Habimah (Heb. הבימה; “the Stage”) is a repertory theater company founded in Moscow in 1917 as the first professional Hebrew theater in the world. It is now the National Theater of Israel. Its initiator was Nahum David Zemach, who was joined by Menahem Gnessin and the actress Hannah Rovina in Warsaw, but World War I halted their efforts. They met again in Moscow in 1917 and were soon joined by a number of young Jewish actors. Their idea was not simply to found a theater but to give expression to the revolutionary change in the situation of the Jewish people and especially to the revival of Hebrew. Zemach turned to the great Russian theater director Konstantin Stanislavski and adopted his famous “method.” It was, in fact, their idealism which enabled the Habimah actors to overcome the great initial difficulties, first of all the economic problem of the revolutionary period. David Vardi, one of its founding members, wrote in his diary in September 1918: “Today we held a meeting… On the agenda was the food problem. It was decided to send two members out to the country, to look for potatoes and flour… We were each allotted a [role]. Mine was to bring potatoes from the he-Ḥalutz farm to the Habimah cooperative kitchen….”
There were also political problems. The Yevsektsiya, the Jewish section of the Communist Party, lodged a protest with Stalin, the People’s Commissar of Nationalities, against Habimah’s very existence. Stalin, however, overruled their intervention (1920). In this struggle Zemach succeeded in enlisting the support of leading artists, writers, and political personalities, such as Lunacharski, the commissar for education and culture, who proved a true friend of Habimah. Maxim Gorki was also an enthusiastic supporter. Habimah introduced plays of a type that had never been staged by Jewish troupes, and they were directed by great teachers, all of them non-Jewish disciples of Stanislavski.
Habimah first performed in 1918, presenting four one act plays by Jewish writers. It became one of the four studios of the Moscow Art Theater. Habimah scored its greatest triumph with S. An-Ski’s The Dybbuk, which was the third play it staged. Bialik translated it into Hebrew and Joel Engel composed its musical score. Its first performance took place on Jan. 31, 1922, and it established Habimah’s reputation, as well as that of Yevgeni Vakhtangov, a young director of Armenian origin who had been delegated to Habimah by Stanislavski.
The Dybbuk owed its triumph to its outstanding orchestration, its forceful symbolism, and its glaring contrasts, but mainly to the boundless enthusiasm of the company in its acting and singing. Even in the mass scenes, every person on the stage gave his individual, distinct contribution; every Hasid and every beggar stood for something different, and yet together they formed a team. Vakhtangov’s method, which was an endless process of refining, came to its perfect expression in the beggars’ dance in Act II.
In 1926, Habimah left Soviet Russia and went on a tour abroad. The Dybbuk was hailed as an unusual phenomenon. In 1927, when Habimah arrived in the United States, the company split. Zemach and several actors decided to stay in the country. According to David Vardi, “differences arose between Zemach and some of the younger actors, who had taken a giant step forward, of which Zemach hardly took note.”
Habimah visited Palestine in 1928–29 and presented two productions, Ha-Oẓar (“The Treasure”) by Shalom Aleichem and Keter David (“David’s Crown”) by Calderon, both under the direction of the Russian Alexander Diki. In 1930, the company went to Berlin, where it performed Twelfth Night, directed by Michael Chekhov, and Uriel da Costa, under the direction of Alexander Granovski. It finally settled in Palestine in 1931. In 1945, Habimah moved into a building in the heart of Tel Aviv.
In the course of time, it added to its repertoire a great variety of plays derived both from Jewish literature (of messianic and biblical content) and from world literature. It sought to foster dramas depicting Jewish life in the Diaspora, which it succeeded in presenting with extraordinary authenticity. Its aim was to present all phases of Jewish historical experience.
For the next 17 years Habimah was under the direction of its own members, mainly Barukh Chemerinsky and Ẓevi Friedland, the former concentrating on Diaspora dramas and original Hebrew plays, and the latter on world drama. Eventually Habimah also invited foreign directors, such as Leopold Lindberg, Leopold Jessner, and Tyrone Guthrie. It was Guthrie’s 1948 production of Oedipus Rex which inaugurated a new era in the life of the company.
In the period in which Habimah relied mainly on its own directors, progress was slow. Each new performance became a festive occasion and Habimah had its admirers, a Habimah “circle,” and a youth studio, as well as its own periodical (Bamah); but the company failed to keep pace with the cultural and social transformation of the yishuv. It did not rid itself of expressionistic oddities, and young people, as well as immigrants from the West, kept away. It also did not absorb the young talent which was crying out for a chance to prove its mettle.
The graduates of the company’s school for the most part joined the Cameri, a competing company founded by Yosef Milo in 1944. His approach was vastly different from that of Habimah. Milo preferred a more Western-style company, separating it from the East European pattern of Habimah. Many years later, the Cameri became the official Municipal Theater of Tel Aviv.
In April 1948, Habimah went on a tour of the United States, presenting four productions (The Dybbuk, The Golem, Keter David, and Oedipus Rex). Although acclaimed by the critics, Habimah failed to attract audiences. When the company returned to Israel in July, it had nothing in its repertoire to express the heroic period of the national struggle. There was also conflict over the company’s organization. For years there had been opposition to the continued existence of Habimah as a “collective,” for it was argued that such a structure had become an obstacle to the company’s progress because of the undue protection that it provided to members who had failed to attain the required artistic standard. This conflict was to remain unresolved for another two decades. Relief came from an unexpected quarter, the “generation of 1948.” Yigal Mossinsohn’s play Be-Arvot ha-Negev (“In the Negev Desert”) had its premiere in February 1949 and met with an enthusiastic response. It expressed the spirit of the times, the highlights being Aharon Meskin’s masterful acting and the play’s portrayal of the new Israel-born generation.
In the following years Habimah enlisted directors of world renown: André Barsac from France, Alexander Bardini from Poland, Sven Malmquist from Sweden, John Hirsch from Canada, and Lee Strasberg and Harold Clurman from the United States. Under their direction, Habimah successfully mounted high-quality productions. At the same time, it continued to employ its own directors – Ẓevi Friedland, Israel Becker, Shimon Finkel, Shraga Friedman, and Avraham Ninio.
In 1958, on the 40th anniversary of its first performance in Moscow, Habimah was awarded the title of “National Theater of Israel.” The honorific award could not, however, conceal the company’s shortcomings. There was neither an artistic authority nor a true collective, and conflicts between various factions, as well as financial difficulties, threatened the theater’s very existence. Finally, in 1969, the members decided to dissolve the “collective.” The Ministry of Education and Culture appointed its representatives to the management of Habimah, and a new administering director, Gavriel Zifroni, took over.
In 1970, Habimah dedicated its beautiful, renovated hall in the center of Tel Aviv. In the same year the veteran actor Shimon Finkel was appointed artistic director. In 1972, it opened the Bamartef small hall for experimental productions. In 1975, Yossi Yisraeli was named artistic director. In 1976, Ḥannah Rovina played her last role as the queen mother in Shakespeare’s Richard III. In the same year, Shlomo Bar Shavit became artistic director. In 1978, Shmuel Omer was named general director and David Levin artistic director, replaced in 1985 by Omri Nizan. In 1986, Habimah went on tour to Moscow. In 1992, Shmuel Omer became both general and artistic director. In 1995, Yaakov Agmon replaced him, remaining at the helm until 2004. In 1995, Ilan Ronen established the Habimah’s youth group, which aimed at advancing young actors. In 1997, Habimah produced The Dybbuk, its most popular play, to celebrate the theater’s 80th birthday. Under Agmon’s management, the theater began to produce successful musicals, such as Bustan Sefaradi (“Spanish Orchard”) and Mary Lou (based on songs of the pop composer-singer Zvika Pick).
M. Kohansky, The Hebrew Theatre (1969), 76–85, 113–26 and index; N. Zemach, Be-Reshit ha-Bimah (1966); Y. Bertonov, Orot mi-be ad la-Masakh (1969); M. Gnessin, Darki im ha-Te'atron ha-Ivri (1946).