Transient Worlds: Jewish Stagecraft and the Rural Exotic in Interwar Vienna

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Year of publication 2022
Type Appeared in Conference without Proceedings
MU Faculty or unit

Faculty of Arts

Description The founding of the Freie Jüdische Volksbühne in 1919 inaugurated a brief era of modern Yiddish theatre in Vienna. At a time when Austria’s social and political future seemed uncertain, the Volksbühne enjoyed particular popularity among Jewish audiences, who sought to reconnect with their shtetl origins in the former provinces of the Habsburg Empire. In its early years, the Volksbühne placed emphasis on transmitting a shtetl atmosphere to urban audiences, conceived as a colourful total work of art, which combined the rhythmic dances and songs of the performances with exoticizing costumes and stage designs. While Vienna never was a major center of Yiddish theatre like Vilnius and Warsaw, the early 1920s were a moment in which trends emanating from these centers were adopted and explored – often, by artists who themselves had a migrant background, such as the Hungarian émigrés Anna Lesznai and Tibor Gergely. Their work for the Volksbühne offered them a new start in Vienna, as well as a chance to reconnect with their Jewish heritage. Of particular importance in this context were Lesznai’s explorations of folk art. While the artist had made a name for herself as a designer inspired by Hungarian folk art in the 1910s, Lesznai’s stage designs aimed to construct the world of the shtetl on stage. Based on these shifting interpretations, this paper focuses on the transient meanings of folk culture and its exoticisation in modern stage design. It assesses the significance of folk art and “Jewish primitivism” as elements in the Volksbühne’s stage and costume designs and argues that their dual roots in the work of its migrant designers and the exchange with established groups, such as the Vilna Troupe, led to unique interpretations of Jewish stagecraft, which reflected Vienna’s transient position as a staging point of modernism driven by migration.
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