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Gimpel’s theatre in Lviv: its role in the Jewish community’s life and its place in the city’s cultural space

ID: 86

As Delphine Bechtel writes, the Jewish theatre in Lviv is mentioned in various sources along with the synagogue and the bank as a “temple”, that is, a sacred place which drew the people’s attention and aroused their admiration (Bechtel, Le theatre Yiddish…, “Le Yiddish dans la sphere francophone”, 2001, №16, 84). It was a place where different identities of the city could meet. In spite of the diversity of Lviv’s society with all its cultural, national, social and language borders, the theatre was attended by everyone; all kinds of Jews, the assimilated and the Yiddish-speaking, the orthodox and the secular, the rich and the poor used to come and watch the performances of Gimpel’s troupe. For example, those who could not afford buying a ticket watched the performances from the windows and roofs of the neighbouring houses (Weinstock, 50-lecie teatru…, “Chwila”, 1939, №7200, 11), the religious Jews attending the theatre nearly as often as the non-religious ones (Aschendorf, 1964, 2).

Gimpel’s theatre performed a kind of transit function. During the fifty years of its existence this theatre never managed to find its permanent public and home and to bring up its own generation of actors. Those talented people, who had once passed through Gimpel’s theatre, moved abroad or to some other troupes later. As Herman Narepkin aptly remarked, the Jewish theatre was rather a Yiddish dramatic art school which educated both the actors and the public (Narepkin, 1945, 3).

In this article, we will consider the theatre’s history, its place in Lviv’s cultural life and its links with the city.

The origin and development of the Yiddish theatre in Central East Europe

The notion of the “Yiddish theatre” embraces not only a theatre with performances in Yiddish, but also a troupe which stages plays written by Yiddish playwrights telling about the life of Ashkenazi Jews. The Yiddish theatre origins date back to the fifteenth century when the first Purim Spiel originated (Snadrow, 1999, 2). Every year in spring, when the festival of Purim was celebrated, traditional carnival shows were organized; these shows were the early form of Jewish performances. They were given the name of Purim Play (Purim Spiel in Yiddish) and arose from the similar popular street plays in Germany called Fastnachtspiel. A biblical story about how queen Esther saved the Jewish peoples lies at the core of the Purim Spiel (one can read more on the Purim Spiel in Береговский, 2001). The typical Purim Spiel was represented by amateur groups which were going from one house to another telling the festive story of salvation and being given a piece of pie or some other dainties in reward.

There were also professional actors who played their own mini performances, generally with no religious content. These were badchens, or wedding jesters, who performed little scenes that were taken from everyday life and accompanied by humorous songs. Badchens are considered to be one of the first touring Yiddish actors (Snadrow, 1999, 3).
The Jewish public in taverns were often entertained by Broder singers who combined in themselves the typical features of badchens, preachers and actors. This new form of Yiddish performances originated in Galicia in the second half of the nineteenth century. It is considered that this form was invented by Berl Broder (his nickname is derived from his native town of Brody) who together with some other wedding actors created a mini troupe which toured the towns of Galicia. Broder singers performed their own songs and monologues, both funny and serious, in town coffee houses, wine gardens and taverns. In the mid-nineteenth century some Broder singers entered the troupe of Abraham Goldfaden, a Yiddish playwright. His performances in the Wine Gardens of Iași are considered the beginning of the professional Yiddish theatre (one can find more information on Broder singers here: Shtif, 1929).

All these amateur troupes – such as Broder singers, badchens, and travelling Jewish actors, – as well as Goldfaden’s performances in Iași, prepared the ground for a professional Jewish theatre created in Lviv.

A Yiddish theatre managed by Jaakov Ber Gimpel is organized in Lviv

A Jewish theatre was organized in Lviv in 1889, having received from the Austrian administration of Galicia a concession to function for three months (Weinstock, 50-lecie teatru…, “Chwila”, 1939, №7200, 11). The concession was a legally secured permission to give performances which every troupe in the Habsburg Empire had to receive. Usually one had to wait for a long time for such a permission, but the Jewish theatre director was given it without any problem in reward for his long-term work as a chorister in the Polish Skarbek theatre (Veyhart, 1968, 1). In the end of the summer of 1889 a new concession was granted, and another one after some time; so the Jewish theatre began to function in Lviv permanently, gathering more and more spectators from different sections of the population and attracting well-known Jewish playwrights’ and actors’ attention.

Such a rapid success would have been impossible but for the experience acquired by Gimpel on the stage and in the theatrical life for many years. Having been born in Lviv, Jaakov Ber Gimpel knew both the public and the cultural environment of this city very well. The patterns, which he had borrowed from Skarbek, helped to quickly develop his own theatre. As a former choir conductor, he attached a paramount importance to the actors’ singing and to the musical accompaniment of performances (Bałaban, 1940, 2). Often it was he who cast actors and auditioned them making lots of remarks as for the quality of performance. His operettas were amazing due to the beauty and richness of sound and the singing melody. The same cannot be said, however, of their dramatic art as he paid little attention to it, so his performances were frequently criticized because of that. “Jaakov Ber Gimpel was very gifted in music, – wrote historian Majer Bałaban in his memoirs, – but he had nearly nothing to do with the theatre or, to be more precise, with dramatic art” (Bałaban, 1940, 2).

Being a well-known and rich person, Jaakov Ber Gimpel managed not only to quickly organize the theatre and to make it popular, but also to monopolize the Yiddish theatre in Lviv. Other troupes, who also wanted to stage Jewish authors’ plays, could not receive a concession and had to function as amateur collectives (Narepkin, 1945, 4). Gimpel’s theatre functioned, with some intervals, for fifty years; its management was changed three times during this period: after Yaakov Ber the theatre was managed first by his son, Samuel Gimpel, and then by his grandson, Maurycy Gimpel. The Gimpels owned not only the theatre, but also a cinema, so they were a dynasty involved in the entertainment business of Lviv (DALO 1/28/1091:36).

The theatre premises: the interaction with other theatres and with the authorities
During the time of its functioning in Lviv, the Jewish theatre changed several homes as it leased halls and summer terraces. It all started from an open ground near a tavern named Under the magpie (or, as other sources say, To the swindler magpie) located on Zamkova street 13 (Bałaban, 1940, 1). It was there that the Yiddish theatre gave its performances from 1889 till 1896, with seasonal intervals. A wooden stage and long rows of benches had been made in the garden near the tavern long before Gimpel’s theatre was founded, since Broder singers liked to perform their shows at the Under the magpie. The convenient location of this summer ground attracted a lot of people to watch the shows. Besides, the performances of Gimpel’s theatre were very popular among the townsfolk. When Goldfaden’s operettas were performed, all seats in front of the stage were occupied, and spectators could be seen even on the fence or on the neighbouring houses roofs (Bałaban, 1940, 2-3).
Because of lack of free space at the Under the magpie tavern Jaakov Ber Gimpel had to look for some other premises for his troupe. In 1891 he managed to receive a concession to act in a building situated on Jagiełłońska  (now Hnatiuka) street 11 (DALO 3/1/4144:1). There was an old building and a wooden gallery there, which, when taken together, could accommodate 600 spectators. However, these premises did not become a permanent home for the theatre. Owing to the poor condition of both the building and the wooden pavilion, the troupe continued to play at the Under the magpie tavern now and then. The theatre moved to its own premises in 1896 (DALO 3/1/4144:1).

After the pattern of the summer ground near the tavern on Zamkova street 13, a wooden stage was constructed there as well as rows of benches. There were three classes of seats: benches with a narrow back to lean on were the “first class”; the same benches but without a back were the “second class”; and terraces, which were constructed of planks and numbered from 12 to 15 steps, were the “third class”. There was also some room for standing spectators on both sides. The wooden terraces were uncomfortable, and various funny occurrences happened there sometimes; this is mentioned by both Majer Bałaban and Jakob Mestel in their memoirs (Bałaban, 1940, 3; Mestel, 1962, 47). The pavilion in the yard on Jagiełłońska  street 11 was suitable for performances only in dry weather. “When it started to rain, both the actors and the spectators had to run to the building, which was considerably smaller  and, consequently, could accommodate the people only in part. The actors, their clothes and hair wet and the make-up spoiled, had to continue the performance while the public were crowding and elbowing one another and those, who had not been able to get inside, were demanding their money back” (Mestel, 1962, 48).

 Apart from that, another problem was connected with the premises on Jagiełłońska  street 11 since it was the object of a lawsuit with Maurycy Wurm, the building owner. He was a Jew from London who bought the building on the eve of the First World War and arranged a restaurant in the western wing of the building; the restaurant kitchen faced the yard. It caused a conflict between Samuel Gimpel and Wurm (DALO1/28/1091).

The conflict, however, was interrupted by the First World War. There is not much information about this period of the theatre’s history. It can be mentioned only that director Gimpel’s attempt to get a concession for the theatre to function from a representative of the Russian authorities, who had occupied Lviv by that time, was unsuccessful.  When hostilities broke out, the troupe moved to Przemysl where they toured till the early 1920s, as various sources report (Prizament, 1968).

After the theatre returned to Lviv, the legal proceedings with the building owner were continued, and this had a negative influence on the quality of the performances staged at that time. So the decision was taken to lease premises from a Polish theatre called Nowości, which was located in the Colosseum on Słoneczna (now Kulisha) street 23 (DALO 110/5/80-81; Aschendorf, 1964). It was a big building used, apart from the Polish theatre, also by other collectives, including those Jewish, that were on tour in the city. It was there that a big theatrical conference was held in April of 1939, cultural figures from all over Poland having arrived to take part (Weinstock, 50-lecie teatru…, “Chwila”, 1939, №7200, 11). The then condition of the Jewish theatre in Poland was discussed by one of the groups. The most interesting discussions concerned the repertoire, in particular, the question whether it is worth to choose traditional Jewish plays or “the period of Goldfaden” had already passed. The conference revived Lviv’s theatrical life; it was the number one topic for discussion and publications in local newspapers for a few days (Weinstock, 50-lecie teatru…, “Chwila”, 1939, №7200, 11).
 
The actors and the public

“Actors usually were not respected by the people. It was not a “solid profession”. In Lviv, however, actors were always held in respect. First, in Galicia in general, and in Lviv in particular, the theatre was considered “high” culture. Second, Jewish actors in equal measure with Polish ones were important persons” – this is how Isroel Aschendorf begins his research dedicated to the theatre of Lviv (Aschendorf, 1964, 1).

Having left the Polish theatre, Jaakov Ber Gimpel gathered around himself a group of experienced actors who could win the favour of the public at once, after the first performances. Those actors were coming from the Skarbek theatre, from travelling troupes from beyond the borders of Galicia and even from the Russian Empire (Bałaban, 1940, 3). Their repertoire was at first limited to operettas written by a number of European playwrights, well-known at that time: Shulamith, Bar Kokhba, Doctor Almasado, Shmendrik by Goldfaden, Sabbatai Zwi by Horowitz, The Two Orphans by Schumer, The Jewish Woman, Uriel Acosta by Lewner, Menachem ben Israel by Katzenelenson, and some other plays written by Jacob Gordin, Landau and others (Turkov-Grudberg, 1951; Togblat, 1904). That is why it was important for the director to find actors having good vocal abilities and skills.

Six months after founding the Jewish theatre, Jaakov Ber Gimpel invited Bertha Kalich, a young actress who had started her career in his choir at the Skarbek theatre, to join his troupe. She made her first steps in Gimpel’s collective taking part in a performance of Abraham Goldfaden’s Shulamith where she played a role of a little girl singing the well-known aria “Come to me, oh handsome youth”. Since a lot of actors in Gimpel’s troupe had come from outside Lviv, it was especially important for the Lviv public to see this young actress on the stage. Bertha Kalich showed herself to advantage and was given the leading part in Shulamith shortly. From that time on, this performance was announced in the following way: “…with the participation of Bertha Kalich, a Jewish daughter of Lviv” (Zylbercweig, 1963, 11).

One of the Yiddish theatre most brilliant actors, Yidl Guttman, is also worth mentioning; he was perhaps the only one who worked in Gimpel’s troupe for nearly half of his life, twenty years (Zylbercweig, 1931, 469). He worked in the theatre as an actor, script writer and stage director. His brother, Shmuel Guttman, was the chief rabbi in the Temple synagogue. Contemporaries often compared them, pointing out the two different ways of the Jewish culture development in the society: one brother promoted it from the theatrical stage while the other did it from the bimah (Narepkin, 1945, 6). There was a kind of indirect competition between the synagogue and the theatre. Some were even afraid that the rapid growth of the theatre’s popularity would cause the religion to be pushed aside to the background. The replacement of religious songs performed from the bimah by the Yiddish theatre stage was the first step towards the secularization of Yiddish culture, the cantor singing tradition being preserved in the performance acceptable for the modern Jews. Isroel Aschendorf adds: “Though the public attending the theatre was not at all the same as the public coming to the synagogue, the latter being more educated, and though the theatre was more like a barn when compared with the Temple, Yidl Guttman was nevertheless listened to with much more attention than his brother; the public devoured every his word, applauded and shouted “Bravo!” (Narepkin, 1945, 6). Majer Bałaban tells in his memoirs that Guttman was one of those few actors who were able to play their parts in German (Bałaban, 1940, 4).

Knowledge of German was an important skill for actors of the Yiddish theatre so long as Jaakov Ber Gimpel had been describing his theatre as ‘Jewish-German’ since the very outset; as a matter of fact, this meant establishing the so-called ‘daytshmerism’ (domination of German vocabulary in Yiddish, grammar and syntax constructions ‘in German manner’). Actors were subjected to sharp criticism when their language was far from “real German”. This can be seen particularly in performance reviews which abounded in remarks concerning the language of a certain performance like this one: “The actors continue to play in a slang, though they could try to approach German, at least slightly”. Majer Bałaban often mentions it, criticizing “the primitive lovers of German” who forget that the theatre is, nevertheless, Jewish-German and not merely German (Bałaban, 1940, 3).

Gimpel’s theatre: from the center of the Jewish theatrical life of the city to the school and springboard for Jewish actors’ successful careers

At the beginning of its existence the Yiddish theatre played an appreciable role in cultural life of the Jewish community of Lviv. Performances were frequent, there were experienced actors in the troupe, new performances attracted a lot of people, sometimes more than the hall could contain (Bałaban, 1940, 4). Abraham Goldfaden’s visits and participation in production of performances brought Gimpel’s collective to a high level. Jaakov Ber Gimpel managed to get permission to use the theatre hall on Jagiełłońska  street 11 rather easily. There are reports that the Jewish troupe from Lviv even toured the towns of Galicia divided into two groups at the same time (Гельстон, Начало еврейского театра…, “Еврейская Старина”, 2011, №4 (71), 17). The Yiddish-language daily newspaper Togblat reported in 1904 that Gimpel’s theatre had at least two performances a week  (Togblat, 1904). Towards the 1910s, however, the number of performances gradually went down, the actors leaving and amateur collectives being created to counterbalance that of Gimpel. So we can speak of the Yiddish theatre as of the center of Jewish theatrical life roughly till the beginning of the First World War. There were, though, two significant reasons reducing the popularity of Gimpel’s troupe: the outflow of actors and the discrepancy between the repertoire and the needs of the time.

Beginning from the early twentieth century, directors of Jewish theatres from other regions of Central and East Europe, West Europe and America used to come to Lviv every year offering talented and promising actors jobs in their troupes (Mestel, 1962, 50). So the Lviv Jewish theatre collective was constantly renewed, and the director had to look for new actors all the time. Mikhael Veyhart, a contemporary, recalls this in the following way: “Gimpel’s theatre in Lviv was a real school of Jewish theatrical art. Almost all those actors, who later appeared on the stages all over the world, had passed through Gimpel’s theatre. There was a kind of tradition to ‘drag’ actors from this theatre offering them jobs; it was to this theatre that directors from America kept coming year after year to bring some new ‘goods’ for American groups. That is why the troupe of Gimpel’s theatre changed frequently” (Veyhart, 1968, 2).

These changes in the collective often were the reason why the theatre was losing its popularity as the performances dropped in quality and the public could not get used to new faces. Consequently, people paid much attention to visiting theatres, such as a troupe from Vilnius (the so-called ‘wilner-troupe’), which first arrived on tour in the city in 1925 (Veyhart, 1968, 3), and the Warsaw WIKT theatre managed by Zygmunt Turkov and Ida Kaminska. The WIKT always gathered full house, and the public had to buy tickets long beforehand. The collective from Warsaw leased the hall on Jagiełłońska  street 11, Gimpel’s theatre getting a considerable profit: “The actors could well live on the interest. When the WIKT went away, the actors got down to work again, and again the hall was empty” (Veyhart, 1968, 3).

Following the theatre from Warsaw, the Vilnius troupe arrived on tour in Lviv in early 1925 and undermined Gimpel’s reputation again. First, it could be seen in the light of the performances produced by the “wilners” how primitive the performances of Gimpel’s theatre were, and the people stopped going to the theatre at all. Second, though the actors of other troupes, who kept coming on tour to Lviv, were worse than those of Gimpel’s theatre, they got a very good profit because their performances were better (Veyhart, 1968, 4).

So, summing it all up, we can speak of Gimpel’s Yiddish theatre in Lviv as of an important cultural center for the Jewish community of the city. The performances given by the troupe attracted a diverse public who was able to watch the newest performances and listen to the operas of prominent Yiddish playwright Abraham Goldfaden. As time passed, however, this repertoire went out of date while touring Yiddish troupes offered performances which were newer and more modern. Consequently, the Lviv Yiddish theatre was gradually losing its popularity. On the other hand, the best actors were leaving Gimpel’s theatre and joining leading world collectives where they were eventually becoming true stars. The directors had to frequently renew the troupe. That is why in the interwar period the theatre became less attractive for the Jewish public, yielding to the troupes from Warsaw and Vilnius. Even so, would this public have been able to properly evaluate other theatres if they had not been for decades educated by the performances of Gimpel’s theatre? And would the theatrical world have got to know Bertha Kalich, Yidl Guttman, Peter Graf but for their successful début on the Yiddish theatre stage in Lviv? An answer to this question can be found in Mikhael Veyhart’s article about the Yiddish theatre in Galicia: “The activity of Gimpel’s troupe in the city can scarcely be overestimated. Gimpel’s theatre in Lviv was a real school of Jewish theatrical art. Almost all those actors, who later appeared on the stages all over the world, had passed through Gimpel’s theatre” (Veyhart, 1968, 1).

Sources:

  1. Herman Narepkin, Broder-zinger, Gimpel teatr un Vikt / Yizkor-bikher (Galitsia, 1945), 3, 4, 6.
  2. Isroel Aschendorf, Gimpel teater in Lemberg / Yizkor-bikher (Galitsie, 1964), 1, 2.
  3. Mikhael Veyhart, Yidish teater in Galitsie / Yizkor-bikher (Galitsie, 1968), 1-4.
  4. “Togblat” (Lemberg, 1904).
  5. Державний архів Львівської області (ДАЛО) 1/28/1091:36.
  6. ДАЛО 3/1/4144:1.
  7. ДАЛО 110/5/80-81.
  8. Meir Bałaban, Zykhroynes vegn yidishn teater in Lemberg un zayn grinder A. Goldfaden, “Yivo Bleter”, 1940, 1-4.
  9. Delphine Bechtel, Le theatre Yiddish Gimpel de Lemberg: une Odyssee oubliee, “Le Yiddish dans la sphere francophone”, 2001, №16, 84.
  10. Isaak Turkov-Grudberg, Yiddish teater in Poyln (Varshe, 1951).
  11. Jakob Mestel, Literatur un teater (New-York, 1962), 47-48, 50.
  12. L. Weinstock, 50-lecie teatru żydowskiego we Lwowie, “Chwila”, 8.04.1939, N7200, 11.
  13. Nahma Snadrow, God, man and devil. Yiddish plays in translation (Syracuse University Press, 1999), 2, 3.
  14. Nokhem Shtif, Di eltere yidishe literatur: Literarishe khrestomatye (Kiev, 1929).
  15. S. Prizament, Yidish teater in Lemberg / Yididsh teater in Europe tsvishn beyde velt milkhomes (New York, 1968).
  16. Z. Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun yidishn teater 1 (New York, 1931), 469.
  17. Z. Zylbercweig, Leksikon fun yidishn teater 4 (New York, 1963), 11.
  18. Иосиф Гельстон, Начало еврейского театра во Львове, “Еврейская Старина”, 2011, №4 (71), 17.
  19. М. Я. Береговский, Пуримшпили. Еврейские народные музыкально-театральные представления (Киев: Дух i Лiтера, 2001), 648 с.
Written by Oksana Sikorska
Edited by Yulia Pavlyshyn

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