The Terror of Barbarism and the Return to History: Between the Text and the Performance of Murder by Hanoch Levin

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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.

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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. …