In 1917, a group of Jewish actors left Vilna (now Vilnius) for Warsaw, where they began performing Yiddish plays, calling themselves the “Vilna Troupe.” The group later splintered, creating a de-facto franchise that became both popular and influential on the Yiddish stage in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere during the 1920s, and introducing highbrow sensibilities without alienating audiences. Reviewing a recent book on the subject by Debra Caplan, Mayhill Fowler writes:
In the early 20th century, . . . the Jewish intellectual elite began to clamor for the creation of Yiddish high culture, and, in particular, Yiddish-language theater that would offer a high-quality product far from the melodramatic shund [low-brow, “trashy” fare] so popular with audiences. Despite the failure of famous Yiddish writers like I.L. Peretz to write engaging plays, theater companies like those of Avrom Kaminski and Peretz Hirschbein remained committed to figuring out how to bridge quality and entertainment. . . .
A “chance wartime encounter between refugees and starving locals” in Vilna, [as Caplan puts it], brought together amateur teenagers to play at acting. They had read about the celebrated Moscow Art Theater in magazines and wanted to work on Yiddish theater [while imitating its new, hyper-realistic style], and they founded the Farayn fun Yidishe Dramatishe Artistn (Union of Jewish Dramatists). In 1915 Vilna fell under German occupation, and the Germans, unlike the Russians, allowed the youngsters to perform in Yiddish. Thus war created the conditions for this breakthrough in Yiddish theater. The group became the “Vilna Troupe” later, only after they had left Vilna for Warsaw in 1917 and then dispersed across the globe.
Its first dispersion was the result of a romantic scandal as the troupe split into two when the lovers Alexander Asro and Sonia Alomis split with [the director] Mordechai Mazo. This rupture did not end the Vilna Troupe, though; it only improved its reputation, because a “Vilna Troupe” could now be in multiple places at once. . . . These troupes performed a European repertory including Leo Tolstoy’s The Power of Darkness and [the turn-of-the-century Russian playwright] Evgenii Chirikov’s The Jews, as well as Yiddish plays by Sholem Asch, Peretz Hirschbein, and Jacob Gordin. . . .
The Vilna Troupe brought the American playwright Eugene O’Neill to Polish theater with Mazo’s 1928 production of Desire Under the Elms. The troupe’s director, Avrom Taytlboym, had been in New York with Maurice Schwartz’s Yiddish Art Theater, and there discovered the American playwright, then a star and staple on Broadway. Within a year, Polish-language theaters in Warsaw were producing their own productions of O’Neill. Thus, [argues Caplan], the Vilna Troupe “served as a major conduit” for bringing new texts and authors from West to East.