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The Yiddish King Lear

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The Yiddish King Lear movie poster

Abraham Armband, Jacob Gordin

The Yiddish King Lear (Yiddish: דער ייִדישער קעניג לירDer Yidisher Konig Lir, also known as The Jewish King Lear) was an 1892 play by Jacob Gordin, and is generally seen as ushering in the first great era of Yiddish theater in the Yiddish Theater District, in which serious drama gained prominence over operetta.

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Gordin, a respected intellectual and Yiddish-language novelist, had been recruited by Jacob Adler in an effort to create a more serious repertoire for Yiddish theater, comparable to what he knew from Russian theater. His first two plays, Siberia and Two Worlds had failed commercially, although Siberia was later successfully revived.

The play is not a translation of William Shakespeare's King Lear, but the title is an acknowledgement of the roots of the plot. It begins at the Purim feast given by David Moishele, a wealthy Russian Jewish merchant in mid-19th century Vilna, personification of what Adler referred to as the "Grand Jew", surrounded by family, friends, servants: in effect, a monarch in his court. As he divides his empire, the story of Shakespeare's Lear is recounted to him as a warning by the virtuous daughter who denied his authority by becoming a student in St. Petersburg. He is destined to follow in the same path to ruin and madness; unlike Shakespeare's Lear (but quite like the way Lear was often staged from the English Restoration well into the 19th century), there is a relatively happy ending, with differences set right and David Moishele living to forgive and be reconciled with his children.

The husbands of the daughters among whom David Moishele divides his "kingdom" are, respectively a Hasid, an Orthodox Jewish businessman, and an apikoyres (a secular Jew: the word derives from Epicurean).

The title role became a pillar of Adler's image and career. Theater Magazine wrote of Adler's performance in a 1901 revival of The Yiddish King Lear, "No finer acting has ever been seen in New York than Adler's gradual transition from the high estate of the Hebrew father distributing his bounty in the opening scenes to the quavering blind beggar of later developments." After Adler's 1920 stroke, when he was nearly paralyzed, on several occasions he played Act I of The Yiddish King Lear as part of a benefit performance: his character remained seated throughout this act.

The play was made into a 1934 Yiddish-language film. The play continues to be revived often, and there have been several recent English-language translations and adaptations.


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