Yiddish Proletarian Theatre

The Art and Politics of the Artef, 1925-1940

by Edna Nahshon


Examines a major Yiddish art theatre that was also one of the most important companies of the American theatre of social consciousness.

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Cover image for Yiddish Proletarian Theatre

August 1998


Pages 288
Volumes 1
Size 6 1/8x9 1/4
Topics Popular Culture/Music and Performing Arts

The Artef (1925-1940) began as a radical Yiddish workers' theatre and developed into a major American Yiddish theatre company. It was among the acknowledged pillars of the Theatre of Social Consciousness, a movement that redefined the course for the American stage during the half century that followed.

In the 1920s and 1930s, New York was widely recognized as the world capital of the Yiddish theatre. The Artef was a principal theatrical institution during this so-called Golden Era. Established in 1925 as a proletarian theatrical organization affiliated with the Jewish section of the American communist movement, the Artef was hailed by Brooks Atkinson as one of the artistic ornaments in town. In 1934 the Artef moved to Broadway, where it continued to perform until its demise in 1940.

This work examines the history of Artef and analyzes the artistic, ideological, and organizational aspects of its work. The company's major productions are discussed, with a focus on the central issues raised by script, direction, and acting. The book attempts to demonstrate that radical politics often shaped and determined the evolution of the theatre, and that its artistic and organizational life must be seen within the context of the political and cultural movement of which it was a part. The work is divided into three major segments: Chapters I-IV discuss the ideological, social, and cultural forces that gave rise to the Artef, the crystallization of the organization, and the work of its acting studio, which in 1928 became the acting collective of the Artef; Chapters V-VIII cover the period of 1929-1934, the formative years of the Artef and their correspondence to communist Third Period doctrine; Chapters IX-XIII are devoted to the theatre's successful Broadway period, which paralleled the Communist Party's liberal Popular Front era. The last chapter discusses the efforts to revive the Artef, and its inevitable demise following the 1939 German-Russian Nonaggression Pact. This is a major work in Jewish Theatre Studies that will be of great use to scholars and other researchers involved with Jewish and Performance Theatre Studies as well as the history of the American Left.

Table of Contents

Foreword by Jules DassinPrefaceFrom Socialism to CommunismToward a Jewish Workers' TheatreThe StudioEarly ProductionsThe Rise and Fall of the Permanent TheatreFacing AmericaRussian ImportsFrom American Documentary to Socialist RealismVictory on BroadwayToward a Professional TheatreThe Days of the Popular FrontAt the Daly Theatre, 1937-38Resurrection and DemiseAppendixBibliographyIndex



[S]he has provided a real service Artef constituted a remarkable episode is what was generally a remarkable period of flourishing and radical working-class culture, and Nahshon has approached the subject with the respect it deserves.—Studies In Contemporary Jewry An Annual XVIII

The book is a rich mine of factual information about the ARTEF, the productions it mounted, its philosophy and the political forces that impacted it. There is also much on the effect that it had on the Jewish cultural scene and even the general theater, and on reactions to the group by the Yiddish press.—Jewish Currents

[A] fascinating anthology which should appeal to anyone with an interest in Jewish history or film studies.—Jewish Chronicle

Artef was important in the American world of Theatre of Socal Consciousness -- praised be such non-Yiddish-speaking theatregoers as Brooks Atkinson, Paul Robeson, and Eleanor Roosevelt -- but this is the first serious study of its work and significance....In scholarly fashion, Nahshon weaves together material from a variety of libraries, archives, and private collections.—Modern Drama

Professor Nahshon has done a fine job giving us a tour through the history of Artef and...deserves the highest praise.—South Atlantic Review

The publication of this excellently researched and well-written book,,,should be celebrated....Nahshon comprehensive pioneering research enables the reader not only to understand the various dimensions of this company but also capture the flavor of a glorious era.—Comparative Drama

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