(Michael Billington’s article appeared in the Guardian, 2/14.)
At the moment there is a rather under-valued play by Nicholas Wright, Travelling Light, playing at the National Theatre. It shows how Jewish folk culture, which flourished in the shtetls of eastern Europe, influenced Hollywood cinema. Watching the play, I wondered if a similar argument could be made for the modern theatre. How much, in short, has it been shaped by Yiddish tradition?
In America, there is a reasonably clear-cut progression. Between 1881 and 1903, well over a million Yiddish-speaking Jews arrived in the USA. Many of them settled in New York's Lower East Side, and a vigorous theatrical culture emerged. Plays, often incorporating songs and dealing with problems of exile and assimilation, were hugely popular. And although integration led to the decline of Yiddish theatre and a corresponding diaspora of second and third-generation talent, it is virtually impossible to think of modern American theatre without the influence of Jewish artists.