkele – not entirely surprising, since Goldfaden had played the title role in a production staged at his seminary in Zhitomir in 1862. And one of Goldfaden's early teachers was none other than the noted satirical writer and dramatist Abraham Baer *Gottlober. After trying his hand at various careers, Goldfaden assembled his first company in Jassy, Romania, in 1876. His star performer, Israel Grodner, was a seasoned Broder Singer. Over the next several years, the playwright would turn out a stream of vaudevilles, burlesques, and full-length comedies. His early plays were often crude, but among them are several of his masterpieces: Shmendrik (1877), Di Kishefmakherin ("The Sorceress," 1879), and Der Fanatik, oder di Tsvey Kuni-Leml ("The Fanatic, or the Two Kuni-Lemls," 1880). In these musical comedies, Goldfaden sharply critiqued, in the spirit of the Haskalah, religious hypocrisy, fanaticism, and insularity. He did so with lively music, witty lyrics, deftly drawn characterizations, and the increasingly assured hand of a skilled farceur. Within the first year of his company's existence, Goldfaden hired his first actress, and two rival troupes were formed, one led by Joseph Lateiner and the other by self-styled "Professor" Moyshe Hurwitz. These two men would become Goldfaden's lifelong rivals. Though critics would always favor Goldfaden, Hurwitz and Lateiner would become as popular as they were prolific, each with an enormous number of musicals and melodramas to his credit. Lateiner's plays include Aleksander, Kroyn-Prints fun Yerusholayim ("Alexander, Crown Prince of Jerusalem," 1892), Blimele, di Perle fun Varshe ("Blimele, the Pearl of Warsaw," 1894), Dovids Fidele ("David's Violin," 1897), Dos Yidishe Harts ("The Jewish Heart," 1908); Hurwitz's plays include Tisza Eszlar (1887), Ben Hador (1901). In addition to this trio, other playwrights who contributed to the foundation of the professional repertoire were Nahum-Meyer Shaykevitsh (*Shomer), a prolific writer of melodramas and light comedies, and Yoysef-Yude Lerner, who adapted a number of works on Jewish themes from other languages; these included Karl Gutzkow's Uriel Acosta, Jacques F. Halévy and Eugène Scribe's opera La Juive (as Zhidovka), and Salomon Hermann von Mosenthal's Deborah. Other writers active during this period were Sigmund Feinman, Israel Barski, Rudolph Marks, and Reuben Weissman.

The pogroms that followed the assassination of Czar Alexander II in 1881 helped spark a Jewish exodus from Russia. Over the next few decades, several million Jews left their homes in Eastern Europe in search of more favorable social and economic surroundings The Yiddish theater moved with the masses. To be sure, this shift was given a firm push by the czarist authorities, who banned Yiddish theater in 1883. Though the ban would turn out to be capricious and inconsistently enforced, it made a difficult business all the more precarious, and many performers and playwrights headed for places where they could pursue their work more freely. Companies were created or expanded in Eastern European cities outside the Russian empire, like Warsaw and Lemberg, while new centers of Yiddish theater arose further west. By far the most important homes of Yiddish theater in Western Europe were Britain and France. In London, performances were staged at such venues as the Whitechapel, Grand Palais, and Pavilion theaters. During the westward exodus from Eastern Europe, London become both a haven in its own right, and a way station for refugees ultimately planning to settle in the U.S. Stars such as Jacob Adler, David Kessler, M.D. and Fanny Waxman, and Sigmund and Dina Feinman made London their home for a time, enriching the quality of performance in the East End theaters – and in Feinman's case, also penning a number of dramas. London was also well positioned to serve as both a destination for visiting companies – both the Vilna Troupe and New York's Yiddish Art Theatre made numerous visits in the 1920s and 1930s – and as a launching pad for performers and companies heading to northern British cities such as Manchester, Leeds, and Glasgow. The most prolific London-based Yiddish playwright was Joseph Markovitsh, while the single most successful work written for the London Yiddish stage was journalist S.Y. Harendorf 's Der Kenig fun Lampeduze ("The King of Lampedusa," 1943), which ran for months at the Pavilion Theatre before that venue was permanently put out of business by the German bombs that carpeted London during the Blitz. Paris was more of a stopover than a destination in itself for many East European Jews. By the time Goldfaden first visited Paris in 1889 and assembled a company there, the French capital had already hosted Yiddish performances for several years. But the city never developed a distinctive tradition of professional Yiddish theater, although it did provide fertile ground for a number of amateur or semi-professional drama groups tied to specific political movements – for example, the anarchist Frayhayt group, the Labor Zionist Fraye Yidishe Bine, and the Bundist Fraye Yidishe Arbeter Bine. Members of such groups were workers and artisans. While little French Yiddish drama was home grown, Paris was the longtime home of Chaim Sloves, author of notable dramas like Homens Mapole ("Haman's Downfall," 1949), Borekh fun Amsterdam ("Baruch of Amsterdam," 1956), and Nekome Nemer ("Avengers," 1947).

The Gordin Era

The nature of the early professional Yiddish repertoire, as well as the uneven production values by which such plays were staged, sparked ongoing tensions among critics, playwrights, and audiences. Reviewers constantly lamented the "low" taste of the Yiddish audience (pejoratively nicknamed "Moyshe") and the dominance of shund (popular theater; literally, "trash"). In common parlance, "Moyshe" was frequently described as "licking his fingers" in delight at such offerings. Yiddish playwrights, for their part, often shrugged off the critics' complaints, suggesting that such niceties as aesthetic ambitions had to take a back seat to practical concerns like putting food on the table. Not all playwrights, however, were so disdainful of social and aesthetic criteria for drama, and when Jacob Gordin emerged on the scene with his first drama in 1891, many critics – along with more serious-minded actors and playwrights – felt that a new era was dawning. Gordin, a new Russian immigrant to New York with a background in utopian politics and intellectual activity, also deplored the existing repertoire, but was pleasantly surprised by the sophistication of performers like Jacob P. Adler, whom he met not long after arriving in New York. Gordin was persuaded to write a play for Adler, and the result was Sibirya ("Siberia," 1891), a work with its share of melodramatic touches, but far more naturalistic than anything that had previously been seen on the Yiddish stage. Gordin would be hailed in many circles as the great reformer of Yiddish drama; successes such as Der Yidisher Kenig Lir ("The Jewish King Lear," 1892), Mirele Efros (1898), Got, Mentsh un Tayvl ("God, Man, and Devil," 1900), and Khasye di Yesoyme ("Khasye the Orphan Girl," 1903) would become fixtures on Yiddish stages for decades, and their main roles became proving grounds for leading men and women as well as character actors. The effectiveness of Gordin's best plays derives in large measure from the fact that he wrote for outstanding actors like Jacob Adler, Sarah Adler, Keni Liptzin, Dovid Kessler, and Bertha Kalish. Like the European playwrights he emulated, such as Henrik Ibsen, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Maxim Gorky, Gordin often sparked controversy for his treatment of delicate social issues. Both his social engagement and his dramaturgical technique drew a following not only among audiences and critics but also among fellow playwrights. By the time of Gordin's death in 1909, the most obvious heirs to his mantle were Leon Kobrin (Yankl Boyle (1913), Riverside Drive (1928), Tsurik tsu Zayn Folk ("Back to His People," 1914), and Di Nekst-Dorike ("The Woman Next Door," 1916)) and Zalmen Libin (Yisroel-Zalmen Hurvits) (Hanele oder di Yidishe Medea ("Hannele or the Jewish Medea," 1903), Tsebrokhene Hertser ("Broken Hearts," 1903)), though neither would achieve Gordin's level of influence. Other popular contemporaries of Gordin included Nokhem Rakov (Der Batlen ("The Idler," 1903), Di Grine Moyd ("The Green Girl," 1904), Khantshe in Amerike ("Khantshe in America," 1913)); Isidore Zolotarevsky (Der Yeshive Bokher ("The Yeshivah Student," 1899), Di Yidishe Ana Karenina ("The Jewish Anna Karenina," 1901–2), Di Vayse Shklavin ("The White Slave," 1909)); Avrom-Mikhl Sharkanski (Kol Nidre ("All Vows," 1896)); the brothers Anshl and Moyshe Shor (A Mentsh Zol Nen Zayn ("Be a Decent Person," 1909)); and Moyshe Richter (Moyshe Khayat ("Moyshe the Tailor," 1903) and Sholem Bayis ("Domestic Tranquility," 1904)). Such works became popular on Yiddish stages worldwide.

For all of Gordin's achievements, he did not manage to drive shund from the Yiddish stage, one of his explicitly stated goals. The Yiddish critics tended to attribute this fact to Moyshe 's low taste, but they failed to appreciate that shund – or to use a less value-laden term, musicals and melodramas – could succeed for positive reasons as well. Though the acting on Yiddish stages was often uneven and overblown, many Yiddish performers possessed extraordinary talent. Audiences worshiped specialists in musical theater like Boris and Bessie Thomashefsky, Sigmund and Dina Feinman, Clara Young, and Regina Prager; comedians like Berl Bernstein and Zelig Mogulesco; and character actors like Boaz Young and Bina Abramovitsh. And because of the importance of music in the Yiddish repertoire, its composers contributed as much to its success as its performers. Among the most important composers of music for the Yiddish theater were Arnold Perlmutter and Herman Wohl (who had many of their greatest successes as a team), Dovid Meyerovitsh, Louis Friedsel, Joseph Rumshinsky, Abe Ellstein, Sholem Secunda, and Peretz Sandler.

New York to World War ii

As long as westward migrations continued, New York would continue to assert itself as one of the world capitals of Yiddish theater. Almost all of the most important actors and performers in the American Yiddish theater were foreign-born, many having started their careers in cultural centers like Warsaw and Odessa. Among the playwrights in this category were David Pinski and Peretz Hirschbein. Both men were talented journalists and prose writers, and both generated a distinguished body of dramatic work as well. Pinski could write biting satires, like Der Oytser ("The Treasure," 1911), but often wrote in a darker vein, in dramas like Der Eybiker Yid ("The Eternal Jew," 1929), Di Familye Tsvi ("The Family Tsvi," 1905), and Ayzik Sheftl ("Isaac Sheftl," 1904–5). He also wrote popular dramas revolving around tempestuous human passions in works like Yankl der Shmid ("Yankl the Blacksmith," 1909) and Gabri un di Froyen ("Gabri and the Women," 1905). Hirschbein experimented with various dramatic modes and registers, but is best known for his idylls of village life, relying more on deftly developed characters and convincing dialogue than on plot. These include A Farvorfn Vinkl ("A Forsaken Nook," 1918), Di Puste Kretshme ("The Idle Inn," 1919), and Grine Felder ("Green Fields," 1918). Other accomplished members of this new wave of dramatists working primarily in New York were Osip Dimov (Shma Yisroel ("Hear, O Israel," 1907), Bronx Express (1919), Yoshke Muzikant ("Yoshke the Musician"; the first of numerous versions premiered in 1914 as Der Gedungener Khosn ("The Hired Bridegroom")); H. Leivick (Shmates ("Rags," 1921), Shop (1926), Der Goylem ("The Golem," 1925)); Fishl Bimko (Ganovim ("Thieves," 1919), Dembes ("Oaks," 1922)); Harry Sackler (Yizkor ("Remembrance," 1922), Mayor Noyekh ("Major Noah," 1928), Rakhav fun Yerikho ("Rahab of Jericho," 1928)), and Avrom Shomer (Aykele Mazil ("Ikey the Devil," 1911), Style (1913), Der Griner Milyoner ("The Green Millionaire," 1915)). These playwrights often wrote for companies that joined the assemblage of notable Yiddish troupes. Foremost among these in New York was Maurice Schwartz's Yiddish Art Theater, which subsisted on a diet of Western and Yiddish classics, new Yiddish dramas, and – most lucratively – adaptations of Yiddish novels, like *Shalom Aleichem's Tevye der Milkhiker ("Tevye the Dairyman," 1919) and I.J. *Singer's Yoshke Kalb (1932), dramatized by Schwartz himself. Schwartz's company was in theory an ensemble, but in practice it belonged very much to the 19th-century star system. For true ensemble acting, New York Yiddish audiences went to Artef (from the Yiddish acronym for Workers' Theater Collective), which opened its doors in 1928 with a production of Soviet Yiddish playwright Beynush *Shteiman's Baym Toyer ("At the Gate," 1928). The company established itself as the avant-garde answer to commercial offerings with innovative productions of such works as Israel Axenfeld's Der Ershter Yidisher Rekrut in Rusland (aka Rekrutn / "Recruits," 1934) and Sholem Aleichem's Dos Groyse Gevins ("The Jackpot," 1936; often going by the alternate title 200,000). Artef never managed to launch any major new playwriting talent, however.

Latin America

Many performers based in the United States regularly made their way to Latin America. While companies were also formed in such places as Mexico City, Uruguay, Chile, and Brazil, Buenos Aires was by far the largest and most significant Latin American hub for Yiddish performers and eventually emerged as a major center for Yiddish theater. Productions of plays from the European repertoire began there by 1901, and soon popular performers from North America and Europe, including Boris Thomashesfky, Maurice Schwartz, Celia Adler, Rudolph Zaslavsky, Zygmunt Turkow and Ida Kaminska, and Joseph Buloff added Buenos Aires and other cities and town in Argentina and neighboring countries to their list of touring destinations. The Yiddish theater in Buenos Aires had a long-standing connection to the seedier side of Latin American life, for pimps and prostitutes in this major center of the "white slave" trade invested heavily in the theater, and had some control over its contents. In his memoirs, Peretz Hirschbein recalls how the many prostitutes in the audience for the Buenos Aires production (ca. 1910) of his drama Miryam were moved to tears by the plight of his heroine, an innocent shtetl girl who falls into a life of prostitution. Leyb Malekh's Ibergus ("Remodeling," 1926) hit even closer to home, for that drama specifically addresses the connections and conflicts among different strata of Argentinean society: the respectable folk, prostitutes and gangsters, and actors. The play caused an uproar when it premiered in Buenos Aires in 1926. That city rose to greater prominence as a center of Yiddish theatrical activity in the 1930s, particularly with the founding of organizations like ift (Idisher Folks Teater, "Jewish People's Theatre") in 1932, in the tradition of left-wing, artistically ambitious troupes like its notable contemporaries, Yung Teater in Warsaw and Artef in New York. ift continued to offer its audiences plays addressing social issues, until demographic changes forced it to switch to Spanish performances in the mid-1950s. Though the Argentinean Yiddish theater enjoyed years of prosperity following World War ii, when many talented refugees made their way there, the seeds of its decline had already been sown. Young Argentinean Jews, like their counterparts in North America and Western Europe, were being raised in a native language other than in Yiddish, and one theater after another either closed its doors forever, or abandoned Yiddish in favor of the local language.

The Art Theater Movement in Eastern Europe

In New York, Gordin was often praised for breathing fresh life into Yiddish drama. This was particularly true in the 1890s; later, prominent critics like Abraham Cahan, who had championed Gordin early on, reversed course and harshly attacked his dramaturgy. European critics like I.L. Peretz and Noyekh Prilutski, however, never warmed to Gordin in the way that many American critics had. Peretz regarded Gordin as little better than a shund playwright, and felt that a different type of dramaturgy was needed to help Yiddish drama take a seat of honor at the table of Western dramatic literature. Peretz sought to remedy this situation partly by articulating ambitious critical criteria, partly by writing plays himself, and partly by championing new talent. As a playwright, Peretz was influenced most notably by naturalism in his short plays and symbolism in his full-length, poetic dramas. The latter include Baynakht afn Altn Mark ("A Night in the Old Marketplace," 1907) and Di Goldene Keyt ("The Golden Chain," 1907); among his best-known one-acts are Shvester ("Sisters," 1905) and Es Brent ("It's Burning," 1901). But Peretz, like other classic Yiddish writers such as Sholem Aleichem, would never achieve the success as a dramatist that he did in prose (at least not during their lifetimes, though many of Sholem Aleichem's plays enjoyed successful revivals in later years). While flashes of brilliance frequently make their presence felt in Peretz's plays, they often lack an effective dramatic structure to give the action a focus and propel it forward.

Whatever Gordin's shortcomings, he showed a far surer hand as a dramatist, and actors loved to play his characters. One sign thereof is the fact that even in Eastern Europe, with different sorts of commercial pressures and audiences quite different from those in the U.S., Gordin's plays featured prominently in the performed repertoire, while Peretz's tended to be invisible. This was true of the first ensemble companies to try to elevate the level of artistry in Yiddish drama and theater, starting with the troupe led by Esther-Rokhl Kaminska in the early 1900s. Gordin's plays were the bread and butter of the Kaminska Troupe (later known as Di Fareynikte – "the united ones"). When Kaminska left Europe to tour in the U.S. in 1909, she left a void that could not be filled, but both as performer and as matriarch of a theatrical dynasty, she continued to help shape Yiddish theater as well as film for many decades.

As a mentor of young talent, Peretz left an indelible mark on the development of Yiddish drama. Sholem *Asch, for example – arguably Peretz's most successful protégé – penned a number of plays, most notably Got fun Nekome ("God of Vengeance," 1907), though he would become far better known as a novelist. Another student of Peretz's, as well as of Polish playwright Stanislaw Przybyszewski, was Mark Arnshteyn, who would write and direct productions in both Polish and Yiddish, including his most successful work, Der Vilner Balebesl ("The Little Householder of Vilna," 1908). In 1907, Arnshteyn and Avrom-Yitskhok Kaminski, in an effort to infuse 'literary' plays into the Yiddish repertoire, founded the Literarishe Trupe ("literary troupe"), with which they toured with plays by Gordin, Arnshteyn, David *Pinski, and Sholem Aleichem. A similar effort was undertaken a couple of years later by yet another of Peretz's protégés, Peretz *Hirschbein. Having earned the blessing of figures like Peretz and Bialik at the outset of his career, Hirschbein founded a company in Odessa in 1908 that became known as the Hirschbein Troupe. His company, which performed works by its founder, as well as by Asch, Pinski, Gordin, and Sholem Aleichem, stayed in business for only two years, but achieved an impact out of proportion to its short life through its earnest striving for higher artistic standards in Yiddish drama and theater. During this same period, other notable companies in Russia and Poland included those led by Aba Kompanayets, Misha Fishzon, Dovid-Moyshe Sabsay, and Yankev-Ber Gimpel.

Interwar Poland

Hirschbein's troupe served as a forerunner for the *Vilna Troupe, founded in 1916 with the express purpose of carrying on Hirschbein's reforms. The Vilna Troupe brought to light what was to become the most famous play in the Yiddish repertory, S. Anski's Der Dibek ("The Dybbuk," 1921), directed by Dovid Herman, who had encouraged Hirschbein to write in Yiddish. The play caused a sensation at its Warsaw premiere, just weeks after the author's death. It has been translated into and performed in many languages, and inspired several adaptations as well. The company's further successes included Osip Dimov's Yoshke Muzikant ("Yoshke the Musician," or "The Singer of His Sorrow"), Asch's Kiddush ha-Shem ("Sanctification of the Name," 1928), Peretz's Baynakht afn Altn Mark ("A Night in the Old Marketplace"), and The Merchant of Venice. Although the Vilna Troupe suffered the loss of many talented performers who left for other opportunities, it continued to be vital until the Holocaust, when its remaining members were trapped in the Vilna Ghetto and liquidated along with their neighbors. Before that, however, interwar Poland became as rich a breeding ground for significant new ventures in Yiddish theatrical performance as any that had ever existed. The 1920s brought the creation of such companies as vykt (Varshever Yidisher Kunst Teater "Warsaw Yiddish Art Theatre"), founded in 1924 and led by Zygmunt Turkow and his wife Ida Kaminska; vnyt (Varshever Nayer Yidisher Teater "Warsaw New Yiddish Theatre"), founded by Zygmunt's brother, Jonas Turkow, in 1929; and Yung Teater ("Young Theater"), established by Mikhl Weichert in 1932. vykt used modern techniques for to stage both new and classic plays from the European repertoire, and Yiddish classics by Ettinger and Mendele. Turkow and Kaminska put their stamp on roles from within and beyond the Yiddish repertoire – he in such parts as Molière's Harpagon to Sholem Aleichem's Tevye, she in Yiddish standards like Mirele Efros (continuing in her mother's footsteps) and roles from the world repertoire, like Bertolt Brecht's Mother Courage. More political and experimental was Mikhl Weichert's YungTeater, whose first production, Boston, used innovative environmental theater techniques to tell the story of the Sacco and Vanzetti trial. Yung Teater commented further on American travesties of justice with Leyb Malekh's effective agitprop drama Mississippi, based on the Scottsboro affair. Weichert's politics often made him run afoul of the censors, a situation he commented on obliquely in the production of his own play, Trupe Tanentsap (1933), a play-within-a-play that used a production of Goldfaden's Two Kuni-Lemls to comment on contemporary censorship. Other notable productions included Jacob Preger's Simkhe Plakhte (1935), and Georg Büchner's Woyzeck (1936), in a Yiddish translation by Itsik Manger. Those with less experimental tastes had many other options in cities like Warsaw, including the Theater for Youth – founded in 1926 under the direction of Thea Artishevski and the producer David Herman – which became the most popular of the music theaters. Adding to the vitality of the Polish Yiddish theater scene between the two World Wars was kleynkunst, "a sort of cabaret revue, witty, gay, and irreverent, rapidly winging from music to dance to monologue to sketch" (Sandrow, 323). Kleynkunst theaters included Azazel in Warsaw, Ararat in Lodz, led by writer/performer Moyshe Broderzon, who discovered such talents as the comedians Shimen Dzigan and Yisroel Shumakher, who would enjoy a long career together – the most successful double act of its kind in the Yiddish language – in sketches filled with political and social commentary.

Poland had become arguably the world's richest soil for Yiddish theater by the 1930s, so the annihilation of Polish Jewry by the Nazis destroyed a particularly vibrant theatrical culture. Yet during the war, performers made valiant efforts to carry on their activities in the face of the gravest danger. Warsaw ghetto leader Emmanuel Ringelblum's diaries chronicle all measure of cultural undertakings, from journalism to the visual arts to musical and theatrical performance. Jonas *Turkow gave a list of 138 performers who perished in the Warsaw ghetto, including Mazo, director of the Vilna Troupe, and his wife Miriam Orleska. As the Nazi ghettoes were liquidated and the survivors were sent to concentration camps, they continued to perform, when possible, even in the camps. After the war, surviving actors resumed activity, first in dp camps, and then to the many places to which the performers dispersed.

Soviet Yiddish Theater

After the Russian Revolution, state-sponsored Yiddish theaters were founded in a number of major cities of the Soviet Union. Some were established quickly, as in Vilna and Odessa. Others were created later, after the political situation stabilized. A total of 14 state Yiddish theaters were ultimately established; the most noteworthy included the Minsk State Theater (Bilgoset), directed by M. Rafalski, and the Yiddish State Theater in Kharkov, directed first by Ephraim Loyter, and later by M. Norvid. Other companies were established in such cities as Tarnopol, Lviv, Zhitomir, Dnepropetrovsk, Bialistok, Grodno, Vilna, Kovno, Riga, and Czernowitz. In addition, many of these companies traveled widely, so that Yiddish theater reached communities throughout much of the Soviet Union. The most celebrated Soviet Yiddish theater company was the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (best known by the Russian acronym for "state Jewish Theater," goset). Starting as a small studio in St. Petersburg just after the revolution, and moving to Moscow a couple of years later, goset revolutionized Yiddish theater with avant-garde productions of Yiddish classics, new Yiddish plays, and works from the European repertoire. The company's founder, and its leader for much of the 1920s, was Alexander Granovsky, who put his mark on Yiddish standards like Goldfaden's Di Kishefmakherin, Sholem Aleichem's Dos Groyse Gevins, and Peretz's Baynakht afn Altn Mark. Marc *Chagall was also briefly involved with the company as designer, but made an impact all out of proportion to the time he spent with goset. The company also had the input of significant musical talent in Joseph Achron and Leyb Pulver. After Granovsky defected to the West in 1928, actor Solomon Mikhoels took the reins and guided the company ably, focusing for a while on new works like Moyshe *Kulbak's Boytre (1936) and Dovid *Bergelson's Der Toyber ("The Deaf Man," 1930) and Prints Ruveyni (1945). When the Soviet authorities used Kulbak's underworld drama as an excuse to crack down on the troupe – Kulbak was arrested and disappeared into the gulag – goset responded with politically correct versions of Goldfaden's Shulamis (1938–9) and Bar Kokhba (1939). This strategy may have bought the troupe some time, but it did not avert disaster forever. Mikhoels was murdered in a staged accident in 1948, and Benjamin Zuskin was killed in a purge of Jewish intellectuals in 1952.

Other Centers

As Yiddish speakers spread across the globe in search of most hospitable environments, they established theatrical activity on six continents. For every major metropolis with multiple theaters and cabarets, there were numerous smaller cities and towns with less sizable and diverse offerings, but which helped provide a lifeline for performers and companies who needed audiences beyond their local ones in order to make a decent living, and which brought Yiddish theater to avid theatergoers living off the beaten path. The American "provinces," for example, included cities like Philadelphia, Chicago, and Baltimore, and countless cities and towns between and beyond. Among the places where Yiddish theater was performed, several important secondary hubs are worth noting: South Africa, where Sarah Sylvia reigned as the leading star, and where visitors like Maurice *Schwartz, Molly *Picon, and Meir Tselniker sojourned; Australia, dominated for decades by the artistic leadership of Polish immigrants Yankev Weislitz and Rochl Holzer, and playing host to numerous guest artists, from Shimon *Dzigan to Dina Halpern to Ida Kaminska and Zygmunt Turkow; and Montreal, which had long served as a "provincial" theater on the North American circuit. The leading figure of the Montreal Yiddish theater in the second half of the 20th century was Ukrainian-born Dora Wasserman, who established the Yiddish Drama Group in the 1950s; later renamed the Dora Wasserman Yiddish Theatre, control of the company passed to her daughter Bryna after Dora Wasserman's death in 2003. Israel became home to countless native Yiddish speakers, but proved problematic for Yiddish theater. The language wars that raged in Mandate Palestine and later in the State of Israel made public theater performances in Yiddish difficult to stage; so despite an abundance of talent, Yiddish theater was often suppressed. Nevertheless, it played a role in Israeli life. Yiddish performances in Palestine began as early as the 1890s, and in spite of both widespread scorn for Yiddish and special taxes imposed on "foreign-language" theaters, Yiddish theater was performed regularly in the early decades of the state. Immigrants from Eastern Europe like Shimon Dzigan, Mary Soriano, Max Perlman, Eni Litan, and Gita Galina were popular with Israeli audiences, who also welcomed visitors like Avrom Morevsky, Ida Kaminska, Joseph Buloff, and Maurice Schwartz. As of the early 21st century, little regular activity remains, but Shmuel Atzmon's Yiddishpil company, based in Tel Aviv, continues to carry the flame.

The Late 20th Century

In spite of social and economic pressures that drove millions of Jews westward, Yiddish theater continued to thrive in Poland, Romania, and the Soviet Union up to the outbreak of World War ii. After the war, though, the soil that had been so fertile for such performances was largely scorched earth. Yet until a new wave of antisemitism broke out in Poland in the 1950s, many Polish Jews attempted to rebuild their lives in their native land, and two companies arose in Poland in 1946. The Nidershlezis Yiddish Theater, directed by S. Zack, produced Hirschbein's Grine Felder and Sloves's Homens Mapole. The Lodz Theater, directed by Moyshe Lipman, presented Dzigan and Schumacher and Ida Kaminska. In 1950 these two companies joined forces as the Jewish State Theater, working with a government subsidy under Kaminska's direction. It achieved success with the Manger-Fenster adaptation A Goldfaden Kholem ("A Goldfaden Dream," 1950) and Gordin's Mirele Efros, with Kaminska in the title role.

While Yiddish culture was decimated by Hitler and Stalin, it did not always fare well in countries where its speakers were free to perpetuate it – for they were also free not to. Everywhere that Ashkenazim went in search of greater economic opportunity and religious freedom, they faced ongoing dilemmas about how to strike a desirable balance between maintaining a connection to their religious roots and adapting to new surroundings. More often than not, they pursued the latter at the expense of the former, and Yiddish was often neglected as part of the bargain. What allowed the Yiddish theater to continue developing in places like New York was a steady supply of new immigrants. When the U.S. Congress enacted strict immigration quotas in the early 1920s, that supply largely dried up, and the American Yiddish theater began a slow but steady decline (which might have happened anyway, given the rise of new competition like film, radio, and television). Yet many of the stars of this period continued performing for a long time. Artef was an important force throughout the 1930s, as was the Yiddish Art Theatre in the 1930s and 1940s. By the 1930s, more performers who had started their careers in the Yiddish theater were crossing over successfully to Broadway and Hollywood than had actors in earlier generations. English-language audiences embraced such actors as Paul Muni (born Muni Weisenfreund) and Joseph Buloff, and numerous Yiddish actors enjoyed success in character roles. With the graying and shrinking of the Yiddish-speaking audience, Yiddish theater in the late 20th century increasingly became more a labor of love than a business. The one American company continuing to offer Yiddish performances on anything like a regular basis as of the early 21st century is the Folksbine. Elsewhere, Jewish theaters make occasional forays into producing Yiddish drama in English, just as some of the Yiddish classics have made their way into the repertoire in Hebrew, Polish, German, and other languages.


For hundreds of years, the purimshpil provided a Jewish counterpart to the dramas of the medieval Church, and as different as the contents and purposes of such performances were, Yiddish theater absorbed influences from its Christian neighbors from the very beginning, while putting a distinctly Jewish mark on the proceedings. That combination continued to lend the Yiddish theater its special character well into the modern era. The purimshpil and other performance forms originating in pre-modern times set other precedents as well: the centrality of music to much of Yiddish theatrical performance, the roots of Yiddish theater in Jewish texts and traditions, and challenges that Yiddish performances often presented to communal authorities. Jewish law kept the Yiddish theater from growing into a professional, year-round phenomenon for several centuries, by which point other European cultures had long-standing secular theatrical traditions. The Yiddish theater had a great deal of catching up to do, and it took to this process with relish. Pioneers like Gold-faden poured their knowledge of both Jewish materials and non-Jewish texts, music, and theatrical techniques into their work. Yiddish actors learned their craft partly from watching their counterparts perform in Russian, Romanian, Polish, German, and other languages, and partly from simply rolling up their sleeves and going to work. The most talented figures of the first generation of modern Yiddish theater could hold their own with contemporaries coming out of cultures with much more extensive theatrical traditions. The development of Yiddish theater and drama turned out to be remarkably compressed. Joining other European theatrical cultures only late in the 19th century, Yiddish theater took little time to diversify its repertoire, from the early musicals and melodramas that dominated the marquees to the many theatrical styles that would arise in the 20th century: naturalism, symbolism, expressionism, constructivism, etc. The combined forces of annihilation and persecution in Europe, and acculturation and assimilation of Yiddish speakers worldwide, conspired to cut short the remarkably rapid maturation of Yiddish theater and drama. It seems impossible to imagine a world in which Yiddish theater will ever play as vital a role in Jewish life as it did at its height, yet performers, scholars, and audiences continue to explore its legacy in many ways. Several of the best-known Yiddish dramas (for example, An-Sky's Der Dibek and Asch's Got fun Nekome, in many different translations as well as in adaptations by playwrights like Paddy Chayefsky, Donald Margulies, and Tony Kushner) have a long history of performances – some of them quite distinguished – in multiple languages. There is reason to believe that as translators make additional works available for non-Yiddish-speaking readers and audiences, other Yiddish plays will take their proper place in the world repertoire. The Yiddish theater has also attracted the attention of a number of distinguished historians and literary critics, including Yitskhok Schiper, Max Erik, Shmuel Niger, Jacob Shatzky, Noyekh Prilutski, and Zalmen Zylbercweig. The late 20th century witnessed a dramatic increase in scholarly books and articles on Yiddish theater and drama, a trend that shows no sign of abating in the early 21st century. The confluence of scholars, translators, playwrights, and audiences willing to give the Yiddish theater a fresh look suggests that long after the Yiddish theater's most vital period has passed, our understanding of the phenomenon it represented continues to grow.

For theater in Israel, see *Hebrew Literature, Modern (Drama); *Israel, State of: Cultural Life (Theater).

[Joel Berkowitz (2nd ed.)]


general: Enciclopedia dello Spettacolo (1954–62); J. Gregor, Weltgeschichte des Theaters (1933); G. Freedley and J.A. Reeves, A History of the Theater (19552); C. Roth, Jewish Contribution to Civilization (1938); idem, Jews in the Renaissance (1959); V.I. Zoller, in: Mitteilungen zur juedischen Volkskunde, 29 (1926); S. Salomon, Jews of Britain (1938); E.D. Coleman, Jews in English Drama (1943); R. Craig, English-Religious Drama of the Middle Ages (1955); E. Chambers, The Mediaeval Stage, 2 vols. (1903); H. Carrington, Die Figur des Juden in der dramatischen Litteratur des xviii. Jahrhunderts (1897); M.J. Landa, The Jew in Drama (19692); H. Freeden, Juedisches Theater in Nazi-Deutschland (1964); G. Weales, American Drama Since World War ii (1962); F. Ewen, Complete Book of the American Musical Theater (19592); idem, The Story of the American Musical Theater (19682). yiddish theater: D.S. Lifson, The Yiddish Theatre in America (1965); B. Gorin, Di Geshikhte fun Yidishen Teater, 2 vols. (1918, 19232); Z. Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun Yidishn Teater, 6 vols. (1931–70); Y. Schiper, Geshikhte fun Yidisher Teater-Kunst un Drame, 3 vols. (1923–28); J. Shatzky (ed.), Arkhiv far der Geshikhte fun Yidishn Teater un Drame (1930); M. Litvakov, Finf Yor Melukhesher Yidisher Kamer-Teater (1924); add. bibliography: M. Altshuler, Ha-Te'atron ha-Yehudi bi-Vrit ha-Mo'aẓot (1996); A. Belkin, Ha-Purim Shpil: Iyyunim ba-Te'atron ha-Yehudi ha-Amami (2002); Y. Berkovitsh, Hundert Yor Yidish Teater in Rumenye (1976); J. Berkowitz, Shakespeare on the American Yiddish Stage (2001); J. Berkowitz (ed.), Yiddish Theatre: New Approaches (2003); B. Gorin, Di Geshikhtefun Yidishn Teater (1923); N. Bukhvald, Teater (1943); E. Bützer, Die Anfänge der jiddischen purim shpiln in ihrem literarischen und kulturgeschichtlichen Kontext (2003); B. Dalinger, ' Verloschene Sterne'. Geschichte des jüdischen Theaters in Wien (1998); Y. Dobrushin, Di Dramaturgye fun di Klasiker (1948); J. Hoberman, Bridge of Light: Yiddish Film Between Two Worlds (1991); A. Krasney, Ha-Badkhan (1998); A. Kuligowska-Korzeniewska and M. Leyko (eds.), Teatr żydowski w Polsce (1998); J-M. Larrue, Le Théâtre yiddish à Montréal (1996); Y. Lyubomirski, Melukhisher Yidisher Teater in Ukrayne (1931); J. Mestel, 70 Yor Teater-Repertuar (1954); idem, Undzer Teater (1943); A. Mukdoiny, Yitskhok Leybush Perets un dos Yidishe Teater (1949); E. Nahshon, Yiddish Proletarian Theatre: The Art and Politics of the Artef, 19251940 (1998); B. Orshanski, Teater-Shlakhtn (1931); S. Perlmutter, Yidishe Dramaturgn un Teater-Kompozitors (1952); B. Picon-Vallin, Le Théâtre juif soviétique pendant les années vingt (1973); N. Sandrow, Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977, 19992); Kh. Shmeruk, Meḥazot Mikrayim be-Yidish (16971750) (1979); Y. Tsinberg, Di Geshikhte fun Literatur bay Yidn, 8 vols. (1943); J. Veidlinger, The Moscow State Yiddish Theater (2000); M. Viner, Tsu der Geshikhte fun der Yidisher Literatur in 19tn Yorhundert, 2 vols. (1945); I. Manger, J. Turkow, and M. Perenson (eds.), Yidisher Teater Tsvishn Beyde Velt-Milkhomes, 2 vols. (1968); A. Zable, Wanderers and Dreamers: Tales of the David Herman Theatre (1998).


views updated May 14 2018



In its mystery, blends different beauties, sang Mario Cavaradossi in Puccini's opera, Tosca. Indeed, the saga of stage and film interaction over the course of a century has resulted in what historian Robert Hamilton Ball has called "a strange and eventful history." The two media, one the inheritor of centuries of dramatic tradition and the other, an upstart technology bereft of dramatic antecedents, have been linked from the days of the very first moving picture experiments by Thomas Edison and W. K. L. Dickson late in the nineteenth century. Initially, the film medium was presumed to be merely a vehicle for the dissemination of theatrical events. As early as 1894, a writer in The Critic predicted that Thomas Edison's kinetoscope peepshow device could enable the viewer to "witness and hear shadow plays in which the only real performer will be the electromagnetic motor behind the scenes" (p. 330). That same year Edison himself boasted that in the near future a phonograph and kinetoscope could be linked together to bring plays and players from distant stages to the comfort of the parlor. But before the film medium would prove itself to be much more than a mere recording device for theatrical events, there would be subsequent decades of uncertain and tentative interaction and experimentation.

The first thirty years of theater-film interaction may be conveniently divided into three periods. In the first, roughly 1896–1907, pioneering filmmakers in America and Europe borrowed liberally from vaudeville acts, operas, dramas, and magic shows for their peep show and nickelodeon shorts. In the second, 1908–1915, filmmakers and theatrical entrepreneurs collaborated in translating famous plays and their players into feature-length theatrical films, commonly called "photoplays." (A "theatrical film" designates a motion picture that utilizes the subjects, processes, forms, personnel, and effects of the stage in a visible and prominent way.) Third, after a decade or so, during which the cinema developed as a commercial enterprise relatively independent of the theatrical establishment, the introduction of talking-picture technology in 1926–1930 saw a resurgence of extensive theatre-film interaction involving a new influx of stage stars and a new spate of photoplays.


Beginning shortly after the turn of the century and continuing sporadically for the next ten years or so, Lumie and Pathèré studios in France, Edison and Biograph and Vitagraph studios in America, the Nordisk Film Kompagni in Denmark, Svenska Bopgrafteaterm in Sweden, were among the many production entities around the world that released film recordings of vaudeville turns, dramas (including Shakespeare), operas, and magic acts. Stage magician Georges Méliès' (1861–1938) made fantasy films that bore the stamp of the French "feerie drama" tradition, which in turn influenced theatrical adaptations in America by Edwin S. Porter (1870–1941), notably, Jack and the Beanstalk (1902). Charles Magnusson (1878–1948) was empowered by August Strindberg (1849–1912) to bring his plays to the Swedish screen. Popular, operatic, and "legitimate" performers like Victor Maurel (1848–1923) and Coquelin (1841–1909) in France and John Bunny (1863–1915), Florence Turner (1885–1946), and Mr. (1863–1919) and Mrs. Sidney Drew (1890–1925) in America—products of a star system the moviemakers would soon appropriate as their own—brought their signature roles, opera performances, and stage routines to film (many of them via proto synchronized-sound technologies with curious names like "Synchroscope," "Vivaphone," "Chronophone" and "Kinetophone"). Shakespeare came to the screen, courtesy of D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) and other filmmakers, in a flood of one and two-reel abridged versions.

As demonstrated by the Edison studio's eight-minute photoplay Jack and the Beanstalk, which condensed the length of the original play into fourteen single-shot scenes, the screen itself was transformed into a proscenium stage, a shallow playing space bounded by the "wings" of the frame borders. A fixed camera position in medium distance simulated the spectator's third-row center auditorium seat. An uncut shot approximated a scene, and intertitles served as program cues. The action was blocked laterally in a plane parallel to the camera and consisted primarily of tableaux vivants. And theatrical performance techniques carried over to the screen an exaggerated, declamatory style more appropriate to a large theater house.

In their operations, some movie studios began to resemble theater houses. Of course, the use of artificial light in a theater house was insufficient for the cameras, so stages had to be built in accordance with the model of the standard theater house, but with the roofs left open and side walls constructed of glass to permit sufficient sunlight. Examples include Méliès' "théâtre de prises de vues," a glass-walled studio at Montreuil, France; Robert Paul's studio in England; and Edison's "Black Maria," which had a stage that revolved on a pivot 360 degrees to follow the course of the sun. According to one contemporary account published in 1907, some film studios were equipped with painted scenic flats, a property room, dressing rooms, and a completely equipped stage. "The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts 'face-perfect,' then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirls through the camera, and performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come" (Saturday Evening Post, 1907, pp. 10–11).

In America alone, of the thousands of titles listed and described in the compendiums Motion Pictures from the Library of Congress Paper Print Collection, 1894–1912 and the American Film Institute Catalogue: Film Beginnings, 1893–1910 almost one-third prove either to be derived from specific theatrical events or to in some way simulate a theatrical mode. Typical entry descriptions include, "This was photographed as if from the audience at a theater"; or, "all activity parallels the camera plane"; or, "the set is a backdrop painted as an ocean scene"; or, "the action consists of participants being introduced to the audience." One such film, The Critic (Biograph, 1906), went to extraordinary lengths in its imitative method: "The camera, placed as though in the audience, shows several seats with spectators in the immediate foreground and a box to the right. The stage acts are burlesques of regular vaudeville acts." However, it would be a mistake to assume these effects were the result of ignorance of the more "cinematic" potentials of the film medium.

Active collaboration between theatrical and film entrepreneurs began in earnest around 1908. The naturalism of André Antoine's (1858–1943) celebrated́âtre Libre was transferred to the screen via the Pathé company. The most influential studio operation was the Film d'Art company, formed in France in 1908. Actors from the Comédie Francaise appeared before the cameras in a number of plays, beginning with L'Assassinat du duc de Guise (1908) and continuing with productions based on plays by Victorien Sardou, Eugene Brieux, and Henri Lavedan. Film d'Art's prestige, opulent production values, and theater-house distribution created a sensation and led to the establishment of similar collaborative production companies in America and abroad in the next few years. Famous Players came first in 1912, a collaboration between the eminent Broadway producer Daniel Frohman (1851–1940) and film exhibitor Adolph Zukor (1873–1976). The New York Dramatic Mirror reported in July 1912: "The men back of this movement have become fully convinced that the time for the amalgamation of the legitimate stage and the motion picture has come.…" (p. 34). Frohman wielded his prestige to bring Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) in Film d'Art's photoplay of Queen Elizabeth (1912) to his Lyceum Theatre in New York City, the initial critical enthusiasm of which led to subsequent Famous Players productions, such as Minnie Maddern Fiske (1865–1932) duplicating her stage role in Tess of the D'Urbervilles (1913) and James O'Neill (1847–1920) reprising his signature role in The Count of Monte Cristo (1913). Other collaborative theater-film production companies included the Protective Amusement Company, which allied the New York theatrical syndicate producers Marc Klaw (1858–1936) and Abraham L. Erlanger (1860–1930) with the forces of the Biograph studio for the purpose of filming, among other properties, plays by Henry C. De Mille (1853–1893) and David Belasco (1853–1931); the Jesse L. Lasky Feature Play Company, which brought together theater promoter Jesse L. Lasky (1880–1958) with filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) to adapt stage plays by David Belasco (1853–1931); the World Film Corporation, formed by stage entrepreneurs the Shubert brothers and William A. Brady (1863–1950) and filmmaker Lewis J. Selznick (1870–1933) to adapt plays by Edward Sheldon The (1886–1946) and Clyde Fitch (1865–1909); and the Triangle Film Corporation, which imported dozens of prominent stage performers from New York to the Los Angeles film studios of D. W. Griffith.

b. London, England, 10 October 1930

Harold Pinter has said that his works begin with an image, rather than a theme, and that he is a visual writer. It is not surprising, then, that he has found success working in film. Although Pinter—winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Literature—is primarily known as a playwright, with many of his plays regarded as masterpieces of the English stage, he has also had a long and celebrated career writing for both film and television.

Pinter's screenplays are all adaptations of other works: his own plays, including The Birthday Party (1968) and The Homecoming (1969); other people's plays (Butley, 1974); and novels written by others, including F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Last Tycoon (1976), John Fowles's The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Ian McEwan's The Comfort of Strangers (1990), and Margaret Atwood's The Handmaid's Tale (1990). His screenplays have won numerous awards and critical praise. They have also increasingly been the focus of his professional attention, and since the 1980s he has written more film and television screenplays than he has plays.

Pinter's interest in film began at an early age. At fourteen, he joined a local film club, and later he argued the merits of motion pictures as a member of his school's debating society. In the early 1960s he was commissioned by the BBC to write several radio and television scripts, and a number of his early plays appeared on television as well as on stage. His first screenplay, an adaptation of his play The Caretaker, was filmed in 1963. Pinter was immediately drawn to the technical opportunities afforded by motion pictures, especially the ability to use and manipulate time and space for dramatic effect. He also found the close-up to be an effective way of conveying conflict and drama without unnecessary dialogue, and has commented on the usefulness of editing as a way of creating meaning visually. The subtle complexities of his plays, in which a pause carries as much meaningas spoken dialogue, translate well to the screen. Just as the themes and structures of Pinter's plays have affected his screenplays, he has also used filmic techniques on stage, including the use of a voice-over in Mountain Language (1988), and lighting that simulates cutting between shots in Party Time (1991).

Pinter's films tend to be driven by character rather than plot, focusing on human relationships. They deal with many of the same themes that his plays do, including struggles for power and domination, the complex workings of time and memory, and the fear of a menacing unknown. These themes are present in the films he has adapted from other people's work as well as those he has adapted from his own plays.


The Caretaker (1963), The Servant (1963), The Pumpkin Eater (1964), The Go-Between (1970), The Homecoming (1973), The Last Tycoon (1976), The French Lieutenant's Woman (1981), Betrayal (1983), The Comfort of Strangers (1990), The Handmaid's Tale (1990)


Gale, Steven H. Sharp Cut: Harold Pinter's Screenplays and the Artistic Process. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky,2003.

——, ed. The Films of Harold Pinter. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

Pinter, Harold. Collected Screenplays, 3 vols. London: Faber & Faber, 2000.

Raby, Peter, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Harold Pinter. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001.

Kristen Anderson Wagner

The enthusiasm that greeted these photoplays and starring vehicles was short-lived. Voices that hailed them as priceless artifacts, documentations of the history of theatrical forms and performances, soon grew silent, replaced by complaints that they were hybrid monstrosities that were neither theatrical nor cinematic. As early as 1914 prominent American critics like Louis Reeves Harrison were complaining that these filmmakers were ignoring the creative possibilities of their own medium, "for screen visualization is an entirely different art, at its best when freed from the artificial limitations imposed by dramatic construction for stage performance" (p. 185).

That same year several filmmakers published a series of critical attacks on photoplays in the New York Dramatic Mirror. Two years later, in 1916, appeared two pioneering works on film theory and aesthetics, Vachel Lindsay's The Art of the Moving Picture and Hugo Munsterberg's The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. Lindsay and Munsterberg were not denying the validity of theatrical adaptation in theory; rather, they objected to a translation process that was so closely imitative it denied any cinematic intervention or enhancement of the theatrical material. For example, Lindsay savaged Queen Elizabeth, saying it "might be compared to watching [a play] from the top gallery through smoked glass, with one's ears stopped with cotton" (p. 185). By contrast, he praised Griffith's Biblical epic, Judith of Bethulia (1914) as an example of a theatrical entertainment that had been "overhauled" by the "explosive power" of close-ups and editing and the narrative displacement of the continuities of time and space. "The photoplays of the future will be written from the foundations for the films," Lindsay predicted. "The soundest actors, photographers, and producers will be those who emphasize the points wherein the photoplay is unique" (p. 197).

The ticket-buying consumers seemed to agree. Most of the photoplays of 1912 to 1915 ultimately failed at the box office. The posturing of most of the stage-trained actors before the cameras had proven inferior to the greater subtlety of players who had begun their training before the cameras. For every Douglas Fairbanks and William S. Hart, who found greater success in the movies than on the stage, there were dozens of others, such as Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree, William Gillette, and the comedy team Joe Weber and Lew Fields, who hastily retreated back to the stage they had forsaken.


Yet, despite an intense period of maturation in the teens and twenties that saw the development of silent theatrical films displaying the unique propensities of the film medium, the talking picture revolution that began in the mid-twenties with experiments by Warner Bros. and Fox in America, Gaumont-British in England, and Tobis-Klangfilm in Europe initiated yet another spate of closely imitative theater-film collaborations. In the early thirties in France, many theatrically-oriented theater playwrights and directors, such as René Clair (1898–1981), Marcel Pagnol (1895–1974) and Sacha Guitry (1885–1957), filmed their own plays and/or staged their stories along theatrical models—notably Clair's operetta-like Le Million (1931), Pagnol's Marius-Fanny-César trilogy (1931–1936) and Guitry's Faisons un rêve (Let Us Do a Dream, 1937) and Le Roman d'un tricheur (The Story of a Cheat, 1936). Germany's storied Ufa studios (Universum Film Aktiengesellschaft) in Babelsberg was the site for numerous early 1930s musical extravaganzas, notably Der Kongreß Tanzt (Congress Dances) in 1931. In America in the late 1920s, Daniel Frohman and Adolph Zukor joined forces again, this time to collaborate on Paramount's Interference (1928), the first all-talking theatrical feature film. In a virtual repeat of their earlier pronouncements, they proclaimed a new era in theater-film cooperation. "No more will our best plays be confined to the few big cities," declared Frohman, speaking from the screen. "These plays, with their stirring drama enhanced by the richness of the human voice, will go to the whole world." By 1930 hundreds of film records of short vaudeville sketches, feature-length dramas, revues, and musical shows were once again flooding the movie houses. Actors with stage-trained voices forsook the stage and flocked to the East and West coast movie studios to face the dreaded "King Mike" (the label alluding to the primitive microphone technology of the day). Variety estimated that more than 205 stage personnel were working in the East and West Coast studios, including fifty-one playwrights, seventeen stage and dance directors, and ninety-five actors.

The most extensive collaborative endeavor at this time was Paramount's construction of sound stages in Astoria, New York, for the purpose of bringing nearby Broadway performers, directors, and producers as various as Fanny Brice (1891–1951), Rouben Mamoulian (1897–1987), and Florenz Ziegfeld (1867–1932) to the screen in their current stage successes. The years 1929 and 1930 saw theater and film directors work side by side in the filming of the Marx Brothers' The Cocoanuts (1929), The Dance of Life (1929, based on the play Burlesque), The Doctor's Secret (1929, based on James Barrie's Half an Hour), and many others. Warner Bros., in addition to bringing Broadway stars like Al Jolson to the screen and constructing a sound stage of its own in New York for theatrical adaptations—of its approximately one hundred talkies and part-talkies released by 1930, fully one-third were theatrically related—went into partnership with the Shubert brothers to finance stage productions in order to acquire advance film rights. This promised a double benefit to Warner—a ready-made supply of theatrical properties and a chain of legitimate houses in which to exhibit them. "An offer nowadays by a picture firm to bankroll a stage producer is very common," Variety reported on September 19, 1928. "The dialogue picture maker calculates it could produce a stage play, erect prestige for it by a Broadway run, and [photograph] the play, sending it on the road, but in the picture houses"(p. 5). (This move was later terminated on legal grounds by the Dramatists Guild.) "I believe that the plays I was doing in the theatre might be looked upon as 'high-brow,"' opined prominent Broadway actor George Arliss (1868–1946), who brought his Disraeli to the screen in 1929; "[and] there is no doubt that a considerable percentage of the people that came to see me in the theatre never went to the movietones [sic] at all.… The Warner Brothers realized that these lost sheep must be collected and brought into the fold.…" (p. 12).

To a significant degree, many of these theatrical shorts and features continued the tradition of close imitation of stage properties that had been seen—and subsequently abandoned—in silent photoplays. Whereas in the silent days this imitation had been largely a matter of intent, now it was a technical expedient. The cramped confines of the early sound stages and the limitations of the primitive microphones led at first to a "canned" product that was static and lifeless. Just as critiques of the silent films had included complaints that dialogue and expository titles retarded the action and that exaggerated acting styles jarred with the intimacy of the camera lens, now foes of the talkie photoplays rejected the audio-visual pleonasm of the synchronous union of image and sound, the "long photographic discussions between characters" and action that "had a repeated tendency to become too talkie and motionless."

Variety's complaint in a review dated 13 March 1929 about The Letter (1929), in which Jeanne Eagels (1894–1929) recreated her stage role, that the film was "entirely a transcription of a stage work and the cinema version does little to make the subject matter its own" (p. 14) was typical. Writing in the New York Times, 28 July 1929, Italian playwright Luigi Pirandello (1867–1936) argued that in trying to transform itself into a theatrical event, films could never become more than a "bad photographic and mechanical copy" of a given play. And, as had happened before, several important theoretical works appeared addressing the new challenges to theatrical and cinematic identity. Joining Pirandello were Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) and Vsevolod Pudovkin (1893–1953) in Russia, Abel Gance (1889–1981) and René Clair in France, and Edmund Goulding (1891–1959) and George Jean Nathan (1882–1958) in America.

And, as had happened fifteen years earlier, the ticket-buying public in America again seemed to agree. By 1930 they were turning away from tedious, stage-bound adaptations such as The Letter in favor of films like Mamoulian's Applause (1929), an original screenplay that blended theatrical elements with a more cinematic nonsynchronous conjunction of image and sound. And while they embraced several of the new stage-trained actors, notably Bette Davis, Spencer Tracy, Edward G. Robinson, and the Marx Brothers, they dismissed many more, such as Ruth Chatterton and Hal Skelly.


It is a mistake to regard this thirty-year period as primarily a series of misguided intentions and artistic and commercial failures for both the theater and cinema establishments. Quite the contrary. Not only did thousands of plays and players reach a public to which they would otherwise have been unavailable, but the consequences of these collaborations resulted in a reassessment of each medium's artistic and commercial priorities and an exploration of alternative modes of expression. The appearance of Queen Elizabeth in France and Cecil B. DeMille's The Squaw Man (adapted from the play by Edwin Milton Royle, 1914) in America spearheaded the acceptance of feature-length films and attracted the attention of important dramatic critics. Moreover, these attempts at close theatrical imitation, lamentable as they might have seemed, served to throw into even higher relief the unique effects and propensities of the film medium. When the otherwise stagebound The Count of Monte Cristo displayed a few scenes in natural locales, audiences applauded. Likewise, the Belasco plays adapted by DeMille and the Lasky Feature Play Company held out possibilities for exterior filming that could not be realized on stage but which could be fully exploited on film, thereby encouraging more filmmakers to quit the confines of the studio and shoot in natural locations.

Conversely, the theater's confrontation with the photographic realism of the cinema presented it with several alternatives. On the one hand, turn-of-century playwrights such as David Belasco and Eugene Walter (1874–1941) produced plays that attempted to rival the film spectacle (The Girl of the Golden West, 1905; film version 1915) and the intimate drama (The Easiest Way, 1909; film version 1917). On the other hand, as if in recognition of the folly of this sort of rivalry, the anti-realist movement, which had already begun in Europe in the 1880s with the symbolist theater of Stéphané (1842–1898) and Maurice Maeterlinck (1862–1949) at the Théâtre d'Art and the Théâtre de l'Oeuvre, gained headway in the new century in Paris with the experiments of Jacques Copeau's Theatre du Vieux Colombier, in Russia with Nikolai Evreinov Mallarme (1879–1953) and Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874–1942) at the Moscow Art Theatre, and in Germany with the expressionist theater of Ernst Toller (1893–1939) (Man and the Masses) and Georg Kaiser (1878–1945) (the "Gas" Trilogy), in Italy with the Futurist "synthetic drama" of Filippo Marinetti (1876–1944) (Feet and They Are Coming, 1915) and in America with the expressionist-influenced works by Elmer Rice (1892–1967) (The Adding Machine, 1923), John Howard Lawson (1895–1977) (Processional, 1924), and Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953) (The Emperor Jones, 1920 and The Hairy Ape, 1922). O'Neill was only one of many playwrights and producers who were outspoken in their rejection of cinema, referring to it as "holding the family Kodak up to ill-nature." He wrote, "We have taken too many snapshots of each other in every gracious position; we have endured too much the banality of surfaces" (Cargill, p. 525).

b. Cecil Antonio Richardson, Shipley, Yorkshire, England, 5 June 1928,
d. 14 November 1991

Stage and screen director Tony Richardson was a major shaping influence in British theater and film during the 1950s and 1960s. Born the only child of a pharmacist in the West Riding region of Yorkshire, he was educated at Ashville College, Harrogate, and Wadham College, Oxford. After earning a B.A. in English Literature in 1951, he enrolled in the Director Training Program at the British Broadcasting Corporation. During the next four years he not only directed several notable television productions, including Shakespeare's Othello (1955), but completed his first film, a short independent documentary called Momma Don't Allow (1955), which helped inaugurate the iconoclastic Free Cinema movement.

Richardson brought this rebellious attitude to the stage when he and George Devine co-founded the English Stage Company and its performing arm, the Royal Court Theatre, in 1956 and promptly discovered British playwright John Osborne, whose bitterly sardonic attacks on social and political mores in Look Back in Anger (film 1956, 1958) and The Entertainer (film 1957, 1960) revolutionized virtually overnight the face of contemporary British theater. Richardson adapted both plays to the screen for his own production company, Woodfall Films.

For the rest of his career, Richardson continued to divide his energies between the stage and screen in both Europe and Hollywood. His theatrical projects included Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (film 1960, 1961) and a groundbreaking version of Hamlet at the Roundhouse Theater in Camden Town (both of whom he later adapted to the screen). But it is his screen work upon which Richardson's reputation primarily rests today. His movies may be divided into three groups—his literary adaptations (Tom Jones, 1963; A Delicate Balance, 1973; The Hotel New Hampshire, 1984); his original films (The Charge of the Light Brigade, 1968; The Border, 1982; and Blue Sky, 1994); and his television projects (A Subject of Scandal and Concern, 1960; Beryl Markham: A Shadow on the Sun, 1988).

"Perfection is not an aim," proclaimed Richardson about his work in Free Cinema and in the theater. "We reserve the right to fail." For awhile, those brave words fueled the brilliant experiments of his early career. However, his stubborn and unpredictable individuality, coupled with a penchant for spontaneity and a zest for bizarre humor, led to the erratic achievements of his later years. Critics savaged the caricatured humor of The Loved One (1965), the alleged pompousness of A Delicate Balance and the grotesquerie of Hotel New Hampshire.

Richardson's last film, Blue Sky, anindictmentof American nuclear testing, was well received. However, the accolades came too late. Completed in 1990, the film was shelved for almost five years before its release. Richardson, in the meantime, had died from complications of AIDS in 1991.


Mama Don't Allow (1955), Look Back in Anger (1958), The Entertainer (1960), A Taste of Honey (1961), The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (1962), Tom Jones (1963)


Osborne, John. Almost a Gentleman: An Autobiography, Vol. II, 1955–1966. London: Faber & Faber, 1991.

Radovich, Don. Tony Richardson: A Bio-Bibliography. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1995.

Richardson, Tony. The Long-Distance Runner: A Memoir. New York: Morrow, 1993.

Walker, Alexander. Hollywood, UK: The British Film Industry in the Sixities. New York: Stein and Day, 1974.

Welsh, James M., and John C. Tibbetts, eds. The Cinema of Tony Richardson: Essays and Interviews. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1999.

John C. Tibbetts

Ironically, many of these antirealistic or anti-naturalistic alternatives found their roots, or at least their parallels, in cinematic precedents. Pudovkin compared Meyerhold's experiments in fractured scenes with the montage practices of film. Munsterberg related the non-linear sequencing in several plays to cinematic flashback techniques. O'Neill confessed that a viewing of Das Kabinett des Doktor Caligari (The Cabinet of

Dr. Caligari, 1920)—itself a cinematic record of German expressionist theater—"sure opened my eyes to wonderful possibilities I had never dreamed of before." Motion pictures as much as antirealist theater directly influenced the stage work of other American playwrights, like Rice and Lawson.

Meanwhile, motion pictures were being incorporated into stage presentations as early as 1896 when, according to the North American Review, projected films were utilized as scenic "backdrops." Writing in the September 1896 issue, George Parsons Lathrop speculated that the movies could render "painted scenery unnecessary in plays performed by flesh-and-blood actors" and "heighten theatrical verisimilitude" (p. 377). Before turning exclusively to film production, stage magician Mélièsincorporated film footage into his platform performances at the Theatre Municipal du Chatelet and the Olympia Theatre. This practice was carried forward by German entrepreneur Erwin Piscator (1893–1966), who not only incorporated newsreels into his plays, notably Hurrah, We Live! (1927), but boldly called upon producers and writers to use films to provide atmosphere, such as lighting effects and moving back-drops, that would help to over come the staticillusion of the stage.


A century of theater-film interaction has seen many stage-trained directors, writers, and performers whose motion pictures bear the traces of their theatrical experience and sensibilities. In the silent period, David Wark Griffith quit the life of an itinerant player to score a spectacular success in the burgeoning film industry with smash hits The Birth of a Nation (1915) and Way Down East (1920) (both based on stage plays) in America. Mauritz Stiller (1883–1928) and Victor Sjostrom (1879–1960) quit the stage to make popular films like Erotikon (1920) and K̈ orkarlen (The Phantom Carriage, 1921), respectively, for the Svenskfilmindustri in Sweden. Maurice Tourneur (1876–1961) left the French independent theater entrepreneur André Antoine (1858–1943) to come to America and direct the Mary Pickford vehicles The Poor Little Rich Girl (1917) and The Pride of the Clan (1917). After working with Max Reinhardt's (1873–1943) Deutsches Theater, Ernst Lubitsch (1892–1947) emigrated to America where he inaugurated the modern sophisticated sex farce with The Marriage Circle (1924) and Lady Windemere's Fan (1925). Sergei Eisenstein's experience with Vsevelod Meyerhold and the Moscow Art Theatre led to his revolutionary agit-prop films like Bronenosets Potyomkin (Battleship Potemkin, 1925).

The coming of sound brought to the screen a fresh crop of stage-trained directors who went on to make many popular films either adapted from plays or at least consistently displaying a theatrical sensibility. Some, like George Cukor (1899–1983) and James Whale (1896–1957), turned their backs on the stage in 1929 and devoted the rest of their careers to cinema. Others moved with equal success between theater and film. Rouben Mamoulian shifted effortlessly from premiere Broadway productions of Porgy and Bess and Oklahoma! to cinematic classics Applause (1929), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1931), and Love Me Tonight (1932). Orson Welles's (1915–1985) notoriety with the Mercury Theater productions in the mid-1930s led to an invitation from RKO to Hollywood, where, in addition to directing the groundbreaking Citizen Kane (1941) he made several Shakespearean adaptations, including Macbeth (1948) and The Tragedy of Othello (1952). After co-founding the Actors Studio with Lee Strasberg and instituting its famous "method" acting techniques, Elia Kazan (1909–2003) directed some of his greatest stage success for the screen, notably A Streetcar Named Desire (1951). Sidney Lumet's (b. 1924) background in New York's Yiddish Art Theatre led to directing television dramas in the early

1950s and his breakthrough film, Twelve Angry Men (1957).

In England, the success of the Royal Court Theatre in the 1950s spurred Tony Richardson (1928–1991), Karel Reisz (1926–2002), and Lindsay Anderson (1923–1994) to bring to the screen adaptations of plays by a new generation of playwrights of the time, such as Look Back in Anger (1958) and The Entertainer (1960), by quintessential "angry young man" John Osborne (1929–1994). In Italy, before he directed the landmark Ladri di biciclette (The Bicycle Thieves, 1948), Vittorio De Sica (1901–1974) was a popular stage actor—a profession he continued to practice between subsequent directing assignments. Similarly, actor Laurence Olivier (1907–1989) not only enjoyed a long career in the movies and also brought Shakepeare's Henry V (1944), Hamlet (1948), and Richard III (1955) to the screen. More recently, Kenneth Branagh (b. 1960) has continued Olivier's legacy with a dual career in theater and film, directing Henry V (1989) and Much Ado About Nothing (1993). Italians Luchino Visconti (1906–1976) and Franco Zeffirelli (b. 1923) have maintained dual careers in opera and film, occasionally bringing their own stage versions to the screen. And, of course, in Sweden Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918) continued to work steadily in theater, opera, and film. His film adaptation of Mozart's The Magic Flute (1975) remains one of cinema's most transcendent theatrical adaptations.

Many of today's foremost playwrights have also worked extensively, with varying degrees of success, in both theater and film. Clifford Odets (1906–1963), the best known of America's social protest playwrights in the 1930s, shifted uneasily between Harold Clurman's Group Theatre, for which he wrote Waiting for Lefty and Awake and Sing! (both 1935), and Hollywood. Although well paid for his film scripts for None but the Lonely Heart (1944), Humoresque (1946), Deadline at Dawn (1946), and Sweet Smell of Success (1957), he hated his work in cinema. However, his Hollywood experiences did inspire one of his strongest plays, The Big Knife (1949), which was adapted to the screen in 1955 by Robert Aldrich. In England, Harold Pinter (b. 1930), John Osborne (1929–1994), David Hare (b. 1947), and Tom Stoppard (b. 1937) have written many screenplays, including adaptations of their own works—respectively, Butley (1974), Look Back in Anger (1958), Plenty (1985), and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1990). The American playwright who most parallels their careers is David Mamet (b. 1947), who has directed several original screenplays, including House of Games (1987) and his own adaptations of classic plays, such as Terence Rattigan's The Winslow Boy (1999). Two stage-trained directors, Sam Mendes (b. 1965) and Julie Taymor(b. 1952), have demonstrated a distinctive flair for the cinema, respectively, directing the Oscar® -winning feature American Beauty (1999) and Titus (2000), a wildly post-modernist adaptation of Shakespeare's Titus Andronicus.

Undaunted by the restrictions of the proscenium stage and wholly cinematic in their vision of the theatrical translation to film, these new directors and writers were poised at the beginning of the twenty-first century to carry forward the tradition of intelligent dramatic adaptation. Doubtless, the advancements of 3-D and digital technology will bring new challenges to the process that will continue to redefine the very nature of that relationship.

SEE ALSO Acting;Adaptation;Collaboration;Early Cinema;Silent Cinema


Allen, John C. Vaudeville and Film, 1895–1915: A Study in Media Interaction. New York: Arno Press, 1980. Original edition published in 1977.

Ball, Robert Hamilton. Shakespeare on Silent Film: A Strange Eventful History. New York: Theatre Arts Books, 1968.

Brewster, Ben, and Lea Jacobs. Theatre to Cinema: Stage Pictorialism and the Early Feature Film. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert R. Findlay. Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama Since 1870. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1973.

Brownlow, Kevin. Hollywood: The Pioneers. New York: Knopf, 1979.

Fell, John. Film and the Narrative Tradition. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1974.

"The Fine Arts: The Kinetoscope." The Critic 24, no. 638 (12 May 1894): 330.

Grau, Robert. The Stage in the Twentieth Century. New York: Broadway Publishing Company, 1912.

Harrison, Louis Reeves. "Stage Plays." Moving Picture World (11 April 1914): 185.

Lindsay, Vachel. The Art of the Moving Picture. New York: Macmillan, 1915.

McLaughlin, Robert. Broadway and Hollywood: A History of Economic Interaction. New York: Arno Press, 1974.

Patterson, Joseph Medill. "The Nickelodeon: The Poor Man's Elementary Course in the Drama." Saturday Evening Post 180, no. 21 (23 November 1907): 10–11.

Tibbetts, John C. The American Theatrical Film: Stages in Development. Bowling Green, OH: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1985.

Vardac, A. Nicholas. Stage to Screen: Theatrical Method from Garrick to Griffith. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949.

John C. Tibbetts


views updated May 23 2018


American theater between 1870 and 1920 falls into two distinct but overlapping periods. The last third of the nineteenth century is characterized by an America of booming growth in numbers, size, and commercial activity, and all of those factors affected the theater. As a result theatrical activity exploded, with touring companies taking productions to every city and hamlet. For the most part, American plays continued to hew to a melodramatic format. The first two decades of the twentieth century, by contrast, find American theater searching for new directions, finding inspiration in European models, and taking steps toward international acclaim and influence.


After the Civil War the United States experienced enormous population growth. In addition, people were moving to the cities, further concentrating the population centers. The country grew in size, as well, with eleven states added between 1870 and 1912. The settling of the western territories turned the public's attention in that direction, and many plays during the period focused on frontier action, thus developing uniquely American characters and themes.

Despite the expanded map, in many ways America seemed to become smaller and more tightly knit as advances in communication and transportation made the populace more immediately aware of what was occurring in other parts of the land. The first transcontinental telegraph line, completed in 1861, drew the east and west coasts together, dramatically increasing the speed of news reporting and business transactions. Other innovations such as faster and larger presses contributed to the popularity and significance of newspapers. Advertising, reviews, and news reports publicized the theater while theatrical trade journals such as the New York Dramatic Mirror disseminated professional information and promoted the business activities of theater.

The importance of railroads to late-nineteenth-century troupers can hardly be overemphasized. The transcontinental railroad was completed in 1869, and by the end of the century nearly 200,000 miles of track crisscrossed the land. Ease of transportation changed the way theater was produced: instead of touring stars arriving in town to play with resident companies of actors, as was the norm before the war, postwar theater saw the emergence of "combinations" in which whole productions toured from city to city.

The postwar economic boom put discretionary money into the pockets of prospective patrons, which allowed them to take advantage of entertainment opportunities, including not only plays but also lavish circuses and Wild West shows. Another factor that contributed to the flowering of theatrical entertainment was a rapidly changing moral climate. America's postwar, cosmopolitan attitude accepted entertainment as a valid and worthwhile pursuit, a distinct change from the puritanical, prewar moral code.


Two trends that moved together in the last third of the nineteenth century were the emergence of the dominant producer-director, who frequently wrote plays as well, and advances in realism in theatrical production. One of the first of the influential managers was Augustin Daly (1838–1899), who first gained prominence with the melodrama Under the Gaslight (1867), which featured a hero bound to a railroad track, rescued by a plucky heroine. Among his ninety-plus plays, usually written in collaboration with his brother Joseph, were Horizon (1871), which utilized Bret Harte–like characters in a western setting and helped to fashion a vogue for plays set on the frontier, and Divorce (1871), a social comedy based on the impending divorces of two sisters and the shenanigans of a conniving divorce lawyer.

Actor-playwright William Gillette (1853–1937) is best known for three plays: Held by the Enemy (1886) involved a sinister spy story set during the Civil War, Secret Service (1895) employed a similar suspenseful situation, and Sherlock Holmes (1899) adapted the stories of Arthur Conan Doyle to create a tense detective drama. Gillette, who played the lead role in most of his plays, incorporated lengthy descriptions of the set and the stage business in his scripts to emphasize realistic detail.


The following list gives the names of some of the best-known performers of late-nineteenth-century and early-twentieth-century American theater in addition to the role, the play, and the year of the first performance for which the performer was most famous.

Maude Adams (1872–1953). Peter Pan. Peter Pan (1905)

Margaret Anglin (1876–1958). Ruth Jordan. The Great Divide (1906)

Ethel Barrymore (1879–1959). Madame Trentoni. Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1901)

Lionel Barrymore (1878–1954). Milt Shanks. The Copperhead (1918)

Blanche Bates (1873–1941). Cho-Cho-San. Madame Butterfly (1900)

Edwin Booth (1833–1893). Hamlet. Hamlet. (1865)

Leslie Carter (1862–1937). Maryland Calvert. The Heart of Maryland (1895)

George M. Cohan (1878–1942). Johnny Jones. Little Johnny Jones (1904)

William H. Crane (1845–1928). Senator Hannibal Rivers. The Senator (1890)

Minnie Maddern Fiske (1864–1932). Cynthia Carslake. The New York Idea (1906)

William Gillette (1853–1937). Sherlock Holmes. Sherlock Holmes (1899)

Ned Harrigan (1845–1911). Dan Mulligan. The Mulligan Guard Ball (1879)

Joseph Jefferson III (1829–1905). Rip Van Winkle. Rip Van Winkle (1865)

Julia Marlowe (1866–1950). Barbara Frietchie. Barbara Frietchie (1899)

Frank Mayo (1839–1896). Davy Crockett. Davy Crockett (1872)

James O'Neill (1846–1920). Edmond Dantès. The Count of Monte Cristo (1883)

Annie Pixley (1855–1893). M'liss. M'liss, Child of the Sierras (1878)

Annie Russell (1864–1936). Major Barbara. Major Barbara (1905)

Otis Skinner (1858–1942). Hajj. Kismet (1911)

Denman Thompson (1833–1911). Joshua Whitcomb. The Old Homestead (1886)

A multitalented man of the theater, Steele MacKaye (1842–1894) was a playwright, actor, architect, inventor, and theatrical visionary. His most famous play was Hazel Kirke (1880), an unconventional but extremely popular domestic drama in which Hazel, after a falling out with her father, attempts suicide.

The actor, playwright, and producer Ned Harrigan (1845–1911) composed farcical comedies set in the teeming melting pot of New York City. Harrigan's plays, in which he played the leads—in tandem with Tony Hart, who enacted women's roles—featured the antics of Dan Mulligan and his Irish friends. Comedies such as The Mulligan Guard (1873), The Mulligan Guard Ball (1879), and The Mulligan Guard Nominee (1880) threw the Irishmen into humorous conflict with the Germans, Italians, Chinese, and African Americans who shared the lower- and middle-class city landscape. At their best, Harrigan's plays provided a uniquely American comedy, with caricatures based on direct observation of New York life.

Perhaps no one is better known for stage realism than David Belasco (1853–1931), who wrote some seventy plays—often in collaboration with other authors—and produced numerous others. Among his most famous works are Madame Butterfly (1900), the touching story of an innocent Japanese woman deserted by her American lover, and The Girl of the Golden West (1905), which paired Minnie, a feisty bartender in a frontier mining town, with her outlaw lover, Ramerrez. Both plays were adapted to opera by Giacomo Puccini. Other important Belasco works include The Heart of Maryland (1895), in which the heroine saves her lover by preventing a curfew bell from ringing, and Zaza (1898), the tale of a saucy music-hall singer. Successful as they were, by the turn of the century Belasco's plays were regarded as old-fashioned because of their reliance on melodramatic devices. As a result, Belasco is primarily remembered for his realistic staging techniques and for his sophisticated lighting.

Two brothers, Charles and Daniel Frohman, were among the most powerful theatrical producers of the time. Daniel (1851–1940) produced fashionable plays in New York from 1880 until his retirement in 1909. He implemented a system of road companies to tour major cities while the original hit was still playing in New York. His brother, Charles (1860–1915), who produced Bronson Howard's huge hit, Shenandoah, in 1888, was perhaps even more successful. In 1896 he joined with five other men to form the Theatrical Syndicate, a monopoly that exercised control over writers, performers, and theater managers throughout the country. The syndicate proved enormously efficient and profitable until outmaneuvered by the Shubert brothers—Sam S. (1877?–1905), Lee (1875–1953), and Jacob J. (1879–1963). The Shuberts began producing shows in New York in 1900, and by 1916 they had become the most dominant theatrical producers in America, with several theaters in New York and over a hundred more throughout the country under their ownership or control.


Between 1870 and 1920 the movement from formulaic melodrama to more realistic presentations is apparent. Early writers followed the lead of Irish-born Dion Boucicault (1820–1890), a master of melodramatic convention, who was still composing plays such as The O'Dowd (1873), in which an estranged father and son both sacrifice to restore their relationship, and The Shaughraun (1874), which features the daring escapades of an Irish hero.

In a similar melodramatic vein lay the plays of Bartley Campbell (1843–1888), perhaps the most popular American playwright of the early 1880s. Campbell was especially noted for his flowery, sentimental dialogue, exemplified by his most famous line, spoken by the distraught heroine of The White Slave (1881) as she refuses the villain's immoral proposition: "Rags are royal raiment when worn for virtue's sake, and rather a hoe in my hands than self contempt in my heart" (p. 227). Campbell also had success with My Partner (1879), a quintessential mining-camp play that owed much to the writings of Bret Harte.

Another prolific playwright at the end of the nineteenth century was Owen Davis (1874–1956), who wrote more than a hundred melodramas beginning with Through the Breakers in 1899. After The Family Cupboard in 1913, however, Davis switched styles, abandoning melodrama in favor of a more modern, realistic mode; his 1923 play, Icebound, depicting the disillusionment of a New England family, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. Bronson Howard (1842–1908) is credited as the first author in the United States to make his living as a playwright, and that accomplishment earned him the title "Dean of the American Drama." Howard was one of the first dramatists to use the expanding world of American business as a backdrop for his plays. In Young Mrs. Winthrop (1882), Howard's heroine feels deserted by her workaholic husband, and The Henrietta (1887) cleverly mixes the business and familial rivalries of a stockbroker father and his two aspiring sons. Some of Howard's nearly twenty plays were social comedies, such as One of Our Girls (1885), which dramatized differences between French and American women as they looked to become engaged, and Saratoga (1870), whose hero falls into farcical adventures with four women, against the backdrop of a fancy resort.

Howard's most popular and financially rewarding play, however, was Shenandoah (1888). Moving from Charleston at the start of the Civil War to the Shenandoah Valley later in the campaign, Howard skillfully employs the backdrop of the war to follow the fortunes of lovers whose devotion is complicated by sectional allegiances. Although he showed little concern for drama as literature, Howard helped to raise the stature of the playwright by founding the American Dramatists Club (1891) and by advocating better copyright protection for dramatic work.


The popular melodrama of the late nineteenth century depended on conventional moral standards or ideals—that all mothers should love their children and vice versa, for example, or that all marriages are good and should last. Melodrama employs sentimental dialogue, stock characters, and exciting actions—for example the hero about to be sawn in half in Daly's The Red Scarf (1868)—which stretch the bounds of logic in order to reinforce the conventional moral world. Realism in theater, on the other hand, emphasized life as it actually existed. Sets and lighting mimicked the real world, aiming at photographic precision; social problems were addressed with unflinching candor; character, language, and behavior were based on an emerging understanding of human psychology rather than on moral guidelines of right and wrong. Hence, in James A. Herne's Margaret Fleming (1890), the title character refuses to take back her philandering husband.


Numerous writers labored to break free of the constraints of melodrama and create a more realistic drama. The leader is this development was William Dean Howells (1837–1920), a novelist, critic, and author of thirty-six plays, a dozen of which were oneact social comedies involving the intertwined lives of two couples, the Robertses and the Campbells. Howells's witty dialogue and attention to detail satirized the tradition-bound lives of the protagonists. In The Garroters (1885) Edward Roberts mistakenly strangles old Mr. Bemis, and in Five O'Clock Tea (1887) Willis Campbell woos a young widow.

Even more than his plays, which garnered only mild success, Howells's critical writings were instrumental in championing a new style and earning him the designation "The Father of American Realism." Expounding his theories in Criticism and Fiction (1891), Howells called for a truthful representation of life. He condemned verse drama, old-fashioned devices such as soliloquies and asides, and contrived action. Howells also insisted that drama was a literary form and should be treated as such.

Lauded by Howells, James A. Herne (1839–1901) made the transition from melodrama to realism in his own writing. His first plays were melodramatic collaborations with David Belasco, such as Hearts of Oak (1879), but his most famous work was the controversial Margaret Fleming. Although not a commercial success, Margaret Fleming signaled an important step forward in realistic character and detail. Like Howells, Herne wrote critically about the drama as a literary form. In "Art for Truth's Sake in the Drama" (1897), Herne argued that drama had a "higher purpose" (p. 370) than mere entertainment, and he encouraged dramatists to pursue "large truth" and "humanity" (p. 362).


Many dramatists who followed the precepts of realism espoused by Howells and Herne proved more able in the writing than either of them. That was especially true of Augustus Thomas (1857–1934), whose sixty-plus plays featured carefully elaborated scenes of American life. Two of his major works were set in frontier areas. In Mizzoura (1893) focuses on a good-hearted sheriff whose love interest rejects his attentions for those of a dashing outlaw. In Arizona (1899) a gallant army officer accepts the blame for a theft he did not commit in order to spare the honor of a rancher's wife. Other prominent works included The Copperhead (1918), in which Lionel Barrymore achieved stardom as an Illinois farmer posing as a Confederate sympathizer, and The Witching Hour (1907), which explored hypnotism and mental telepathy.

Thomas often visited the sites of the action to develop authentic characters and details for the scenery and the story. He also pioneered the use of the dramatic anticlimax. While other authors sought to end an act with a dramatic flourish and a riveting tableau, Thomas preferred to close with his characters' reactions to a dramatic situation. Thomas had his scripts published as literature, a rather novel idea at the time, made possible by copyright legislation passed in the 1890s.

In the first years of the twentieth century, theater managers tried to duplicate the success of Arizona, the largest-grossing play up to that time, by producing other frontier dramas such as Edwin Milton Royle's The Squaw Man (1905), in which a dutiful Indian maiden kills herself in order to liberate her lover—an English lord—and their son. While The Squaw Man gained popular favor, a much more highly acclaimed frontier play premiered the following year. Written by William Vaughn Moody (1869–1910), The Great Divide (1906) immediately raised the bar for native drama. In its startling first scene Ruth Jordan, confronted by three desperadoes, promises herself to Stephen Ghent, the least undesirable of the trio, if he will protect her from the other two. He does, and Ruth goes off with him, but her puritanical upbringing undermines their attempts to create a real marriage. Moody's great contribution lay in his ability to infuse his drama with intelligent thematic dimension, contrasting the paralyzing inhibitions of the East with the freedom of expression and fullness of life in the West.

Another writer known primarily for one play was Langdon Mitchell (1862–1935). The New York Idea (1906) satirizes love and marriage among the upper crust as one couple renews their affection while a second decides to divorce. Mitchell's sophisticated dialogue and his rather scandalous comments on marriage and divorce caused some critics to compare him to George Bernard Shaw.

A much more prolific writer was Clyde Fitch (1865–1909), who, in his nearly sixty plays, wrote on a wide variety of subjects in an almost equally wide range of styles. Nathan Hale (1898) treated historical material, and The Cowboy and the Lady (1899) told a western story. Captain Jinks of the Horse Marines (1901) starred Ethel Barrymore in a sprightly comedy, and The Climbers (1901) satirized New York social life. In his best work, Fitch focused on individuals whose social vices bring on serious consequences. Jenny Tillman's jealousy almost leads to her suicide in The Girl with the Green Eyes (1902), and Becky Warden's constant lying nearly causes the dissolution of her marriage in The Truth (1906). Though a failure in New York, The Truth played successfully in London and in Europe, gaining Fitch an international reputation. In The City (1909) Fitch suggests that the city environment provides an evil influence on susceptible small-town innocents, as a father's infidelity results in tragic consequences for his children.

Another play constructed sturdily around the vice of the main character is Eugene Walter's (1874–1941) The Easiest Way (1908), in which John Madison pledges to marry the free-living and free-loving Laura Murdock when he has enough money, providing Laura ends her relationship with wealthy Willard Brockton. Walter's examination of Laura's failure to remain true to John demonstrated both structural skill and psychological insight.

Edward Sheldon (1886–1946) helped to nudge American drama toward social realism. His early plays included Salvation Nell (1908), a portrait of a faithful woman amid the rough and tumble world of New York's roughest precincts. Sheldon's detailed depiction of the squalid conditions of inner-city life earned critical praise. In The Nigger (1909) Sheldon wrote of a southern governor who learns that his grandmother was a Negro slave—a fact that, if known, would doom his political career—and in The Boss (1911) Sheldon dealt with business and politics as his hero, an Irish American labor leader, confronts the aloof, well-connected pillars of society. Sheldon's attempts to dramatize the plight of the disadvantaged members of society were unfortunately undermined by his reliance on sentimental plot devices.

Rachel Crothers (1878–1958) began her playwriting career with The Three of Us (1906), an unusual frontier play in that it was set in a completely developed western town with all the amenities of civilization. Like almost all her plays, it focuses on a fully realized female character who deals with the world on her own terms. Over the next twenty-five years, Crothers offered a new play almost every season. In A Man's World (1909), which examines the different standards applied to men and women, the heroine learns that her suitor is the father of her adopted child. He and She (1911)—in which sculptor Ann Herford gives her designs to her sculptor husband in order to care for her troubled daughter—explores the sacrifices a working woman is forced to make to support her family. Crothers's body of work presents a virtual case study of the thoughts and feelings of women in the first third of the twentieth century.


As in the serious plays and social comedies, farce and satire in the late nineteenth century also developed a flair for local color and careful detail. Charles Hoyt (1860–1900), a member of the New Hampshire legislature, wrote about small-town politics in a series of madcap farces that anticipate George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart. He satirized the temperance movement in A Temperance Town (1892) and lampooned home guard companies in A Milk White Flag (1893). In A Texas Steer (1894) he lambasted Washington politics, as newly elected Texas representative Maverick Brander moves with his family to the big city. Much of Hoyt's political commentary, like that of Will Rogers, retains a surprisingly modern relevance, and his A Trip to Chinatown (1891) became the longest-running play of the nineteenth century (657 performances) by combining his own clever observations with popular songs and setting them against the appealing backdrop of San Francisco's Chinatown.

Writing a few years after Hoyt, George Ade (1866–1944) continued the same tradition by finding humor in middle America. The College Widow (1904) and Just Out of College (1905) used education and football as the subjects for comedy, while in The County Chairman (1903) a love affair plays out amidst a scandalous small-town political campaign.


The rapid expansion of railroad lines in late-nineteenth-century America made possible the development of large-scale outdoor circuses and extravagant special shows. Phineas T. Barnum (1810–1891) joined up with James A. Bailey (1847–1906) in 1880 to create the three-ring Barnum and Bailey circus, the self-proclaimed "Greatest Show on Earth." The five Ringling Brothers challenged the supremacy of the Barnum and Bailey circus and eventually bought it out. During their heyday, the circuses brought incredible entertainment to virtually every town and hamlet in the United States.

One of the most influential and successful of the huge outdoor extravaganzas was the Wild West show assembled by William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody (1846–1917). From its inception in 1883 until Cody's death, the Wild West regaled audiences in America and throughout Europe with its exciting view of frontier events and activities.


One of America's most distinctive theatrical forms—musical comedy—developed during this period after the 1866 production of The Black Crook, a forerunner of the genre with its combination of lavish sets, music, and chorus girls in revealing costumes. Several influences on the American musical were foreign imports. The music in operettas by Jacques Offenbach (1819–1880) such as La Perichole (1868) enchanted American audiences in the 1870s and 1880s. After the 1879 American debut of HMS Pinafore, the British team of W. S. Gilbert (1836–1911) and Arthur Sullivan (1842–1900) emerged as the most prominent and popular writers of operettas. American musical influences at this time included the minstrel show—a pre–Civil War concoction of song, dance, and blackface comedy that continued to be popular throughout the nineteenth century—and a spate of small-scale pieces that featured a wide range of songs and dances assembled around a loose plot and designed to feature skilled performers. One of the most popular of these sprightly confections was The Brook, cobbled together by Nate Salsbury (1846–1902) and his Troubadours in 1879.

The early part of the twentieth century continued to demonstrate European influences on the American musical. The Irish-born, German-educated Victor Herbert (1859–1924) regaled audiences with hits such as Babes in Toyland (1903) and Naughty Marietta (1910). Czech-born Franz Lehár (1870–1948) wrote The Merry Widow, which was so popular in New York in 1907 it created a fad for Viennese operetta that lasted until World War I.

Revues—variety shows that featured songs, dances, comic routines, and elaborate sets and costumes but with no real plot or story—also gained popularity at this time. Florenz Ziegfeld (1869–1932) produced his first Follies revue in 1907, and he followed that success with several more editions that introduced talents such as "Funny Girl" Fanny Brice (1891–1951) and the humorist Will Rogers (1879–1935). Just before World War I new talents emphasizing American musical ideas began to emerge in the musical theater field, as Irving Berlin (1888–1989) wrote his first score for the revue Watch Your Step in 1914 and Jerome Kern (1885–1945) wrote scores for a series of small scale musicals including Very Good Eddie (1915).

Other threads that contributed to the development of the American musical included the comedies of Harrigan and Hart and the beginnings of vaudeville. American variety shows after the Civil War had become somewhat disreputable, so when Tony Pastor (1837–1908) opened a New York theater in 1881, he sought to attract a family audience with clean amusements. The combination of singing, dancing, and comic routines proved enormously popular, and soon vaudeville performers had their own theaters and circuits throughout the country. One of the largest and most influential vaudeville circuits was operated by Edward F. Albee (1857–1930) and Benjamin F. Keith (1846–1914).

No commentary on the musicals and comedies of the period would be complete without a mention of George M. Cohan (1878–1942). Cohan wrote some fifty plays, many of them musicals. Among the most notable were Little Johnny Jones (1904), which featured his signature song, "Yankee Doodle Dandy;" Forty-five Minutes from Broadway (1905), and Broadway Jones (1912). Cohan used a brassy acting style to create a distinctive American character—a wisecracking, street-smart city kid.


Although many new plays emerged during this period, the classics—especially Shakespeare—were always popular. Noted Shakespearean actor Edwin Booth (1833–1893) retired for a time after his brother, actor John Wilkes Booth, assassinated Abraham Lincoln in 1865, but he reemerged to great acclaim with his own theater in 1869 and cemented his reputation as the greatest American tragedian of the mid-nineteenth century. Other well known classical actors in the last years of the century included the physically powerful John McCullough (1832–1885), and Laurence Barrett (1838–1891), who was one of the first Americans to emphasize historical accuracy in sets and costumes.

Starting in 1882, the British actor and manager Henry Irving (1838–1905) toured numerous Shakespeare plays throughout the United States, and his careful direction and lavish staging had great influence on American production. The early part of the twentieth century was dominated by Richard Mansfield (1854–1907), an American who staged lavish productions of Shakespeare as well as new scripts; Scottish-born Robert Mantell (1854–1928), who continued the older style of passionate declamation; and especially the engaging team of E. H. Sothern (1859–1933) and Julia Marlowe (1866–1950), who were particularly popular in the comedies.


The exploding immigrant population during this period provided a receptive audience for foreign stars who played in languages other than English. The Italian actor Tomasso Salvini (1829–1916), who made several American tours, enacted Othello in his native tongue while the rest of the cast spoke English. Salvini's countrywoman, Eleanora Duse (1859–1924), brought her considerable talents to plays such as Camille and Henrik Ibsen's Ghosts in American tours between 1893 and 1924. The great French actress Sarah Bernhardt (1844–1923) made numerous profitable and influential tours through the United States between 1880 and 1917. America fostered a variety of non-English companies and performers, one of the most significant being the Latvian native Jacob Adler (1855–1926), who produced plays in Yiddish. Adler also fathered several children who followed him into the theater, the most prominent being the actress and teacher Stella Adler (1903–1992).


The turn of the century brought even more foreign influences to the United States. Plays by George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906), at first derided by critics as clownish and unpleasant, began to find an understanding audience. The theories and designs of Adolphe Appia (1862–1928) and Edward Gordon Craig (1872–1966) gained currency, with a new emphasis on light and shadow, platforms, and abstraction. Theater practitioners learned about the work of André Antoine's (1858–1943) Théâtre Libre in Paris, the Frieie Bühne in Berlin, and the Moscow Art Theater. Dublin's Abbey Theatre brought productions to New York in 1911, and Austrian Max Reinhardt (1873–1943) staged the seminal Sumurun there in 1912. The Little Theater movement spread the new ideas, and soon cities throughout the country boasted noncommercial community-based groups that prided themselves on performing contemporary work. Included among the more than fifty such groups in existence before 1920 were organizations such as the Cleveland Play House (1916), the Pasadena Playhouse (1918), and New York's Washington Square Players (1915), forerunner of the Theater Guild.

Universities also initiated serious study of theater and of drama as literature. George Pierce Baker (1866–1935) began offering playwriting courses at Harvard in 1905, and several of America's budding playwrights honed their skills under Baker's tutelage, including Philip Barry, Sidney Howard, Eugene O'Neill, and Edward Sheldon.

One of the most famous of the Little Theater groups was the Provincetown Players, which first offered plays in Provincetown, Massachusetts, in the summer of 1915. Founded by George Cram "Gig" Cook, the organization moved to Greenwich Village the next year and achieved immediate prominence producing the early work of Susan Glaspell (1876–1948) and Eugene O'Neill (1888–1953). O'Neill began to establish his reputation for the realism of his characters and the power of his dramatic situations with a series of one-act plays based on his experiences aboard tramp steamers. Those short pieces, based on his personal seafaring experiences, included Bound East for Cardiff (1916), The Long Voyage Home (1917), and The Moon of the Caribbees (1918). Glaspell wrote Suppressed Desires (1915) with Cook, her husband, and Trifles (1916), both of which explored women's psychological struggles.

In Bound East for Cardiff, Eugene O'Neill, in one of his first plays based on his own seafaring experiences, strives for realism in character and dialogue. He also seeks a kind of poetic statement as the young seaman, Yank, faces death.

The setting is the seaman's forecastle on a steam ship. YANK, a young American, is dying of an illness and DRISCOLL, a brawny Irishman, is watching over him.

YANK: You must'nt take it so hard, Drisc. I was just thinkin' it ain't as bad as people think—dyin'. I ain't never took much stock in the truck them sky-pilots preach. I ain't never had religion; but I know whatever it is what comes after it can't be no worser'n this. I don't like to leave you, Drisc, but—that's all. DRISCOLL (with a groan): Lad, lad, don't be talkin'. YANK: This sailor's life ain't much to cry about leavin'—just one ship after another, hard work, small pay, and bum grub; and when we git into port, just a drunk endin' up in a fight, and all your money gone, and then ship away again. Never meetin' no nice people; never gittin outa sailor town, hardly, in any port; travellin' all over the world and never seein' none of it; without no one to care whether you're alive or dead. (With a bitter smile.) There ain't much in all that that'd make yuh sorry to lose it, Drisc. DRISCOLL (gloomily): It's a hell av a life, the sea. YANK (musingly): It must be great to stay on dry land all your life and have a farm with a house of your own with cows and pigs and chickens, way in the middle of the land where you'd never smell the sea or see a ship. It must be great to have a wife, and kids to play with at night after supper when your work was done. It must be great to have a home of your own, Drisc. DRISCOLL (with a great sigh): It must, surely; but what's the use av thinkin' av ut? Such things are not for the loikes av us.

O'Neill, Bound East for Cardiff, pp. 48–49.

During this period American drama turned an important corner. Earlier writers had achieved a realism of character, detail, and language but seemed unable to escape the plot conventions and sentimentality of melodrama. But by 1920 O'Neill had composed his first Pulitzer Prize–winning play, Beyond the Horizon, as well as Anna Christie and the surrealistically experimental The Emperor Jones.

See alsoCircuses; Dance; The Emperor Jones; Maggie, A Girl of the Streets; Music; Realism; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Sister Carrie


Primary Works

Campbell, Bartley. The White Slave. 1881. In "The White Slave" and Other Plays, edited by Napier Wilt. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1941.

Herne, James A. "Art for Truth's Sake in the Drama." Arena 17 (February 1897): 361–370.

O'Neill, Eugene. Bound East for Cardiff. In The Long Voyage Home: Seven Plays of the Sea. New York: Modern Library, 1946.

Secondary Works

Bigsby, C. W. E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth-Century American Drama. Vol. 1, 1900–1940. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University. Press, 1982.

Dickinson, Thomas H. Playwrights of the New American Theater. New York: Macmillan, 1925.

Fyles, Franklin. The Theatre and Its People. New York: Doubleday, Page, 1900.

Laurie, Joe, Jr. Vaudeville: From the Honky-Tonks to the Palace. 1953. Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, 1972.

Mason, Jeffrey D. Melodrama and the Myth of America. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993.

Mates, Julian. America's Musical Stage: Two Hundred Years of Musical Theatre. New York: Praeger, 1987.

Matlow, Myron, ed. The Black Crook and Other Nineteenth-Century American Plays. New York: Dutton, 1967.

Moody, Richard, ed. America Takes the Stage. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1955.

Murphy, Brenda. American Realism and American Drama, 1880–1940. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1987.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. A History of the American Drama from the Civil War to the Present. New York: Appleton-Crofts, 1936.

Richardson, Gary A. American Drama from the Colonial Period through World War I. New York: Twayne, 1993.

Strang, Lewis C. Players and Plays of the Last Quarter Century. Boston: L. C. Page, 1902.

Vaughn, Jack A. Early American Dramatists from the Beginning to 1900. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1981.

Roger A. Hall


views updated May 17 2018


The history of the theater in Latin America is significantly longer than the period of the occupation by the Europeans. Before Columbus's arrival the great civilizations of the New World had developed drama and theatrical forms which satisfied ritual and aesthetic purposes. The Inca Garcilaso de la Vega refers to the comedies and tragedies of the Incas; the Aztecs had developed forms of dance and spectacle in a theatrical mode. Regrettably, none of these survived the Conquest. The only extant pre-Columbian theater piece is the Rabinal Achí, a curiously repetitious Maya drama elaborated by the K'iche' (Quiché) of Guatemala. After centuries of oral transmission it was transcribed in 1850 as the Dance of Tun and later translated into French by the Abbé Étienne Brasseur de Bourbourg. The play recounts the capture, questioning, and death of the K'iche' warrior. Although the cast is large, there are only five speaking parts and the notable feature is the parallelism that marks the principal interaction between the two warriors.

Theater may have contributed little to the conquest of the Americas, but it was vital to their colonization. The Spanish cleverly adapted indigenous artistic forms to hasten the process of converting the Indians to Catholicism, one of the two major objectives of the Conquest. The earliest recorded theatrical forms in the New World are, in fact, short religious pieces (known as autos, loas, or mojigangas) developed by the clergy, who at times distorted indigenous concepts in order to convey the tenets of Christianity, primarily for the purpose of catechization. Little evidence remains because of the ephemeral nature of these plays and the severe ecclesiastical censorship of the times. In sixteenth-century Brazil, Padre José de Anchieta wrote autos sacramentales incorporating the flora, fauna, and ethnology of the new land, in combinations of Spanish, Portuguese, Latin, and indigenous languages.

In the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, the antecedents for theater can be found in the Corpus Christi festivities of European influence and in the religious festivities of the African slaves. These celebrations originated in the slave barracks at first, then in the meeting places of free blacks where they planned their yearly Three Kings Day celebration (January 6). On that day, the Afro-descendants filled the streets with their wemileres, chants, and dances.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, a secular theater responding to the needs of the growing population began to flourish, especially in Lima and other major centers. In Hispaniola, Cristóbal de Llerena (1540–1610) wrote socially critical and comedic entremeses as early as 1588, thus becoming the first criollo playwright. In Mexico, Fernán González De Eslava wrote both religious and secular pieces, some in honor of viceregal celebrations and special events. The rapid growth and development in the theater in Spain during the golden age of Lope de Vega, Tirso de Molina, and others, provided impetus for writers in Latin America.


In the seventeenth century the theater of Latin America continued to reflect the literary traditions of Europe, and there was regular interaction between the two continents. The celebrated Spanish play-wright Pedro Calderón de la Barca visited the New World, whereas the Mexican-born Juan Ruíz De Alarcón established residency in Spain; his twenty-four plays, although claimed by Mexico as a national legacy, show little evidence of the New World in language or customs. Known as the moralist of his time, he valued human dignity, and his best plays, Las paredes oyen (1628) and La verdad sospechosa, (1634) are both didactic and entertaining.

The literary genius of the era is the Mexican nun Sor Juana Inés De La Cruz, a prodigy whose superb gift for language combined with a powerful sense of social and sexual equality to produce works with lasting value. El divino Narciso (1690) is written as an auto sacramental, and Los empeños de una casa (1683) represents the American baroque in theater. In 1990 a play attributed to Sor Juana, La gran comedia de La segunda Celestina, was discovered in the Mexican archives.

In Brazil the theater of the seventeenth century is marked by a decline of the activities of the Jesuits in presenting drama. In general the representations are linked to religious festivals or to other popular feasts or public occasions. Manuel Botelho de Oliveira is known as one of the first Brazilians to publish his works, but they are Spanish in spirit, technique, themes, and even at times in language.

Throughout the Americas the theater movement reflected the tastes and interests of the privileged classes. The theatrical artists who toured in the New World with Spanish-based productions stimulated local activity, and writers and plays in the Americas tended to echo the themes and styles of European theater.

Just as Spain failed to shine in the eighteenth century after the literary splendor of the baroque had passed, the New World showed little originality with regard to theatrical trends. In Brazil, "O Judeu" (the pen name of Antônio José da Silva) wrote satirical works caricaturing both the nobility and the church, which led to his persecution and burning at the stake. The earliest theater pieces from Argentina are Siripo (1789), by Manuel José de Lavardén, and the anonymous El amor de la estanciera (ca. 1792), which is recognized as a humble precursor of the gaucho drama. In Mexico, Eusebio de Vela (1688–1737) wrote comedias for his Coliseo de Mexico.


The Wars of Independence that rumbled across Latin America between 1810 and about 1825 did little to break the cultural ties with Spain. Theater fare often consisted of adaptations or translations of European works, and the neoclassical tendencies of the period served didactic purposes, with an emphasis on reason rather than on emotion. In Buenos Aires the Sociedad de Buen Gusto was founded in 1817 to develop an autonomous theater in this fledgling provincial capital, but it survived only two years. As both playwright and actor, Luis Ambrosio Morante (1775–1837) was responsible for its first production, Cornelia Bororquía (1817), one of several plays that dealt with conflicts between civil and religious power. In Mexico the celebrated novelist José Joaquín Fernández de Lizardi (1776–1827) wrote didactic, neoclassical plays. However, an examination of indigenous texts transcribed and published in this century demonstrates that indigenous theater was kept alive through memory and oral tradition and used techniques of subterfuge, linguistic plays, and double entendres to protest colonial rule. An example of this is Nicaragua's El Güegüense (El macho-ratón), a satirical drama considered to be one of Latin America's most distinctive colonial expressions. Written probably in the seventeenth or eighteenth century in a mixture of Spanish and Nahuatl, and performed with music and dance, it was first published in English in 1883 based on Karl Herman Berendt's fusion of two versions owned by Dr. Juan Eligio de la Rocha, Nicaragua's first linguist. The most reliable source available is Carlos Mantica's 2001 edition, transcribed directly from españahuat (a mixture of Spanish and Nahuatl) to contemporary Spanish. UNESCO declared this "play" a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.

Throughout the colonial period (1500s–1800s), indigenous theater coexisted with other theatrical trends. Late twentieth-century publications in colonial studies have unearthed previously unpublished dramas, revised outdated translations, and worked with new sources and critical tools to provide more reliable transcriptions. These revisionist scholarly works begin to show the literary/artistic qualities of these dramas as well as the ways in which they provide access to the indigenous colonial experience. Moreover, borrowing from performance studies, these publications show how indigenous colonial theater can be used to study the expressive culture of the colonized. As a result, rather than focusing on these performances solely as tools for catechization, they demonstrate how the indigenous lived in a contact, hybrid zone characterized by the negotiation of power and authority between the cultures of the conqueror and the conquered. An excellent example of this work is the four-volume series-in-progress Nahuatl Theater, edited by Barry D. Sell and Louise M. Burkhart.

In Brazil, King João VI ordered the construction of the Royal Theater after his flight from the Napoleonic invasion, in order to transplant his favorite Italian operas to Rio de Janeiro. The first play by a Brazilian with a national theme is Antônio José, ou O Poeta e a Inquisição (1838) by Domingos José Gonçalves de Magalhães, written as a classical tragedy to express his disgust with the new school of romanticism.

While romanticism was sweeping the European continent, its arrival in Spain and Latin America was arrested by political issues in both sites. In 1833 the Mexican expatriate Manuel Eduardo de Gorostiza (1789–1851) brought his masterpiece, Contigo pan y cebolla, back to Mexico as a satirical view of the excessive sentimentalism and idealization of the romantic mode. When the Cuban playwright (born in the Dominican Republic) Francisco Javier Foxá (1816–1865) wrote Don Pedro de Castilla in 1836, he became the first Romantic playwright of Latin America. In Lima in 1837, Father Antonio Valdez reportedly "discovered" an ancient Inca text, Ollantay, but its European structure led critics to conclude that he had written the text based on ancient themes and legends. From the 1830s to the 1870s the theater was still nourished largely by European themes and techniques. There was a cleavage between exotic and chivalric revivals of European inspiration and incipient efforts to identify customs, deeds, and values of the Americas. The new political and literary freedom of the period generated polemical initiatives to use the stage for propaganda.

The most representative Mexican playwrights of the period reflected both tendencies: Fernando Calderón (1809–1845) generally escaped Mexican boundaries in a search for esoteric European fancies, while his compatriot Ignacio Rodríguez Galván (1816–1842) looked to the traditions and legends of the New World, as in Muñoz, Visitador de México (1838). The brutality of the Juan Manuel de Rosas dictatorship in Argentina stifled a free theater development, but while in exile in Bolivia, Pedro Echagüe (1821–1889) staged his version of Rosas (1851), full of political invective and recrimination. At home the theater tended to be adulatory or to follow the sentimental, exotic, or satiric-regionalistic models of the romantic period. In Cuba, the most important playwright of the period, Gertrudis Gómez de Avellaneda (1814–1873), is also claimed by Spain given that many of her plays were written and staged to great success there. While influenced by the Romanticism of the period, her works (Baltazar and Saul, for example) question and invert the Romantic hero and heroine.

The monarchy in Brazil created an entirely different political climate, and Brazilian works ranged from escapist theater to social commentary, advocating, for instance, the abolition of slavery. The most important was Martins Pena, who with wit and grace developed the comedy of manners, leaving a dramatic legacy that captured the essence of Brazilian customs and values in the mid-nineteenth century.

The disparities in the latter part of the century are even more pronounced throughout the Americas. Just as neoclassic modes survived into the Romantic period, the Romantic modes continued well into the period in which realism characterized the novel and a new psychological base, inspired by Sigmund Freud and Henrik Ibsen, underscored the Spanish theater known as the alta comedia, which tried to capture a realistic view of life. The Mexican playwrights José Peón Contreras (1843–1907) and Manuel José Othón (1858–1906) exemplified the period with facile verses and Romantic excesses. In Brazil a new theater modeled on the Gymnase in Paris, where the repertoire of French realism triumphed, enjoyed a brief period of enthusiastic support for its thesis plays on important social issues of the time, but it was superseded by the success of the revista (review), a light and comical form popularized by the prolific Artur Azevedo (1855–1908), whose talent for spontaneity, improvisation, and popular psychology ensured success for his farces and satires about Brazilian customs and politics.

The Caribbean saw the apogee of the highly popular teatro bufo or vernáculo (humorous/vernacular theater) in contrast to the European realistic tradition. This blackface theater started around the 1850s in Havana with Francisco Covarrubias (1755–1850), considered the father of Cuban theater. The plays present stock characters—the learned free black, the Spanish merchant, and the mulata—and through the use of choteo, or humor and political satire, they aimed to critique the petite bourgeoisie that wanted independence from Spain while maintaining slavery. Puerto Rico also had a popular tradition of comedy and satire with plays presented in open-air corrales. Alejandro Tapia y Rivera (1826–1882) became the region's first important playwright. In La Cuarterona he started a long tradition of plays dealing with racial difference.

In the latter part of the century, in the Río de la Plata region, there developed the sainete criollo (creole burlesque or farce), a theatrical form driven by the moral values, social problems, and ethnic complications of an area rapidly settled by European immigrants, and derived from the indigenous and gaucho traditions. When Eduardo Gutiérrez's novel Juan Moreira was adapted for the circus by the Uruguayan clown José Podestá in 1884, the door was opened to a new combination of the Spanish picaresque traditions and local elements full of both life and sadness. Likewise, the Dominican Virginia Elena Ortea (1866–1903) transformed the Spanish zarzuela to advocate equal rights for women in Las feministas.


The foregoing emphasis on Mexico, Brazil, the Caribbean, and the Río de la Plata in no way is meant to suggest a lack of theatrical activity in other countries, all of which have their own rich histories, reflecting the strong influence of European models. It is really in the twentieth century that the theater of Latin America took on a unique and original quality that allowed it to stand with the best of world drama. Latin American theater staged its multidimensionality as it navigated the difficult waters of negotiating aesthetic and political interests. On the one hand, there was a search for and enrichment of a Latin American specificity within this continent's different historical and economic moments. On the other, there was a continuous and sustained process of devouring and transforming the European avant-gardes in order to avoid the divide between the aesthetic and the political.

In much of Latin America the nineteenth-century traditions continued well into the new century. The exception was the Río de la Plata area, where the picturesqueness of the European migration fused with the national atmosphere to provide raw material for the modernized sainete, embodied in the plays of the Uruguayan Florencio Sánchez. In such dramas as La gringa (1904) and Barranca abajo (1905), he mel-ded the concerns of people struggling with their ambience and their own shortcomings into dynamic models that set the standards for his generation. Roberto Payró (1867–1928), Gregorio Laferrère (1867–1913), and Ernesto Herrera (1886–1917) continued the sainete tradition.

The impetus for a modernized theater originated in Mexico in 1928 when Salvador Novo and Xavier Villaurrutia, with the patronage of Antonieta Rivas Mercado, launched the Teatro de Ulises, a vanguard theater that brought to Mexico the latest techniques in staging, lighting, and direction. Earlier efforts by the Grupo de los Siete Autores had made some progress, but had not succeeded in breaking the old traditions of the prompter's box or the domination by the primary actor or actress. The new experimental format required a small theater, electric lighting, memorized text, and coordination by the director of all elements of the performance. Other Mexican groups, such as Orientación, quickly followed suit in the effort to establish these universal phenomena in the national aesthetic consciousness.

During the 1930s and into the early 1940s, similar initiatives of modern/national theater projects sprang up throughout the Latin American republics. Theater rejected the outmoded realist tradition that characterized the previous decades of the century. In Argentina the work of Leónidas Barletta with the Teatro del Pueblo had the double objective of modernizing theater craft and delivering a social message. With this group Roberto Arlt, a major playwright long undervalued, staged such plays as Saverio el cruel (1936), which incorporates metatheatrical concepts with elements of class conflict.

The renovation occurred in Puerto Rico in 1938 when the Ateneo Puertorriqueño presented three plays selected by Emilio Belaval for their national themes. The national conscience of Puerto Rico was awakened by the desire for social reform for the displaced jíbaro (hillbilly) or the immigrant to New York. Belaval's short-lived group, Areyto, was soon followed by others with the same objectives. In Cuba, the staging of Virgilio Piñera's Electra Garrigó in 1948 marked the beginning of a modern theatrical trend. His False Alarm, published in 1949, predates Ionesco's The Bald Soprano and is thus considered the first absurdist play in Latin America.

The Brazilian theater was characterized during these years by revues, farces, operettas, and burlesque, represented by authors continuing the traditions of Artur Azevedo. Although the Semana de Arte Moderna in 1922 revolutionized Brazilian letters, its impact was not felt in the theater. During the 1930s the theater of Jo racy Camargo explored sociopolitical theories of class struggle. Change came through Os Comediantes's brilliant staging of Nelson Rodrigues's multilevel Vestido de noiva (1943) by the Polish-emigré director Zbigniew Ziembinski, who had been trained in German Expressionism.

A curious aspect of the Chilean theater movement was that the renaissance occurred through the universities. In 1941 at the University of Chile and in 1943 at the Catholic University of Santiago, semiprofessional theater companies were established to bring to the Chilean stage the principles espoused by Margarita Xirgú with her touring productions of Federico García Lorca's plays.

All of these experimental and independent initiatives, combined with those of other countries, laid the groundwork for the boom in Latin American theater that took form in the 1950s and 1960s. The play by the Argentine Carlos Gorostiza, El puente, which premiered in 1949, moved from the experimental stage to the commercial stage in 1950, marking the beginning of a new era. Throughout the Americas, conditions favored an expansion in the theater, and playwrights and directors responded to the challenge with exciting new plays in imaginative stagings. Their numbers were legion. Their objectives, however, were amazingly cohesive: to bring to the Latin American theater a new sense of its own identity, capturing the national and human spirit through believable characters who manifested the social, political, religious, and personal conflicts of individuals in modern societies.

Not all plays, naturally, were masterpieces, but the new generation included those who produced the contemporary canon: Emilio Carballido and Luisa Josefina Hernández (Mexico), Osvaldo de Dragún and Griselda Gambaro (Argentina), Jorge Díaz and Egon Wolff (Chile), René Marqués and Francisco Arriví (Puerto Rico), José Triana, Abelardo Estorino, and Antón Arrufat (Cuba), and a host of others. Their experiments with lights, music, sound, and movement were inspiring to a new generation of directors, including Jorge Lavelli and Jaime Kogan (Argentina), Julio Castillo and Juan Tovar (Mexico), Isaac Chocrón (Venezuela), José Lacomba (Puerto Rico), Orlando Rodríguez (Chile), Zbigniew Ziembinski, Luciano Salce, and José Celso (Brazil), and many others.

This expansion continued virtually unchecked into the 1960s, national differences duly noted, when Latin Americans began to seek inspiration not so much from the traditional European or American sources as from within Latin America itself and to develop the creación colectiva (theater developed by the group). The year 1968 marks a critical juncture when theater festivals were organized in Lima, Peru; San José, Costa Rica; Mexico City; and Manizales, Colombia, the latter an event that has continued into the twenty-first century. These festivals developed a sense of solidarity within the Latin American theater community, providing groups with the opportunity to be seen and to see and to draw from the best of their counterparts.

At the same time, in contrast with the "well-made plays" of the 1950s and early 1960s, the theater again became more experimental, reacting against bourgeois standards in favor of a more egalitarian system. Directors assumed a less authoritarian role in order to allow actors to create their own works collectively, especially in those cases where groups felt that plays capable of expressing their sociopolitical aims were not available. Drawing on the models set by the Living Theatre and the Berliner Ensemble, the manifestations of the creación colectiva in Latin America are as varied as the groups that represented them, but some are exemplary. In Brazil, Augusto Boal established the Teatro de Arena in 1965 using the teatro de coringa, a form that allowed great flexibility in putting actors into direct contact with the staging and the public. Boal, at times in exile, later developed a journalistic theater, an invisible theater, and an image theater under the broad rubric of "theater of the oppressed." Teatro Aleph (Chile), Libre Teatro Libre (Argentina), CLETa (Mexico), Yuyachkani and Cuatrotablas (Peru), and many others experimented with similar politically oriented theatrical forms. The most developed activity was in Colombia, where the TEC (Teatro Experimental de Cali) under the direction of Enrique Buenaventura and La Candelaria (Bogotá) founded by Santiago García, Patricia Ariza, and Carlos José Reyes, developed coherent methodological systems for inverting traditional bourgeois structures.

The Cuban theater followed the typical Latin American patterns until the revolution of 1959 transformed theater not only in Havana but throughout the island. In 1961 the Conjunto Dramático de Oriente was founded. They worked within the tradition of the teatro de relaciones, a mode of popular street theater dating back to colonial times. This theater uses tragicomic elements and simple scenery, and it borrows music and dance elements from the carnival as expressive forms. Afro-Cuban playwrights such as Eugenio Hernández Espinosa became active participants in the nascent revolutionary theater scene. His first play, María Antonia, gained critical attention in 1967. A tragedy set within the revolution with a marginalized Afro-Cuban woman as a protagonist, the play staged for the first time elements of Afro-Cuban culture previously absent in the theatrical tradition. By the late 1960s, Cuban cultural policies were dictated by the hard-liners, and the revolution began to use the theater as an instrument for social change. Writers such as José Triana and Antón Arrufat fell from favor and were replaced by the collectives such as Teatro Escambray, a group formed in the mountains to address social issues at a popular level within the new government structure. Some playwrights such as Matías Montes Huidobro, Eduardo Manet, and Julio Matas went into exile, while many who remained in Cuba were ostracized until the early 1980s. With major funding for art schools and theater academies throughout the island, the theater movement has flourished in Cuba. In spite of ideological constraints, Cuban theater is extremely reflexive and offers a critical outlook of national problems while it experiments with new forms.

By the mid-1970s, the Southern Cone found itself under authoritarian, military regimes. Dictatorships and their subsequent neoliberal economic policies profoundly transformed theater activity. On the one hand, repression and censorship forced many playwrights into exile and decimated independent theater movements by transforming a number of theater practitioners into "disappeared." On the other, official policies favored and supported a commercial theater that focused primarily on entertainment. Alternative theaters resisted and contested official discourse and fought to keep the memory of the disappeared alive through plays characterized by oblique, indirect language. In Chile, Oscar Castro, one of the few survivors of El Aleph theater group, was able to stage plays in detention camps during the first years of the dictatorship. Later, Juan Radrigán focused on disenfranchised groups through stagings in places outside of the professional theater scene. The theater group ICTUS was able to present plays by Marco Antonio de la Parra, David Benavente, and Isadora Aguirre after 1979. Ramón Griffero founded the group Fin de Siglo after returning from exile in 1983. He staged a number of his plays at El Trolley, a clandestine space that used to be the union hall for Santiago's trolley workers. In Argentina, the experiment with Teatro Abierto in Buenos Aires in 1981, spearheaded by Oswaldo Dragún, was a collaboration originally among twenty playwrights and twenty directors of different generations and political affiliations who rejected the military regime. They staged Argentina's psychological and sociopolitical reality of the 1980s by recuperating first theatrical spaces that the dictatorship had transformed into commercial theaters and then public spaces with street theater and other popular community art forms, thus giving a new impetus to the Argentine theater. Uruguay's Teatro El galpón returned from exile in 1984.

The politicization of the theater in Latin America throughout the 1970s and 1980s did not replace other forms entirely. While the influence of Bertolt Brecht was ubiquitous, Artaudian strains of total theater were also common, as were occasional remnants of theater of the absurd. Some playwrights experimented with ritual and game-playing, and metatheatrical forms kept pace with a new insistence on documentary-style drama. A new generation of playwrights emerged, including Vicente Leñero, Oscar Liera, and Oscar Villegas (Mexico); José Ignacio Cabrujas and Román Chalbaud (Venezuela); Eduardo Pavlovsky, Ricardo Talesnik, and Diana Raznovich (Argentina); Marco Antonio de la Parra (Chile), Roberto Ramos-Perea (Puerto Rico); Reynaldo Disla (Dominican Republic); Roberto Athayde, Naum Alves de Sousa, and María Adelaide Amaral (Brazil); and many others.

By the early 1990s and into the new millennium, the restoration of democratic governments in most countries relieved some political problems, but the crushing economic issues brought on by inflation and the debt crisis, coupled with overpopulation, inadequate social programs, and the narcotics traffic, produced a paradoxical situation whereby, on the one hand, greater imbalances in Latin America's social spheres were accentuated and, on the other, the cultural sphere tried to be homogenized. Theater as a reflection or abstraction of its surroundings in the early twenty-first century is trying to find a new voice and a place from which to create. Several expressions of "testimonial theater" were produced, such as Uruguay's plays by Marianela Morena that try to reconstruct the lives and keep alive the memory of the disappeared. Chile's Teatro de la Memoria and Argentina's Teatro por la Identidad focused on those who do not know their past because they were taken away from their parents by the military regimes.

Perhaps the most important innovation since the early 1990s has been the encounter of theater with other cultural forms such as film, video, and dance. Whether it is performance, intermediality, image theater, or what many call postdramatic theater, the written word is replaced by the image. Rather than theater being a representation rooted in a dramatic text, these new expressions are based on performativity and on the body's relationship to other spaces. In Argentina, Daniel Veronese, Alejandro Tantanian, and Ricardo Bartis with El Periférico de Objetos transform the stage into a lab in which they work in a border zone where the objects become object texts, object gestures, and object sounds. In Cuba, this break occurred in the late 1980s with Flora Lauten's Teatro Buendía and its emphasis on experimentation as an essential principle of artistic creation. Víctor Varela in 1987 presented in his living room La cuarta pared, a nonverbal piece that marked a radical rupture in Cuban theater and prompted discussions that went beyond aesthetics to ethical and ideological concerns. Incorporating Afro-Caribbean religious elements, Tomás González developed "acting in trance," in which "actors" follow a powerful psy-chophysical training until they assume or "mount" their "characters" as in a Santería ritual. Fátima Patterson works in the same tradition with Teatro Macubá in Santiago de Cuba, a project that focuses mainly on Caribbean women. In Colombia, Heidi and Rolf Abderhalden's Mapa Teatro uses nonconventional spaces and transforms architecture into the dramatic, thus breaking away from traditional notions of representation. Rosa Luisa Márquez and Antonio Martorell from Puerto Rico also work between theater and the visual arts, transforming materials and audiences through play and creative activities, thereby turning passive viewers into active participants in utopian mini-societies. Tanya Bruguera (Cuba), Diamela Eltit (Chile), Jesusa Rodríguez and Astrid Haddad (Mexico), Elia Arce (Costa Rica-U.S.), Josefina Baez (Dominican Republic-U.S.), and Coco Fuscó and Carmelita Tropicana (Cuba-U.S.) are some artists who use performance to intervene politically as they challenge patriarchy, hetero-normativity and repressive regimes. In all of these instances, the classic actor's role of "as if" is transformed into the performer's "being in" the present; representation gives way to presentness and performativity.


Documentation on theater has become increasingly sophisticated in the early twenty-first century as critics and scholars respond to new challenges. A rash of new journals regularly publishes analytical and informational items, including Conjunto and Tablas (Cuba), Apuntes (Chile), Teatro (Argentina), Revista Teatro (Colombia), Tramoya (Mexico), Latin American Theatre Review, Ollantay Theater Magazine, Gestos, and Diógenes: Anuario Crítico del Teatro Latinoamericano (United States; now defunct) and La Escena Latinoamericana (Canada), not to mention Primer Acto, which provides excellent coverage of Latin America. Some of these include Latino theater in the United States. There are also many online journals in such as Dramateatro Revista Digital, Revista Digital de la Escena, Teatro en Línea, Revista Telón, and e-misférica. Digital theater and performance archives are also being developed. The most important ones are the Hemispheric Institute Digital Video Library (Diana Taylor and New York University), the Cuban/Latino Theater Archive (Lillian Manzor and University of Miami), and the Hugo Salazar del Alcázar Video Theater Collection (Luis Ramos-García and University of Minnesota).

Many of the above artists and critics have led the workshops offered by the Escuela Internacional de Teatro de América Latina y el Caribe (EITALC). Founded in Havana in 1987 by Oswaldo Dragún, it is a Latin American nongovernmental institution with a pedagogical and itinerant nature. Since its first workshop in Machurrucutu, Cuba, in 1989, the school has offered workshops in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Ecuador, Mexico, Nicaragua, Uruguay, and Venezuela, as well as Denmark, Germany, Italy, and the United States, thus fostering development and exchange among Latin American theater practitioners. In 1995 the EITALC was recognized as a UNESCO chair in Latin American Theater. The EITALC has been coordinated by Ileana Diéguez from Mexico since Dragún's death in 1999.

See alsoAnchieta, José de; Arlt, Roberto; Arriví, Francisco; Arrufat, Antón; Boal, Augusto; Díaz, Jorge; Dragún, Osvaldo; Gambaro, Griselda; Gorostiza, Manuel Eduardo de; Hernández, Luisa Josefina; Leńero, Vicente; Literature: Brazil; Literature: Spanish America; Magalhães, Domingos José Gonçalves de; Marqués, René; Novo, Salvador; Oliveira, Manuel Botelho de; Rabinal Achi; Sánchez, Florencio; Triana, José; Villaurrutia, Xavier; Villegas, Oscar; Wolff, Egon.


The standard works in the field are eight companion volumes titled Historia del teatro hispanoamericano; see especially José Juan Arrom, Época colonial (1966); and Frank Dauster, Historia del teatro hispanoamericano (siglos XIX-XX), 2nd ed. (1973). Leon F. Lyday and George Woodyard edited a volume of essays on major playwrights, Dramatists in Revolt: The New Latin American Theater (1976).

An indispensable four-volume overview of the field was published in Spain by the Centro de Documentación Teatral: Moisés Pérez Coterillo, ed., Escenarios de dos mundos: Inventario teatral de Iberoamérica (1988).

The rate of growth in documentation is evident in several excellent publications: Severino João Albuquerque, Violent Acts: A Study of Contemporary Latin American Theatre (1991); Ronald D. Burgess, The New Dramatists of Mexico, 1967–1985 (1991); Gerardo Luzuriaga, Introducción a las teorías latinoamericanas del teatro (1990).

Additional Bibliography

Alder, Heidrun, and George Woodyard, eds. Resistencia y poder: teatro en Chile. Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2000.

Alder, Heidrun, and Adrián Herr, eds. Extraños en dos patrias: Teatro latinoamericano del exilio. Frankfurt: Vervuert, 2003.

Pelletieri, Osvaldo, ed. Itinerarios del teatro latinoamericano. Buenos Aires: Galerna, Facultad de Filosofía y Letras, 2000.

Pelletieri, Osvaldo, ed. Teatro, memoria y ficción Buenos Aires: Galerna: Fundación Roberto Arlt, 2005.

Rizk, Beatriz J. Posmodernismo y teatro en América Latina. Madrid: Iberoamericana, 2001.

Rizk, Beatriz J. Teatro y diáspora: Testimonios escénicos latinoamericanos. Irvine, CA: Gestos, 2002.

Rizk, Beatriz J. "Imagining a Continent: Recent Research on Latin American Theater and the Performing Arts." Latin American Research Review 42, no. 1 (2007): 196-214.

Rizk, Beatriz J. "The Patriarchy Problem." Latin American Research Review 42, no. 2 (2007): 238-252.

Taylor, Diana. Theatre of Crisis: Drama and Politics in Latin America. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1991.

Taylor, Diana, and Juan Villegas, eds. Negotiating Performance: Gender, Sexuality, and Theatricality in Latin/o America. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995.

Taylor, Diana. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2003.

Taylor, Diana, and Sarah J. Townsend, eds. Stages of Conflict: A Critical Anthology of Latin American Theater and Performance. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, forthcoming.

Villegas, Juan. Para la interpretación del teatro como construcción visual. Irvine, CA: Ediciones de GESTOS, 2000.

Villegas, Juan. Historia multicultural del teatro y las teatralidades en América Latina. Buenos Aires: Galerna, 2005.

                                          George Woodyard

                                            Lillian Manzor


views updated Jun 27 2018


Most American writers of the nineteenth century had an important stake in the theater. Edgar Allan Poe, whose parents were actors, wrote theater reviews, had a story adapted to the stage, and refers to himself in "The Philosophy of Composition" as a "literary histrio" (p. 530). Many others, including Washington Irving, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, Bret Harte, Louisa May Alcott, William Dean Howells, and Henry James were, at some point, professional drama critics or playwrights. Specific references to theater of their day may also be found in the writings of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville, and James Fenimore Cooper. "I ought to acknowledge my debt to actors, singers, public speakers, conventions, and the Stage in New York," Whitman (1819–1992) confessed toward the end of his life, "and to plays and operas generally" (Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, p. 1289).

For Whitman the importance of the antebellum stage is wrapped up with all of the public culture of the 1830s and 1840s, the speeches and sermons, political rallies, circuses, songs, and parades. As Rosemarie Bank has written, for dignitaries and even presidents, visiting theaters to receive acclamations or to address the people was a common use of these places of assembly (p. 12). And Whitman did not hesitate to lump together performers as diverse as the actors Fanny Kemble and Junius Booth, the Quaker demagogue Elias Hicks, and the seaman-preacher Father Taylor, who was also the model for Melville's Father Mapple (Emerson called him "the Shakespeare of the sailor & the poor"). So in spite of Whitman's acknowledgment of "theatricals in literature" and his memory of the leading authors, poets, editors, and other important cultural figures of the times in the audiences, theater of this period can also seem unliterary. Theater was social in a sense that disappeared by the end of the century. The ability of the public to applaud at any time, to holler, and to throw fruits and nuts was regarded as a "right" not to be infringed. As theater riots in the first half of the nineteenth century attest, audiences felt licensed to give or withhold consent to a performance; such theater required charismatic performers more than subtle texts. For Whitman, the actors Junius Booth and Edwin Forrest were foremost among the "dramatic artists" of his youth (Complete Poetry and Collected Prose, pp. 1185–1192).


The playwrights of the mid-nineteenth century—Robert Montgomery Bird (1806–1854), Nathaniel Parker Willis, George Henry Boker, Anna Cora Mowatt, George Aiken, Augustin Daly, Dion Boucicault, and many others—are virtually unread in the early twenty-first century. As a drama critic for the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1847, even Whitman derided the drama of his day in an article titled "Miserable State of the Stage—Why Can't We Have Something Worth the Name of American Drama!" (Gathering of the Forces, pp. 310–314). He complained of the vulgarity of audiences, the problems of a "starring system" of dominant actors, the timidity of American authors who produced derivative versions of English and French dramas, and the New York press who were "slaves of the paid puff system." Yet the drama and theater of the time are socially, politically, and at times aesthetically significant. Between 1820 and 1870 hundreds of Americans wrote plays for public and private (parlor) performances, and many more of all classes attended them. In The Guide to the Stage, a handbook for would-be actors first published in 1827, Leman T. Rede lists well over eighty permanent theaters scattered across America, not to mention the churches, steamboats, and homes in which plays were also performed.

However, dramatists commonly complained that it was impossible to make a living writing plays. Before new copyright protection pushed by Bird, Boker, and Boucicault passed Congress in 1856, no law protected the staging of any play. Moreover, a manager could translate or adapt a first-rate French or British comedy and be assured of success. An original piece by an American, on the other hand, could cost ten times the price of a translation. So most plays produced in America were translations of French and German texts or British plays. The sentimental domestic plays and spectacular, heroic dramas of the German August von Kotzebue (1761–1819) were among the most popular works on the American stage. The operas of the Italians Gioacchino Rossini (1792–1868) and Vincenzo Bellini (1801–1835) were also immensely popular. Ironically, one of the most successful Americans writing for the theater in this period was a Louisiana-born Creole of color, Victor Séjour (1817–1874), who expatriated himself to Paris where his acclaimed dramas, such as Diégarias (1844) and La tireuse de cartes (1859) were performed at the Théâtre Français and the Théâtre de la Porte Saint-Martin respectively. The latter, based upon the recent kidnapping of a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, by the Vatican, was performed before an audience that included the emperor Napoleon III and Empress Eugénie and generated considerable controversy in the Catholic press throughout Europe.

On the other hand, the Irish-born Dion Boucicault (1820–1890) adapted the plot of a French play, Les pauvres de Paris (1856), to create The Poor of New York (1857), which then became The Poor of Liverpool, The Poor of Leeds, The Poor of Manchester, The Streets of Islington, and The Streets of London. The originality of the plot was less important than the new standard Boucicault set for sensationalism, lighting a house on fire in the last act and bringing a real fire truck on stage to put it out. Perhaps Boucicault's most famous and controversial "American" play, The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana (1859), like Séjour's Diégarias, which is about Christians and Jews, depicts the tragic fate of a child of a racially mixed union. Boucicault's drama seeks to capture "local color" of a southern plantation while also employing a variety of racial, ethnic, and class stereotypes. Like all of Boucicault's plays, The Octoroon, aims at a mass audience and so takes an ambiguous position on the issue of slavery. The central female character, the beautiful "tragic mulatta," Zoe, is the child of a white plantation owner and his slave mistress. Like numerous novels and plays of the period concerned with miscegenation, The Octoroon presents a highly sympathetic heroine who is compelled to die rather than consummate a love that transgresses racial barriers.

In addition to probing the limits of racial identity, the drama proved to be a richly transnational commodity in the nineteenth century, one in and through which national identity might be both insisted on and questioned. Bird's 1834 play The Broker of Bogota exhibits the ambivalence of a society (urban, capitalist, American) in conflict with inherited forms of art, courtship, and of economy, but the play is set in New Grenada. South America is a space in which the concerns of nineteenth-century Americans are recognizable but defamiliarized. For Bird, as for President James Monroe in 1823, South America is a space always geographically continuous and politically aligned with the United States. Bird, who set numerous works south of the border, was not alone in having a deep interest in the Spanish colonies. One of the most popular plays of the 1820s was Kotzebue's Pizarro in Peru, and many other plays with noticeably American themes, including speeches about democracy and opposition to kings, were set in Europe (ancient and modern). Popular British and French novels were also a rich mine for theatrical productions. The works of Sir Walter Scott, the elder Alexandre Dumas, and Charles Dickens were quickly adapted to the stage, but so were many American works (often before they were finished being serialized), such as "Rip Van Winkle" and Uncle Tom's Cabin.


By far the most popular playwright in America of this period was Shakespeare. Richard III was the most commonly performed of Shakespeare's plays in the nineteenth century and was lampooned frequently in such versions as Bad Dicky. The tragedies Hamlet, Macbeth, King Lear, and Othello went through countless productions, adaptations, and parodies (as can be seen in Twain's Huckleberry Finn), not to mention provoking a wide range of pseudo-Elizabethan verse tragedies, culminating in the Shakespearean scenes and characters of Melville's Moby-Dick. Contributing to Shakespeare's popularity was the flow of great British actors to North America. In 1846 Charles Kean brought his visually elaborate, historically "accurate" King John, Henry VIII, and Richard III to New York. King John alone cost an extraordinary $12,000 to stage and set a new standard for spectacular stagings in America (Odell 5:252). Edmund Kean, Junius Brutus Booth, Charles Kemble, Fanny Kemble, and William Charles Macready all had significant tours in the United States and some stayed. Junius Booth's sons Edmund and John Wilkes Booth were both actors whose names live on, the former becoming the greatest Hamlet of the nineteenth century and the latter assassinating President Abraham Lincoln in Ford's Theater during a performance of the comedy Our American Cousin.

As Lawrence Levine has shown, Shakespeare was popular entertainment in nineteenth-century America, when an entire evening generally consisted of a long play, an afterpiece (usually a farce), and a variety of between-act specialties (p. 21). Shakespeare was presented with and in the same spirit as magicians, dancers, singers, acrobats, minstrels, and comics. And Shakespeare parodies, such as Julius Sneezer, Hamlet and Egglet, and Much Ado about a Merchant of Venice, frequently took the form of short skits and satirical songs performed by minstrels, white actors in blackface.

The relationship between American performances of Shakespeare and minstrelsy also indicates a central problem of theatrical practice in America, an underlying anxiety about the originality of American culture. Theater in America drew upon Old World dramatic models, most notably the plays of Shakespeare, while also acknowledging the importance of slavery and race in the New, specifically in complicated appropriations of African American music and dance by white actors in blackface. The origins of such racial representations do not reside solely with whites or blacks but in relationships between the two, and the fact that Shakespeare and minstrels occupied the same stages indicates the cultural melting pot that the mid-century stage had become. African Americans, however, did not perform in theaters for whites in this period, with the exception of productions at the short-lived but important African Grove Theater in New York founded by William Henry Brown (1808–1883) in 1821. The brilliant black actors James Hewlett and Ira Aldridge (who later moved to London) performed Shakespeare's Richard III there as well as Brown's Drama of King Shotaway (1823). Aldrich's influence was felt subsequently when, for instance, the African American author and abolitionist, William Wells Brown (1818–1884), who saw Aldrich in London, gave powerful and romantic readings of his antislavery melodrama The Escape; or, a Leap for Freedom (1858). In 1823, however, the African Grove was closed by city authorities, and for most of the century blacks on stage were played or caricatured by whites.

Blackface minstrelsy originated with the white actor Thomas Dartmouth Rice, who began to perform his "Jim Crow" song and dance in 1830. Minstrel performances, the portrayal of generally happy slaves and supposed plantation culture through songs, farces, skits, mock oratory, and satire, became one of the most popular cultural forms of the century, preeminently in Stephen Foster's "Plantation Melodies." George Aiken's (1830–1876) 1852 adaptation of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, the period's greatest financial success, also drew on blackface performance and, in the character of the slave girl Topsy, on minstrel humor. In the play, unlike Stowe's novel, Topsy sings and "dances a breakdown" (Richards, p. 391). Played by a white woman in burnt cork, she speaks in black dialect, "grins," and is the source of most of the play's stage business in addition to her musical bits. Like Jim Crow and the urban dandy Zip Coon, the characters of Topsy and Uncle Tom became stock figures in minstrel performances of the nineteenth century.

Representing old and new, indigenous and foreign, Shakespeare and slavery, American theater was a crucible for the young nation's most contentious issues. As Eric Lott points out, the moment of minstrelsy's greatest popularity (1846–1854) was also a time of bitter political controversies: labor struggles in New York and other major cities, debates over the extension of slavery, the Seneca Falls women's rights convention, and the Astor Place theater riot. In short, minstrelsy and Shakespeare spoke to aspirations and anxieties of the working-class public in the urban Northeast in the years between 1830 and 1850, especially in the large playhouses in the Bowery district of lower Manhattan.


No single event reflected more deeply the complexity of the American public's relationship to topics of class and national identity than the Astor Place riot in 1849. Rival productions of Macbeth were being staged, one at the Astor Place Opera House featuring the Englishman William Charles Macready, known for his cerebral acting style, aristocratic demeanor, and allegedly anti-American comments; and one at the Broadway Theatre, featuring America's own flamboyantly patriotic Edwin Forrest. The venues themselves were weighted with ideological significance. The architecture and interior design of the two theaters reflected important class as well as artistic differences. The Astor Place, which had opened only two years earlier, was one of the most fashionable theaters in the city. It was capable of seating eighteen hundred people in the pit, dress circle, family circle, and gallery. The Broadway Theatre, on the other hand, could accommodate forty-five hundred people and had an immense pit to which only men and boys were admitted. Macready's second performance at the Astor Place Opera House (the first had been abortive) was disrupted by a large crowd of blue-collar workingmen, loafers, and "Bowery b'hoys," many allegedly supporters of Forrest. The Astor Place riot climaxed as the militia fired into a crowd that had thrown paving stones at the theater. More than twenty died, and over one hundred were injured. Aspects of the Astor Place riot inform Melville's (1819–1891) novels White-Jacket and Moby-Dick, both of which Melville wrote later that year. In White-Jacket, theatricals are actually staged on deck by the crew, and a riot ensues.

Edwin Forrest (1806–1872), generally considered the first great tragedian of the American stage, was not only a popular favorite in the United States among the working people but also was himself deeply patriotic and frequently made extravagant expressions of love for the American people. Unlike foreign stars who seemed indifferent to the development of American drama, Forrest also was famous for encouraging American dramatists by sponsoring playwriting competitions (though in controlling rights to the plays, he deprived writers of the chance to make a living beyond prize money from their work). Several important plays were written for Forrest, which he performed throughout his career. One of the most famous was John Augustus Stone's (1800–1834) Indian play Metamora; or, Last of the Wampanoags (1829). Like plays that depicted (or misrepresented) African Americans, "Indian plays" reached their highest popularity between 1829 and 1838. They represented political and national themes in terms of family drama, typically through "the traditional comedy motif of a daughter torn between her father's command and the voice of her heart with the serious theme of the end of American Indian legitimacy—the vanishing Indian" (Sollors, p. 104). Yet the lofty renditions of dying Indian chiefs also came in for burlesque, most brilliantly by the Irish immigrant John Brougham (1810–1880) who, in Metamora; or, The Last of the Pollywogs (1847), actually humanized the Indian character by portraying him in a less noble and pathetic manner. Forrest's other star vehicles included three winners by Bird: a drama of a slave revolt in ancient Rome, The Gladiator (1831); Oralloossa (1832), a play about Pizarro set in South America; and The Broker of Bogota (1834). The playwright Robert T. Conrad (1810–1858) won with Jack Cade (1841), a spin-off play about the rebel leader of the people in Shakespeare's Henry VI, Part Two.

The comic actor and pantomimist George Lafayette Fox (1825–1877) also appealed to male audiences of the Bowery, and his performances were considered to be among the greatest of his time. Unlike the performances of Forrest, Fox's generally were not interpretations of scripts. Earlier in the nineteenth century, theaters had featured spectacular pantomimes and acrobatics generally as afterpieces to more serious productions. However, in the 1830s, the Ravels, a highly acclaimed troupe of pantomimists, arrived from France to revolutionize pantomime in America, transforming it into a popular form of entertainment in its own right. In 1850 Fox, whose early roles included phrenological lecturer, hypnotist, and a proliferation of comic Irishmen, made his way to the Bowery theaters, which were gradually becoming more proletarian as the Broadway venues were becoming increasingly upscale. According to Laurence Senelick, Fox's greatest success and most lasting fame came as Humpty Dumpty. Supposed by many to be the funniest man of his day, his violent physical humor represented the brutal street life of the Bowery. His face painted with a white lead makeup that later led to his insanity and death, Fox's staging of the pantomime Humpty Dumpty at the Olympic Theatre in 1867 especially excited its audience by familiar representations of the neighborhood; the scenes included the new, as yet unfinished, courthouse in City Hall Park and even a view of the Olympic Theatre itself by night. The blend of topical humor, patriotism (the orchestra playing "Independence Day Has Come" and an old-fashioned Yankee dance, among other things), spectacular scenery, violent slapstick comedy, and ballet ensured the play's success. As Senelick remarks, "Thus was the English harlequinade assimilated to the mores of Boss Tweed's New York" (p. 141).


If Forrest and Fox sought through their acting styles and choice of plays to portray America through an overdetermined masculine ethos, there were also important women performing and writing American plays. Charlotte Cushman (1816–1876), who had originally trained as an opera singer, was generally regarded as the first great tragic actress of the American stage, often playing opposite Forrest. Cushman was well known for roles ranging from Lady Macbeth to a cross-dressed Romeo and other male parts. A different kind of actress, the sensationalistic Adah Isaacs Menken (1835–1869) was internationally famous for her starring role in the equestrian melodrama Mazeppa, which she first performed in 1861. Menken was stripped onstage to a flesh-colored body stocking, lashed to the back of the "wild horse of Tartary," and sent flying up a narrow ramp to the peak of a papier-mâché mountain. Mark Twain (1835–1910), a young newspaper reporter in the audience at one of those performances, later described how "the Great Menken came flaming out of the heavens like a vast spray of gas-jets" (p. 153). One of the most glamorous celebrities of the 1860s, Menken also wrote poetry and cultivated a literary following, befriending Walt Whitman, Charles Dickens, Algernon Swinburne, and the elder Alexandre Dumas, with whom she was rumored to have had an affair.

Most "respectable" women stayed away from the theater in the first half of the nineteenth century, unless escorted by men. Anna Cora Mowatt (1819–1870), who was born in France to a wealthy family, first attended the theater in 1831 when she saw the great English actress Fanny Kemble touring the United States. Like many young women of her class, Mowatt wrote and performed plays for her family. Private theatricals increased in popularity over the next few decades. The March family in Louisa May Alcott's Little Women (1868–1869) entertain themselves at home with an Operatic Tragedy, and many such plays were published, one example being a collection titled Amateur Theatricals and Fairy-Tale Dramas: A Collection of Original Plays, Expressly Designed for Drawing-Room Performance (1868) by Sarah Annie Frost. As Karen Halttunen has written: "Nowhere was the new direction of middle-class culture more evident than in the vogue of private theatricals that swept the parlors of America in the 1850s and 1860s. But this cultural transformation was already underway by 1845, when middle-class audiences began to gather at the Park Theatre to enjoy an evening of laughing at themselves and at each other for their increasingly fashionable social lives" (p. 153). In 1841, when her husband was financially ruined and became almost completely blind, Mowatt was convinced to read Shakespeare in public for money. She wrote and produced her most enduring work in 1845, Fashion, a comedy of manners and satire of the nouveau riche Tiffany family in New York, which also presented one of the few American dramatic types, the stage Yankee, here called Adam Trueman. At the premier the owner of the Park Theatre, John Jacob Astor, closed the third tier of side boxes to prostitutes in deference to Mowatt's high-class sensibilities. The third tier, which was later replaced by a balcony or "family circle," had been designed with semiprivate bars and separate entrances to accommodate "unescorted ladies" or "single gentlewomen" and their clientele. Properly escorted ladies sat in more prestigious, private boxes, though often still with some trepidation.

Harriet Beecher Stowe, for instance, went veiled, and with her book agent as guardian, to see a performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The theater was regarded as a dangerous place of seduction for women and men alike, and, in the minds of many, there was a relationship between the profession of the actress and that of the prostitute. It was, therefore, especially remarkable when Mowatt herself later turned to acting and became for nearly a decade one of America's foremost and highly respected actresses.

Between 1850 and 1870 new museum theaters built in New York, Boston, and Philadelphia cultivated an aura of "respectable" theatergoing. In particular they aimed to attract women and children with plays designed to inform and instruct. As Bruce McConachie writes, the American Museum of P. T. Barnum in New York and the Boston Museum of Moses Kimball appealed to the middle class, banning liquor and prostitution and presenting plays in lecture halls that eliminated the hierarchical arrangement of the pit, boxes, and gallery (pp. 162–176). The moral dramas performed in these venues ranged from temperance plays, such as William H. Smith's wildly popular melodrama The Drunkard (1844) to the abolitionist vehicle Uncle Tom's Cabin, both of which Barnum first produced. In his memoir A Small Boy and Others, Henry James (1843–1916) reflects on the excitement he experienced at Barnum's museum in New York, where he watched an early production of Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1853. The pleasant boyhood memories include the deep aromas of peppermint and orange peel and the crowded hall in which lights were now dimmed.


Most dramatic literature written before 1870, from romantic "tragedy" to moral reform drama to nationalistic comedy, has some marks of what in the early twenty-first century is thought of as melodrama, a dramatic form imported from postrevolutionary France. Peter Brooks has argued that melodrama be understood in the context of the collapse of a hierarchically cohesive society, the liquidation of the traditional sacred in France (p. 15). In the world of melodrama, traditional truths have been thrown into question and thus become personalized. Many American plays are concerned with the failure of the visible world to reflect a predictable and stable "reality." The problem of trust or the ability to know others, which resonates throughout Boker's Francesca da Rimini and Bird's Broker of Bogota, finds its fullest expression in Melville's The Confidence-Man: His Masquerade (1857). Melville makes use of theatrical forms, from highly ostentatious Shakespearean acting to blackface, to represent the social and economic uncertainties of his market-driven age. Central chapters of Moby-Dick are written in dramatic form, with dialogue and stage directions, and the nature of Ahab's dramatic excess is better understood when read in the context of contemporary acting and writing for the stage.

The hyperbolic rhetoric of melodrama indicates not only the tenuous relationship between appearance and reality but also the inadequacy of language itself to express emotional or moral truths. Melodrama privileges stage effect, grand gesture, powerful vocal utterance, and scenic display over text and, consequently, over the psychological coherence of character. As David Grimsted notes, melodrama "made light of rationality" and replaced it with "a concept of feeling or intuition" (p. 20). In Stone's Metamora tears and sighs "speak more than language could relate." This kind of theater was not so much antiliterary as it was at odds with traditional literary forms. The authors of the nineteenth century, though often ambivalent about contemporary audiences and plays, recognized in the popular theater their own chaotic world and often saw their world as theater. Whitman's close friendships with actors (he felt "almost one of their kind") and his passionate love of theater culminated in his appreciation of the great Shakespearean actor Junius Booth. Booth's "genius was to me one of the grandest revelations of my life, a lesson of artistic expression," he wrote. Nearly every American author of the nineteenth century thought deeply about theater and represented aspects of it in other literary forms. American theater was a barometer of the culture's concerns and a microcosm of American democracy.

See alsoCircuses and Spectacles; Cross-Dressing; English Literature; Humor; Satire, Burlesque, and Parody; Sensational Fiction; Taste; Uncle Tom's Cabin


Primary Works

Poe, Edgar Allen. Essays and Reviews. New York: Library of America, 1984.

Rede, Leman T. The Guide to the Stage: Containing Clear and Ample Instructions for Obtaining Theatrical Engagements. 1827. Edited by Francis C. Wemyss. New York: Samuel French, 1861.

Twain, Mark. "A Full and Reliable Account of the Extraordinary Meteoric Shower of Last Saturday Night." In The Californian: Sketches of the Sixties. San Francisco: John Howell, 1926.

Whitman, Walt. Complete Poetry and Collected Prose. New York: Library of America, 1982.

Whitman, Walt. The Gathering of the Forces: Editorials,Essays, Literary and Dramatic Reviews and Other Material Written by Walt Whitman as Editor of "The Brooklyn Daily Eagle" in 1846 and 1847. Vol. 2. Edited by Cleveland Rogers and John Black. New York: Knickerbocker Press, 1920.

Secondary Works

Ackerman, Alan L. The Portable Theater: American Literature and the Nineteenth-Century Stage. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999.

Bank, Rosemarie K. Theatre Culture in America, 1825–1860. Cambridge, U.K., and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997.

Brooks, Peter. The Melodramatic Imagination: Balzac,Henry James, Melodrama, and the Mode of Excess. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1976.

Grimsted, David. Melodrama Unveiled: American Theater and Culture, 1800–1850. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968.

Halttunen, Karen. Confidence Men and Painted Women: AStudy of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830–1870. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1982.

Levine, Lawrence W. Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence ofCultural Hierarchy in America. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1988.

Lott, Eric. Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

McConachie, Bruce A. Melodramatic Formations: AmericanTheatre and Society, 1820–1870. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1992.

Odell, George C. D. Annals of the New York Stage. 15 vols. New York: Columbia University Press, 1931.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson. A History of the American Drama. 2 vols. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1923, 1927.

Quinn, Arthur Hobson, ed. Representative American Plays from 1767 to the Present Day. 5th ed. New York: D. Appleton–Century, 1917.

Richards, Jeffrey H., ed. Early American Drama. New York: Penguin, 1997.

Senelick, Laurence. The Age and Stage of George L. Fox,1825–1877. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1988.

Shattuck, Charles H. Shakespeare on the American Stage:From the Hallams to Edwin Booth. Washington, D.C.: Folger Shakespeare Library, 1976.

Sollors, Werner. Beyond Ethnicity: Consent and Descent inAmerican Culture. New York: Oxford University Press, 1986.

Alan Ackerman


views updated May 18 2018


Although modern theater in Russia was imported from Europe in the seventeenth century, earlier traditions demonstrate the importance of spectacle in Russian lives. Russians participated in numerous rituals associated with life transitions, such as marriages, births, and deaths, as well as seasonal agricultural rites. These rituals had both pre-Christian and Christian origins. From the eleventh until the mid-eighteenth century, both elite and peasant Russians were most often entertained by skoromokhi, musicians whose singing, dancing, puppetry, acrobatics, and animal acts included bawdy material that was reviled by the Russian Orthodox Church. Western-style theater arrived in Russia in the mid-seventeenth century when Tsar Alexei and his court enjoyed numerous foreign performers in various genres, and the first court theater operated from 1672 to 1676.

Theater expanded as westernization accelerated in the eighteenth century. In addition to court theater, public theaters flourished in many cities in the first half of the century. The Kunst-Fuerst theater, considered the first public theater, staged translations using German actors from 1702 to 1706. Educational institutions established school theaters, the most influential of which operated in the Land Forces Cadet School. Its productions in the early 1750s included the works of Alexander Sumarokov (17181777), who also translated and directed plays in the style of classicism, the dominant trend in Europe at that time. Fyodor Volkov (17291763) organized a theater in Yaroslavl and moved his troupe to St. Petersburg in 1752. In 1756 Tsarina Elizabeth incorporated Volkov's troupe into the Russian State Theater (the future Alexandrinsky Theater). Sumarokov directed this first state-subsidized theater, and Volkov played the leads. Dramatic works of the era included comedies, chivalry tales, biblical adaptations, and plays that glorified the monarchy and Russian Empire. Monarchs typically believed that theater should serve a didactic function, an assumption that continued well into the twentieth century.

These trends continued during the reign of Catherine II in the second half of the eighteenth century. She built the Hermitage Theater in the Winter Palace. After the creation of the Imperial Theatrical School in 1779, Russian-born professional actors increasingly appeared on stage. Beginning in 1783 the Administration of Theaters oversaw and censored public theatrical activity. In addition to court theaters, St. Petersburg (and Moscow early in the next century) boasted heavily subsidized imperial theaters. Many provincial cities also maintained popular public (narodnye ) theaters that reached a broad audience with a diverse repertoire. Count Peter Sheremetev and other wealthy nobles also operated private serfs' theaters, which did not come under state supervision. Playwright Denis Ivanovich Fonvizin (17451792) is credited as the founder of authentically Russian drama, best exemplified by his comedy The Minor (1781). Classicism eventually gave way to sentimentalism, a style that emphasized emotion over reason.

Under Nicholas I, who reigned from 1825 to 1855, the Imperial Theater Administration developed an extensive series of rules and regulations for all aspects of theatrical activity. In spite of severe censorship, several outstanding dramas were written in an increasingly realist style. Alexander Griboedov (17941829) completed Woe from Wit (1824), an examination of the alienation of young disillusioned army officers who were scorned by a corrupt and superficial Russian elite after the Napoleonic wars. Other major Russian writers of this era wrote plays along with other genres. Alexander Pushkin (17991837) penned dramatic scenes, most notably his tragedy Boris Godunov (1825), in verse form. Nikolai Gogol (18091852) wrote The Government Inspector (1836), his most acclaimed work that satirizes corrupt officials and the supercilious elite of a Russian provincial town who mistake a stranger for a government inspector. Ivan Turgenev (18181883), also a well-respected novelist, wrote several plays, including A Month in the Country (18491850), that depict the everyday life of the elite.

As plays achieved greater realism, the role of actors in the theatrical process changed. They too attempted to portray characters with greater naturalism, and as a result relied more on the author's original intention and less on their own embellishment of roles. This evolution occurred in influential theater schools affiliated with the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg and the Maly Theater in Moscow. The latter trained Mikhail Shchepkin (17881863), who is considered one of the greatest Russian actors. In the later part of the nineteenth century, new stars further developed the naturalist approach. The ranks increasingly included actresses, such as Maria Yermolova (18531928), Glikeria Fedotova (18461925), and Maria Savina (18541915). Their popularity was enhanced by the repertory system, whereby a theater with a permanent company alternated many productions, rather than the single, long-running play with contractual performers.

Alexander Ostrovsky (18231886) dominated playwriting in the 1860s and 1870s. His innovative depiction of all levels of society in his dramas was called "national realism" and often contrasted cruel, self-serving individuals with their simple, decent victims. He wrote almost fifty plays, including his most acclaimed, The Forest (1870). Another prominent playwright, Alexander Sukhovo-Kobylin (18131906), followed the tradition of Gogol's satirical commentaries in Krechinsky's Wedding (1854), The Case (1861), and The Death of Tarelkin (1869). Later in the century, Leo Tolstoy (18281910), better known for his novels, wrote plays and adapted many of his didactic short stories for theater.

Popular and provincial theaters complemented developments in the nineteenth century. Circuses, Petrushka puppet shows, and fairground theaters (balagany ) amused spectators. Provincial theaters offered a wide variety of genres in an effort to appeal to a wide audience. In the latter part of the century after the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and their increasing migration to urban areas, the people's theater movement emphasized theatrical performance as a means to enlighten the masses. Beginning in 1882, private commercial theaters, such as the Korsh, were allowed in the capital cities and elsewhere, but censorship continued to hinder problematic plays. Amateur troupes provided added opportunities for performances.

The undisputed turning point in Russian theater occurred when Konstantin Stanislavsky (18631938), an amateur actor and director, and Vladimir Nemirovich Danchenko (18581943), a playwright who also taught at the Philharmonic Drama School, joined forces and created the Moscow (Popular) Art Theater in 1898. In productions that reflected trends in Europe at the time, an overall conception of the director united all parts of a production: script, actors, movement, costumes, sets, and lights. They also tried to create the impression that audiences were observing real people with psychological depth in realistic circumstances by incorporating historically accurate costumes, sets, and props. These hallmarks of naturalism were most successful in productions of Anton Chekhov's (18601904) plays, but the theater also staged works by Maxim Gorky (18681936), Henrik Ibsen (18281906), Gerhart Hauptmann (18621946), and many others in its long history. The theater fostered many outstanding performers, including Ivan Moskvitin (18741956), Olga Knipper (18681959), and Mikhail Chekhov (18911955). In a series of studios, Stanislavsky experimented with actors' training and developed his "system," also known as the Method, which has had a profound impact on theater and film in the West.

The era of 1898 to 1929 was the richest period for Russian theater. Stanislavsky's pupil, Vsevolod Meyerhold (18741940), rejected naturalism and strove to maximize the theatrical elements of performances, an approach that did not always enamor him to the public or to performers such as Vera Kommissarzhevskaya (18641910), a great actress of the day. Evgeny Vakhtangov's (18831922) brief career culminated in his Princess Turandot (1922), an example of his style of fantastic realism, which bridged Vsevolod Meyer-hold's abstractions and Stanislavsky's naturalism. At the Kamerny Theater, Alexander Tairov (18851950) created an atmosphere for the expression of the deepest emotions of performers through movement rather than naturalistic acting. While writing plays and theatrical theory, Nikolai Evreinov (18791953) directed at Kommissarzhevskaya's theater and his own Crooked Mirror, an example of popular small theaters at that time. Symbolism, a neoromantic movement that arose in reaction to realism and emphasized aesthetics and the spiritual, influenced some of the era's important playwrights, including Leonid Andreyev (18711919), Fyodor Sologub (18631927), and Alexander Blok (18801921).

Following the Russian Revolution in October 1917, theater experienced an outpouring of innovation. Theaters were divided into two groups: former important theaters became academic theaters with substantial subsidies and considerable freedom, while smaller theaters received less support with greater controls. In 1923 the government established Glavrepertkom, the organization responsible for censorship over theaters. Meyerhold developed his theory of movement known as biomechanics. Increasingly influenced by cubism and constructivism, he and other directors of the day often turned to abstract artists, such as Lyubov Popova (18891924) for set designs. The Jewish Habima Theater and the Moscow State Yiddish Theater also flourished. Important playwrights including Vladimir Mayakovsky (18931930), Mikhail Bulgakov (18911940), Nikolai Erdman (19011970), and Sergei Tretyakov (18921939) offered critiques of the young Soviet society.

Popular participation in theater exploded at this time. Proletkult, an organization that called for a new culture by and for workers, supported such activities as TRAM (Theaters for Working Youth), whose actors worked in chosen professions by day and rehearsed and performed during their free time. Other amateur troupes formed in army units, factories, and local clubs. Their performances sometimes involved courtroom scenarios, known as agit-trials, with audiences as juries to debate current issues. Traveling companies of "living newspapers" and "blue blouses" performed a series of short skits of news and other issues to illiterate audiences. Amateurs and professionals worked together to realize "mass spectacles" that recreated major historical events, such as The Storming of the Winter Palace (1920), which involved five hundred musicians, eight thousand performers, and over one hundred thousand spectators.

As Communist Party controls tightened in the 1930s, theater and all arts were expected to follow the guidelines of socialist realism, which called for upholding Communist Party policies in an easily understandable realist style. This highly didactic formula presented "positive heroes" for the public to emulate, and plays always pointed toward an optimistic socialist future. Experimentation in text and technique ended. In this environment playwrights such as Nikolai Pogodin (19001962), Alexander Afinogenov (19041941), Vsevolod Vishnevsky (19001951), and Alexei Arbuzov (19081986) managed to create meaningful dramas in spite of the limitations. A new generation of directors also attempted to offer interesting but safe productions: Nikolai Okhlopkov (19001967), Yuri Zavadsky (18941977), and Nikolai Akimov (19011968). Others suffered. Accused of "formalism," a euphemism for nonconformity, Meyerhold was executed in 1940. Playwrights Tretyakov and Vladimir Kirshon (19021938) met a similar fate. Tairov struggled to stage permissible plays. TRAM theaters came under state control as professional Komsomol theaters.

Although many professional troupes performed for frontline troops and new plays supported the war effort during World War II from 1941 to 1945, strict controls were reestablished after the war until Josef Stalin's death in 1953. Tairov was removed as director of his Kamerny Theater in 1949. As part of the rootless cosmopolitan campaign predominantly against Jews, Solomon Mikhoels (18901948), a famous actor and head of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, was killed. Dramatists were expected to adopt the no-conflict theory that corresponded to the supposedly new level of socialist achievement in the Soviet Union: no longer was society divided into bad opponents of the system and good supporters. Now socialism and drama reflected struggles between the good and the better. Without meaningful conflict, the quality of drama declined. Theater attendance fell, and the party renounced the theory in 1952.

The period following Stalin's death is considered the Thaw in Soviet society and culture. In the theatrical realm Glavrepertkom was abolished, and the Ministry of Culture assumed responsibility for censorship. Although socialist realism continued, theaters increasingly staged productions with nonrealist sets and pessimistic or ambiguous endings. Productions also began to breach the "fourth wall" by incorporating the audience in the action. Two important theaters emerged: the newly created Sovremennik under the leadership of Oleg Efremov (19272000) and the Taganka led by Yuri Lyubimov (b. 1917), whose group of recent theater school graduates performed Bertolt Brecht's Good Person of Sechuan and revived the moribund troupe. Its later productions included adaptations of Yuri Trifonov's (19251981) prose works and recent poetry by Andrey Voznesensky (b. 1933) and Yevgeny Yevtushenko (b. 1933). The Sovremennik emphasized new playwrights such as Viktor Rozov (b. 1913) and Vasily Aksenov (b. 1932). At the same time, talented directors Anatoly Efros (19251987) and Georgy Tovstonogov (19151989) took the helm at reputable theaters. Arbuzov and young dramatists, such as Alexander Vampilov (19371972), Alexander Volodin (b. 1919), and Eduard Radzinsky (b.1936), explored the dilemmas of everyday life. Many recent foreign dramatists were published in translation. Student theaters thrived.

After Nikita Khrushchev's fall from power in 1964, a more conservative approach to the arts ensued, but innovation continued. Although important directors continued to work, Efros and Lyubimov repeatedly had their productions banned or censured by the press. While socialist realism represented official policy, synthetic theater, which emphasized the use of music and lighting to augment the emotions and messages of a production, allowed greater flexibility in staging. By the early 1980s most professional theaters in Leningrad and Moscow created "second stages" that allowed for further experimentation. In this venue promising directors, such as Lev Dodin (b. 1944), Kama Ginkas (b. 1941), and Peter Fomenko (b. 1932), could stage new works, and young actors gained valuable experience because important roles on the main stage were reserved for senior performers. On the Taganka's small stage, Anatoly Vasilev (b. 1942) staged Viktor Slavkin's Cerceau, considered one of the most innovative productions of the 1980s. Ludmilla Petrushevskaya's (b. 1938) plays, whose language has been described as "tape recorder" for its ability to copy natural speech, were first performed by amateurs. Both playwrights addressed the elusive nature of a meaningful life in modern Soviet society. Amateur stages provided rich alternatives for both professional and amateur directors as well as spectators who were seeking new approaches to theater.

The final decade of the Soviet era began with severe censorship, but the twentieth century ended with almost complete freedom. In 1982 Yuri Andropov became General Secretary of the party, and initiated a strict anti-Western policy that adversely affected theatrical repertoires. Under his successor, Konstantin Chernenko, Yuri Lyubimov was forced into exile in 1984. Mikhail Gorbachev's glasnost policy reversed this trend, and by 1989 theaters operated without political censorship. Theaters attempted to operate under self-financing, which removed governmental subsidies. Lenin Komsomol Theater director Mark Zakharov (b. 1933) led the effort to establish independence for troupes. The number of theaters mushroomed when the government allowed the formation of theaters without official supervision. However, the success of some troupes depended on those earlier conflicts with the state, and Lyubimov's return to the Taganka in 1989 could not revive its former glory. The Moscow Art Theater split into two companies: Chekhov MAT, led by Oleg Efremov, who had led the combined troupe since 1970; and Gorky MAT, led by Tatyana Doronina (b. 1933). In the 1990s Vasilev and Fomenko formed their own troupes to accommodate their unorthodox approaches to rehearsals and performances. Like many troupes desperate for funds, Dodin's theater toured abroad extensively and was awarded the Europe Theater prize in 2000. However, most troupes, including former amateur companies, discovered the near impossibility of surviving without some government subsidy and sought to receive some support while retaining repertory freedom. Since the end of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russian theater has operated under an economic censor, as in the West.

See also: andreyev, leonid nikolayevich; bolshoi theater; chekhov, anton pavlovich; gogol, nikolai vasilyevich; gorky, maxim; griboedov, alexander sergeyevich; meyerkhold, vsevolod yemilievich; pushkin, alexander sergeyevich; shchepkin, mikhail semeonovich; sumarokov, alexander petrovich; taganka; thaw, the; tolstoy, leo nikolayevich; turgenev, ivan sergeyevich


Braun, E. (1995). Meyerhold: A Revolution in Theatre. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Gorchakov, Nikolai A. (1957). The Theater in Soviet Russia, tr. Edgar Lehrman. New York: Columbia University Press.

Karlinsky, Simon. (1985). Russian Drama from its Beginnings to the Age of Pushkin. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Leach, Robert, and Borovsky, Viktor, eds. (1999). A History of the Russian Theatre. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.

Mally, Lynn. (2000). Revolutionary Acts: Amateur Theater and the Soviet State 19171938. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Segel, Harold B. (1993). Twentieth-Century Russian Drama from Gorky to the Present, updated ed. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Slonim, Mark. (1962). Russian Theater from the Empire to the Soviets. New York: Collier Books.

Smeliansky, Anatoly. (1999). The Russian Theatre after Stalin, tr. Patrick Miles. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Warner, Elizabeth. (1977). The Russian Folk Theatre. The Hague: Mouton.

Worrall, Nick. (1989). Modernism to Realism on the Soviet Stage: Tairov-Vakhtangov-Okhlopkov. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Susan Costanzo


views updated Jun 08 2018


THEATER in America started as ritual performance by Native Americans and then, upon the arrival of the first white, Spanish settlers, became another sort of ritual, based on medieval European Christian morality plays. For many years, theater was outlawed in Colonial America, although the proscription hardly called a halt to performances. As everywhere, theater ranged between high and low: early "high" theater attempted to duplicate what was going on in Europe and included rewritten ("improved") Shakespeare and other, mostly British dramas, including School for Scandal by Richard Brinsley Sheridan. "Low" theater included riverboat shows, vaudeville, minstrel shows, and Wild West shows. It was not until the late eighteenth century that an authentic "American" voice began to emerge in the theater. This voice continued to develop throughout the nineteenth century and found itself being embraced on the world stage during the twentieth century.

Early American Theater

While there are no records of the earliest Native American performances, Indian rituals were noted by the early white settlers. Native Americans performed most of their theatrical pieces in honor of various gods or to celebrate changes in seasons, harvests, hunts, battles, and so on. Among the many performances were the summer and winter rituals of the Pueblo Indians. Pueblo dramas included the Deer Dance, Buffalo Dance, Corn Dance, Raingod Dance, and the Eagle Dance. Variations on Native American performance were later played out many times with white settlers in rituals and ceremonies focused around treaties and other meetings. These dramas included gift giving, dances, and speeches. Later, Indians—and cowboys—became stock characters in performances ranging from melodramas to vaudeville. In "Wild West" shows of the nineteenth century, Indian rituals were recreated for white audiences in the eastern United States and in Europe.

The first recorded white colonial performances were morality plays performed by missionaries for Spanish soldiers in Florida in 1567. These plays were intended to show the supremacy of the Spaniards' religion and its ultimate triumph in the New World. Although no record of the actual play exists, it can be assumed that it took the stylized and ritualistic form of medieval drama.

In Colonial days, theater was looked down upon by many of the Puritanical white settlers, so it was not until 1665 that the first play performed in English was recorded. Ye Bare and Ye Cub was performed by three men in Accomack County, Virginia. Apparently someone was offended by the offering, or simply by the idea of theater, because the players were sued. After the play was performed in court, the performers were found "not guilty of fault." Quakers were especially opposed to theatrical performances and had laws passed against them in most of the colonies, beginning with William Penn's in Pennsylvania. Proscriptions against theater were not passed in Virginia, and that is likely why it became the home of the first professional American theater, the Company of Comedians, led by entrepreneur Lewis Hallam.

Hallam's troupe of provincial players arrived from England in 1752. Like most of the companies to follow, the Company of Comedians was run by an actor/manager. After performing Shakespeare in Williamsburg, Virginia, Hallam built the first theater in New York City in 1753 and in Charleston in 1754. Hallam's fare also included such English staples as Restoration drama, farce, and operetta. His company played Philadelphia and toured the South and eventually moved to Jamaica, where Hallam died. While in Jamaica, Hallam's wife married another theater producer, David Douglass, who had founded theaters in Philadelphia and New York. Under Douglass, the company moved back to the States, calling itself the American Company. Hallam's son, Lewis Hallam the Younger, often performed opposite his mother and proved to be a talented comic. In 1767, Hallam played the lead in the first professional American drama, Thomas Godfrey's Prince of Parthia.

In 1775, theater was again banned, this time by the Continental Congress. While the ban was routinely ignored, it did put off professional theater producers—including David Douglass, who moved back to Jamaica—and fostered more amateur performances, especially those featuring patriotic themes.

Theater in the Early United States

After the Revolutionary War (1775–1783), the American Company returned to New York City and when David Douglass died, Hallam took over and produced what is widely believed to be the first important American play, one written by a Harvard-educated lawyer and army officer, Royall Tyler. Tyler's play, The Contrast, debuted in New York in March 1787. The characters in The Contrast include a Revolutionary War veteran and a man deemed a natural nobleman. The leading character, Jonathan, was the first in a long line of "Yankees" to grace the American stage. Tyler made comparisons between American and British attitudes that favored the American. In addition to its themes of patriotism and the belief that love conquers all, Tyler's play is filled with references to the fashions and topics of the time. The Contrast was an instant hit that was also performed in Baltimore, Philadelphia, and Boston and has seen revivals up to the twenty-first century.

During the early nineteenth century, touring groups continued to play a large role in American theater, and English actors were often imported to headline local productions. Among the more popular players were Edmund Kean and Junius Brutus Booth (father of actor Edwin Booth and actor/Lincoln assassin John Wilkes Booth). At this time, actors often specialized in one or two roles that they were known for.

The American-born actor credited with innovating a truly American style of acting was Edwin Forrest. After playing second leads to Edmund Kean, Forrest eventually became a leading man and played throughout the East, South, and Midwest. Forrest was an athletic actor who was a natural for heroic and rebellious roles. He found his greatest fame as star of Metamora; or, The Last of the Wampanoags (1829), a play that he found by sponsoring a contest for a tragedy, "of which the hero … shall be an aboriginal of this country." Forrest played the Indian Metamora throughout his career, and the success of the play caused many other dramas featuring the noble savage to be entered into the American repertory.

For the most part, when Black Americans were portrayed, it was not as noble persons but as buffoons. The 1840s saw the rise of minstrelsy, in which mostly white, but also black, performers sang and danced while made up in blackface, achieved by smearing coal on the face. Minstrel shows remained popular until the early twentieth century. Also wildly popular in mid-century were "Tom Shows," melodramatic productions based on Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1852 novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. Other forms of diversion included vaudeville, which boasted such performers as Eddie Foy, W. C. Fields, and Sophie Tucker. P. T. Barnum sponsored singing tours by the "Swedish Nightingale," Jenny Lind, and opened the American Museum (1842) in New York City where he exhibited such freakish attractions as "Tom Thumb" and the Siamese twins Chang and Eng. Barnum, along with James A. Bailey, founded the Barnum and Bailey Circus in 1881.

Wild West shows were in vogue, especially Buffalo Bill's Wild West Show, organized by former Pony Express rider William Frederick Cody in 1883. Cody's Cowboy and Indian show toured throughout the United States and Europe. Showboats were also a popular venue for all manner of entertainment from vaudeville to Shakespeare.

Theater of the Gilded Age

The last thirty years of the 1800s, often referred to as the "Gilded Age," were dominated by melodrama. Many Civil War plays were produced; they often focused on romances between Northern and Southern lovers but skirted the political issues of the war. Nonetheless, American theater was edging ever closer to the realistic style of performance that would come to dominate it in the twentieth century.

A trend in late-nineteenth-century drama, attributed largely to California-born manager/playwright/producer David Belasco, was to greatly enhance the production values of a play. Belasco built enormous and spectacular three-dimensional sets that he deemed naturalistic. Belasco was among the forerunners of a small group of producers who were breaking away from the romantic style of acting that marked the nineteenth century as well. These producer/directors encouraged actors to perform in a naturalistic style that suited the actors' own personalities.

By 1888, it was estimated that there were more than 2,400 professional actors in the United States. A few earned as much as $100,000 a year—a tremendous amount at the time. Among the highly paid actors were many who came from theatrical families, including descendents of the Booths, the Davenports, the Jeffersons, and the Drew-Barrymores (Lionel, Ethel, and John Barrymore all worked on the New York stage in the early twentieth century). Lesser-known performers were often badly treated; sometimes no pay was given for weeks or even months of rehearsal. Thus, in 1894, the Actors' Society of America, later Actors' Equity, was formed to negotiate standard contracts for actors. Even before this, other stage employees organized unions.

The number of actors grew to around 15,000 at the turn of the twentieth century. Along with the increase in actors came an increase in acting schools. Among the first was the Lyceum Theatre School, founded in New York City in 1884 and renamed the American Academy of Dramatic Arts in 1892. The American Academy of Dramatic Arts remains perhaps the most prestigious acting school in the country.

In the mid-nineteenth century, stock companies rose in number and often traveled. The opening of the first transcontinental railroad in 1869 meant that productions could travel to the West Coast. Soon companies stopped developing a large number of new plays and instead produced long runs of a single, popular play that they often took on tour. By the early 1870s, there were about 50 resident stock companies in the country. In 1886, a group of booking agents and managers formed a partnership known as the Theatrical Trust (or Syndicate). For approximately thirty years, the Syndicate controlled virtually all bookings at professional theaters. Over 1,700 theaters were available to touring productions in 1905, according to Julius Cahn's Official Theatrical Guide, making the Syndicate's sphere of influence very great indeed. By the turn of the twentieth century, resident stock companies were nearly nonexistent.

A challenge to the Syndicate's authority came from independent producer David Belasco, who wanted to stage a play set in Japan at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis and was blocked by the syndicate. Belasco booked a theater anyway and, typically, the Syndicate mounted a rival play on the same topic as Belasco's. Even an antitrust suit, filed after the Sherman Antitrust Act of 1890 became law, failed to loosen the Syndicate's grip. What did finally stop the Syndicate was another group of theatrical monopolists, the New York–based Shubert brothers—Lee, Sam S., and Jacob J. The Shuberts, who initially worked with the Syndicate, eventually joined forces with David Belasco, actress Minnie Maddern Fiske, and others to overturn it.

The nineteenth century did see some accomplished American playwrights, including Edward Harrigan, William Dean Howells, and Steele MacKaye. However, the time and country that produced such memorable writers in other genres as Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson, and Henry David Thoreau failed to nurture a truly great playwright until the twentieth century.

Theatre in the Early Twentieth Century

The early twentieth century mostly saw a continuation of commercialization and lack of originality in the theater. Melodrama, with subjects ranging from historical to romantic to Western to mystery, remained the form most often performed. Touring ceased to be the main way in which plays were presented and stock companies again formed. The continuing prosperity of America was reflected in the theater, and by 1912 there were some 8,000 theaters in America. By then, activities were focused in New York, especially off Times Square. Many of the theaters built during the boom of the 1920s were still used in 2002.

With the exception of some suffragist actresses, there were very few performers involved in political causes. However, in the Chicago slums, Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr recognized the possibilities of theater as a force for social good and opened Hull House in 1889 as an alternative entertainment for impoverished youth. Similar theaters followed, including the Henry Street Settlement in New York.

As more and more of the theatergoing public became exposed to the work of such groundbreaking European playwrights as Henrik Ibsen, Anton Chekhov, and George Bernard Shaw, a small but active theater intelligentsia was formed that looked for more sophisticated plays. In the teens, "Little Theaters" began to open around the country. Some of these were formed for the purpose of offering standard commercial fare at cut rates, but many were formed with a higher purpose in mind—to produce serious, realist drama. These little theaters, including Chicago's Little Theatre, New York's Neighborhood Playhouse and Washington Square Players, and the Cleveland Playhouse featured work by both contemporary European and American playwrights and were modeled after European art theaters such as the Moscow Art Theatre and Dublin's Abbey Theatre. American performances by these two theater companies and others greatly influenced the style of acting in America further toward naturalism.

In Massachusetts, the Provincetown Players were developing the early short sea plays (set on the sea) of the only American playwright ever to win a Nobel Prize (1936), Eugene O'Neill. O'Neill was the son of James O'Neill, a famous actor who felt he had squandered his talent playing mostly one role, in The Count of Monte Cristo, throughout his career. The plays were taken to New York and the Provincetown Players began a tradition of developing plays out of town before a New York opening. O'Neill was the first of many great American playwrights to work in the twentieth century. He is credited with first perfecting the realist voice of the American stage.

During the 1930s, the Great Depression brought a far greater interest in political theater. Such groups as the International Ladies Garment Workers Union put on plays, and even the government got into the act through the federally sponsored and ill-fated Federal Theatre Project, which attempted to put 13,000 theater people on the government payroll. Meanwhile, the unions were represented by playwright Clifford Odets in his Waiting for Lefty on the legitimate stage. Lillian Hellman and Thornton Wilder were among the other prominent playwrights of the time.

The postwar 1940s were also a fascinating time for theater. It was then that the heartbreaking dramas of Mississippi playwright Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie (1945) and A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), were staged. Marlon Brando, who studied the Stanislavski System of acting originated at the Moscow Art Theatre and taught at The Actors Studio (opened 1947), became an overnight sensation after starring in A Streetcar Named Desire. His intimate performance not only led to a long film career but also had a great influence on the way American actors performed.

Arthur Miller debuted works that deal with government corruption (All My Sons, 1947), the alienation of modern man (Death of a Salesman, 1949), and manipulation of public opinion through the House Un-American Activities Committee hearings of the early 1950s (The Crucible, 1953). In 1947, Julian Beck and Judith Malina formed the Living Theatre, an experimental theater devoted to producing avant-garde plays that promoted the ideals of pacifism and anarchy.

The 1940s also saw the development of the American musical, starting with Oklahoma (1943), written by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein and choreographed by Agnes DeMille. Other musicals included Brigadoon (1947) and My Fair Lady (1956), by the team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, and West Side Story (1957) by Leonard Bernstein and Arthur Laurents, and later, Sweeney Todd (1979), by Stephen Sondheim. The musical was to become the most American of theatrical genres; immense productions began to dominate the large theaters in New York by the 1950s and continue to do so.

Theatre in the Late Twentieth Century

The Civil Rights Movement, the war in Vietnam, and the other upheavals of the 1960s provided a rich time for theater. Playwrights including Amiri Baraka (then LeRoi Jones) championed the Black Arts Movement with such in-your-face plays as Dutchman (1964), in which a white woman stabs a black man on a subway. David Rabe wrote about Vietnam in Stick and Bones (1971). The 1960s also saw the first of many plays dealing openly with homosexuality. The Boys in the Band premiered in 1968. Later plays to deal with the subject included Larry Kramer's The Normal Heart (1985) and Tony Kushner's Pulitzer Prize–winning two-part epic, Angels in America (1991,1993). The 1960s also ushered in the work of Neil Simon, probably the most popular writer of comedies in the late twentieth century.

Among other important playwrights of the last part of the century, California born and raised Sam Shepard writes plays about those who, like himself, rejected the mores of polite society; Christopher Durang lampoons the Catholic church that he was raised in; and Marsha Norman writes of a woman so disconnected she is planning suicide ('night Mother, 1982). Performance artists such as Karen Findley, whose work dealt with her own sexuality, Anna Deavere Smith, who explores social issues such as Black-Jewish relationships, and performer/musician Laurie Anderson rose to prominence in the 1980s.

Many of these performances were produced Off Broadway, including the New York Shakespeare Festival, founded in 1954 by Joseph Papp for the purpose of mounting Shakespeare productions in Central Park that were free and open to the public each summer. When Papp died in 1991, the innovative African American director George C. Wolfe became director of the festival. Papp also produced the surprise hit hippie musical of 1967, Hair, at his not-for-profit Public Theater. Hair was then moved to Broadway and the profits used for other, less commercial productions.

Broadway is still dominated by musicals and revivals of musicals, and it has seen a tremendous decline since the 1980s, largely because of escalating costs in mounting a production. In the 1950s, a grand musical such as My Fair Lady might have cost half a million dollars to produce, and tickets were less than ten dollars each. By the end of the twentieth century, costs soared so that a musical such as The Lion King (1997) could cost $15 million to produce and a ticket could cost up to $100.

Broadway budgets and ticket prices have long provided much of the momentum for Off Broadway and later for even smaller—less than 100-seat—houses called Off Off Broadway. Greenwich Village's Caffe Cino, founded in 1958 by Joe Cino, is generally thought to be the birthplace of Off Off Broadway, but Off Off Broadway's most enduring and important producer is Ellen Stewart of Café La Mama, which was founded in 1962, and renamed the La Mama Experimental Theater Club. Stewart is known for giving fresh voices a place in her theater, not because she likes the script—she often does not read them in advance—but rather because she has a good feeling about the person bringing an idea for a production to her. Off and Off Off Broadway venues, in addition to many regional theaters including Steppenwolf in Chicago, Magic Theater in San Francisco, and repertory companies including Yale Repertory Theater, American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, Missouri Repertory Theater, and Chicago's Goodman Theater, are thought by many to be the most exciting places to view theater in the twenty-first century.


Blum, Daniel. Great Stars of the American Stage: A Pictorial Record. New York: Greenberg, 1952.

Brustein, Robert. Reimagining American Theatre. New York: Hill and Wang, 1991.

Henderson, Mary C. Theater in America: 250 Years of Plays, Players, and Productions. New York: Abrams, 1996.

Hischak, Thomas S. American Theatre: A Chronicle of Comedy and Drama, 1969–2000. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Londre, Felicia Hardison, and Daniel J. Watermeier. The History of North American Theater: From Pre-Columbian Times to the Present. New York: Continuum Publishing, 1998.

Lorca Peress contributed information on Off Off Broadway.

Rebekah PressonMosby

See alsoDance, Indian ; Death of a Salesman, The ; Music: Theater and Film ; Wild West Show .


views updated Jun 08 2018



The European theater movement most closely associated with the First World War was expressionism, centered in Germany. The movement was already well established at the outbreak of the war, which seemed to many expressionists the natural outcome of those outmoded social values that were often attacked in their early visionary works. The horrors of the war soon changed the orientation of expressionist work from the personal concerns of earlier expressionism to more directly social ones, often specially addressing the evils of war and of the industrialization that fueled it.

Early expressionist drama had only a reading public, and indeed during the war only a handful of such plays were staged. After 1918, however, such plays became a major part of the German repertoire, and a revolutionary new style of staging was developed for them, nonrealistic, highly simplified and often highly distorted, with striking and innovative use of light. The two leading directors in developing this new style were Jürgen Fehling (1885–1968) at the Berlin Volksbühne and Leopold Jessner (1878–1945), who directed the Berlin State Theater from 1919 to 1925. Jessner's favorite scenic device was a series of neutral steps and platforms, altered by occasional set pieces, curtains, and lighting, which came to be known as the "Jessnertreppen" (Jessner stairs).

Other important experimental movements appeared in Europe during these same years, together making up a "second wave" of experimental performance (the first having been the creation of the experimental ventures at the end of the previous century). In Italy the futurists, led by Tommaso Marinetti (1876–1944), called for a new theater suited to the machine age in a series of manifestos and experimental performances in the years just before the First World War. The futurists' short, abstract, alogical works reached their peak around 1916, but their frequent glorification of war as a great cultural purifier began to ring hollow as the true face of war was revealed. By the war's end, the movement had little power except in Italy, where it continued as a significant force into the 1930s. However, its interest in breaking down barriers between performance and audience, in mixing media, and in rejecting traditional models and structures all made a lasting contribution to the twentieth-century avant-garde.

Both futurism and expressionism had close ties to the first new avant-garde movement of the war years, Dada, launched in Zurich in 1916. Dada rejected the futurist glorification of war and the social orientation of much expressionism but took from both an iconoclastic rejection of traditional text and logic-dominated theater. Chance became an important element in artistic creation, as in the random selection of the name of the movement from a dictionary. The major spokesman for the movement was Tristan Tzara (1896–1963). An interest in change and the surprising juxtaposition of material also marked the work of the contemporary surrealist movement, a term coined by Guillaume Apollinaire in 1917, but the surrealists in general were distinguished by an interest in the workings of the subconscious mind, under the growing influence of Freudian psychology. This emphasis was clearly articulated by André Breton in the manifesto that launched the movement in 1924.


One of the most vital areas for theatrical experimentation after 1917 was postrevolutionary Russia. Although the new Soviet government began to tighten control over the theaters in the late 1920s, and the proclamation of the official doctrine of "socialist realism" in 1934 effectively put an end to experimentation, the years between 1917 and 1927 saw a final flowering of the major innovative period in Russian theater that had begun with the founding of the Moscow Art Theater in 1898. Although the Art Theater, directed by Konstantin Stanislavsky (1863–1938), remained an important part of the Russian theater scene and returned to a more central position after 1934, other theaters and other directors dominated the years immediately following 1917, seeing in the new political system an opportunity to forge a significant new theater aesthetic.

The most important figure was Vsevolod Meyerhold (1874–1940), one of the original members of the Moscow Art Theater, but whose vision of a theatricalized theater could not be reconciled with the illusionistic, realist vision of Stanislavsky. Eventually these came to be regarded as polar opposites in Russian directing. In his prerevolutionary studios, Meyerhold experimented extensively with acrobatics, circus, and non-Western performance techniques, and after 1917 he added to these an interest in the body as a movement-producing machine, a study he called biomechanics. In his own theater, after 1922, he developed a type of scenic design similarly focused on simplicity and mechanical form, called constructivism. Although Meyerhold was generally considered the most important and innovative figure in the Russian theater of the 1920s, his nonrealistic approach offended those who were devoted to socialist realism, and his theater, accused of "formalism," was closed in 1938.

The other most important antirealist of the 1920s, Alexander Tairov (1885–1950), at his Kamerny Theater, took a less ideological position than Meyerhold, but his expressionistic stagings also proved unacceptable to the new order, and his theater was closed in 1950. The other major experimental director of this brilliant period, Yevgeny Vakhtangov (1883–1922), was said to blend the realism of Stanislavsky with the formalism of Meyerhold, but his early death saved him from sharing their fall from official favor.

Germany's major prewar director, Max Reinhardt (1873–1943), less associated than Jessner or Fehling with expressionism and less radical in his experimentation than Meyerhold or Tairov, was nevertheless a major force in introducing more stylized production into the largely realistic theater inherited from the previous century. By 1914 he was the best-known director in Europe. After the war he created a mass spectacle theater, the Grosses Schauspielhaus, in Berlin, seating thousands of spectators around a huge thrust stage. A similar attempt at mixing actors with a mass audience was carried out in Paris by Firmin Gémier, who, like Reinhardt, converted a former circus into a mass auditorium faintly reminiscent of a Greek amphitheater. Reinhardt's other major innovation of the 1920s was the establishment in 1920 of the Salzburg Festival, the model for the many theater festivals that have since become an important part of the European theater scene. Adolf Hitler's rise to power forced Reinhardt, as a Jew, to leave Germany, and his final years were spent in America.

Germany in the 1920s, like Russia in the same period, enjoyed a flourishing of artistic experimentation, which was similarly extinguished by the rise of a totalitarian government in the early 1930s. Erwin Piscator (1893–1966), drawing upon expressionism and an interest in modern technology shared with Meyerhold and the futurists, developed during the 1920s a politically oriented theater with significant use of technology, much of which would be incorporated into the practice of Bertolt Brecht (1898–1956), who worked with Piscator on his famous production of The Good Soldier Schweik in 1927–1928. Both men, like Reinhardt, went into exile in the early 1930s.

The dominant figure in the French theater between the wars was Jacques Copeau (1879–1949), who founded the Vieux Colombier in 1913, challenging both the realistic stage tradition and the nonrealistic but still highly visual settings of many of the early antirealists. He sought a completely bare stage, somewhat like the constructivists, although to emphasize not bodily movement but the flow of language. For him the dramatic text always remained central. Copeau left Paris in 1924, but many of his ideas were carried on by the Cartel des Quatre (Coalition of Four), a group of directors who agreed in 1927 to assist and advise each other. Two of these, Louis Jouvet and Charles Dullin, actually studied with Copeau, and they remained closest to Copeau's ideals. Gaston Baty and Georges Pitoëff shared Copeau's devotion to the text and almost monastic commitment to the theater as art, but their repertoire and visual means, if simple, were generally more varied than those of their colleagues. Pitoëff and his wife, Ludmilla, introduced many important foreign dramatists to France, among them Luigi Pirandello and George Bernard Shaw.

Although Harley Granville-Barker (1877–1946) attempted to introduce modern experimental staging to England in the years before the First World War, it was not until the 1930s that a serious departure from late-nineteenth-century practices took place there. An important pioneer in this was Tyrone Guthrie (1900–1971), who took over the Old Vic in 1937, assembled a company of major actors, and became known for his innovative and original productions. His work was supplemented by that of Michel Saint-Denis (1897–1971), Copeau's nephew, who brought some of Copeau's inspiration from France. Along with the work of these major directors, a new generation of actors, headed by John Gielgud (1904–2000) and Laurence Olivier (1907–1989), inaugurated a golden age of British acting.


The Second World War, with its widespread upheavals, devastating bombing, and occupations, created a hiatus in the theater of most European nations, and the postwar years focused upon recovery and rebuilding. A new generation of theater artists appeared, who would dominate most of the rest of the century. In Italy Giorgio Strehler founded the Piccolo Teatro in Milan in 1947 and would build it into one of the greatest European companies. In Sweden Ingmar Bergman (b. 1918) assembled at Malmö during the 1950s one of Europe's greatest acting ensembles, which also appeared in his brilliant films. In France Jean Vilar (1912–1971) took over the Avignon Festival in 1947 and the Théâtre National Populaire (TNP) in 1951, building them both into major cultural institutions. Vilar was the major inheritor of the Copeau tradition, while a much more eclectic approach characterized the work of the dominant new director of the period, Jean-Louis Barrault (b. 1910), who stressed not the text but the total theater experience. Germany, having lost the war, with most of its theaters destroyed and divided into two politically antagonistic states, faced particularly daunting problems, but Bertolt Brecht, returning in 1948, was invited by the authorities to East Berlin to establish a theater there, the Berliner Ensemble, which became the most well known and influential theater of the immediate postwar era. The visual style of Brecht's theater was widely imitated, perhaps most notably in England, where a visit by this theater in 1956 issued in a new era of British stage composition, headed by the work of Peter Brook (b. 1925) and Peter Hall (b. 1930) at the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC), organized in 1960. By the mid-1960s, the RSC was England's most honored company. Perhaps its most famous work was the 1964 production of Peter Weiss's Marat/Sade, which drew inspiration from the writings of the visionary French theorist Antonin Artaud (1896–1948) and contributed strongly toward making Artaud a major influence on experimental theater work of subsequent years.

The major rival of the RSC in England was the National Theatre, dreamed of for more than a century and finally established in 1963, with Olivier becoming director the following year. Peter Hall followed Olivier as director of the National in 1973 and brought the theater into its major new home on London's South Bank three years later. The RSC also opened a major new London space, the Barbican, in 1982, although it reduced its season there to six months in 1996 and withdrew entirely in 2002, leaving the Barbican for guest international companies. The National continued its dominant position, but at the turn of the century, important younger and smaller companies appeared, led by Shared Experience, Cheek by Jowl, and Théâtre de Complicité.

The late 1960s was a period of great economic, political, and artistic turbulence. New modes of staging and directing exerted a profound influence on the theater. A reaction against traditional approaches, often seen as elitist and reactionary, inspired an interest in more democratic methodologies, such a collective creations, and more democratic spaces, outside conventional theaters. Particularly influential among the new collectives was France's Théâtre du Soleil, headed by Ariane Mnouchkine (b. 1940), and founded in 1964, which also utilized unconventional theater spaces and audience arrangements. Another major collective was the Schaubühne company in Berlin, headed by Peter Stein (b. 1937), whose productions, like those of Mnouchkine, were both visually striking and highly political. One of the most influential new figures of the 1960s was the Polish director Jerzy Grotowski (1933–1999), whose quasi-religious emphasis upon the actor/audience relationship inspired theater practitioners around the world, and most directly Eugenio Barba (b. 1936), who carried on Grotowski's investigations in his studio in Denmark. After 1970 another Polish director, Tadeusz Kantor (1915–1990), gained a major international reputation with his painterly dramatic collages, most notably The Dead Class (1975), mixing live actors and effigies of their younger selves. Another important development of the 1960s was a new international interest in innovative scenic design, often drawing upon emerging technology. Czechoslovakia was an important leader in this movement, due in part to the widespread influence of Josef Svoboda (1920–2002). The Prague Quadrennial, founded in 1967, remains the most important international exhibition of stage design and theater architecture in the world.


In 1970 Peter Brook left the RSC to become director of the International Center for Theater Research in Paris, drawing actors from around the world to seek an international means of theatrical expression. Internationalism became increasingly important in the European theater during the 1970s, both in the growth of international festivals and in the work of individual directors like Brook. The best-known production of Brook's center was the 1985 Mahabharata, a nine-hour adaptation of the Indian epic, with actors from sixteen countries, performed first at the Avignon Festival and then toured around the world. During the 1980s Mnouchkine also stressed intercultural performance, utilizing Asian costumes, music, and performance techniques for the presentation of Shakespearian plays and, perhaps most notably, for an adaptation of material from Aeschylus and Euripides called Les Atrides, which toured internationally in the early 1990s. Collaborations among theaters in various nations became increasingly common during this period also, evidenced most clearly in the founding of the Théâtre de l'Europe in 1983, directed by Giorgio Strehler until 1990 and then by his disciple Lluis Pasqual and involving leading theaters from across the Continent.

Finally, and perhaps most important, international theater festivals, headed by those in Avignon and Edinburgh, sprang up across Europe, providing an opportunity for both established experimental artists like Brook and emerging younger artists to gain an international reputation. A festival favorite and one of the most significant international theater figures of the late twentieth century was the American Robert Wilson (b. 1941), whose monumental visual spectacles were premiered in many European countries from the 1970s onward, but particularly in Germany. Sections of his most ambitious work, the CIVIL warS, premiered in Holland, Germany, Italy, and France in 1984 and 1985. The festivals also gave international exposure to major new experimental groups, such as the Fura dels Baus of Barcelona, founded in 1979, and Italy's Societas Raffaelo Sanzio, organized in 1981. Both offered oneiric yet visceral visual spectacles far removed from text-oriented traditional theater.

The European theater of the 1970s and 1980s was dominated by major directors, even though most of them worked with very distinguished actors and designers. Those already mentioned, such as Brook, Barrault, Mnouchkine, Hall, Wilson, Stein, Bergman, Strehler, and Kantor, had perhaps the greatest international reputation, but others contributed significantly to making this an era of what the Germans called "directors' theater," among them Peter Zadek, Luc Bondy, and Claus Peymann in Germany, Patrice Chéreau and Jorge Lavelli in France, Nuria Espert in Spain, Luca Ronconi in Italy, Yuri Lyubimov and Lev Dodin in Russia, and Eimuntas Nekrosius in Lithuania.

Despite the predominance of stage directors during this period, however, almost all worked closely with actors and designers who were also among the most distinguished of the century. Thus Bergman's company was headed by Max von Sydow and Bibi Anderson, and Peter Stein's Schaubühne by Bruno Ganz and Jutta Lampe. Brook's international company has included such major actors as Sotigui Kouyaté, Yoshi Oida, and Ryszard Cieslak, formerly the leading actor with Grotowski at the Polish Laboratory Theater. In Germany especially, leading designers have also worked closely with particular directors to create a highly distinctive visual style. The first major modern example of this occurred in the 1960s with Zadek's work with Wilfried Minks in Bremen, closely followed by the designs of Karl-Ernst Hermann for Peter Stein. A parallel example in France was the close collaboration between Chéreau and Richard Peduzzi.

The new generation of theater leaders that appeared during the late 1980s and early 1990s, especially in Germany and France, offered a more radical and subversive style, sometimes called "deconstructionist." In Germany this orientation was represented primarily by directors trained in the former East Germany and associated with the Berlin Volksbühne, such as Frank Castorf, Christoph Marthaler, and Einer Schleef. In France major new directors emerged from the suburban theaters, following the pattern established by Chéreau—first Daniel Mesguich (later director of the Conservatoire) and Stéphane Braunschweig (later director of the National Theater of Strasbourg), and following them, Stanislas Nordey and Olivier Py. The Catalan director Calixto Bieito was Spain's best-known contributor to this new style of radical reinterpretation of classic texts.

The term Eurotheater gained considerable prominence around the turn of the century, encouraged by such trans-European actions as the founding of the European Union in 1992 and the adoption of a European currency in 2002. Many organizations and individual manifestations drew the continental theater ever more closely together. Individual artists (directors, designers, actors) moved ever more freely from country to country, some without any country that dominated their work. The international festivals encouraged such activity, but collaborations between individual theaters in different countries also became increasingly common. International organizations such as the Union of European Theaters, founded in 1990, and the European School of the Art of the Actor, founded in 1992, provided further encouragement for this most important new direction in the European theater in the opening years of the new century.

See alsoAgitprop; Brecht, Bertolt; Brook, Peter; Dada; Expressionism; Futurism; Opera; Salzburg Festival; Stanislavsky, Konstantin.


Allen, John. A History of the Theatre in Europe. London, 1983.

Brockett, Oscar G., and Robert R. Findlay. Century of Innovation: A History of European and American Theatre and Drama since 1870. 2nd ed. Boston, 1991.

Maanen, H. van, and S. E. Wilmer, eds. Theatre Worlds in Motion. Amsterdam, 1998.

Roose-Evans, James. Experimental Theatre: From Stanislavsky to Peter Brook. 2nd ed. London, 1989.

Rubin, Don, ed. The World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. Vol. 1: Europe. London, 1994.

Marvin Carlson


views updated May 14 2018






Contemporary British director Peter Brook wrote of theater and its essence in his book, The Empty Space (1968), A man walks across this empty space (a bare stage) whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theater to be engaged (p. 9). By Brooks reckoning, the actor, the stage space, and the audience are the minimal necessary components for the art of the theater. At its most basic level, theater is a story presented in public by a performer or performers, for an audience.

There exists a distinction between the related art forms of drama (the written text) and theater (the process of performing the written text within a designated space). A difference must also be drawn between theater as a form of artistic or cultural entertainment and the existence of theatrical components within a culture. Performance occurs regularly in daily life (e.g., sporting events, political campaigns, weddings, and other social rituals), but these are not considered theater in the strictest sense. These routine presentations form the basis of performance studies, a discipline that uses terminology from the theater and that of anthropology in an effort to analyze how it is that people and cultures stage rituals and events.

Theater as society has come to think of it is a live artistic form, featuring many artists (dramatist, actor, director, designers, and audience) who collaborate to create performance events. Theater is also considered from a conventional viewpoint to be the most complete of all the art forms, in that it integrates many disciplines (dance, music, acting, visual spectacle, language, sculpture) in the presentation of a story. Theater occurs in a staging space, in front of an audience, regardless of the dramatic location of the event being enacted. Moreover, theater is performed in real time and usually requires a compression of the dramatic timeline, rather than a moment-to-moment literal reenactment of the event. Theater is an imitation of the human experience, drawing its characters and plotlines from dramatic events recognizable to the audience. The Greek philosopher Aristotle, in his critical text Poetics, described theater (or drama) as an imitation of men in action. Theater is an artistic form that lends itself easily to critiques of social problems, heralding the possible transformation of society in the wake of a public performance expressing new ideas for change.

One explanation for theaters origins lay in the ceremonial rituals of primitive cultures, usually linked to religious worship. Storytelling is an alternative explanation for theatrical origins, a performance in which a narrator such as a tribal leader or shaman recalled episodes important to the history of the tribe, acting out the events while interpreting the different characters for the shared enjoyment of the audience. The theatrical ritual achieved greater aesthetic sophistication as the cultures advanced, utilizing multiple actors, spectacle, dance, music, and costuming in an effort to make the performances more enjoyable. Society eventually began to prize these performances as much for their inherent entertainment and artistic values, as for their ritual significance.


Theater has developed different approaches to the creation of dramatic structure, utilizing a multitude of various styles and performance traditions. The plays form is the clearly identifiable organization of the plot elements, while the plays style is the means by which the form is interpreted for a contemporary audience. A theatrical form (e.g., comedy or tragedy) is a specific identifying plot structure as it demonstrates typical themes of human experience. A theatrical style (e.g., Shakespearian or expressionistic) is the representative interpretation of a form, based on audience expectations determined by place and time. Style may be associated with a specific historical period, playwright, culture, or artistic movement, whereas form is more universal and changes little from one culture to another.

The four distinct dramatic forms are: tragedy, comedy, drama, and mixed-forms. Tragedy concerns the fate of a main character who is caught up in events beyond his or her control, and is subsequently ruined as a consequence of a moral weakness or an inability to cope with difficult circumstances. Comedybe it satire or farce requires the happy or ironic resolution of a conflict involving an individual or a community. Aristotle wrote in his Poetics that the main difference between the tragedy form and the comedy form is that one imitates people better, the other one people worse, than the average (1967, p. 18). Tragedy and comedy were the dominant forms of theater until the eighteenth century. The form of drama emphasizes the moral seriousness of social issues, often through depictions of characters and situations drawn from daily life. Eighteenth-century French dramatic theorist Denis Diderot (17131784) advocated in his Encyclopedia (c. 17551780) that this new drama will encourage the light of reason, which everywhere grows brighter and the spirit of the century will advance the revolution it began (1967, p. 91). A mixed-form dramatic text combines elements of the comedy and tragedy forms and is a very uncommon form of theater. Theatrical styles, on the other hand, are many in number. Each style is associated with a specific time period (e.g., Restoration comedy such as William Congreves The Way of the World ), author (e.g., Shakespearian tragedy like Hamlet ), or artistic movement (e.g., realistic drama, as an example Anton Chekhovs The Cherry Orchard ).


Although the essential nature of theater is constant, the theatrical art form developed differently during various historical periods and throughout the regions of the world. Eastern (Asian) theater traditions predate Western (European) theater and utilize vastly different conventions (i.e., agreed-upon performance techniques). Asian theater forms rely heavily on the elements of musical performance and bodily expression to relate the story line to the audience. Chinese theatrical forms were first recorded in 1767 BCE during the Shang Dynasty. Popular entertainments of the time included shadow-play and puppet theaters, and live entertainers often performed at teahouses. Chinese theater was performed on a bare stage, accompanied by music, and characterized by a strict adherence to traditions. The most prolific contemporary expression of Chinese theater is the Beijing Opera, which employs a strictly ordered system of dance, singing, and acting to enhance the performance. Indian theater dates from the first century CE, and included Sanskrit dramas in which Indian actors performed specific codified gestures and chanted intonations with musical accompaniment designed to cultivate a balanced aesthetic, emotional state called a rasa within the spectators. Formal Japanese theater dates from the sixth century CE and includes variations such as Noh theater (1374), a stylized musical dancedrama with choreographed movements and masks; Bunraki theater (early seventeenth century), a puppet theater; and Kabuki theater (1603)the most popular formin which dance and spoken dialogue are used in conjunction with sets, stylized make-up, and costuming, to achieve the desired theatrical effect.

The formal Western theater tradition began in Greece with the ritual worship of Dionysus, the God of wine and revelry. The word tragedy evolved from the Greek word tragoidia (goat-song), the performance that accompanied ceremonies of ritual animal sacrifice. In 534 BCE, the city of Athens organized a contest to determine the best tragedy during the religious festival of the City Dionysia. At the festival, tragedies were performed in sets of three linked stories drawn from either history or myth, followed by a satyr play (a short farcical comedy utilizing burlesque). Comedies were introduced at the City Dionysia after 487 BCE. The earliest Greek theaters were temporary wooden structures built into hillsides. Permanent theaters made of stone began to appear in the fourth century and were capable of seating more than ten thousand spectators. Greek actors performed on a small circular area called the orkestra (dancing place), which featured a thymele (small altar) for the ritual sacrifice, surrounded by the risers of the audience area, called the theatron (seeing place). The first skene (small scenic house) appeared in 458 BCE. The fifth century is recognized as the Golden Age of Greek Theater, with more than one thousand different plays believed to have been performed. Only thirty-one tragedies survive from the periodall written by three playwrights: Aeschylus (525456 BCE), Sophocles (c. 496406 BCE), and Euripides (c. 484406 BCE). The Athenian playwright Aristophanes (c. 450-c. 388 BCE) is the only comic playwright of the time whose works have survived. Greek tragedies were written originally for just two actors, but in 468 BCE the use of a third actor was established. Each actor would play multiple roles, indicated by distinctive masks and representative props. Greek dramas also were the first to feature the chorus, a group of performers who chanted rhythmically, danced, and commented on the course of the action in the play.

Greek theater was appropriated by the Romans after 240 BCE but eventually gave way to more popular forms of entertainment. Roman citizens preferred spectacular and bloody events such as chariot races, armed contests between gladiators, wild animal fights, and mock naval battles (often staged in flooded amphitheaters). The rise of the Christian Church in the fourth century CE signaled a fierce opposition to theatrical practices, due to their origins in pagan rituals and their licentious subject matter. Organized theater all but disappeared by the sixth century, following the fall of Rome to the Visigoths, though some entertainment forms such as mimes, minstrels, and festivals continued in local communities until the Middle Ages and the re-emergence of theater as an art form. Liturgical dramas were performed during church services as a means of imparting religious doctrine to illiterate parishioners. The earliest recorded liturgical drama occurred during an Easter service around 925 CE, and included monks performing the discovery at the tomb. Plays moved out-of-doors and became part of religious festivals after 1300 CE, with performances staged on small, movable structures known as mansions. Local trade guilds took over the staging and financing of cycle plays (a group of plays featuring biblical story interpretations). Local vernacular language eventually replaced Latin as the spoken language of the performances, which also began to feature more secular subjects.

Religious strife and internal church conflicts changed the face of Europe in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries. Religious theater was eventually outlawed, and entertainments began to be provided by a new professional theater during the Renaissance. Permanent theaters blossomed in London during the late sixteenth century and were staffed by acting troupes maintained by wealthy noblemen. The performances had a broad and popular appeal and were attended by the titled and commoners alike. The most famous English playwright of the period was William Shakespeare (15641616), who is believed to have penned an estimated thirty-eight plays. The English Civil War closed the London theaters in 1642. Meanwhile, opera emerged in Italy as a popular Renaissance form and prompted innovations such as scenic stage sets incorporating perspective drawing, machinery for changing background scenery in view of the audience, and rigging created for the purpose of flying people and scenic pieces around the stage. A new style called neo-classicism emerged in France during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, in which drama was made to conform to critical principles based on contemporaneous interpretations of classical theater. Most important were the unities of time, place, and action (each play should have a single plot action that could occur within a twenty-four-hour period and in locations that could realistically be reached during a single day of travel). Neoclassicism also demanded that the characters practice decorum (behaving according to strictly established social etiquette) and was centered on the notion of verisimilitude (the appearance of truth).

This preoccupation with realistic action/behavior onstage foreshadowed the early nineteenth-century development of romanticism. Romanticism was a revolt against the rules of the neoclassical theater and featured plotlines inclined toward emotional truth rather than rational knowledge and characters drawn from the lower social classes rather than the nobility. Romanticism flourished through the 1850s, followed at the end of the century by realism. Realism was the result of two modes of intellectual thought: The first involved the application of scientific thought to theatrical life, resulting in lifelike portrayals; while the second mode centered on democratic political ideals precipitating the need for social transformation. Theater was viewed as a laboratory of humanity, a place to test new ideas of social behavior and reform. The theater of the period exposed contemporary social ills (such as the plight of women in The Dolls House, the best known of Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsens realistic works), and made suggestions for reform (freedom from outmoded social structures). The director emerged as an artistic force during this period, bringing creative and visual unity to the stage performance. Also important during the late nineteenth century was the origination of musical theater (which uses song, dance, music, and spoken dialogue to relate a story). Musical theater remains one of the most popular entertainments into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.


The avant-garde theater (also known as anti-realistic theater) was a strong presence in the early twentieth century, as writers and performers rejected realism and tried to reinvent the ideas of what constituted art. Avant-garde art pushed the boundaries of what is accepted as real, while at the same time attempting to document an individuals perceptions of reality. Twentieth-century avant-garde theater styles include expressionism, futurism, dadaism, and surrealism. Absurdism (life cannot be logically explained) is a style of the avant-garde that became very influential in theater following World War II. This eventually led to a backlash of radical experimental theater in the 1960s, meant to mingle political significance with aesthetic creation. This experimentation laid the groundwork for the contemporary post-modernism movement, which signals a break with the modernist movement and traditional portrayals of experience. Post-modernism theater utilizes a mixture of styles and advocates the primacy of the audience response to the formation of the work. Despite this growth and evolution of alternative styles, however, realism and musical theater remain the dominant mainstream theater fare of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries.


Aristotle. 1967. Poetics. Trans. Gerald Else. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Brockett, Oscar G., and Franklin J. Hildy. 2003. History of the Theatre. 9th ed. Boston: Allyn and Bacon.

Brook, Peter. 1968. The Empty Space. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Carlson, Marvin. 1984. Theories of the Theatre: A Historical and Critical Survey from the Greeks to the Present. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Carlson, Marvin. 1996. Performance: A Critical Introduction. London: Routledge.

Cole, Toby, and Helen Krich Chinoy, eds. 1949. Actors on Acting. New York: Three Rivers Press.

Diderot, Denis. 1967. Encyclopedia: Selections, ed. Stephen Gendzier. New York: J and J Harper Editions.

Dukore, Bernard. 1974. Dramatic Theory and Criticism: Greeks to Grotowski. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston.

Esslin, Martin. 1961. The Theatre of the Absurd. New York: Doubleday and Company.

Jones, Robert Edmond. 1941. The Dramatic Imagination. New York: Theatre Arts Books.

Roach, Joseph. 1993. The Players Passion: Studies in the Science of Acting. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

Stanislavski, Constantin. 1989. An Actor Prepares. New York: Routledge.

Vince, Ronald. 1984a. Ancient and Medieval Theatre: A Historiographical Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Vince, Ronald. 1984b. Renaissance Theatre: A Historiographical Handbook. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press.

Vince, Ronald W. 1988. Neoclassical Theatre: A Historiographical Handbook. New York: Greenwood Press.

Margaret Coyle


views updated Jun 27 2018


THEATER In traditional India, theater is explicitly associated with one deity or another, and the act of performance is an act of worship for performer and congregation alike. Many forms are still staged inside or next to temple precincts, or during religious festivals and holidays on common village grounds. Folk theater often dramatizes episodes from myth and legend pertaining to divinities or devotion. The aesthetics of Indian theater, originating in Bharata's Nātya Shāstra (Theater treatise), prioritize performance, inner life, and emotional moods in expressing that life. Rasa (literally, "juice" or "flavor") forms the nucleus of this aesthetic. A play must evoke the rasas, of which there are nine, in complementary combinations, with one of them predominant. The nine rasas comprise the erotic, comic, pathetic, heroic, furious, fearful, odious, wondrous, and peaceful. In order to arouse these rasas in the "sympathetic connoisseur," performers must emote appropriate bhavas (feelings) throughout. The importance given to emotions causes many non-Indians, preconditioned by their own artistic heritage, to react adversely to Indian drama as being too sentimental and devoid of action.


Indian theater history can be classified under three rubrics: classical, traditional, and modern, by no means mutually exclusive or chronologically sequential. Indeed, all three coexist at present. Folk and traditional theater takes place in villages and religious contexts, while modern theater is the preferred urban idiom. Classical theater, strictly speaking, refers to the courtly Sanskrit drama that flowered in the first millennium a.d. It is extinct, like the classical language in which it was written. But some scholars correctly argue that a couple of genres (Kutiyattam and Krishnattam) still use Sanskrit as a living medium, and directly link Kutiyattam to classical Sanskrit theater, pushing back Kutiyattam's conjectural origins because it seems to have preserved the texts and accompanying production manuals of plays by the earliest known Sanskrit dramatist, Bhasa, in apparently unbroken continuity.


The sources of Indian theater are shrouded in obscurity, though Vedic rituals and recited duologue may have given birth to it in the first millennium b.c. A small cave amphitheater at Sitabenga, in Chhattisgarh state, possibly dates to the third century b.c., while an outdoor arena, perhaps used by Buddhist monks in the second or third century a.d., exists in Nagarjunakonda, in Andhra Pradesh. Bhasa may have composed his works around the turn of the common era, but we have no documents to prove it. Later writers mentioned his name, but it was only in 1911–1912 that his plays came to light, discovered among manuscripts in a library in Kerala, and identified with texts performed for centuries by Kutiyattam troupes in Kerala temples. Thirteen such scripts were attributed to him, the largest number to have survived by a Sanskrit author. They reveal a wide range, from full-length seven-act plays to one-act miniatures, covering tales from the epics, and always theatrical, rather than simply literary.

Judged by the Nātya Shāstra (c. 2nd century b.c. to 4th century a.d.), Bhasa would have either failed its prescriptions or deliberately flouted them. For instance, he shows a hero dying on stage, though the Nātya Shāstra forbids such scenes. Other possibilities are that he preceded the Nātya Shāstra, or wrote when its principles had not fully crystallized—many authorities consider it to be a compendium accumulated over time. Besides expounding on rasa, its thirty-odd chapters offer methodological categorizations of the types of drama; guidelines on music, dance, and architecture; and details of a highly semiotic system of gestures and expression, dividing acting into four components—verbal, physical, internal (emotional), and external (costumes and makeup). We can thus safely deduce that Sanskrit theater, composed by court poets and staged in royal durbars for aristocratic audiences, was uncommonly refined and artistic, with grace, beauty, suggestion, and idealism given primary importance.

Kālidāsa (fifth century) is unanimously acknowledged as the pinnacle among Indian authors in any language, for his masterpiece Abhijnāna-Sakuntala (Recognition of Sakuntala). Two of his other plays have survived, but the lyrical romanticism and spiritual intensity of Sakuntala gave it an uncontested primacy in Indian drama. The four verses in act 4 when the pregnant Sakuntala bids farewell to her ashram home and her foster father, to leave for her husband who seems to have forgotten her, are regarded as the zenith of rasa in Sanskrit poetry. Rediscovered by European Indologists in the late eighteenth century, Sakuntala persuaded them to reassess Indian literature and to elevate Sanskrit to levels previously reserved for the Greek and Latin classics.

Sudraka's Mricchakatika (Little clay cart, c. 2nd century a.d.) is probably the most revived play in the canon because of its social consciousness; it depicts a successful revolution that overthrows an unpopular ruler. Among later Sanskrit works, Visakhadatta's Mudrā-Rākshasa (Rakshasa's ring, 5th century) is an unusual historical drama of realpolitik, with the astute Chanakya, Chandragupta Maurya's minister, as protagonist. The famous king Harsha (r. 606–648) has three romantic plays ascribed to him, of which Ratnāvali is the finest. Bhavabhuti (7th–8th centuries), considered by some to be Kalidasa's equal, is best known for Uttara-Rāmacarita (Later story of Rāma), a moving and powerful narrative of the epic hero Rāma. A slow degeneration of standards characterized subsequent Sanskrit theater, and for all practical purposes it had ceased to be a creative force by the tenth century. Theater in the colloquial idiom of Prakrit briefly occupied a transitional phase, notably in the output of Rajasekhara (9th–10th centuries).


As Sanskrit theater declined, the first indications of performance in the regional languages appeared, coinciding with the formalization of those tongues, descended from the various Prakrits and Apabhramsa. Popular forms unknown to us must have previously entertained the lower castes, parallel to the Sanskrit theater meant for the upper castes. Ancient texts in Tamil make cryptic reference to dance-drama genres and stage preparations, from the beginning of the common era. Certainly, several varieties of Indian puppetry (particularly shadow puppetry) have a long history; the striking similarities between leather puppets in Orissa and Andhra Pradesh and those in Indonesia point to acculturation via mariners from the eastern seaboard who settled in Southeast Asia.

The major influence in the invention of many traditional (formerly known as "folk") forms was the bhakti (devotional) movement that spread throughout the sub-continent. Advocating faith in a personal god rather than the institutionalized, priesthood-dominated ceremonies that had accumulated around Brahmanism, reformers needed to propagate their message, and opted for theater as the most effective medium of communication. Between the fourteenth and seventeenth centuries, these Vaishnava forms proliferated, telling stories of Vishnu's avatars, mainly Rāma and Krishna. One of the first, Kirtaniya, was created in the rich literary language of Maithili in northern Bihar by the poets Jyotiriswara (1280–1360) and Vidyapati (1360–1440). By the end of the fifteenth century, Raslila (based on Krishna's rās dance) arose in Braj, in western Uttar Pradesh, in a local dialect of Hindi. In the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the elaborately accoutred Terukkuttu and Yakshagana developed in Tamil and Kannada, the languages of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, respectively, followed by Kuchipudi dance-drama in Telugu (Andhra Pradesh), credited to Siddhendra Yogi. The sixteenth century saw bhakti theater take shape in eastern India with the active participation of two saints: Jatra (originally called Krishna-jatra) in Bengali received the enthusiastic support of Chaitanya (1486–1533), and Sankaradeva (1449–1568) invented Ankiya Nat in Assamese. Ramlila emerged in Hindi in North India by the seventeenth century, while the Konkani Dasavatar (literally, "ten avatars") in Goa and coastal Maharashtra imitated Yakshagana from neighboring Karnataka. In Kerala, two forms were created: the delicate Krishnattam in Sanskrit by the Zamorin (ruler) of Kozhikode in 1653, and the vigorous Kathakali (initially Ramanattam) in Malayalam by the raja of Kottarakkara in 1661. The former, because of its elite language, remains cloistered in the Guruvayur temple, whereas Kathakali's choice of the mother tongue saw it flourish, into currently the most recognizable face of Indian theater worldwide. After Vaishnavism reached the far eastern state of Manipur, Maharaja Chingthangkhomba sponsored the lyrical Manipuri Ras Lila in 1779. The tribal-cum-martial arts form of Chhau, in Orissa, Jharkhand, and Bengal, also adopted mythical tales for presentation.

It seems useful to distinguish two strains of traditional theater, the temple styles (of worship) from the worldly ones (of comedy and social satire), but considerable over-lap occurs. Notwithstanding the intensely spiritual aim, horseplay and frightening scenes are integral to the religious forms, keeping the entire family, especially children, entertained. A few of the originally devotional forms, like Jatra, gradually metamorphosed into secular ones, though others like Ankiya Nat or Manipuri Ras Lila retained their pristine purity. Some nominally associated with worship appear to have crossed over into subversive comic modes fairly early in their history, and became even more boisterous down the centuries. These include the Bhavai in Gujarati (ascribed to Asaita Thakar, 14th century) and Tamasha in Marathi (probably intended as a diversion for soldiers, from the 18th century). Another major form, the Nautanki in Hindi/Urdu, which evolved in the nineteenth century out of and alongside the Swang in Hindi and Punjabi, may have had tenuous sacred links to begin with, but achieved renown for exquisitely musical renderings of heroic romances. The Bandi Pethir in Kashmiri, whose records go back to the tenth century, is exclusively farcical, its clowns' routines recalling the slapstick of Italian commedia dell'arte.

With the exception of Kirtaniya, all these genres remain alive. Besides, dozens of less popular, but not inferior, forms inhabit the Indian landscape, all increasingly threatened by the incursion of film and television into rural lifestyle in the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. They range from ritualistic possession, such as Teyyam and Bhuta on the southwestern coast, to diverse storytelling modes (many of them orally keeping alive the Mahābhārata and Rāmāyaṇa) that incorporate substantial elements of dance and music. This multiplicity of theater is endangered, ironically, by the homogeneity of performance manufactured in the electronic media, whatever the language, which attract mass viewership by their glamour and pretensions to modernity. Villagers prefer to watch the dream-factory-generated pictures of supposedly greener urban pastures, instead of their local entertainers, whom they consider rustic and backward. Their livelihood thereby imperiled, these performers turn to other careers. Also ironically, interculturalists come to India to study these very genres, seeking the secrets of exotic techniques; renowned directors such as Jerzy Grotowski and Peter Brook have borrowed methods from Kathakali or Chhau for their own work.


The British introduced the proscenium arch auditorium to India, and with it modern (Western) theatrical concepts. Initially, the expatriate communities in the port cities of Calcutta (Kolkata), Bombay (Mumbai), and Madras (Chennai) built playhouses for their own recreation in English, in the eighteenth century. The Bengally Theater (Calcutta, 1795) established by a Russian bandmaster and adventurer, Herasim Lebedeff, pioneered the use of an Indian language on a European-style stage for Indian audiences. The next century witnessed further inroads: the formal reading of English literature by Indian students under Thomas B. Macaulay's education policy; their first amateur attempts at representation of English drama; their translations of this canon into Indian languages; their emulation of Western models in writing and staging original plays; and, finally, the arrival of full-blown professional theater in every major language. Some regions started earlier—Bengali, Marathi, and Hindi have particularly long lineages of modern theater—whereas in others (Dogri, Konkani, Maithili, Nepali, Rajasthani) modernism began only around the time of India's independence.

The first modern Indian play was composed in English by Krishna Mohan Banerjea in 1831, but was never performed. Titled The Persecuted, or Dramatic Scenes Illustrative of the Present State of Hindoo Society in Calcutta, it had a modern topic: for the first time, an Indian dramatist censured living conditions. In 1853, at the Grant Road Theater in Bombay, Vishnudas Bhave produced the first ticketed shows in Marathi, soon followed by Gujarati theater from companies owned by the Parsi (Zoroastrian) community. The same year, Urdu theater commenced in Lucknow with Amanat's Indarsabhā (Indra's court) at Wajid Ali Shah's durbar. While these primarily comprised mythological stories, within the next ten years, eastern India contributed much original social drama. In Bengali, Ramnarayan Tarkaratna castigated Brahman polygamy, and Michael Madhusudan Dutt lampooned upper-class affectations. In Assamese, Gunabhiram Barua criticized child marriages, and Hemchandra Barua, opium addiction.

In 1872 Bengali theater turned professional as well as political. Dinabandhu Mitra's Nildarpan (Indigo mirror) condemned British indigo planters' ruthless oppression of peasants. Anti-British productions increased to the extent that the government clamped down with the Dramatic Performances Act (1876), banning seditious material. However, playwrights like Girish Ghosh (1844–1912) in Bengali and Bharatendu Harishchandra (1850–1885) in Hindi circumvented that law, allegorizing familiar tales of repression and rebellion under the guise of seemingly innocuous mythical or historical inspiration. Meanwhile, the spectacular commercial fare of Parsi troupes and Marathi Sangitnatak succeeded in making theater a favorite of the public. Parsi companies toured across India and even abroad, performing in easily understood Hindustani with attractive sets and special effects, the first pan-Indian theater since Sanskrit times. Sangitnatak (musical drama), created by B. P. Kirloskar in 1880, became so much the rage in Maharashtra that spectators went mainly to hear star actors deliver the songs, sometimes as many as a hundred in a show, in exquisite compositions derived from classical, devotional, and folk melodies. Bal Gandharva (1886–1967), singer and female impersonator, commanded a huge following, and women devotedly copied his fashions.

The major innovator in modern Indian theater, Rabindranath Tagore (1861–1941), authored, directed, scored, choreographed, and acted in over sixty Bengali plays, which were stylistically lyrical and symbolic. They critiqued orthodox Hinduism and dramatized spiritual quest, celebrated nature, pleaded for ecological consciousness, and foresaw the dangers of exploiting mineral resources and damming rivers indiscriminately. Tagore gave importance to women's issues and encouraged girls from respectable families to act (taboo at the time); he initiated open-air children's theater at the school he established in Santiniketan (Abode of Peace), Bengal. He experimented with the musical and dance-drama as forms, and traveled with these productions to large Indian cities. His other plays, translated internationally after he became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize for literature (1913), were staged all over the world, bringing modern Indian drama to the attention of a global audience.

Theater's halcyon days at the box office began to fade with the arrival in 1931 of the "talkies," which cleverly appropriated the escapist formulas that had enticed viewers to the professional companies, which never recovered. In their place, new theater arose, avowedly amateur to protect itself from the demands of popular taste, overtly socialistic in its politics, and realistic in its technique. The founding of the Indian People's Theater Association (1943) signaled this change, with Bijon Bhattacharya's Bengali Nabānna (New harvest, 1944) revolutionizing theater by its stark radicalism (using no scenery or makeup) on the subject of the horrendous Bengal famine of 1943. The movement grew rapidly. In 1944 Prithvi Theaters' Hindustani plays took social awareness across India, and the Dravida Kazhagam Party's Tamil productions opposed Brahmanical dominance in the south. The Praja Natya Mandali (1946) and the Jammu and Kashmir Cultural Front (1953) employed folk forms to advocate their messages in Telugu and Kashmiri, respectively; the Kerala People's Arts Club (1952) espoused the Communist cause in Malayalam. Most serious groups since independence have owed allegiance to leftist ideologies, covering a wide gamut from strident Marxist activism to simple social awareness. Technically amateur, their members hold full-time jobs in other professions.

Contemporary urban theater shows great variety, though three broad currents have emerged: the above-mentioned political, the poetic-symbolical, and the folk nativistic. In Bengali, actor-director Sombhu Mitra (1915–1997) earned respect for his poetic grandeur; Utpal Dutt (1929–1993) regaled with witty plays that expressed an agitprop Communist line; and Badal Sircar (1925–) abandoned the proscenium for free street theater and informal spaces, literally a poor theater with a conscience. Hindi theater was galvanized by the directorial visions of Ebrahim Alkazi (1925–) at the government-funded National School of Drama, the works of Habib Tanvir (1923–), who heads a troupe of Chhattisgarhi village artists, and the unusual psychological dramas of Mohan Rakesh (1925–1972). Marathi drama introduced three noted playwrights: Vijay Tendulkar (1928–), drawn to controversial topics; Mahesh Elkunchwar (1939–), sensitive to domestic relationships; and Satish Alekar (1949–), often absurdist or meta-theatrical in his themes. Tamil theater ranged from the outrageous political satires of Cho Ramaswamy (1934–) to the symbolism and folk-based work of Na Muthuswamy (1936–). Kannada brought the dramatists Chandrasekhar Kambar (1938–) and Girish Karnad (1938–), and the director B. V. Karanth (1929–2002), to the national limelight, reinterpreting folkloric material. In Malayalam (and Sanskrit), Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (1928–) revived traditional genres in modern contexts. Acharya Atreya (1921–1989), Manoranjan Das (1921–), and Arun Sarma (1931–) were the leading playwrights in Telugu, Oriya, and Assamese, respectively. Heisnam Kanhailal (1941–) gave to Manipur a theater of protest and resistance against mainstream culture from India. Gursharan Singh (1929–) bravely preached nonviolence in the Punjabi countryside during the peak of separatist extremism there. A minority English-language theater also exists in the metropolises, its most arresting authors including Asif Currimbhoy (1928–1994) and Mahesh Dattani (1958–).

Ananda Lal

See alsoLiterature


Deshpande, G. P., ed. Modern Indian Drama. New Delhi: Sahitya Akademi, 2000. An anthology of fifteen post-independence plays.

Lal, P., trans. Great Sanskrit Plays. New York: New Directions, 1964. The widest selection of classical drama in a single volume.

Tagore, Rabindranath. Three Plays. Translated by Ananda Lal. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2001. Contains a lengthy critical introduction to Tagore.


Baradi, Hasmukh. History of Gujarati Theater. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 2002.

Gokhale, Shanta. Playwright at the Centre: Marathi Drama. Kolkata: Seagull, 2000.

Kurtkoti, K. D., ed. The Tradition of Kannada Theater. Bangalore: IBH, 1986.

Lal, Ananda, ed. The Oxford Companion to Indian Theater. New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Lal, Ananda, and Chidananda Dasgupta, eds. Rasa: The Indian Performing Arts in the Last Twenty-five Years; Theater and Cinema. Kolkata: Anamika Kala Sangam, 1995.

Narayana, Birendra. Hindi Drama and Stage. New Delhi: Bansal, 1981.

Perumal, A. N. Tamil Drama. Chennai: International Institute of Tamil Studies, 1981.

Raha, Kironmoy. Bengali Theater. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1993.

Sarabhai, Mallika, ed. Performing Arts of Kerala. Ahmedabad: Mapin, 1994.

Vatsyayan, Kapila. Traditional Indian Theater. New Delhi: National Book Trust, 1980.

Yarrow, Ralph. Indian Theater. Richmond, U.K.: Curzon, 2001.