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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003

 

 

Session IV: The politics of representation and the theatre

The Jerusalem Syndrome: The climax of political theatre in
Israel


Dr. Miriam Yahil-Wax, dramaturge, writer and translator, Caesarea


The play

"Il s'agit d'une vache," its about a cow, said playwright Joshua Sobol to a French guest who came to the previews of 'The Jerusalem Syndrome' in Haifa (December 1987).

On stage an invisible army is laying siege to a modern city. A confused Sergeant in search of the lost regimental cow, threatens a Peasant suspected of the theft. The regiment is hungry, so is the Peasant. Suddenly, the offensive begins and the startled Sergeant discharges his weapon. He thinks he may have shot both the peasant and a pregnant Woman. His mind goes. The walls come tumbling down. The muddled Sergeant, now shell-shocked as well, stumbles upon a motley crowd emerging from the rubble. He thinks these are the surviving inhabitants of the besieged city. But they speak in the language of ancient Judea and present themselves as historical figures. The peasants he shot are among them too! And where the hell is the cow?!

Where is all this taking place? Are these characters living? Is he dead? Are they sane? Is he mad? They seem to be oblivious of the present catastrophe, and intent on drawing him into a re-enactment of the Great Rebellion, casting him in the role of a Roman Centurion. It maybe a play within the play, written by their leader, the mad Professor. The dramatis personae in this inner play are all taken from Josephus Flavius' history of the Jewish Wars, with a twist: King Agrippa is a sex obsessed clown; The High Priest is a cowardly peacenik; the Prophet is a dazed TV presenter intent on filming the siege of Jerusalem; The three Rebel Leaders are a violent paranoid, a serial killer and an automaton. Among the women are a sleeping Mourner, who wakes up only to wail; a crazed Mother, who hugs and fights the men and their violent world - "better a living slave than a dead hero," she says. There is also an Amputee, described by Flavius as hopping among the ruins shouting, "Wow to Jerusalem, Wow to the nation…" But the stage does not represent Judea, or anything recognizable. These are all theatrical Ghosts. Caught in limbo? Caught in the crossfire? Of which war?

The only certainty is the play, which moves between the outer circle of modern times, and the inner one of antiquity. Then it goes into the innermost one of the Jewish mind where it finds the paradox: To make their particular brand of Judaism win, the historical Zealots lost Judea; To win a war he cannot justify, the Sergeant loses his mind. Perhaps he too is just a character in the Professor's play-within-a-play, and mad to begin with? Perhaps the war is a figment of his imagination? The Professor, a genius and lunatic, tries to impress upon his fellow-men the terrible warning, that history is about to repeat itself. He does this by making them all re-enact the tragic events of the destruction of the Second Temple; Then, he believes, they will stop short of destroying the Third.

The Syndrome

The obvious historical analogy, though always controversial, was not new. Sobol returned to the topic the Jewish Wars after discovering there's another level, hitherto unexplored, which has to do with mental space. A curious psychiatric observation was published in an Israeli newspaper: - Strange behavior patterns show in foreigners who come to live in Jerusalem. They may experience actual changes in character, loss of mental equilibrium, hallucinations, often of messianic character. They seem to inhabit a Jerusalem of their mind. No medical explanation has been found for those disorders. They acquired the name "The Jerusalem Syndrome."

This strange mental state became Sobol's theme. The Jewish Wars are not just historical events, they reflect a 'malady' which is also a 'metaphor.' Through the ages, what is now recognized as a psychic disturbance, was conceived as accidental self-destructive behavior. When the 'constructors' became obsessed with Messianic yearnings, they were in fact suffering from the syndrome, and that is why they became 'destructors.' Then as now, the play shows, when they intend to build and save, the malady makes them ruin and destroy. And there is no difference between those who think themselves sane and those who know they are not. They know not what they do, but they keep doing it.

With this metaphor as the unifying concept, the story had to be relocated in an imaginary space, in which it would be possible to juxtapose illusion and reality.

The Shifting Space

The imaginary mental space was an abstract performance area, a raked stage with a mirror surface in a black void. When the city fell, the mirror cracked, and figures began to emerge from below. Everything continued to be reflected, but in a fragmented and distorted manner. The action took place above, below and on the cracked surface. It was unsafe ground, full of surprising pitfalls and confusing reflections. The actors could not get a foothold, only in the pits below did they find stability. Past reflected present, and vice versa. Play reflected reality and vice versa. Effect did not follow cause. The irrational popped up in the cracks of the rational. Exit was entrance somewhere else, to paraphrase Stoppard.

The released lunatics, though fully absorbed in their historical play and hampered physically by the broken surface, found the mental transition between the multiple mental states easy enough. The Sergeant, on the other hand, ostensibly the 'normal' personality and bound by notions of logic and order, was unable to adapt. Instead, he tried to impose his rules on the lunacy at gun-point, and when he failed, lost both his footing and his sanity. The different levels of the action met and separated, converged and combined, commenting on their own reality, unreality and theatricality.

But in all this there was not one character on stage for the audience to identify with, no anchor, no Hamlet to guide them through the maze. The music hurt. The humor stung. Alienation reigned supreme. The audience felt they were under attack, teased, challenged, disoriented. There was no familiar realistic image in the set to cling to. The space shifted constantly.

Jewish Spaces

"Normal nations are defined by their territory- their country, county, village. Part and parcel of Western drama, both ancient and modern, is the delineation of territory: The 'Where' of the action. The Jew, on the other hand, had lived in exile for thousands of years during which he did not have a defining territory," says Sobol. Country, county, village were, for the Jew, permanently impermanent. He could not choose to feel earth-bound. His space was abstract, spiritual. Curiously, even the founding fathers of Zionism did not all link the Jewish renaissance to territory. "Some, like A.D. Gordon philosophized that: 'The way is the goal'. Early Jewish literature, from Mendele to Brenner, reflects this peculiarity," says Sobol.
Since the foundation of the State of Israel, there are Jews who are defined by a territory. But the territory itself remains undefined both physically - Israel's borders are still in flux, and mentally - Israeli identity is still unformed. This state of affairs was mirrored in 'The Jerusalem Syndrome', and the nation's response was to break the mirror.

All Israel is a Stage

The moment rehearsals began, it was as if the madness on stage broke into the real world outside the theatre. As if the country was turning into a mirror image of the play. An unprecedented process began, by which life overwhelmed theatre, as Israel embarked on a violent controversy over the yet unborn production of 'The Jerusalem Syndrome'. All the Holy Land was a stage, and all men and women merely players in a national drama.

The country was joyfully preparing for its 40th anniversary. The celebrations were to begin with a festival of new plays. The festival was to be opened by Haifa Municipal Theatre, with a revival of Sobol's 'Night of the Twentieth', a tried and true introspective realistic piece. For one reason or another it didn't come together, and the theatre proposed instead 'The Jerusalem Syndrome', which was planned for later that season. I hinted to the creators of the show, who were also the Artistic Directors, Joshua Sobol and Gedalia Besser, that it may not be a good idea, but I was only the dramaturg. On the first day of rehearsal, all hell broke loose.

This was not the first time Haifa Theatre came under fire for its politics. Every new play Sobol had written since 1982 was controversial, starting with 'Soul of A Jew' (in which Judaism and Zionism are examined by the suicidal philosopher, Otto Weininger). As he persisted in probing issues of Jewish identity and Zionism in 'Ghetto' and 'The Palestinian Girl', and even took these shows abroad against the will of the theatre board, the city fought back by withholding funds. But only 'The Jerusalem Syndrome' got the fanatics and Rightists clamoring for their pound of flesh, and Sobol plus the theatre became fair game for all.

Rumors began to circulate about the content of 'The Jerusalem Syndrome', though no reporter had read the play nor seen a rehearsal. But the casus belli was not at all what we had expected. We thought the outrage would be over the analogy between the fanatics in the Occupied Territories - also identified as lunatics - and those who destroyed ancient Judea. But what incensed the public was the image of the Sergeant whose bullets, in the prologue, hit civilians.
The time is the end of 1987. The incident in Gaza which was later identified as the beginning of the Palestinian Uprising, took place just five days before the first preview. The word "Intifada" was not yet born.

Even before rehearsals began, the Rabbi of Haifa decreed that the Mezuzah by the theatre door should be removed. In an erudite halachic article he reasoned that just as it is forbidden to put Mezuzah by a toilet door because it is a dirty place, so by Haifa theatre doors since it is "a place of blasphemy and filth." Professor of Medicine Dan Meller answered, that all the theatres should remove their Mezuzot: "What a wonderful opportunity to get rid at last of religious coercion," said he … Then, MP Geula Cohn of Tehia - the extreme Right Party, said in the Knesset that if Sobol didn't like the Jewish people, he should commit suicide like his hero, Otto Weininger… A satirist responded with a joke: "What is TJS about? It is about a playwright who received an offer he could refuse…" I wrote an article with the title "The Dublin Syndrome," and quoted O'Casey's expulsion and his response: "A writer owes his country disloyalty." Sobol said to an interviewer, "Theatre is 'the opposite,' it dies if it conforms."

The situation was incredibly funny and quite frightening. The atmosphere in rehearsal was tense. It was becoming impossible to work on the play normally. We were at war, how could I keep nagging them about the structure of this or that scene? One day director Gedalia Besser said to the subdued cast: "Hey, people, it's just theatre." But it wasn't.

The newspapers were filled with more & more pros and cons by people who knew nothing of the play. The 40th anniversary organizing committee was pressured to withdraw their invitation. The playwrights' union and the theatres threatened to cancel the entire festival if they did. Once it was decided that TJS must go ahead, the campaign against it took subtler forms.

The Artistic Director of the festival would call the director of the play daily, trying hard to persuade him to "do something" about the image of the Sergeant, which seemed to trigger the public outrage. Director Besser explained that the play was set in an imaginary time in a mental space, that the soldier's uniform was from the UK, that it had no insignia identifying him as IDF, that his weapon was a Kalachnikov, not the Galil used by the Israeli army. The AD said OK. Until the next day when he called again with the suggestion to change the problematic costume altogether. We in the theatre felt like Bulgakov when he was called by a dangerously benevolent Stalin. But we decided to oblige and have a meeting about the costume. The designer suggested changing the color of the uniform. Someone said why not pink? Someone else said, why not make him a Roman soldier? I said we could dress him as a Martian, the audience would still bring their own associations to the theatre, and see what's on their mind. The Sergeant's uniform was left alone.

A National Crisis

On the opening night, demonstrators gathered outside the Habimah National Theatre. The Extreme Right opposite Leftist groups, and the police in the middle. Rightist MP, Michael Eitan, in the worst taste, distributed leaflets with "SS" on them, meaning 'Sobol Syndrome.' There were fistfights and injuries. The dignitaries who arrived for the premiere entered with Police escort, as did the press.

Inside the theatre, in the gallery, policemen were stationed: The rumor was that Fanatics bought tickets in order to disrupt the show. (They were Kach members, Rabbi Cahana's party which was eventually ousted from Israeli politics.)
As the house lights went down, and the Sergeant entered the scene, the gallery erupted in a riot. Leaflets were thrown, whistles were blown, the show was stopped, the actor went backstage, the house lights went up, the police tried to identify the offenders. This routine was repeated six times. The police caught some of the fanatics and dragged them out of the auditorium.

At long last, an hour late, the performance began with an understandably tense company. The remaining fanatics who were not found out, kept throwing flashes and stink bombs from the gallery during the show. Spectators unable to tell what was special effects and what was real, felt truly threatened. The Amputee on stage waved his crutch at the gallery, the show went on.

It was no longer a theatrical event but a national crisis. The country was the stage. The nation was genuinely infuriated by its theatrical reflection. How dare Sobol label our Zionist zeal a malady? How dare he attribute it to Jerusalem? How dare he compare our just war of self-defense with the ancient frenzy of self-destruction? And worst of all, how can he imagine one of our soldiers threatening civilians? This is the year 1987, twenty years into the occupation, just before the Palestinian uprising. Everything is still boiling under the surface. Sobol, again, touched a raw nerve. He was not clairvoyant, but he saw what the rest of us did not want to see.

Therefore, the coincidence of play, space and time catapulted the situation to such extremes. The play with the malady as a metaphor, appeared on the stage of the National Theatre, on the occasion of Israel's 40th anniversary. The Palestinian uprising was waiting in the wings. This juxtaposition of circumstances was altogether too much. Even so, everyone was surprised by the scope and violence of the reaction.

Jerusalem: Real and Imaginary

Much has been written about the importance of 'place' to a writer. Even in quieter times, writing about Jerusalem in Israel is different from writing about it anywhere else in the world. You cannot be dispassionate. The Israeli writer's mind is inevitably torn between extremes: Simple local patriotism finds allies in transcendental visions against reason. The earthly reality he knows, is very different from the divine fantasy inhabiting the Jewish, Christian and Moslem collective memory. The spiritual reality he cannot escape, has nothing to do with the earthly city. Both a geographical and a cultural locus, an actual and a spiritual space, a holy site and a disaster zone, the city is, for the Israeli writer, an ambiguous inspiration at best.

When Sobol treated it as a place which is a malady, some deduced that he is suggesting that the Jew is better off without it, as an a-territorial, extra-territorial being, even in the land of Israel, even in Jerusalem. The play was interpreted to mean that Jewish space must remain an idea, a thing of the mind, A.D. Gordon's "the way is the goal," because history is showing yet again, that when it becomes a reality it self-destructs.
As for the politics of representation - 'The Jerusalem Syndrome' at the 40th anniversary was hardly a 'politic' choice. And yet, it had to be. The event was a crucial turning point in Israeli theatre and in the cultural life of the country. A play was at the heart of public controversy about our national morality and sanity. Theatre was important enough for politicians to demand the playwright's head, for Rabbis to ban it, for fanatics to stop the show.

I am not sure if the play had a cathartic effect, but as it ran the remaining performances in repertoire on the Haifa Theatre stage, away from the national public eye, after the resignation of its creators and Artistic Directors, Sobol and Besser, interesting things happened to it.

Gradually, the show found its true rhythms. For the actors, going on stage was no longer like going to war. Sobol's comic lines began to work, the exquisite music was noticed, the satire surfaced. In the real world outside the Palestinian uprising, the Intifada, started. The audience became more and more appreciative of Sobol's foresight, more and more attentive to his lines. In the closing performance, as the actors felt free at last, 'The Jerusalem Syndrome' was played as it was intended, as an outrageous comedy! The final bows were taken to a standing ovation. It was both the climax and the end of an era of political theatre in Israel. "Il s'agit d'une vache," turned out to be the understatement of the century.