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Posts Tagged ‘jewish theatre’

lines from the golem

In classics long after, quotables on March 11, 2010 at 8:27 pm

This is the last in what’s been a pretty skippy lookover of Jewish theatre, but I’d welcome any additional suggestions in that comment box down there. For now:

the golem

“I am the secret, not of darkness, but of light.” – Golem

Today’s play is another following a mythical spirit, as invoked by H. Leivick (“Slender, white-haired, a figure of austere simplicity, he had spent his life brooding over the problem of human suffering…when he turned from his rabbinical studies in his middle teens, he had already began to quarrel with God over the suffering he could neither understand nor justify.” – Joseph C. Landis, echoing the Jewish tradition of anti-devotional prayers).

The title names the creature in question – The Golem  – a robot-like creature of earth, created as a servant and famed for its (unthinking) defence of its creators. In Leivick’s brooding take, the relationship between servant and master, golem and world, will prove rather more metaphysical, as one would expect of a play containing characters called The Invisible and The Figure of the Uncreated, as well as scenes titled Clay, Walls and Through Darkness.

The first scene is perhaps the play’s most powerful, as Maharal, the Rabbi of Prague sculpting the golem’s body is visited by a ‘shadow’s shadow’: “I have come to warn you: create me not.” The rabbi argues the need for “A people’s champion, a man of might” but is answered by “A servant – to be ruled, commanded”. And without so much as a shazam, Golem is being led into Maharal’s study, and being labouriously instructed in the fundaments of living among people. He is taller than doorways and terrified – possessed by the infant’s existential confusion (“I want to twist / My head from off my shoulders, twist my arms and legs. / Put out the fire around me. / Take away the walls.”)

A giant naturally gathers attention, and this one is particularly thin-skinned, paranoia building with the mob’s questions and laughter – he is childishly dependent on his maker, and infatuated with his daughter (though what this means is closed to him). Maharal’s tactic would now be characterised as tough love, hoping he will grow with his mistakes – “I cannot always be with you. Know / That you came here to be alone.”

Golem completes missions for his master, but is stricken by a paralysing lack of purpose after – he has consciousness but not will, and his dependence on the Rabbi is deeper and darker than love: “Stay here with me forever in the anteroom. / I will give up my sleeping bench to you / And I will lie at your feet upon the floor.”

This need overrides all else – Golem spills ‘Jewish blood’ and, although it at first looks like this feverish strategem has won his desire, Maharal feeling he can no longer leave him alone, the Rabbi now announces Golem’s last mission. He instructs him to lie down. To close his eyes. “Breathe out your final breath. Amen.” Golem’s obedience, and the ease of his decease make the scene more shattering than any struggle could have.

“How good it was to be mere clay, / To lie, lifeless and calm, / among the sands and stone of the earth / Between eternities.” – Golem

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lines from god of vengeance

In classics long after, quotables on March 8, 2010 at 1:20 am

Point one: there’s a title that doesn’t fuck about (“The boldness of its setting in a brothel and its introduction of homosexuality has not given the play a wholly untroubled career…” says Joseph C. Landis). Point two: its author, Sholem Asch is considered the best known Yiddish writer – by those who know, if you follow.

Set in a family home above a brothel – both ran by the father, Yankel – the play concerns his determination to keep his daughter uncontaminated from the vice that bankrolls the household. That its title is not ‘God of Typical Bourgeois Hypocrisy’ gives an indication that such a delicate balance may prove problematic, but Rivelke, the daughter, presents a mannered innocence from curtain-up to feed his hope. As the character quite literally known only as Woman Blind In One eye notes: “I tell you, as though she’d been raised in a synagogue, forgive the comparison – neat, pretty, more modest than all the respectable girls.” As for spiritual insurance:

“Don’t be afraid of your father. I love you. I love you very much. I’m ordering a Torah Scroll today. It costs a lot of money. For you, my child, for you.” (Yankel)

sholem asch

Sholem Asch

The scroll is installed, with no pressure whatsoever from the scribe who copied it for them: “Remember a Torah Scroll is a momentous thing; it supports the entire world…” and Yankel broadcasts his not at all screamingly neurotic dreams for her future, “Leave your father’s house and forget. Forget your father; forget your mother, and have decent children…”

We’re soon introduced to those who live (dig the symbolism) downstairs – a junior pimp and assorted prostitutes. It’s a bruised romantic called Basha who acts a poetic foreshadow, recalling her own father: “He’d kill me on the spot. He’s looking for me with an iron bar… My father is a butcher. Oh, the matches I could have made.” But she rejected her suitor: “He stinks from beef. Brr. They call him Medicine. How could I marry Medicine and every years have another little Medicine. Brr.” Worse, and most hauntingly, is her mother, dead of heartbreak: “I see her at night, in my dreams. She comes in her shroud, covered with thorns and briars because of my sins, and she tears at my hair.”


god of vengeance

In what one might see as a suspiciously prurient setpiece, it’s not long before Basha and friends are dancing in the rain – with Rivelke. Manke, who seems to have long been very close, takes her inside and the two girls play out a dream wedding – with Manke as the groom. They elope. “Had she died, I would have known that I buried a chaste child, an honourable child. But now what am I worth in this world? You’re sinful yourself and you leave behind a sinful generation. And so sin goes on from generation to generation” is Yankel’s predictable judgement, and even though his wife, Hindl, returns her to the home, the reunion is shortly thereafter followed by a self-destructive finale so rich in the infuriating, alienating logic of wounded honour  I can’t personally stomach repeating it (let’s say “Down to the house!” becomes something of a slogan and stage direction). Typically bourgeois after all…

lines from the dybbuk

In classics long after, quotables on March 3, 2010 at 2:03 am

First: yet more apologies for update slowdown – redrafting the play I have in development is taking most available headspace, but I will endeavour to make time late at night to keep this plate spinning. Hits have leaped recently, and I feel a wretch and a half for slacking. So, without further ado…

the dybbuk

Hanna Rovina as Leah'le in The Dybbuk

Just incredible; transfixing – and there’s no shortage of other images out there if you want to look for yourself – ‘The Dybbuk’ is almost certainly the best known Yiddish play because it reaches across cultures to capture the imagination (a fitting metaphor, as we’ll see). ‘The premiere, at the Elyseum theatre in Warsaw, did not take place until December 9, 1920 [it had been written in 1914], at the end of the traditional thirty-day mourning period that followed [author] S. Anski‘s death…’ (Three Great Jewish Plays, ed. Joseph C. Landis)

Anski had written: “From the Old Testament to the present, the central idea of all Jewish creativity is: physical force is not the force that wins… The physically stronger is defeated because he is spiritually weaker.” As his anti-hero, Khonnon, of the play notes: “The Holy Scrolls stand huddled together, calm silent. And in them are concealed all the secrets , all the veiled allusions, all the mysterious combinations from the six days of creation unto the end of the generations of men.

This relatively short, meticulously-ordered play begins in an old synagogue ‘with blackened walls’, where scholars and students gossip, debate and deal with those calling for their help. An elderly woman whose daughter ‘has been lying speechless, struggling with death’ is interceded for by a minyan (ten men praying) before a local noble arrives to celebrate the betrothal of his daughter. Khonnon, who has been terrorising his less kabbalistic brethren with dangerous insights (“There is no need to wage war against sin. Elevate it!“) falls into something between an emotional breakdown and a religious ecstasy when he hears – “So they were useless! All the fasts, all the ablutions, all that harrowing of flesh, all those spells…” – and swoons through visions to death.

“I saw his grave in a dream. And I saw him too, and he told me about himself…” (Leye)

We skip ahead to the wedding in question, where the bride, Leye – according to custom – paces the graveyard to invite her dead relative along. But that’s not all she finds: “There lived a young man who had a lofty soul and a deep mind. A long life lay before him. And suddenly, in an instant, his life was cut off, and strangers came to bury him in strange earth. What happened to the rest of his life? To his words that were silenced, to his prayers that were cut off?” And so she invites Khonnon, too.

At the altar, in a demonic set-piece that breeds shivers even now, Leye tears the veil from her face and ‘cries out in a strange, masculine voice’: “You buried me! But I have come back to my destined bride, and I will not leave her.

More Dybbuk

The rest of the play is almost a rabbinical procedural, as holy men seek to free the bride. The dialogue between Reb Azrielke and Khonnon (a Dybbuk, as I imagine you’d gathered, is a possessing spirit) has great power not through the wailing over-contrast of melodrama, but a kind of measured gravitas – Azrielke is sympathetic to the lost soul, especially as it becomes clear the two had been secretly in love. But Khonnon – speaking through Leye – is not to be reasoned out. “Wandering soul, I feel great pity for you, and I will try to release you from the destroying angels. But you must leave the body of this girl” is answered with “There is no more exalted height than my present refuge and there is no darker abyss than that which awaits me. I will not leave!

He is forced to leave. The rabbi shows mercy regardless, and revokes the exiled spirit’s excommunication. He rushes out to hurry the bridal company along, demanding they carry out the ceremony at once. Leye, left safe and sleeping in a magic circle, wakes alone – except for the voice of Khonnon, emenating from the darkness around. There follows an indescribably tender duologue. Leye: “Your hair was soft and it glistened as with tears, and your eyes were sad and gentle… But you went away and my light was put out and my soul withered… Then you returned and in my heart bloomed a life of death and a joy of sorrow. Why have you forsaken me again?” Khonnon: “I broke all barriers. I surmounted death, I defied the laws of the laws of the ages and generations…

“Return to me my bridegroom, my husband. I will carry you, in death, in my heart; and in the dreams of night we will together rock to sleep our unborn babes…” (Leye)

She steps out of the circle as this world’s bridal party finally arrive and folds to the floor, already gone. “Too late,” says Reb Azrielke, with sadness leavened by sympathy, as both souls depart.

here to start with jewish theatre

In classics long after, outside drama on February 23, 2010 at 1:18 am

If you think that’s a curious and moderately uncomfortable title, I should explain from the hello that this next series of posts comes from a book called 3 Great Jewish Plays (on Applause Books, I note with ticklish approval). Rather than merely authorial ethnicity, I guess the binding here is a sustained engagement with Jewish history and mythos – plus the emergence of Yiddish (as opposed to Hebrew) culture. This does not mean there are not lots of rabbis. There are lots of rabbis.

warsaw theatre

A pre-war warsaw theatre - click through for more

i. why language matters

In a pleasing meta-scriptural echo, the book, edited by Joseph C. Landis, comes with a foreword and multiple introductions. First, to pan through the former: “When…the Jewish middle class of central Europe found a possibility of easier access to the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, it began a parallel movement of Jewish enlightenment, the Haskala, to modernise Jewish life under the banner of Hebrew, the respected language of religion. Yiddish, as the language of the backward masses of Jews living in the semi-feudal Slavic world and as the vehicle of the pietistic Hassidic movement that stood diametrically opposed to the Haskala became the object of its scorn.” Later, Yiddish would emerge as the vernacular of Jewish socialists, while Hebrew was championed by Zionists, to whom “Yiddish became the representative of the despised Diaspora and of the Diaspora mentality.”

And so: “amidst the break-up of empires and the crumbling of the small-town, isolated, religiously-centred Jewish world” scattered Jewish writers were to “effect a transition of Jewish life from its provincial base into a modern, worldwide cultural nationality” – at least, in the first four decades of the twentieth century. “The destruction of the heartland of Yiddish in Eastern Europe during the Holocaust  of the Hitler years, however, effectively ended that vision” (please note this is from 1966/72/86, and Landis goes on to suspect a resurgence – an “ethnic revival” – even then, especially in the American novel).

His summation is fairly magnificent: “It may only be an accident of history that this return by the third generation to its ethnic roots coincides with a moment in American history when so many have begun to question so much. The prosperity of the middle class has not kept its children from doubting its values. […] The massive estrangement of people from themselves, from one another, and from their world, that has been one of the commonplace facts of our time, has triggered a restless search for meaning and identity…this Yiddish revival, in its own way a counterpart to the contemporary quest for lost innocence and the search for a simpler and more genuine world, may also reveal unsuspected moral alternatives for a troubled time.”

The Dybbuk

Production of 'The Dybbuk' in San Francisco, 1928

ii. why beliefs matter

Landis dates the rise of modern Yiddish literature to 1864 (“less arbitrary than most such designations, for it was the year in which the first major work of its first major artist appeared”) and locates it with the Askenazic Jewry. His next task is to unpick the idea of a neat ‘Judeo-Christian’ paradigm, teasing out the parallax of visions: “To the moral vision of the mentshlekhkayt, the central Christian concept of original sin or innate human depravity is wholly foreign. Counterposed to this view stands the Talmudic sense of man’s original innocence, which sees him unburdened by any sins but his own. […] Though deeply aware of the horrendous power of evil, Jewish tradition is nonetheless convinced of man’s ultimate superiority over evil…man’s inclination to good is capable of conquering without external intervention. By contrast, for the Christian, the central drama involves a struggle against a native taint, a battle with an accomplished, innate, and inevitable evil, a conflict whose ultimate resolution depends on salvation from without.

“The Ashkenazic Jew’s aversion to violence was not based on any sentimental exaltation of weakness or of the power of ‘the power of powerlessness’ but on a principled repudiation of force as bestialising and on a faith in the ultimate victory of reason and morality. […] If Adam’s disobedience and fall haunts the Christian imagination, it is Cain’s defiant question ‘Am I my brother’s keeper?’ that exemplifies the depth of dereliction to the Ashkenazic Jew…with this question he repudiates the sole path to atonement…” (this last paraphrased for web). Landis identifies this with Jewish culture’s emphasis on family and social responsibility. He likewise contrasts the Christian focus on faith with that of good deeds and study for the Jew (“It required everyone to be a mentsh – even God; and it did not hesitate to rebuke him when it thought He was remiss”).

With this in mind, a tragic Jewish hero might be brought down by external forces – or their own incorrect conduct – but not toxic, rooted, inescapable flaws (“And the catastrophe that overwhelms them need never be irreparable “).

Abraham Goldfadden

Abraham Goldfadden

iii. when we make the stage

“Though a badkhan (wedding bard) chanted rhymes at Jewish weddings, though Purim was a regular day for amateur ‘play’ performances, the direct stimulus for a [Jewish] theatre came from other sources. And it came relatively late [I’m sure readers of this post sympathise] – Yiddish plays written before the last quarter of the nineteenth century were written with no hope of performance on a professional stage.” That potential would gradually coalesce from variety performances containing song and impersonations.

“In Jassy, Romania, in 1876, Abraham Goldfadden, along with two Brody singers, as these entertainers were called, conceived the idea of adding to the songs an element of plot or continuity, with dialogue improvised in the manner of the commedia dell’arte.” Jacob Gordin, an American, would build on the subsequent wave of musicals to rework European classics into new Jewish plays – and these twin musical and realistic traditions would next be joined by work out of Ukraine’s relatively cosmopolitan seaport Odessa, with the short-lived Hirshbein Troupe touring work from Sholem Asch, David Pinski, and Sholem Aleichem. They would be succeeded by the Vilna Troupe, who premiered Anski‘s The Dybbuk (subject of the next post) in 1920.

After World War I, Yiddish companies sprang up in Poland, and Russia “with the help – almost the insistence – of the Soviet government, which persuaded Alexander Granovski to assume the direction of a company…for which Marc Chagall was commissioned to do the murals. […] As late as 1950, the State Yiddish Theatre in Moscow was one of the best in the country…” (and there were fifteen others). Alongside, the Habima, a famous Hebrew company succeeded in attracting Stanislavski as advisor and director. In America, Maurice Shwartz founded his own Yiddish Art Theatre, and the Artef company besides.

But, again, and to underline the historical schism in this story: “The virtual elimination of Yiddish cultural life in Poland since the war and in Russia since 1952, when almost every Yiddish writer of stature was executed, has not only left the Jewish community of the United States the largest in the world; it has also served to underscore the fact that on the cultural continent within our own borders, a large body of non-English writing was created and continues to be created.”

Phew. First Subjectiviste post to exceed 1000W (this will not happen often). Thanks to Joseph C. Landis for his unwitting – but vital – contribution – the book is recommended – and a sleepy salute to those of you who made it all the way down here. Next: those three great plays from the tradition…