||A play for Purim by Dr. Robert Herrmann. Purimspiel (Yid. lit. "Purim play"), monologue or group performances given at the traditional festive family meal held on the festival of Purim. There is definite evidence that use of the term Purim-shpil was widespread among all Ashkenazi communities as early as the mid-16th century. The earliest written record in which the term appears is at the beginning of a lengthy poem relating the events of the Book of Esther with the aid of appropriate midrashic material, composed about 1555 in Venice by a Polish Jew (Lieder des Venezianischen Lehrers Gumprecht von Szczebrszyn, ed. by Moritz Stern (1922), 18). From the context it appears that the poem was intended as a Purim-shpil. However, there are extant manuscripts of Yiddish poems on the Purim story dating from at least the 15th century, and from the start of the 16th century printed versions began to circulate. Well into the 19th century this type of poem continued to be defined as a Purim-shpil (e.g., Purim-Shpil, Warsaw, 1869 and 1874). At first the term Purim-shpil was used to define a monologue during which the performer sometimes appeared in costume. The monologues were mostly rhymed paraphrases of the Book of Esther, as well as parodies on liturgical and other holy texts, such as a "kiddush" or a "sermon" for Purim, composed to entertain the audience. Together with the more complex forms, the monologue form of Purim-shpil continued to appear in Eastern Europe until World War II.
Manuscript fragments and other evidence from the second half of the 16th century attest the gradual enlarging of the Purim-shpil to include presentations by several performers. Other fragments show evidence of growing complexity in dramatic expression blended with the traditional parody. Judging from the extant material it is probable that during the 16th century and until at least the mid-17th century, the subject matter of the Purim-shpil was drawn from contemporary Jewish life and was based on well-known humorous tales. This type of Purim-shpil also survived in Eastern Europe until World War II (16 Purim-shpil texts of this non-biblical type were published in the collection, Yidisher Folklor (1938), 219–74).
The Purim-shpil in all its varieties was usually presented in private homes during the festive family meal; the performers, who wore masks or primitive costumes, were generally recruited from among yeshivah students. In the course of time the Purim-shpil became the object of competition between groups of performers recruited not only from among students but also from among apprentices, craftsmen and mendicants; even professional entertainers saw in the Purim-shpil a field for their activity. By the 16th century, the prologues to the Purim-shpil had developed a conventional form, which included blessings for the audience, an outline of the contents of the performance, and an introduction of the actors; conventional epilogues had also developed, including parting blessings and appeals for an ample reward. Like the Fastnachtspiel, the Purim performance was introduced, conducted, and concluded by a narrator (leader of the performance), traditionally called loyfer, shrayber, or payats.
Well-developed texts on biblical themes presented as Purim-shpils began to appear in the late 17th century. Naturally, the subject of the oldest surviving text of this type, a manuscript of 1697, is the story of the Book of Esther, popularly known as the Akhashverosh-shpil. In the 18th century the repertoire expanded to include The Selling of Joseph and David and Goliath, and in the 19th and 20th centuries East European performers presented The Sacrifice of Isaac, Hannah and Penninah, The Wisdom of Solomon, etc. (A collection of this genre of Purim-shpil was edited by Noah Prylucki in Zamlikher far Yidishn Folklor (1912), 125–88; (1917), 143–5.) Most of these biblical works retain the conventional form of shpil with prologues, epilogues, parodies, vulgar language, the traditional narrator, and, often, stories unconnected with any biblical theme. These older forms are very apparent in the above-mentioned text of 1697 and in a similar version of an Akhashverosh-shpil printed at Frankfort in 1708 (which appears in J. J. Schudt's Juedische Merckwuerdigkeiten, 3 (Frankfurt and Leipzig (1714), 202–25). The printed version of the Akhashveroshshpil was burned by the city fathers of Frankfort presumably because of the play's indecent elements. This was probably the reason for a public notice of 1728 in which the leaders of the Hamburg community banned the performance of all Purim-shpils. To assure compliance with the ban, fines were threatened and special investigating officers were posted.
As early as the beginning of the 18th century, the biblical Purim-shpil reflected many trends of the contemporary European theater in its literary style, choice of subject, and scenic design. Previously marked by extreme brevity, not exceeding a few hundred rhymed lines, and by the limited number of performers, the Purim-shpil became a complex drama with a large cast, comprising several thousand rhymed lines performed to musical accompaniment in public places for a fixed admission price. Nonetheless, the plays maintained a connection with Purim and were performed during the appropriate season. From the early 18th century there are extant texts of such plays and evidence of performances in Frankfort, Hamburg, Metz, and Prague, and, later in the century, in Amsterdam and Berlin. Although there is an historical tie between the traditional Purim-shpil and the more developed biblical dramas of a later era, the term Purim-shpil, if strictly applied, refers only to those early, short performances at family gatherings.