In June 1936 a new theatre group performed a triple bill of plays in the Jewish Institute in South Portland Street in the Gorbals area of Glasgow. One of the plays, The Bread of Affliction, by the group’s leader Avrom Greenbaum, was an intense drama about anti-Jewish pogroms in the Ukraine.
It was subsequently entered in the keenly contested Scottish Community Drama Association (SCDA) festival, where it came second, losing only to Joe Corrie’s Hewer’s of Coal. The success of The Bread of Affliction made Greenbaum’s reputation and helped establish what became the Glasgow Jewish Institute Players, a remarkable community drama group that, between 1936 and 1960, established an ambitious new model for amateur theatre in Scotland.
The Glasgow Jewish Institute Players were very much the creation of its founder, Avrom Greenbaum (1903-1963), an inspirational director and playwright who combined a passionate commitment to theatre with a full-time job in his family’s tailoring business. Born in Isbitzer, Poland, as one of five children who came to Glasgow when he was small, Greenbaum’s journey typified that of many Jewish immigrants. From a highly musical family with a keen interest in culture and the arts, he began working at 14 in the family business, maintaining his education on his own, teaching himself languages and reading voraciously. Greenbaum found fulfilment in writing and directing for the Players, remaining an amateur in the true sense of the term: his longtime collaborator, the artist and designer Tom MacDonald, described him as ‘an artist to his fingertips’. But the Jewish Institute Players were far from a one-man band.
It was a closenit group of highly talented actors, a number of whom – Ida Schuster, Greenbaum’s sister in law, the brothers Sam (later Samm) and Harry Hankin, Bonita Beach, Joe Boyers and Kalman Glass – went on to careers in professional theatre.
The Jewish Institute itself was situated next to the synagogue in South Portland Street and was, in the 1930s, the social hub of Glasgow’s 14,000 strong Jewish community. Initially a base for rehearsals, in 1938 the Players opened the 200-seat Bloch Little Theatre there. In the same year the company was invited to perform at the Glasgow Empire Exhibition, an honour that was keenly appreciated by the Jewish community: at a B’nai Brith dinner in Greenbaum’s honour, the toast proposed that ‘the whole community was proud of the Institute’s amateur dramatic club and of its Little Theatre’.
When, in 1940, five left-leaning Glasgow groups combined their resources to form Glasgow Unity Theatre, it was a measure of Greenbaum’s reputation that he was one of the new company’s three producers. Glasgow Unity’s first presentation, in January 1941, was a revival of his production of Clifford Odets’ Awake and Sing, which the Jewish Institute Players had presented just a month earlier. While the Jewish Institute Players performers and staff were committed participants in the Unity project, the group retained its own separate profile and activities, developing over the next twenty years as one of Scotland’s leading amateur companies.
What made the Jewish Institute Players so distinctive? Firstly, their high production standards, the result of Greenbaum’s working methods, which involved long rehearsal periods and detailed character-based work with his actors. He gained a reputation for eliciting strong performances from those with little previous acting experience. Music was also an integral part of his approach, using carefully selected scores to set the psychological tone of his productions. He worked in close collaboration with his stage designers, often fine artists such as Joseph Ancill, Bet Low and Tom MacDonald, creating productions which showed a unified conceptual approach to the play, as in MacDonald’s striking expressionist designs for an ambitious production of the full four act version of Ansky’s The Dybbuk for the 1951 Festival of Jewish Arts. These methods, which might seem standard practice today, were advanced for the time and marked a level of artistic ambition that was on a different level from many professional companies, let alone the average SCDA group.
The second reason the Jewish Institute Players were distinctive was its ambitious repertoire: this included plays exploring Jewish history, identity and culture such as Noah Elstein’s Israel in the Kitchen (1937), Sandor Martinescu’s The Jews of Hodos (1939) and S. Ansky’s The Dybbuk (1946, 1951), as well as anti-fascist dramas, including Michael Goldberg’s Hymn without Praise (1939), Odets’ Till the Day I Die (1939) and Ben Hecht’s The Battle of The Warsaw Ghetto (1944).
In addition to short, one-act pieces targeted to SCDA programmes, Greenbaum and the Players, initially under the Unity umbrella, also produced European and modern classics, demanding full length dramas such as O’Casey’s Juno and the Paycock (1942), Lope de Vega’s Fuente Ovejuna (1944) and Lorca’s Blood Wedding (1952), as well as plays by J M Barrie and George Bernard Shaw. Moreover they championed a series of challenging new plays by contemporary American and American Jewish writers, often in Scottish or British premieres: Odets’ Awake and Sing (1939), Arthur Laurents’ Home of the Brave (1946), Irwin Shaw’s The Gentle People (1948) and Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie (1956), as well as plays by Arthur Miller.
Avrom Greenbaum’s plays
These different and diverse dramaturgies were reflected in Greenbaum’s own writing, which ranged from comedies about the philistinism of middle-class attitudes to art (Kultur and The Children of Dreams), a story set in biblical times (Ecco Homo), an adaptation from Rabelais (The Dumb Wife’s Tale) and a cautionary tale of how press intrusion can destroy the lives of victims of injustice (the posthumously produced The Prey), to the impact of persecution on a Ukrainian Jewish family in the 1890s (The Bread of Affliction).
The other influence on Greenbaum’s writing was music hall humour, an influence that drew on the shared heritage of the Yiddish vaudeville tradition and the vernacular humour of the Scottish variety theatre. Greenbaum was very alive to the cross-resonances of these traditions, which found full expression in his celebrated Yiddish-Scots versions of Burns and in his popular wartime Scots comedy The Watch on the Clyde. First performed in 1940 as The Fifth Line, this concerned two Glasgow men, fending for themselves while their wives are away on war work, who are held at gunpoint by an escaped German airman. With its broad Glasgow dialogue, the barnstorming ‘music hall sketch’ offered famous roles for Greenbaum and Sam Hankin.
American writers: Sylvia Regan and Morning Star
Plays by American Jewish writers became increasingly popular with the Players in the post-war period, when the possibility of life in a vibrant America must have seemed very appealing when viewed from austerity Britain. For the Players a raft of transatlantic links were epitomised by Morning Star by the New York playwright Sylvia Regan. Regan’s play follows a Jewish immigrant family living in New York’s Lower East Side from 1910 to 1931, through tragedies that includes the loss of a daughter in the Triangle factory fire and a son in World War I.
When the Players gave the play its British premiere in December 1945, news of their accomplished production reached Regan in New York, sparking off a warm correspondence with Greenbaum that was to last for many years. Sixteen of Regan’s letters, which survive in the Scottish Theatre Archive, demonstrate the pair’s mutual respect and passion for theatre, with Greenbaum offering comments and analysis of Regan’s plays and Regan sharing the latest New York theatre gossip. Greenbaum and Regan finally met in 1953, when she travelled to Britain and visited Glasgow, where she was feted by the Jewish community.
The postwar period brought significant social change. While contemporary plays such as Wolf Mankowitz’s The Bespoke Overcoat (1954) and Bernard Kops’ The Hamlet of Stepney Green (1959) explored the passing of older patterns of immigrant life, in Glasgow the Jewish community began a gradual migration out from the Gorbals to the suburbs.
The Jewish Institute went into decline and, in 1970, the Bloch Little Theatre closed. Greenbaum remained sought after as a director, adjudicator and lecturer on Yiddish theatre and, following his death, the successor group to the Jewish Institute Players was renamed the Avrom Greenbaum Players.
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