Article Title

Oedipus, Shmedipus: Ancient Greek Drama on the Modern Yiddish Stage


Debra Caplan


At the turn of the twentieth century, some forty years after the establishment of the first professional Yiddish theater troupe, playwrights began to introduce the plots, characters, and dramatic motifs of the ancient Greek theater onto the modern Yiddish stage. Yet even as these writers sought to make Greek drama resonate for their Yiddish-speaking audiences, they consistently practiced what Glenda Abramson has termed “the Judaization of Greek mythology.” Yiddish playwrights such as Jacob Gordin, Mendl Elkin, and Zalmen Libin revised and rewrote their Greek sources, reconfiguring the ancient tragedies of Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides to reflect a set of particular Jewish literary norms and values. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Yiddish translations and adaptations of Greek dramas that prominently feature a maternal protagonist.

This article traces the gradual development of a classical presence in the Yiddish theater through a case study of the various permutations of two ancient Greek dramas that exemplify this model of maternal centrality – namely, Medea and Oedipus the King. In Jacob Gordin’s adaptations Medea (1897) and The Wild Princess (1898), Zalmen Libin’s domestic tragedy Henele, or the Jewish Medea (1903), and Mendl Elkin’s The Sorrows of Oedipus (1935), Yiddish playwrights sought to temper the implicit threat posed by the inclusion of Greek material by adding elements that they hoped would resonate with a Jewish audience. The article demonstrates how these Yiddish playwrights transposed their Greek source texts onto a thoroughly modern Jewish landscape, complete with biblically derived morals, a deep distrust of polytheism, and the veneration of the hallowed Jewish mother.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.