During World War I, as many Jews were being persecuted across Eastern Europe, a group of teenage refugees in Vilna, Russia (now Lithuania) came together to create a Yiddish theater troupe. The group had no particular background or training in theater, but against all odds – in the midst of a deadly war, starvation, and epidemics – the Vilna Troupe, as they became known, became a global sensation, performing in front of kings and queens, and across Europe and North America, Africa and New Zealand.
“For many people (in the audience), it was the first time they’d heard Yiddish,” said Debra Caplan, a Montclair resident and assistant professor of theater at Baruch College, whose fascinating new book, “Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy,” explores the origins and history of the troupe and its impact on theater, art and the global avant garde. “The Vilna Troupe brought a whole new language and culture to the table.”
Yiddish theater began in the late 1800s. Until then, there had been no professional Jewish theater, and until the Vilna Troupe came along, Yiddish theater was confined to Jewish communities – a result of Russia’s attempt to delete all things Yiddish. When German soldiers came to occupy Vilna during World War I, they loosened up those restrictions, eventually writing home to Berlin to rave about the new theater troupe they had watched perform. Many saw the Vilna Troupe as boosting morale during that time.
As a theater historian and director, Caplan learned about the troupe when researching Yiddish theater. She began keeping a running list of all the directors whose shows she thought were most interesting and realized they all had something in common: each one began their career with the Vilna Troupe.
“I wanted to figure out why they were so influenced by this group,” she said. “But when I went to look up the troupe I couldn’t find any book or information on them.”
So she decided to write her own, immersing herself in research and talking to descendants of the troupe, which went on to perform in various incarnations for 20 years.
Caplan sees many parallels between the Vilna Troupe, which was composed primarily of refugees, and the massive global migration taking place today.
“One of the things this story shows us is how people migrate under duress and how interesting artistic possibilities come from that,” she said. “Some members of the troupe were basically homeless for 20 years and they leveraged that to create really fascinating art that crossed linguistic and cultural borders. It raises interesting questions at a time when people are figuring out what integration means and what happens to the places they come to and the places they leave. It is hopeful and moving and inspiring.”
To learn more, Debra Caplan will be discussing her book at Watchung Booksellers on May 22 at 7:00 p.m.