The Dybbuk

From Academic Kids

For information on the creature from Jewish folklore, see dybbuk.

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The Dybbuk (or Between Two Worlds) is a 1914 play by S. Ansky, relating the story of a young bride possessed by a dybbuk — a malicious possessing spirit, believed to be the dislocated soul of a dead person — on the eve of her wedding. The Dybbuk, is considered a seminal play in the history of Jewish theater, and played an important role in the development of Yiddish theatre and theatre in Israel. The play was based on years of research by S. Ansky, who travelled between Jewish shtetls in Russia and the Ukraine, documenting folk beliefs and stories of the Hassidic Jews.

Plot summary

Act 1: Hannan, a brilliant talmudic scholar, falls in love with Leah'le, the daughter of Sender, a rich merchant. Sender opposes a marriage between the two, as he prefers a rich suitor for his daughter. In desperation, Hannan decides to study the mystical arts of the Kabbala, in the hopes of finding a way to win back Leah'le, whom he feels is his predestined bride. When Sender announces that he has found a suitable bridgroom for Leah'le, Hannan drops dead in a state of mystical ecstasy.

Act 2: On the day of her wedding, Leah'le goes to the graveyard, for the purpose of inviting the spirit of her dead mother to attend the wedding. She stops by the graves of a bride and groom who were murdered together before their marriage was consummated, and invites their spirits too to the wedding. Finally she is drawn to the grave of Hannan, and leaves the graveyard appearing somehow "changed". Under the wedding canopy, Leah'le suddenly cries out to her intended: "You are not my bridegroom!" and rushes to the grave of the slaughtered bride and groom. A man's voice issues from her mouth, saying "I have returned to my predestined bride, and I shall not leave her". She has been possessed by the Dybbuk.

Act 3: Leah'le is brought to the home of a Hassidic sage who is to exorcise the dyybuk from her body. Several attempts fail, and finally the sage calls upon the chief rabbi of city for assistance. The chief rabbi arrives and tells of a dream he had, in which the long-dead father of Hannan demanded that Sender, father of Leah'le, be called before the rabbinical court.

Act 4: The room is prepared as a court, and the spirit of Hannan's father is invited to plead its case from within a chalk circle drawn upon the floor. The spirit speaks to the rabbi, and tells him of a pact made between him and Sender, many years ago, that their two children shall be wed. By denying Hannan his daughter's hand in marriage, Sender broke the pact. The rabbis attempt to appease the spirit, and order that Sender must give half of his worldly goods and money to the poor, and say Kaddish over the spirits of Hannan and his father. But the dybbuk does not acknowledge that it has been appeased. Leah'le is left within the chalk circle of protection while the others leave to prepare for her wedding. The image of Hannan appears before her, and she leaves the safety of the circle to unite with her beloved - presumably, in death.

Production history

The first version of the play was written in Russian. Ansky presented the play to Konstantin Stanislavski, the legendary director of the Moscow Art Theatre, who praised the play and urged Ansky to translate it into Yiddish so that it could be performed "authentically" by a Jewish troupe. Ansky died on November 8, 1920, and did not live to see the play professionally produced. As a tribute to Ansky, a production of the play was prepared by a troupe of actors from Vilna during the 30-day period of mourning after his death, and on December 9, 1920, the play opened at the Elyseum Theatre in Warsaw. It proved to be the Vilna Troupe's greatest success. A year after the Warsaw premiere the play was produced again by Maurice Schwartz in New York City's Yiddish Art Theatre, and several months later it was translated into Hebrew by H. N. Bialik and staged in Moscow by the Habima troupe, under the direction of Yevgeny Vakhtangov. To this day, The Dybbuk remains a symbol of Habima theatre, the National Theater of Israel.

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