The actress Paula Varter in a scene from The Dybbuk
performed by the Vilna Troupe, 1920.
The Dybbuk (in Yiddish, Der dibek) premiered at the Elysium Theater in Warsaw on December 9, 1920, marking An-sky’s passing thirty days earlier. It was produced by the Vilna Troupe (in Yiddish, Di Vilner trupe), a recently organized theatrical company devoted to the production of meritorious drama in Yiddish. It was directed by David Herman who used elements from his own Hassidic upbringing, shaping the life he created on stage in a realistic though solemn and ceremonial feel. Michael C. Steinlauf suggests in his informative essay “Dybbuks on and off the Polish Jewish Stage” that the old world created by Herman's interpretation evoked "those things rooted in the most elemental Jewish sense of place" (p. 279), i.e. the cemeteries, synagogues, courtyards, marketplaces, and landscapes of Eastern Europe.
The production, originally put together as homage to An-sky, became an instant hit. The exhilaration it generated was likened by many to that of an intense religious experience. The numerous articles, lectures and debates surrounding it made it clear that The Dybbuk was an important cultural phenomenon, jokingly termed “dybbukmania” by one of Warsaw’s Yiddish newspapers. After one hundred performances to packed houses – an unprecedented occurrence in a city with a population of some 300,000 Jews - it was taken on tour in Poland and Western Europe where it featured prominently in the company’s repertory. It was reported that the company gave 390 performances of the play in its first year to an estimated 200,000 theatergoers. Alluding to the play’s subtitle, Between Two Worlds, Steinlauf positions the production’s extraordinary popularity in the historical moment, when East European Jews found themselves between the old and new. They were greatly shaken by the old way of life, severely rattled by the devastation of World War I, pogroms and the Bolshevik revolution, while equally enamoured with the promise of a modern, urbanized life in the new, democratic Poland that promised its Jews equal civil and cultural rights. This sense of in-betweenness and the merger of two worlds found a dramatic voice in the final scene. After Leah’s soul has departed and the final curtain descended on the stage, voices of the living and the dead fused in the chanting of the Song of Songs, the musical leitmotif of The Dybbuk.
Scene from act 3 in the Habima Theater production of The Dybbuk in Moscow, 1922.
The Dybbuk is considered the signature production of the Habima, Israel’s National Theater and the cornerstone of the modern Hebrew stage. Habima, established in Moscow in 1917, was an integral part of the Zionist movement out of a Zionist ideology that emphasized the centrality of the Hebrew language in the formation of a modern national Jewish culture. At the same time, Habima was also a product of the unparalleled creativity of the post-revolutionary Russian stage. Shortly after its inception it became affiliated as an independent studio with the Moscow Art Theater. The company began its work on The Dybbuk in 1919 under the direction of its teacher Evgeny Vakhtangov (1883-1922), making it the first theater to embark on a production of the play. However, Vakhtangov fell ill mid-course, and work on The Dybbuk was suspended until his recovery. It was only in 1920, with Vakhtangov’s health temporarily improved, that work on The Dybbuk resumed in full force.
Habima worked on the production for nearly two years, an unprecedented practice in the history of the Jewish stage. The work was molded by Vakhtangov’s artistic approach, which he termed ‘fantastic realism’ - essentially a heightened form of theatrical expressiveness that synthesized Stanislavsky’s psychological realism and Meyehold’s biomechanics. The production, with music by Joel Engel (1826-1926), and sets, costume and make-up by Nathan Altman (1889-1970) opened in Moscow on January 31, 1922. It received rave reviews and was hailed as a theatrical masterpiece that positioned the company among Moscow’s most esteemed art theaters. The resounding success of The Dybbuk stood in stark contrast to the overall Soviet suppression of Hebrew activities, and the practical criminalization of the language. The company finally left the USSR in 1926 for a European and American tour. It settled permanently in Tel Aviv in 1931. The 1922 Moscow production of The Dybbuk was preserved for forty years ‘as is’ in Habima’s repertory. By the mid 1960s it had been performed well over a 1000 times, with no other Hebrew language production ever coming close to this number.
The beggars' dance was regarded by spectators and critics as the highlight of the Habima production. Read about the dance scene in Nahshon and Spitz. Compare it with the Wedding dance in the 1937 film.
Ben-Ari, R.(1979) Habima. New York: Thomas Yoseloff.
Levy, E. (1979) The Habima: Israel's National Theater, 1917-1977. New York: Columbia University Press.
Yerushalmi, D. (2007) The Habimah “Dybbuk”: A Study of The Role of Exorcism. Tel Aviv University
Please use this identifier to cite or link to this item:
All items in DSpace are protected by copyright, with all rights reserved.