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Jewish Spaces in European Theatre

European Performing Arts Forum
Prague 14-16 June 2003



Session V: Navigating the cultural boundaries: who are the
audiences for Jewish themes?

Jewish culture in Sweden: Who are the audiences for Jewish

Irena Kraus, playwright, Stockholm

It´s a very interesting and rather strange way of putting the question. I can only answer from my own point of view. I would like to switch the question arround: Do Jewish themes have to have an audience of their own? Couldn´t we sort of address ourselves to anyone/ everyone?

I don´t specifically identify myself as a Jewish writer, even if I frequently end up writing about "Jewish themes". If Marianne's plays were sometimes
produced in a Jewish context ( Finkelstein, Freud, Försoningsdagen), mine were not. My first play on a Jewish theme was commisioned by Unga Riks. (A part of Swedish Riksteatern, one of our major theatres touring all over Sweden). This was meant to be a play for children. The artistic director came to me one day with a book by a Jewish psychiatrist , in which she told stories of her cases in therapy. And there I found a few lines about a young boy, Josef, who survived the concentration camp, but wasn´t really able to live afterwards. I wrote the play "The Butterfly Children" based on his story and emerging from an image that the psychatrist gave :

The butterfly rests in its cocoon, waiting for the moment when it is ready to fly away. But if the inside is hurt and destroyed, the cocoon can´t be repaired and instead of flying away when it´s time to start living, it dies.

Something in this story, struck something crucial in me. The "Butterfly Children" was a play for children between 10 and 12 years old. I also added two other characters - also Jewish children, also survivors. They had a common starting point, but ended up differently. In a way, you could say that this was a play with a strong Jewish theme, even if I didn´t think the audience, the children, actually felt that way. I think they were more interested in the specific destinies of those specific children.

There were some very strong reactions to the play. The first director (it was produced three times) came up to me years later, telling me that she was afraid of the play. Not that she didn´t understand the codes, or that it was "too Jewish" for her. She never mentioned anything about that and I don´t think that was ever a problem to herů What she said was that it reflected something inside herself. She was afraid of its darkness and the strong feelings which were explored between the children.

So I would say that I always try to find something "universal" in my Jewish stories and I honestly think that´s why I keep coming back to those themes. I write about the Holocaust, I write about the past - but I would claim that I´m actually writing about the present, about our lives and dreams here and now.

There was also an interesting reaction I encountered, when I spoke to a
producer at Swedish broadcasting. I told her that I wanted to make a
dramatization of a book written by a Jewish-Yugoslavian woman, who survived the Holocaust. I told her that this story was not only about a woman surviving Auschwitz. It was a close-up, showing a complicated relationship between a
daughter and her mother. 'What has it got to do with your own life', the producer asked? What in this story, beside the most obvious things, strikes you...? I want to hear your story, she said. " But I wasn´t there", I answered. After a while I started to write a scene, that in a way, became the central part of the play. Telling the story of a young woman, the child of a survivor, who goes through a crisis - goes back into the past, in order to explore the present.

The reaction --- A lot of women spoke to me afterwards, children of Jewish survivors. It´s very hard to say what the average listener was thinking. In that way, radio theatre has a unique place. It reaches everyone and you can´t choose your audience.

I will end by saying that I don´t think Swedish interest in Jewish culture has anything to do with interest in exotica or unresolved Holocaust issues. I think it only has to do with the way you, as a playwright, are able to express yourself and tell your own story. Coming back to basics, it only has to do with whether you´ve written an explicit text, which comes alive on stage or not. It´s very brutal really, but for me theatre always deals with this truth: either the short second on stage is a moment of life or the text never becomes more than words. I think everyone knows when he or she has managed to write something important/ essential. That´s why I think "a short time in the spotlight" could easily become a permanent place in the spotlight, if you only dare to write from the bottom of your heart and if you do it well enough.

Then maybe we won´t be defined as "those Jewish writers". More as universal writers - writing about very specific, Jewish topics. And do it so that everyone thinks it´s a story about themselves.