Analysis of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk

The particular setting of The Dybbuk is the world of Hasidic pietism which grew out of one sage’s intense sense of the goodness and accessibility of God and out of his profound conviction, therefore, of the necessity for joy and exaltation. . . . On the one hand it is a world that has not purged itself of faith in magic making, a world tarnished by superstition; on the other hand it is a world pervaded by a mystic sense of the immediacy of divinity, of the omnipresent miraculous, and of the power of man, in Martin Buber’s phrase, “to compel the upper world.” In such a world the natural and the supernatural, the quick and the dead, commingle in continual relationships, and daily reality is often only a symbol of daily eternity. The Dybbuk is not at all a play about the powers of darkness, as Joseph Wood Krutch referred to it in his review of the 1925 Neighborhood Playhouse production; it is a play about the powers of Light and their immediacy in the world of men.

—Joseph C. Landis, The Dybbuk and Other Great Yiddish Plays

A revolutionary drama of its time, The Dybbuk is the most famous play from the second golden era in Yiddish theater. Set in the vanished, mystically religious world of the 19th-century eastern European Hasidim, it is a complex and meticulously crafted tragedy in which two lovers, betrothed before they have been conceived and denied earthly communion, are ultimately bound together for all eternity. The Dybbuk is one of the few dramas from what author Irving Howe described as the “brief, stormy, vivid, and ambiguous” history of Yiddish theater that has universal appeal and has endured as a viable work for the American stage.

Yiddish theater is a distinct genre that has been as influential as Greek drama, commedia dell’arte, and the medieval passion play in the evolution of Western theater. Written in the day-to-day language of the Ashkenazi Jews, who reserved Hebrew for religious observances, Yiddish theater first appeared in the Jewish communities of France and Germany and in the shtetlach of eastern Europe, and originated from weddings and Purim celebrations. In the 11th century Jewish wedding entertainments began to feature masquerades, which included dancers and monologues by masked speakers, known as jesters (lets, marshaliks, or badkhns). From the 15th century well into the 20th century, jesting was a well-established professional occupation, often hereditary. The compositions of jesters resulted in a unique repertoire of Yiddish theatrical material, including songs for the bride and groom, riddles, parodies, and general serious and comical songs. The singing of cantors in synagogues was another influence, as were the Purimspiels, satiric improvisations featuring parodies of biblical passages, sermons, and deathbed confessions that enlivened Purim festivities and were frequently performed by a wandering yeshiva student. By the 16th century it was customary for Jewish communities to feature Purim plays with a Purim king as the central character. Also figuring in the development of Yiddish theater was the rich Sephardic tradition from 12th-century Spain of dialogues in Jewish poetry known as Tahkemoni, which included discussions between believer and heretic, husband and wife, day and night, land and ocean, wisdom and foolishness, and avarice and generosity. The scope of Yiddish theater, tied to the evolution of Jewish literary culture in general, widened in the wake of the Haskalah, the Jewish enlightenment of the late 18th century, with the exposure to European society and secular theater traditions.

The professional Yiddish theater grew out of variety entertainments initially offered by singers (who often doubled as cantors in synagogues) in taverns where men gathered after work or business. These entertainers, called Brody singers after a town in the western Ukraine, described the substance or difficulties of different kinds of occupations in Jewish society and impersonated the characters in their songs. There were some professional and amateur Yiddish theater productions in Poland in the early and mid-1800s, but there was no established Yiddish theater until 1876, when Russian-born playwright Abraham Goldfaden and two Brody singers formed a professional touring troupe that added plot continuity to songs, with comic dialogue improvised in the manner of commedia dell’arte. Initially all-male, Goldfaden’s troupe soon featured actresses and even families, a tradition that would be carried on in the American Yiddish theater. Goldfaden’s repertoire of musical theater—the precursor to American vaudeville—was later brought to America by immigrant members of his company. Adding to the musicals and melodramas that saturated the Yiddish theater in New York City after the first large-scale waves of immigration in the 1880s and 1890s were the realistic dramas of Jacob Gordin. Inspired by European literature and featuring probability of plot and dialogue suited to the characters, Gordin’s dramas, which included The Jewish King Lear (1892), God, Man, and Devil (1900), and The Kreutzer Sonata (1902), replaced the declamatory, stilted, and often tawdry melodrama and comedy of popular Yiddish theater. Other dramatists who would influence 19th- and early 20th century Yiddish theater were Sholem Asch, Sholem Aleichem, and Peretz Hirshbein, who would go on to form his own troupe that toured Russia. The most prominent offspring of Hirshbein’s company was the Vilna Troupe, which began in 1916 with a play by Sholem Asch. Even given the mass immigrations to the United States through the first decades of the 20th-century, the Yiddish theater in Europe thrived until the virtual extinction of Yiddish culture in Poland by the end of World War II and in the postwar Soviet Union.

In the United States the Yiddish theater, based in New York City, featured an impressive group of star actors and entertainers who appeared in Gordin’s plays, as well as dramas written by new playwrights on topical themes such as the condition of Jewish workers in sweatshops and the problems of assimilation in the New World, comedies, operettas on Jewish religious and secular themes, and Shakespeare plays. The first generation of performers, many of them immigrants, included David Kessler, Zigmund Mogulesco, Boris Thomaskevsky, Jacob Adler, and Bertha Kalisch. In 1917 actor-manager Maurice Schwartz, at the suggestion of actor Jacob Ben-Ami, who had been with the Hirshbein Troupe, founded the Jewish Art Theatre, opening with three successful Hirshbein comedies. Schwartz’s company would dominate the Yiddish stage in the United States for two decades, and Schwartz himself would go on to play the title role in the 1939 film Tevye, based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem. Tevye, in turn, would become the hugely successful Broadway musical Fiddler on the Roof. The post–World War I Yiddish theater continued to reflect traditional Jewish concerns and sensibilities, but it also displayed a new dedication to literary form, acting technique, and theatrical cohesion, as well as a consciousness of the experimentalism and boldness that marked postwar European theater. This consciousness was evident in productions of such plays as Ossip Dymov’s comedy Bronx Express (1919).

By the late 1930s Yiddish theater was on the decline, as the aging immigrant audiences grew too small to sustain interest in serious theater in the genre and their assimilated children, no longer speaking their families’ native tongue, turned to the aesthetics of English literature and mainstream American theater and fi lm. But the styles of performance, ebullient creativity, and liveliness that characterized Yiddish theater would be seen in the dramas offered by the Group Theatre, a company that was critical to the evolution of American theater; in the work of actors and playwrights who went on to careers on Broadway and in Hollywood; in Jacob Adler’s daughter, Stella Adler, an actor and teacher of acting, who influenced an entire generation of actors; and in the inspired brashness of performers, ranging from the Marx Brothers to the tummlers of the Catskills to the stand-up and sketch comedians of today.

In the pantheon of Yiddish drama The Dybbuk stands out as one of the most original and powerful plays in the genre. It is the creation of Shloyme Zanvil Rappoport, whose pseudonym is recorded variously as S. Ansky, S. Anski, Sholom Ansky, and Solomon Ansky. A folklorist (he was the first Jewish folklorist to undertake large-scale fieldwork) as well as a writer, he was born in 1863 in Vitebsk, Belorussia (some sources say Lithuania), and worked as a secretary to Russian populist journalist and intellectual Peter Lavrov, led cultural field expeditions in Ukrainian provinces and in Kiev from 1911 to 1914, and was a relief worker in Russia during World War I. In 1917 he was elected to the Constituent Assembly in Russia. He immigrated to Poland in 1918 and died in Warsaw two years later. Ansky’s writings include poetry, political and cultural articles and essays, and a four-volume account of World War I, titled The Destruction of Galicia. Besides The Dybbuk he authored the one-act plays Father and Son (1906) and The Grandfather (1906) and an unfinished play, Day and Night (published in 1921). Ansky’s poem “The Vow” became the official anthem of the Jewish Workers Party of Poland.

Ansky’s conception of The Dybbuk began in 1911 and coincided with his interest in Hasidic folklore. By 1914 the work had evolved into a four-act play, initially written in Russian and later in Yiddish, which Ansky subtitled in the first edition, A Dramatic Legend. Subsequent versions of the play include the subtitle Between Two Worlds, an appropriate description of a drama in which the spiritual and mystical world of the Hasidim coexists with—and ultimately transcends—the world of the physical and the material. During the course of the play, which takes place variously in the old wood synagogue in the town of Brinnits, in the town square, and in Miropolye at the house of Reb Azrielke, a Tsaddik (righteous man and judge), we learn that Khonnon, a young rabbinical student, is in love with Leye, the daughter of a prominent townsman, Sender, but he cannot marry her because he lacks the wealth that Leye’s father seeks for her. To the horror of his fellow students, he mounts an argument in favor of holiness in sin, asserting, “All that God had created has within it a spark of holiness” and that this is so since God created Satan. He thus invokes Satan’s help in winning his beloved. At the moment he learns that Leye has been betrothed to a wealthy young man, a despairing Khonnon has a mystical experience during which he sees by “what powers” he can prevent the marriage, cries out “I have won!” and falls down dead. Leye, distraught at the death of Khonnon, whom she has always loved, goes unwillingly to be married to the wealthy Menashe, but just as she is about to be wed, she is possessed by a dybbuk, a spirit that in Jewish folklore is believed to be the dislocated soul of someone who is dead. A soul that has not been able to fulfill its role during its lifetime looks for an opportunity to do so after death in the form of a dybbuk (from the Hebrew for “attachment”) and will leave a body, with help, once its goal has been realized. The dybbuk speaks in Khonnon’s voice and cries out, “You buried me! But I have come back to my destined bride, and I will not leave her.” Leye / Khonnon approaches the prospective father-in-law, Nakhman, and shouts in his face, “Murderer!”

Leye, together with her nurse, Frade, and her father, is taken to Reb Azriekle’s house to have the dybbuk expelled by the rabbi and a minyan (quorum of 10 men). The dybbuk refuses to leave, even when threatened with excommunication. Reb Azrielke shifts his attention to Sender, telling him that the rabbi of the city, Reb Shimshon, has had dreams in which a long-dead friend of Sender’s, Nissen ben Rivke, appeared three times. The spirit of Nissen has demanded that Sender be called before a rabbinical court to answer charges for a wrong he has done his old friend. During the course of the trial it is revealed that Sender and Nissen had betrothed their unborn children, Leye and Khonnon. Nissen died soon after his son was born. Although Khonnon was a young man with a “lofty soul,” Sender refused to acknowledge him and to honor the betrothal, insisting instead on a rich husband for his daughter. He has forgotten the duties of a Tsaddik (righteous person) in his thirst for wealth. The court punishes Sender, sentencing him to give away half his wealth and to light a candle and say kaddish (the prayer for the dead) for Nissen and Khonnon on the anniversary of their deaths as long as he lives. The dybbuk is expelled willingly from Leye’s body and begins its journey toward redemption. The court orders that Leye be led to the bridal canopy to marry Menashe, but before the bridegroom arrives Khonnon’s voice is heard. He has left Leye’s body to return to her soul, the act of which has broken the barrier between them. Khonnon and Leye declare their love for each other, and Leye goes toward her destined bridegroom. She dies, her spirit joined to Khonnon’s forever.

In 1914 actor-director-teacher Konstantin Stanislavsky considered The Dybbuk for the Moscow Art Theatre. Although Stanislavsky decided not to stage the play, he suggested that Ansky add the key role of a celestial Messenger, who, as a Greek chorus, establishes the mood, comments on the action to come, and indicates the presence of the supernatural. The Messenger provides the theme of the play at the start of the first act with an anecdote about a rich and stingy Hasid and a rabbi who gives the Hasid a lesson in seeing others rather than only himself. Ansky did not live to see his play in performance. The Dybbuk, in Yiddish, was first produced by the Vilna Troupe at the Elysium Theatre in Warsaw on December 9, 1920, 30 days after the traditional mourning period that followed Ansky’s death on November 8. Two years later Maurice Schwartz produced the play in New York and simultaneously in Moscow, where it was performed by the Habima Company in Hebrew. In 1921 the Yiddish Art Theatre mounted the first New York production in Yiddish, and in 1925 The Dybbuk made its debut in English, in a production at New York City’s Neighborhood Playhouse. Since then the play has been frequently revived. The Dybbuk has, through the decades, inspired both admiration for its magical, romantic quality and spiritual enchantment and debate over its meaning. The play is an evocation of the mystical world of shtetl Hasidim, which makes it a drama about a culture that was vanishing even when Ansky was exploring its customs and folklore. It is also a heartbreaking and poignant love story that exists side by side with the twin themes of the human capacity for redemption dependent upon a holy law that determines individual conduct and the inexorability of justice in a divine and immutable universe.

Source: Daniel S. Burt The Drama 100 A Ranking of the Greatest Plays of All Time

Categories: Drama Criticism, Literature, Yiddish Literature

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