Theater in the United States
For over a hundred years, Jewish women have been involved in the American theater as writers, actors, directors, designers and producers. The vitality of the Yiddish theater, the splendor of Broadway, the rich tapestry of the regional theater—and everything in between—all owe a debt to the Jewish women who have given of their talents, their energy, their drive, and their dreams. From the classical performances of Rose Eytinge in the 1860s to the radical experiments of Judith Malina in the 1960s, Jewish women have found in the American theater opportunities to express themselves, to challenge audiences, and to take the art of theater to new heights.
The Rich Legacy of the Yiddish Theater
With the great wave of Jewish immigration in the late nineteenth century, the Yiddish theater in America was thriving. In a broad range of styles, from lively musical revues to intellectual avant-garde performances, the Yiddish theater was a center of community life for many Jewish immigrants. It was entertaining and educational. It was a way to feel a sense of belonging in a strange place, to understand life in a new world, and to preserve the culture of the homeland. It was a first step on the bridge between being foreign and being American. With a rich and vast legacy to the English-language theater, it also served as a conduit for new European plays, cultivated a community of passionate theatergoers, and produced an array of fine actors whose influence is still felt today.
Sara Adler was genuine Yiddish theater royalty. First married to actor Moische Heine-Haimovitch, later to flamboyant Yiddish theater impresario Jacob P. Adler, she was known for her dark beauty and the depth of her emotional power. The great Yiddish playwright Jacob Gordin wrote several plays especially for her, including Without a Home, in which she played an immigrant woman who suffers and finally goes mad because her husband and son can succeed in adjusting to American life, while she fails. Sara Adler’s achievements—along with those of Yiddish actors such as Bertha Kalich, Esther Kaminska and Keni Liptzin—contributed to the recognition of women as serious actors. Her daughter Stella Adler built on her mother’s accomplishments and went on to change the face of acting in America.
Celia Adler, daughter of Jacob Adler and his second wife Dina Shtettin Feinman, appeared in the Yiddish theater from childhood. As Nahma Sandrow describes it, “Throughout her career she specialized in playing romping, innocent young hoydens and, enormous eyes brimming with tears, sensitive girls and wildly weeping mothers.” Celia Adler was a founding member of the Jewish Art Theater, dedicated to the new trend toward realism in drama, a literary repertoire, serious rehearsals, and professional directors and designers. In contract negotiations, she turned the spotlight on the difficulty faced by a woman alone in a business dominated by and designed for men. And while her long, rich career was built almost exclusively in the Yiddish theater, she was among the first of the serious actors to appear in an English-language production on Broadway.
Actors such as Berta Gersten and Bertha Kalich dedicated themselves primarily to the Yiddish theater but found success on the English-language stage as well. So did the charming Molly Picon, whose first major role in the English-language theater was in the Broadway production of Morningstar by Sylvia Regan and who found that, from then on, all doors were open to her.
These actors did more than merely open doors for themselves, however. They popularized the image of the Jewish woman on stage and paved the way for others to follow in their footsteps. They bestowed upon a nation the rich gifts of their talents. And they nurtured Jewish culture, maintaining a centuries-old theatrical tradition while creating a rich legacy for new generations.
The Commercial Theater
In the nineteenth century, two major stars of the American stage were Jewish women. The great French actor Sarah Bernhardt made her American debut in 1880 as the tragic title character in Adrienne Lecouvreur. In her nine tours of America, she swept audiences away with her tragic grandeur and majestic passion. This was a time when audiences came to the theater not to see the play but to see the star, and Rose Eytinge was a notable attraction. She performed with such luminaries as Edwin Booth, touring major cities, performing for President Lincoln, even visiting the White House. Of her performance in Rose Michel (1875), one critic said that she “attained to the exalted pitch of perfect truth, in delineation of horror and agony, and it swept to this apex with the spontaneity of perfect ease.” Her fierce, dark passion thrilled audiences, many of whom never knew that she was Jewish. Eytinge concealed her ethnicity, allowing herself to appear exotic while not admitting to being Jewish. Others who blazed the trail into the commercial theater took a variety of different approaches.
Adah Isaacs Menken, for example, made her name in American theater history by donning a flesh-toned body stocking and strapping herself to a horse in the melodrama Mazeppa (1861). She “is the sensation of the New York stage,” gushed one reviewer. “Her rare beauty and the tantalizing audacity of her performance defy description. She must be seen to be believed; anyone who misses her at the Broadway Theater will be denying himself the rarest of exhilarating treats.” The truth of her background is obscure—Menken told so many conflicting stories that it is impossible to know what is fact and what is fiction—but this woman made certain that she was noticed and remembered.
In burlesque and vaudeville, some Jewish women adopted the conventions of the already-accepted outsiders in America—blacks—in order to gain a foothold in show business. Sophie Tucker began her career wearing blackface and singing songs in black dialect—she was billed as “the red-hot mamma.” Louise Dresser employed a chorus of African-American children in her act. And Belle Baker found her early vaudeville success by playing the sexy, sensual image that white audiences associated with black women.
There was fame, if not fortune, for those lucky enough to be chosen for the Ziegfeld Follies, and that included Sophie Tucker, Belle Baker, Nora Bayes, and the incomparable Fanny Brice. Born Fania Borach in New York’s Lower East Side, Brice was a natural mimic with a sharp sense of humor and an excellent singing voice. Although early in her career she tried to appear less “ethnic” by changing her name to Brice (after all, she didn’t even speak Yiddish), she found early on that it was her comic specialty numbers—such as Irving Berlin’s “Sadie Salome, Go Home” sung with a Yiddish accent—that won her audiences. A certain kind of ethnic humor, based largely on stereotypes, was popular early in the twentieth century, and Brice was able to catch the wave and ride it all the way to eventual stardom.
For many years on Broadway, the success of Jewish actors seemed to depend on the degree to which they could downplay their Jewishness. Trained for a career in opera, Vivienne Segal made her early career playing the ingenue in musicals such as Oh, Lady! Lady! (1918) and The Desert Song (1926), later returning to Broadway in the roles of sultry older women in shows such as Pal Joey (1952) and A Connecticut Yankee (1943, 1952). Libby Holman was an alluring torch singer who appeared on Broadway in Garrick Gaieties (1925). The superb comedienne Judy Holliday made her New York debut in Kiss Them for Me (1945), became a star with her portrayal of mob moll Billie Dawn in Born Yesterday (1946), and earned a Tony award for her turn as the meddling telephone operator in Bells Are Ringing (1956).
Broadway was also the biggest, brightest showcase for a woman who has come to be considered one of America’s biggest, brightest stars: Barbra Streisand. As the klutzy Miss Marmelstein in I Can Get It for You Wholesale (1962), she introduced her own brand of energy, brass, and humor to the Broadway stage. But it was Streisand’s portrayal of Fanny Brice in Funny Girl that made her a star. Perhaps what’s most significant about Streisand’s success is that she did it by being herself. She did not change her name or her nose. Her upbringing was Jewish—she neither flaunted nor hid it. She simply lived it.
American Jewish playwrights, composers, and lyricists have contributed their talents to the Broadway stage in abundance. William Goldman’s claim that “without Jews, there simply would have been no musical comedy to speak of in America” is not far off. Irving Berlin, George and Ira Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, Lorenz Hart, Yip Harburg, and Stephen Sondheim are but a few of those whose talents essentially made the American musical theater. And Jewish women are right up there with Jewish men.
Dorothy Fields was a lyricist and librettist whose work is best known for fresh turns of phrase and zesty humor. She wrote the lyrics to such popular songs as “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love” and “On the Sunny Side of the Street,” and she wrote librettos for popular shows such as Annie Get Your Gun (1946) and Sweet Charity (1966). Even after her death, her lyrics were featured on Broadway in productions of Ain’t Misbehavin’ (1978) and Sugar Babies (1979).
Bella Spewack and her husband Sam were one of Broadway’s best-known husband-and-wife writing teams. Together they wrote twelve plays—mostly madcap comedies and social satires—including Boy Meets Girl (1935) and the book for Cole Porter’s Tony Award–winning musical Kiss Me Kate (1948).
The team of Betty Comden and Adolph Green won fame on Broadway for fast-paced, wisecracking lyrics and librettos. They wrote On the Town (1944) with Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins, Wonderful Town (1953) with Leonard Bernstein, and Bells Are Ringing (1956) with Jule Styne. Their partnership was one of the longest and most successful in Broadway history, continuing through Applause (1970) and Singin’ in the Rain (1985).
Among the significant American Jewish writers of the nonmusical Broadway theater—Elmer Rice, Clifford Odets, Paddy Chayevsky, and Arthur Miller—are a host of great women, including Edna Ferber, Rose Franken, Sylvia Regan, and Lillian Hellman.
Edna Ferber was a celebrated novelist as well as an acclaimed playwright, known for her keen ear for dialogue and her sharp wit. She created her great Broadway successes in collaboration with George S. Kaufman: Minick (1924), The Royal Family (1927), Dinner at Eight (1932), and Stage Door (1936). Two of her novels were made into popular Broadway musicals: Showboat (1927) and Saratoga (1959).
Novelist and short story writer Rose Franken crossed over into the theater with the surprise hit of her play Another Language in 1932. Her sharp-eyed observations about the American family gave tang to her domestic dramas Claudia (1941) and The Hallams (1947). Social concerns such as antisemitism, homophobia, sexism, and war fueled her other plays such as Outrageous Fortune (1943), Doctors Disagree (1943), and Soldier’s Wife (1944).
Sylvia Regan was a press agent for Orson Welles’s Mercury Theatre before she made her mark as a Broadway playwright with the 1940 production of her Jewish family drama Morningstar, featuring Molly Picon and Sidney Lumet. In 1953, she topped her earlier success with the production of her comedy about the garment industry, The Fifth Season.
But no discussion of American playwrights—male or female, Jewish or gentile—would be complete without Lillian Hellman. Like her male counterparts Clifford Odets and Arthur Miller, Hellman expressed through her plays a strong belief in ethics, morality, truth, and responsibility. The Children’s Hour (1934)—Hellman’s drama about the destructive power of a lie—won her the accolades of critics, who called her a “second Ibsen” and “the American Strindberg.” In tightly constructed, powerful dramas such as The Little Foxes (1939), Another Part of the Forest (1947), The Autumn Garden (1951), and Toys in the Attic (1960), Hellman took audiences on rigorous emotional journeys and left them drained, horrified, uplifted, angry, sorrowful … but never bored.
As a young woman, Aline Bernstein planned to put her artistic abilities to use as a portrait painter, but the lure of the theater turned her into a costume and scenic designer. At the Neighborhood Playhouse, she designed The Little Clay Cart and The Grand Street Follies (1924). On Broadway—in addition to her work on Grand Hotel (1930)—she is remembered for her designs for Lillian Hellman’s powerful dramas The Children’s Hour and The Little Foxes.
When Jean Rosenthal went to work for the Federal Theater Project in 1935, there was no such thing as a lighting designer. Lighting was handled by an electrician, whose goal was simply to make sure that the audience could see the stage. But it all changed with Rosenthal, who saw the power of light to evoke mood, draw focus, and express ideas. Her lighting design for Orson Welles’s production of Julius Caesar (1937) brought her to prominence, and she went on to design extensively for modern dance pioneer Martha Graham. Rosenthal designed such well-known Broadway productions as West Side Story (1957), Hello, Dolly! (1964), and Fiddler on the Roof (1964).
The ultimate power in the American commercial theater is held by producers. It is a profession that demands, as Cheryl Crawford once said and Helen Krich Chinoy quotes, “a ton of nerves” and “the philosophy of a gambler.” It is a field largely dominated by men, but that hasn’t stopped Jewish women from taking on the challenge. With savvy, drive, a passion for quality, and a knack for leadership, a number of Jewish women have beaten the odds in this demanding profession.
Helen Menken turned her substantial energy to producing after a successful career as an actor. She is best known as producer of the Stage Door Canteen, Broadway’s contribution to the war effort from 1942 to 1946, and was president for many years of the American Theater Wing, the organization responsible for Broadway’s top honor: the Antoinette Perry Award (the Tony).
One of the most important American theater producers of the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s was Theresa Helburn, president of the Theatre Guild. She spearheaded Guild efforts to raise the artistic level of Broadway production, to present challenging plays in the commercial theater, to build audience support, and to nurture the work of talented theater artists. The Guild’s achievements over time include legendary productions of plays by Elmer Rice, John Howard Lawson, Robert Sherwood, Maxwell Anderson, and Eugene O’Neill. Helburn was responsible for uniting Alfred Lunt and Lynn Fontanne (1924), for bringing Oklahoma! to the stage (1943), and for producing Othello with Paul Robeson (1943).
Irene Mayer Selznick—daughter of MGM founder Louis B. Mayer and the wife of producer David O. Selznick—learned about producing from some of the best in the business and went on to produce A Streetcar Named Desire (1947), Bell, Book and Candle (1950), and The Chalk Garden (1955). Wrote New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, “When she produced Streetcar and other plays, she worked hand in glove with the playwright in insuring that the work was seen absolutely to its best advantage.”
New Passion, New Approaches
Jewish women have often been the trailblazers in American theater, seeing the problems with modern ways of working and envisioning new methods, challenging their creative collaborators, and pushing the bounds of the theatrical art. Stella Adler—daughter of Yiddish theater legends Jacob and Sara Adler—was such a trailblazer.
She was one of a group of young theater artists in the 1930s who found Broadway’s endeavors sorely lacking. Productions at the time could be haphazard affairs, with little effort to achieve a unified style of design and performance and no sense of having grown out of a common need of the artists to express an idea or feeling. “This produced positive results when the elements thrown together were based on the rather primitive appetites of a large number of people,” wrote Harold Clurman. “Action melodrama, a leg show, a conventional musical, or a knockabout farce was generally more satisfactory from the standpoint of completeness or unity of style than were the more ambitious efforts of the highbrow theater.”
So a group of committed young theater artists—Stella Adler among them—chose to forge their own path. Theirs would be a theater that valued content and form, where artists were continually nurtured in the development of their technique, and where technique was used to express a shared response to the world around them. The approach was group oriented, so they named themselves the Group Theatre.
Founded in 1931 by Harold Clurman, Cheryl Crawford, and Lee Strasberg, the Group Theatre dedicated itself to training and nurturing actors and to building a sense of ensemble performance in which everyone contributed equally to the success of a production. In addition to Stella Adler, the company included talented young actors such as Sanford Meisner, Morris Carnovsky, Franchot Tone, and Phoebe Brand. Together, they explored the methods of Russian acting teacher and director Konstantin Stanislavsky, developing an approach to acting that emphasized spontaneity and emotional authenticity. Claimed one reviewer enthusiastically in response to the Group’s first production, “They are not only earnest and skillful, but inspired.... Their group performance is too beautifully imagined and modulated to concentrate on personal achievements. There is not a gaudy, brittle or facile stroke in their acting.” Noted another, “Jaded Broadway seems finally to have found the young blood and new ideas for which many of us have been praying.”
But despite the success, Stella Adler was dissatisfied with the company’s acting methods. She wanted techniques that were more reliable, more tangible, and less personally intrusive, so she took up the matter with the great Stanislavsky himself when she met him in Paris in 1934. Intrigued by Adler’s boldness, the master invited her to study with him and to learn more about how his ideas about acting had changed over time. “He understood,” said Adler later, “that asking the actor to recall his personal life could produce hysteria, so he had abandoned that. He believed now that the actor must rely on his imagination.” Adler recorded the sessions in her diary over the six-week period that she and Stanislavsky worked together, and shared her findings with the members of the Group Theatre upon her return to America.
The results of Adler’s work with Stanislavsky significantly altered the Group’s approach to acting. Although these ideas were never fully embraced by Lee Strasberg, the dynamic tension between Adler’s understanding of Stanislavsky and that of Strasberg resulted in some of the finest ensemble performances ever recorded in the American theater. In Clifford Odets’s Awake and Sing and Waiting for Lefty, the ideals of the Group Theatre were magnificently realized.
In 1949, Adler carried her work forward by founding the Stella Adler Conservatory of Acting where, until her death in 1992, she trained a generation of up-and-coming actors: Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro, Ellen Burstyn, Elaine Stritch, and many others. Stella Adler’s high standards, her passion for excellence, her willingness to challenge the status quo, and her love of theater itself inspired and influenced a vast array of actors, directors, and acting teachers. This indomitable Jewish American woman, daughter of Yiddish theater royalty, changed American acting fundamentally and forever.
Visionaries, Iconoclasts and Rule Breakers
During the turbulent 1960s, virtually every aspect of American society was called into question, and that included the American theater. As Ellen Schiff says, it was a time of experimentation, and Jewish women were among those with “plenty to say, bursting with a passion for performance and new ideas for using the stage, heady with the opportunity to pursue artistic, rather than monetary or even critical, success.”
Among the most influential of the experimental groups was the Living Theatre, a collective founded by Jewish American actor/director Judith Malina and her husband Julian Beck. Originally devoted to producing the poetic works of writers such as Federico Garcia Lorca and Gertrude Stein, the company’s aesthetic began to evolve with its hyperrealistic productions about drug addiction (The Connection) and the rituals of life in a military prison (The Brig). However, it was in 1963—when the company went into exile in Europe to avoid taxes—that the Living Theatre truly found its style. According to Renfreu Neff, “Its primary impetus was a need for a common language in which to communicate with its audiences as it traveled from country to country across the Continent. A non-verbal dramatic idiom had to be found that would go beyond words and reach the public on a level that transcended the need for language.” Intrigued by the radical acting theories of Antonin Artaud, Malina and Beck developed a unique performance style that sought to shatter the restraints of realism, break down the boundaries between audience and performer, blur the distinction between art and real life, and create a communal ritual experience of the moment. Wrote critic Robert Brustein, “By stirring up a kind of theatrical anarchism wilder than anything that has been seen here or abroad, the Living Theatre has literally given life to theater.” They returned to the United States in 1968 and, at Brustein’s invitation, presented four spectacular performances at Yale University—Mysteries and Smaller Pieces, Antigone, Frankenstein, and Paradise Now—that bedazzled, enraged, and inspired audiences. Especially provocative was Paradise Now, Brustein recalled, at the end of which “everyone was exhorted to leave the theater and convert the police to anarchism, to storm the jails and free the prisoners, to stop the war and ban the bomb, and to take over the New Haven streets in the name of the People.”
Meanwhile, other Jewish American women were rocking the foundations of the theater establishment as well. Playwright Susan Yankowitz scripted the Open Theater’s landmark 1969 production of Terminal and lent her bold imagery and avant-garde sensibility to works such as The Ha-Ha Play, Slaughterhouse Play, and Boxes. Rosalyn Drexler skewered sex and violence in satires such as Home Movies and The Line of Least Existence. And Karen Malpede wrote Lament for Three Women, The End of War, and Making Peace even as she cofounded the New Cycle Theater in Brooklyn.
In the revolutionary spirit of the 1960s and 1970s, theater companies began to emerge with the mission to support artists of specific ethnic and cultural backgrounds, to explore ethnic and cultural identity, and to create theater based on that exploration. New theaters devoted to the American Jewish experience sprang up in this creative climate, including American Jewish Theater and Jewish Repertory Theater in New York, and A Traveling Jewish Theater in San Francisco.
Actor/director Naomi Newman, together with Corey Fischer and Albert Greenberg, founded A Traveling Jewish Theater “out of a desire to create a contemporary theater that would give form to streams of visionary experience that run through Jewish history, culture, and imagination.” In brilliantly evocative productions, using masks, puppets, music, movement, sound, and silence, A Traveling Jewish Theatre has explored a range of concerns, including isolation, exile, and assimilation. And when Naomi Newman takes the stage in her play Snake Talk: Urgent Messages from the Mother, she speaks to the very heart with passion and eloquence.
Dreaming of a Regional Theater—and Making It Happen
As early as the 1920s, Jewish women recognized that there was an American theater beyond New York. Outside professional structures, in community and regional drama groups, in art theaters and little theaters all over the country, theater was being created purely for the love of the art. Often this work celebrated community, bringing people together in the collective experience of producing a play and providing opportunities for the community itself to share in the event. Jewish American critic Edith Isaacs, the influential editor of Theatre Arts magazine, referred to this kind of theater as “the tributary theater,” feeding the mainstream with a wealth of talent, energy, and ideas. She rejected the commercialism of the New York theater and called on Americans to go to “the four corners of the country and begin again, training playwrights to create in their own idiom, in their own theaters.” All over the country, people responded to Isaacs’s call, dedicating themselves to developing and nurturing a nationwide, grassroots theater movement.
One of those who took up the call was Zelda Fichandler. Like Isaacs before her, Fichandler rejected the commercialism of the New York theater. She saw the joblessness of American theater artists as a tragic waste of talent and the centralization of American theater in New York as a denial of the vast cultural potential of a diverse nation. “Some of us looked about and saw that something was amiss,” says Fichandler. “What was essentially a collective and cumulative art form was represented in the United States by the hit-or-miss, make-a-pudding, smash-a-pudding system of Broadway production. What required by its nature continuity and groupness, not to mention a certain quietude of spirit and fifth freedom, the freedom to fail, was taking place in an atmosphere of hysteria, crisis, fragmentation, one-shotness, and mammon-mindedness.” So Fichandler and two other pioneering women decided to do something about it. In 1947, Margo Jones founded Theater 47 in Houston and Nina Vance founded the Alley Theater in Houston, and in 1950, Zelda Fichandler founded the Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.
The common goal of these theaters was to put art before money. Jones, Vance, and Fichandler envisioned theaters that would nurture professional artists, provide opportunities for artistic risk-taking, set high professional standards for the production of new plays as well as classics, and embrace the idea that long-term success may mean short-term failure. Wrote Henry Hewes in the Saturday Review, “The great bright hope of the [regional theater] movement is that these organizations will be able to tackle large, serious works that would be financially prohibitive in the current Broadway economy.”
And that’s just what happened at the Arena Stage under Zelda Fichandler’s deft direction. She surrounded herself with consummate professionals, including a skillful administrative and production staff and a dynamic company of actors, designers, and directors. She devoted her considerable drive, artistic vision, and business acumen to the success of the Arena Stage, giving classics by Oscar Wilde and Oliver Goldsmith a place alongside modern plays by Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams.
In 1967, when Fichandler produced Howard Sackler’s sprawling new play The Great White Hope—guiding the development of the play from its unwieldy original form into a finely honed and powerful epic, and giving it a first-class production starring James Earl Jones—she made the entire theater profession stand up and take notice. Suddenly, people began to realize the potential power of the regional theater. This was a place where plays could be carefully nurtured over time, given the care and support they needed, and allowed to develop, before being subjected to the fierce scrutiny of the commercial theatrical marketplace. “It all happened because of the whimsical and radical genius of Zelda Fichandler,” said director Edwin Sherin. “Zelda has the vision of a seer.”
Fichandler’s success inspired others. Soon, her Arena Stage was just one of a vast network of regional theaters all across the United States, including the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, the Long Wharf in New Haven, Connecticut, the Seattle Repertory Theater, and many others. In 1965, Ella Malin noted that regional theaters illustrate “the slow but growing acceptance of theater as a permanent cultural institution worthy of community support in much the same way as museums, libraries, and symphony orchestras.” Today, there are over three hundred nonprofit professional theater companies in the United States, consistently offering a broad range of high-quality productions and providing artistic homes to countless professional actors, directors, designers, technicians, and administrators. Thanks are largely due to Zelda Fichandler: a woman with a dream—and the hutzpa—to make it come true.
Among those who have followed in Fichandler’s footsteps are Emily Mann, artistic director of the McCarter Theater Center in Princeton, New Jersey; Libby Appel, artistic director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland, Oregon; and Susan Medak, managing director of Berkeley Repertory Theater in Berkeley, California. Outspoken, ambitious, and idealistic all, these Jewish women are keeping alive the dream of an American regional theater and preparing the path for the next generation of leaders.
Over the past thirty years, the American regional theater has been fertile ground for the production of new plays by Jewish women, offering a supportive environment where plays can grow and change for artistic, rather than business, reasons. Emily Mann’s Annulla, An Autobiography premiered at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis; Barbara Damashek’s Quilters (cowritten by Molly Newman) was first presented by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts; Barbara Lebow’s A Shayna Maidel was developed at the Academy Theater in Atlanta and received its first professional production at Hartford Stage Company; and Wendy Wasserstein’s Pulitzer Prize–winning play The Heidi Chronicles was workshopped at Seattle Repertory Theater and later presented at Playwrights Horizons in New York.
Wendy Wasserstein’s success is indicative of the progress made by Jewish American women playwrights in recent years. Wasserstein doesn’t hide her Jewish identity behind bland de-ethnicized character names and vague attempts to make characters’ family backgrounds seem generically American, as her forebear Lillian Hellman did. The Jewish characters are unabashedly, quirkily, wonderfully Jewish. And Wasserstein’s wit and her off-kilter insight on the experiences of contemporary American women make her plays appealing to audiences of all backgrounds. In plays such as Uncommon Women and Others, Isn’t It Romantic?, The Heidi Chronicles, and The Sisters Rosensweig, Wendy Wasserstein’s identity simply proclaims itself: as woman, as Jew, as American. And theater is richer as a result.
Throughout the history of the American theater, Jewish women have contributed their many talents, pushing the art of the theater to greater heights and giving strength and depth to its intellectual and creative foundations. They have written great plays. They have performed onstage with skill, strength, and sensitivity. They have been innovators in lighting, costume, and scenic design. They have directed productions. They have challenged and inspired with their critical writing. They have founded and run their own theater companies. And they have nurtured talent as teachers. Jewish women have been there from the beginning, and they have performed with distinction. They continue to do so today.
Adler, Stella. The Technique of Acting (1990); Bigsby, C.W.E. A Critical Introduction to Twentieth Century Drama (1985); Bordman, Gerald, ed. Oxford Companion to American Theatre (1992); Brock, Pope. “Stella Adler: The Fiery First Lady of American Acting.” People Weekly 32, no. 3 (July 17, 1989): 66; Brustein, Robert. Making Scenes: A Personal History of the Turbulent Years at Yale, 1966–1979 (1984), and The Third Theatre (1970); Chinoy, Helen Krich, and Linda Walsh Jenkins, eds. Women in American Theatre (1987); Clurman, Harold. The Fervent Years: The Story of the Group Theatre and the Thirties (1957); Cohen, Sarah Blacher, ed. From Hester Street to Hollywood: The Jewish-American Stage and Screen (1986); Croyden, Margaret. Lunatics, Lovers and Poets: The Contemporary Experimental Theatre (1974); Goldman, William. The Season (1970); Guernsey, Otis L. Curtain Times: The New York Theatre, 1965–1987 (1987); Hewes, Henry. Saturday Review (December 30, 1967): 18; Lifson, David S. The Yiddish Theatre in America (1965); Lynes, Russell. The Lively Audience: A Social History of the Visual and Performing Arts in America, 1890–1950 (1985); Malin, Ella A. “The Season around the United States with a Directory of Professional Regional Theatres.” The Best Plays of 1965–1966 (1966): 42; Malina, Judith. The Diaries of Judith Malina, 1947–1957 (1984); Neff, Renfreu. The Living Theatre: USA (1970); Picon, Molly, and Jean Bergantini Grillo. Molly! (1980); Sandrow, Nahma. Vagabond Stars: A World History of Yiddish Theater (1977); Schiff, Ellen. Awake and Singing: Seven Classic Plays from the American Jewish Repertoire (1995), and Fruitful and Multiplying: Nine Contemporary Plays from the American Jewish Repertoire (1996); Sherin, Edwin. “In the Words of Edwin Sherin.” Cue (May 24, 1969): 15; Theatre Profiles 9 (1990); Wilmeth, Don B., and Tice L. Miller. Cambridge Guide to American Theatre (1996); Zeigler, Joseph Wesley. Regional Theatre: The Revolutionary Stage (1973).
How to cite this page
Sumption, Christine. "Theater in the United States." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on October 30, 2020) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/theater-in-united-states>.