Avant Garde Director of Stage and Screen
Although he did not speak Yiddish, Granowsky got involved with Yiddish theater when in 1917 he became director of the newly formed Jewish Theatrical Society of Saint Petersburg. He was then commissioned by the People’s Commissariat of Education to open a Yiddish studio. Granowsky recruited young Jewish actors and trained them in the modernist style he had learned from Reinhardt.
For its first performances in Petrograd in 1919, the theater presented three short plays by Sholem Asch, a Yiddish translation of Les Aveugles (The Sightless) by Belgian playwright Maurice Mæterlinck, and a short piece by troupe member, the great Yiddish actor Shloyme Mikhoels. At the opening performance Granowsky stated, “We do not agree with those who claim that a Jewish theater needs certain specific Jewish laws…We maintain that the tasks of our theater are the tasks of world theater and only in language does it differ from others.”
In 1920, Granowsky moved the theater to Moscow, where with state sanction, it soon became the Moscow State Yiddish Theater (GOSET). Granowsky sought to use the theater to present popular Yiddish plays in a modernist framework. His first major success came in 1921 with his adaptation of a series of one-act plays by Sholem Aleichem. This success was followed by performances of Avrom Goldfadn’s די כּישופמאַכערין (Колдунья or, The Witch) in 1922 and Sholem Aleichem’s צוויי הונדערט טויזנט (Two Hundred Thousand) in 1923. All these plays used the revolutionary satire of the original stories to mock aristocratic and bourgeois values. Granowsky trained his actors in acrobatic dances intended to simulate the movements of machinery. He also recruited Marc Chagall (one of whose GOSET costume designs can be seen on the right and left), Nathan Altman, and other prominent Russian-Jewish artists to create stage designs, costumes, and paintings for the theater walls.
Here is the particularly absurd yet biting dream sequence about the marriage broker business from the 1925 film ייִדישע גליקן (Еврейское счастье, or Jewish Luck), directed by Granowsky and starring Shloyme Mikhoels as Menachem-Mendl (you can watch the whole film HERE):
In the latter half of the 1920’s, Granowsky staged original adaptations of Yiddish favorites, such as his renditions of Y. L. Peretz’s בייַ נאַכט אויפן אַלטן מאַרק (Nighttime in the Old Marketplace) and Mendele Moykher-Sforim’s מסעות בנימן השלישי (Travels of Benjamin III). These productions were immensely successful and garnered wide critical acclaim within the Soviet Union and abroad.
During the theater’s European tour in 1928, Granowsky moved to Germany where he directed films, including Das Lied vom Leben (The Song of Life) and Die Koffer des Herrn O. F. (The Suitcases of Mr. O. F.). He also directed plays at the Deutsches Theater in Berlin. In 1933, Granowsky moved to Paris, where he started his own cinema production company and continued directing films. He died suddenly on March 11, 1937.