At a time when public speakers in New York could be arrested for making subversive statements, the fiery Emma Goldman at least once eluded arrest by speaking in Yiddish. “She spoke to this group of Jewish women on the Lower East Side,” a policeman reported, “and I’m sorry I couldn’t take down what she said because she spoke in Yiddish.” (The late Howard Zinn recounted this episode in his book, Artists in Time of War.) The cop’s failure to record Goldman’s speech might be considered unfortunate, especially if she happened to be talking about Yiddish drama — for while many of her other speeches were published, her lectures on that subject, delivered between 1914 and 1916, have been lost to us.
Today, of course, Goldman is remembered less for her theater discussions than for her passionate speeches against conscription and war (“the road to universal slaughter”). Her autobiography, Living My Life, devotes only a few paragraphs to her drama lectures. Yet theater was quite important to her: In essays, public speeches, and a book, The Social Significance of the Modern Drama, Goldman introduced Americans to plays by Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, Gerhart Hauptmann, and Frank Wedekind, creators of what she once described as “modern drama, the strongest disseminator of radical thought.”