An Unexpected Discovery
Updated: Mar 24, 2020
This text was first published in the Harvard Library Judaica Division newsletter in August 2019.
When I began my PhD researching the early career of Romanian-Jewish artist Max Hermann Maxy, I did not imagine it would take me to many corners of the world, tracking down the pieces of a complex art historical puzzle.
Joseph Buloff and M. H. Maxy on the set of Shabse Tsvi in Bucharest, in February 1926. Harvard Library Judaica Division.
Although the Romanian avant-garde and its many Jewish members, such as Victor Brauner or Marcel Iancu, are becoming increasingly well-known, studies and exhibitions tend to focus on their painterly and literary output. My research addresses instead a lesser known area, avant-garde theatre and applied arts.
My visit to Harvard’s Judaica Division was a fruitful one in this respect. I consulted the Joseph Buloff Jewish Theater Archive, a treasure trove of information about Yiddish theatre, donated in 1986 by Luba Kadison, Buloff’s wife, and his daughter Barbara. As young actors, Buloff and Kadison were part of the famous itinerant theatre group the Vilna Troupe, which was formed in Vilnius in 1915. During the 1920s, the troupe spent several years in Romania, becoming increasingly innovative in its approach. Their 1924 production of Osip Dymov’s The Singer of His Sorrows drew great crowds and was famously seen by Romania’s King Carol II himself (who was prince at the time), as Luba Kadison engagingly recounts in some of the sound recordings preserved in the archive.
During my visit to the Harvard Library Judaica Division, happily exploring archival holdings.
To return to Maxy, his involvement with the Vilna Troupe was diverse, for example he designed promotional materials for them, as well as collaborating on the scenography and costumes of several plays. The very first production with designs by Maxy to see the stage was Shabse Tsvi, which premiered in February 1926 in Bucharest, with Buloff in the title role. Adapted after works by Sholem Asch and Jerzy Żuławski, it narrated the downfall of the eponymous seventeenth century hero who renounced his faith in front of the Ottoman sultan, thus coming to an unfortunate end. The production enjoyed a great success and reviews in the contemporary press were unanimous in their praise, describing it as ‘grandiose’, ‘breath-taking’ and ‘a delight for the eye’. The sets and costumes were ‘superbly coloured and harmonious’ and the first act was ‘a true poem of light and colour’.
When I first came across these descriptions, I had only one grainy newspaper image of the production, so picturing what it might have looked like was a true effort of the imagination. I was therefore delighted to find three original sketches by Maxy in the graphic art collection of the Romanian Academy, which revealed the play’s sets and costumes in glorious technicolour. Some further poking around on the internet one cold January afternoon led me to the on-line catalogue of the Harvard Judaica Collection and several original photographs from the play’s debut in 1926, one of which actually shows Buloff and Maxy together on stage. I immediately contacted the Judaica Division, who patiently answered all my myriad and understandably over-excited queries, and began planning my trip to Harvard University. Several months later I was welcomed by the staff at the Judaica Division who helped me navigate the Buloff archive and unearth another fascinating piece of evidence. The production made it to the other side of the Atlantic thanks to a revival staged by Buloff in Chicago in 1928. Although the Bucharest playbill is not known to have survived, the Chicago one has and it provides important information, crediting Maxy as the designer of the production. Furthermore, Maxy’s costumes appear in close-up in a number of highly dramatic publicity shots of Buloff and Kadison taken in a Chicago photo studio.
Probably for the first time since the production’s beginnings in Bucharest, the sketches and the photographs can now be reconnected and examined in tandem, providing the best chance of visualising this exciting moment in theatre history.