Press - Dec. 01, 1999

What was, what is the role of Jewish theater in Austria?

By Dr. Brigitte Dalinger
Author of Verloschene Sterne – Geschichte des Jüdischen Theaters in Wien (Extinguished Stars – The History of Jewish Theater in Vienna:, 2000. Vienna,

From 1900 to 1938, Vienna had a small but extremely active Jewish theater scene that brought cabaret, musical theater, operettas, short works, and full-length dramas to the stage in Yiddish, Hebrew, and German. Yiddish ensembles such as the Jüdische Bühne, which existed from 1908 to 1938, and the ambitious Jüdische Künstlerspiele brought together actors from all over Eastern Europe performing mainly operettas, melodramas, and Yiddish revues in which not only song and dance, but also the problems of the day played an important role.

Yiddish theater in Vienna had several functions: it offered immigrants from the eastern parts of the former Austro-Hungarian empire and from Eastern Europe a meeting place where they could communicate with each other in their mother tongue. At the same time, it allowed the most successful Yiddish ensemble of Vienna, the Freie Jüdische Volksbühne, which existed from 1919 to 1923, to leave the confines of Vienna’s largely Jewish second district to play also for Gentile audiences on other prominent stages, such as the Theater in der Josefstadt.

German-language ensembles like the Jüdisch-Politische Cabaret and the Jüdische Kulturtheater portrayed the troubles of time, bringing plays and other texts about antisemitism and, after 1933, about conditions in neighboring Nazi Germany to the public. The Jüdisch-Politische Cabaret also influenced Jewish community election results in Vienna, rallying for the Zionists, who subsequently won the elections.

The Jüdische Kulturtheater had a regular and active performance calendar, but also served the important function of providing a stage for immigrants, offering engagements to Jewish actors who had been forced to flee Germany.

All Jewish theaters and ensembles, regardless of the language they performed in, worked to promote a conscious Jewish identity. They sought to build bridges between assimilated West-European Jewry and Jewish refugees from the East who came to Vienna, especially during and after WWI, and between Jews and Gentiles, by bringing them closer to unfamiliar aspects of Jewish life through quality dramatic productions.

This, too, is the aim of the Jewish Theater of Austria: to use theater as a means of presenting and reintegrating Jewish culture as a part of Austrian culture. The diverse components of an evening of theater – language, drama, music, design – are the perfect media for counteracting prejudice and mystification in a thought-provoking and entertaining way.