Yiddish Empire: The Vilna Troupe, Jewish Theater, and the Art of Itinerancy (University of Michigan Press, 2018)
Yiddish Empire tells the story of how a group of itinerant Jewish performers became the interwar equivalent of a viral sensation, providing a missing chapter in the history of the modern stage. During World War I, a motley group of teenaged amateurs, impoverished war refugees, and out- of- work Russian actors banded together to revolutionize the Yiddish stage. Achieving a most unlikely success through their productions, the Vilna Troupe (1915– 36) would eventually go on to earn the attention of theatergoers around the world. The Vilna Troupe routinely performed in major venues that had never before allowed Jews, let alone Yiddish, upon their stages, and operated across a vast territory, a strategy that enabled them to attract unusually diverse audiences to the Yiddish stage and a precursor to the organizational structures and travel patterns that we see now in contemporary theater. Debra Caplan’s history of the Troupe is rigorously researched, employing primary and secondary sources in multiple languages, and is engagingly written.
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“Marvelously ambitious in scope, consolidating in one volume the vast and diverse elements of the Vilna Troupe’s history. Caplan is an excellent storyteller, and clearly conveys the energy and excitement that characterized the Vilna Troupe at its best.”
—Henry Bial, University of Kansas
“A highly enjoyable book that will be of interest to aficionados of Yiddish theater and others with an interest in the history of Yiddish culture. The Vilna Troupe’s story is a great one, and Caplan tells is with verve and enthusiasm.”
—Jeffrey Veidlinger, University of Michigan
"Debra Caplan's study of the Vilna Troupe will become the standard work on the topic and, for those who are not specialists in Yiddish culture, perhaps their only introduction to Yiddish theater. Yiddish Empire is superbly written."
-- Sean Martin, Western Reserve Historical Society
"Caplan tells the story of the Vilner as it should be told - as a page-turner. Most theater history surveys, as Caplan notes, ignore Yiddish theater. This book, however, shows how wrong that sidelining of Yiddish theater is, and how theater history of the twentieth century needs to pay more attention to not only the Yiddish stage, but in particular the Vilner."
--Mayhill Fowler, Stetson University
"Caplan’s book is well-complemented by a useful digital tool which highlights all the hundreds of figures that were connected, in some way or another, to the Vilna Troupe over time. No doubt this innovative and creative device opens up exciting new possibilities for the field of contemporary Yiddish research."
—Mikhail Krutikov, Forward
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