When the Vilna Troupe staged the world premiere of S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk at the Elyseum Theatre in Warsaw 100 years ago — on December 9, 1920 — it could not anticipate the phenomenon it was unleashing upon the world.
The play — about a “dybbuk,” or a disembodied spirit that possesses a young woman and is exorcised to tragic result — was an immediate hit and went on to become the most popular play of Yiddish theater. Today, it continues to be performed around the world, in a stream of new translations and adaptations, by companies ranging from the Royal Shakespeare Company to New York’s La MaMa Experimental Theatre. Tony Kushner has adapted it. Sidney Lumet has directed it. Broadway has hosted it. Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein created one of at least two ballets based on it. Habima, the national theater of Israel, made it its signature piece. There have been theatrical films, a television show, operas, even puppet theater productions.
The enduring popularity of The Dybbuk can be attributed to its being far more than a ghost story — a Fiddler-on-the-Roof-meets-The-
The play carries the subtitle “Between Two Worlds,” which is a key both to understanding the original text and its continuing allure. The worlds between which it is situated include the worlds of rich and poor, heaven and earth, dreams and reality. The friction within each pair gives The Dybbuk its tension and resonance, as well as its unending inspiration to the creative artists who have grappled with it over the years.
The Dybbuk nods to dichotomy in its opening moment, when, in pitch darkness (as rendered by translator S. Morris Engel:) “a low mystic chant is heard, as if coming from afar:
Wherefore, O wherefore
Has the soul
Fallen from exalted heights
To profoundest depths?
Within itself, the fall
Contains the ascension
The stage lights come up on an ancient little village synagogue. Chonnon, a poor Talmud student, fasts from Sabbath to Sabbath and is obsessed with Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition. He is secretly in love with Leah, and she with him. Chonnon is devastated when Sender, her father, announces Leah’s engagement to a rich man’s son. In a Kabbalistic fever, Chonnon achieves the ultimate triumph of learning the secret name of God — and falls to the synagogue floor, dead.
Three months later, Leah prepares for her wedding and Ansky prepares us for the intrusion of the dead into the world of the living. Leah goes to the cemetery to invite her dead mother to the ceremony. When she returns, Leah, in the voice of Chonnon, cries out to the townsfolk: “Ah-ah! You buried me! But I have returned to my destined bride and I shall not leave her!”
Sender takes his possessed daughter to a wonder-working rabbi, who tries and fails to exorcise the dybbuk. The town’s chief rabbi has a dream in which Chonnon’s long-dead father, Nisn, demands justice from Sender in a rabbinical court. The court is hastily assembled; Nisn’s spirit is summoned. Many years before, Nisn and Sender agreed that if one of them should later have a boy and another a girl, the children would be wed. Sender neglected the vow and now there is no one to say the memorial prayer for Nisn and Chonnon, no one to remember them. The court decrees that Sender must forever say the memorial prayer — but also declares the original pledge void on a technicality.
Chonnon again refuses to leave his beloved. Another exorcism, to the deafening roar of shofar blasts, finally drives him out. The others rush to get the groom for the wedding, but, in that moment, Chonnon reappears to Leah. She dies and the two figures merge, finally together in the only way that man has left open to them. The stage goes dark.
“Between Two Worlds” not only describes the themes of the play, but also the man who wrote it. Shloyme Zanvl Rappoport was born in 1863 in Vitebsk, Russia, also home to Marc Chagall. Rappoport became devoted to the socialist workers’ cause, abandoned Yiddish for Russian, took a Russian pen name (Semyon Akimovich), and considered conversion to Christianity. The Yiddish stories of I.L. Peretz and meetings with early Zionists helped pave the way for his return to his people as S. Ansky, according to David G. Roskies of the Jewish Theological Seminary. By 1912, with Hitler’s rise two decades away, Ansky already saw “the Jewish spirit struggling to maintain itself against forces of overpowering destruction,” Roskies writes. He was determined to do something about it. Over two years, he conducted an ethnographic expedition throughout the Jewish villages of Eastern Europe, collecting thousands of folktales, songs, photographs, manuscripts, and religious objects.
Steeped in these remnants of a vanishing world, Ansky wrote The Dybbuk in 1914, and spent the next few years seeking a production. On that fateful night in Warsaw 100 years ago, the only thing missing was Ansky himself. He had died of pneumonia 30 days before the premiere, which the Vilna Troupe hastily produced as a memorial to him. Or, perhaps Ansky was there, a dybbuk of his own, hovering over the world in which his business was still unfinished.