The Terror of Barbarism and the Return to History: Between the Text and the Performance of Murder by Hanoch Levin
Brenner, Rachel Feldhay, Hebrew Studies Journal
When terror is displaced by forclusion in the theatre ... and then re-presented, it appears not as representation (because it cannot be represented), but as hallucination, as some unnameable thing that returns ... like a Jacobean apparition.
In the institutionalized theatre ... the terror of non-being is ultimately crystallized as the threat of terrorism--an objectification of terror in the ideology of the violent image. (1)
This essay argues that the two versions of the play, namely, the written text and its mise-en-scene do not communicate an identical message: to a large extent, the production resists the nihilistic world picture projected in the text. The play argues that the compulsive destructiveness of the Israeli occupier vitiates the occupied, drawing them into endless cycles of mutually inflicted suffering. While trying to remain as faithful as possible to the play, the conceptualization of the theatrical event was bound to take into consideration the Israeli spectators' political and emotional mindset vis-a-vis the occupation. The production thus treads a thin line between the play's dark vision of Israel irrevocably sliding into savagery and a humanistic-liberal perspective which attenuates the message by seeking a balanced representation of the conflict.
The following statement appears mid-way in Murder, an exceptional play by the renowned Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, which deals with the terror of murder as the signature of the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories:
"Why." We are long past the question "why." The question "why" shouldn't be asked. The question "why" belongs to other times (142/106). (2)
The dismissal of the question "why" signals the elimination of the need to understand and to explain social behavior, since the situation of occupation brings forth senseless victimization and meaningless suffering which defy the telos of humanity's moral progression. The end of moral historical narrative signifies the end of language as a mode of meaningful communication. Language which has lost its potency to investigate reasons for decisions and motives for behavior can no longer engage human beings in a truthful interaction. What replaces language grounded in "why" is, as we shall see, the language of interminable and unaccounted for savage violence which exposes the terror of human nature. No longer mediated by the humanist values of moral accountability, equality, and human fellowship, the terror erupts in uncontrollable hatred and aggression toward the oppressed, powerless other. The compulsive destructiveness of the occupier vitiates the occupied, drawing them into endless cycles of mutually inflicted suffering.
This essay argues that the two versions of the play, namely, its written text and its mise-en-scene, do not convey an identical message; to a large extent, the production resists the nihilistic world picture projected in the text. Since Murder is a play with a very strong, even radical, social message, the staging was ineluctably affected, and, one might claim, determined, by the mind-set of the targeted audience. While trying to remain as faithful as possible to the message of the play, the conceptualization of the theatrical event was bound to take into consideration the Israeli spectator and his or her attitude toward the occupation. As the director was well aware, the performance of the play presented a particularly sensitive issue in the painful reality of Israel's continuing need to cope with the problem of occupation and the recurring incidents of Palestinian terrorism.
I examine the meeting of the performance of Murder and the audience in the second part of the essay. At this point, I would only like to indicate the general direction of my discussion. The production of Murder, including the pre-performance devices and the performance itself, seems to maintain an extent of deliberate ambiguity with regards to the canonical version of the play. I suggest that the production treads a thin line between the play's dark vision of Israel irrevocably sliding into savagery and destruction and a humanistic-liberal perspective which seeks a balanced representation of the conflict. The mise-en-scene highlights emphasis on the barbaric characteristics of the occupation and at the same time, employs extra- and intra-performance strategies intended to highlight an evenhanded representation of the conflict. While some aspects of the mise-en-scene, especially the scenes of the occupier's violence, enact with terrible concreteness the dark message of the play, other aspects of the performance and pre-performance, strive to restore the potency of the humanistic liberal values, or, in the language of the play itself, to reaffirm the ethics of "why."
To elucidate this reading of the play and its theatrical performance, a few words about. its author and a brief summary of Murder are necessary. Even though not well-known abroad, Hanoch Levin (1943-1999) was a leading and, so far arguably, the most prolific of Israeli playwrights. He wrote over fifty plays; about thirty have been staged so far. His untimely death is still mourned in Israel's cultural world. Theaters in Israel, especially Levin's home-theater, The Cameri, continue to stage his plays. As I write, The Carried is in the midst of preparing a festival which will stage at least five of his plays, while planning, in conjunction with Tel Aviv University, lectures and debates devoted to Levin's theatrical oeuvre.
Levin earned the reputation of an extremely controversial playwright. Especially the productions of two of his satirical cabarets, which introduced him to the Israeli theater and embroiled him in unprecedented and so far unsurpassed furors on Israeli cultural scene. The exceptionally strong public reaction was elicited by his invective directed at Israel's ideological and political positions, most particularly, by his vehement and uncompromising indictment of Israel's militarism. (3)
Since Levin's two most controversial cabarets songs have been incorporated into the performance, it is important to mention briefly the cabarets and their impact on the Israeli cultural scene. Levin's first satirical cabaret [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [You and I and the next war] was first performed in 1968 in the wake of the 1967 Six Day War victory. Levin directed his satirical arrows at the ideological glorification of the war and exposed the horror of un-glorious death on the battlefield. The cabaret was first performed in front of a kibbutz audience where it met with an enraged and physically violent reaction of the kibbutz members. Believing that the aggressive tone of the production triggered this excessive response from the audience, the director, Edna Shavit, attempted to soften the overall tone of the show in the following performances. Nonetheless, the situation remained quite explosive and the actors felt threatened. Reviews of the play were radically divided and the media engaged in protracted polemics concerning the freedom of artistic expression. (4)
Levin's next satirical review, [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [Queen of the bathtub], performed in 1970, engendered an even more extreme reaction which included physical attacks on the actors and angry public protests. Staged in The Cameri, the municipal theater of Tel Aviv, in the midst of the war of attrition which followed the Six Day War, Levin's satire was almost unanimously received with dismay mixed with repulsion; it was seen as a specimen of an inexcusable and unforgivable abuse of war casualties--the fallen soldiers, the war widows, and the orphans. The reconstruction of the biblical story of the binding of Isaac in a song where Isaac accuses his father, Abraham, of sending him to death was generally identified as the apex of the writer's sacrilegious attitude toward bereaved parents. The sanctified principle of self-sacrifice for the state has been sullied and desecrated. Shosh Weitz, an old-time theater critic, offered a succinct account of the clamor in a commemorative album issued in honor of fifty years of The Cameri,
In 1970, under open pressure of the audiences, the press, and the members of Tel Aviv municipal council, and under covert, but powerful pressure of the theater's financing bodies. The Cameri decided to discontinue the performances of Levin's stinging satire, Queen of the Bathtub. Maintaining a modicum of dignity, the management of the theater was trying to resist the public pressure and wait out the violence which marked the play's nineteen performanes. But dissension arose among the veteran actors. They were apprehensive they would be identified with Levin's extreme ideas and feared to lose their audience. Oma Porat, a highly respected actress, expressed the dilemma concisely when she admitted in [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII] [a major evening paper]: "Freedom of speech is dear to me, but no less important to me is the audience. (5)
After that, Levin moved to writing plays that were generally classified under the rubrics of "bourgeois family," or "mythical" plays. Though always controversial and highly innovative, Levin distanced himself from his initial satirical mode. He quickly integrated into the establishment theater, mainly The Carried, where an ensemble of prominent actors performed in his plays on an almost permanent basis, and the tradition still continues. (6) Finally, it is important to note, especially in view of our discussion of Murder as both text and performance, that all of Levin's writings were published in a canonical, definitive edition by Hakibbutz Hameuchad, an Israeli major publishing house.
The following section of the essay examines the canonical text of the play. My reading proposes to show the fusion of the aesthetic construct of the play and its ethical-political Weltanschauung. I begin with a synopsis of the play. Murder consists of three acts and an epilogue. The first act opens with a scene of three Israeli soldiers, The Flushed Soldier, The Tanned Soldier, and The Pale Soldier, mutilating the body of the Arab Boy they have just murdered. The last words that the boy utters are, "Have pity on me! I want Daddy" (128/85). The soldiers proceed with sexual violation of the dead body, when they are surprised by the boy's Father, who recognizes his son, examines the body and confronts the soldiers with every trace of the mutilation. The soldiers deny everything, repeating over and over again that the boy got out of control, had to be subdued, and, because of the particular circumstances of war, his death could not be prevented. The Father appeals to the soldiers' humanity, telling them of the universal sameness of all human beings, but they dismiss his argumentation while conspiring to murder him as well. At this moment The Messenger enters and declares,
The time of murder is over ... winds of reconciliation are blowing ... our children will not understand.... They will study history with a shrug. With a smile of waking from deep sleep, people say to one another: Peace (132/91).
Even though taken off guard, the soldiers happily declare their willingness to accept peace, forget the past and go about their business, but The Father will not be appeased so easily. He demands to know his son's last words. When the soldiers refuse his wish and lie to him that the boy died cursing, The Father is left alone with the body and he realizes that his life will henceforth be controlled by his son's death. The Officer arrives on the scene to inquire about the murder, but The Father does not disclose the identity of the soldiers. The Officer tells him to bury the boy and keep quiet, since no demonstrations are allowed in time of peace. The Father complies with the order and leaves carrying his son's body.
The second act takes place three years later at a wedding. The young couple escapes the party to engage in their first, quite comical, sexual experimentation, when The Father appears. Mistaking The Groom for one of the soldiers, who killed his son, The Father demands that he tell him his son's last words. The Groom, who knows nothing about the murdered boy, fails to grant him his wish. Even though The Father realizes his mistake, he shoots The Groom, proceeds to rape The Bride and then shoots her too. Just before shooting The Bride, The Father answers her helpless query "Why?" with the response quoted in the beginning of the essay, and which, as we recall, declares that the individual's moral accountability has become obsolete. The second act ends with the Father of The Groom lamenting over the bodies, unable to comprehend the tragedy that befell him. When the grieving Father of The Groom asks "Why did they kill my innocent children on their day of happiness?" and claims that "The earth is quaking," a Guest comments on his mistaken assumption that the world of nature participates in human suffering, "The earth seems to be quaking, but not really" (142-143/107). As we have seen in the dismissal of the question "why," even the human world is no longer capable of responding to the pain and grief of the suffering other.
The third act takes place five years later in an affluent suburb. Two Arab Laborers discuss their voyeuristic proclivities; they are "peeping Toms," spying on sexual activities of rich women. The Wrecked Laborer is caught peeping by The Orange Whore who pretends to be a rich suburbanite, but really intends to seduce him in order to rob him. She and two other prostitutes attack him when a loud explosion is heard. It turns out that there has been a terrorist attack and there are casualties among children and adults trapped in the blown up building. The Orange Whore calls the Arab Laborer a murderer and attacks him. A lynch scene follows and a passerby tries to stop the violence, but The Orange Whore threatens to kill the "beautiful people ... who cover up for the dirty bastards" (149/117). Despite his pleading and protestations of innocence, The Wrecked Laborer is clubbed …
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Publication information: Article title: The Terror of Barbarism and the Return to History: Between the Text and the Performance of Murder by Hanoch Levin. Contributors: Brenner, Rachel Feldhay - Author. Journal title: Hebrew Studies Journal. Issue: 43 Publication date: Annual 2002. Page number: 153+. © 2008 National Association of Professors of Hebrew. COPYRIGHT 2002 Gale Group.
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