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Israeli Arts, Culture & Literature: Theatre in Israel

by Shosh Weitz

Two productions of note on the Israeli stage this past year were Retzach ("Murder,"), a biting political drama by Hanoch Levin, and "Mister Wolff," a local adaptation of an entertaining English play. "Retzach" was greeted with rapturous critical acclaim, both because of the subject matter and the political courage displayed by the theatre, but also for the quality of the production: it was also extremely popular with audiences. On the other hand, "Mister Wolff" was considered by the critics to be flawed and over-commercial. These two plays, both put on by the Cameri Theatre have been very successful at the box office, and they highlight the major dilemma of Israeli theatre in the second half of the 1990s and probably into the next century: how to hold on to existing audiences, and particularly how to lure new and younger audiences to theatres.

At first glance, the 1990s have been a good decade for the Israeli theatre. In each year since 1990, the ten public theatres have produced about 140 plays and sold about a million and half tickets. Dozens more productions have been shown at theatre festivals by fringe theatre and by children and youth ensembles. A survey conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 1992 showed that every third person in Israel attended a play at least once a year. The same statistics, however, indicate that since 1970, the number of people going to the theatre has declined by 15 percent. The decline is most conspicuous among the educated young. In 1970, 64 percent attended the theatre "several times" a year, while in 1990, this figure had dropped to 29 percent. Thus, although the theatre is still a very popular medium, it is groping for ways to break through to the younger generation that clearly prefers other types of entertainment.

"Gorodish," an original Israeli drama dealing with a disgraced war hero, at the Cameri, and "P.S. Your Cat is Dead," an imported commercial success at Habimah, represent two different solutions to the problem. The first continued the tradition of theatre engagé taking a position on current issues. "The Dead Cat" had no such ethical or artistic pretensions. Its only goal was to provide entertainment for a young, hedonistic audience. However, this polarization between the socially committed and the professionally entertaining type of production is not new in Israeli theatre and has, in fact, marked it from the beginning. The Hebrew theatre has always seen itself as an artistic-social institution where at times the artistic goal superseded the social, and at others, the demands of time and place overwhelmed the artistic criteria. In fact, this oscillation can be seen as one of its major characteristics.

In the early years of statehood, the theatre’s social role took precedence over its artistic function, and the theatre concentrated on Israeli plays that dealt with the burning issues of the day. The Ha’aretz theatre critic, Nahum Gamzu, writing on Yigal Mossinsohn’s "In the Wilderness of the Negev," commented that, although the play was flawed and at best a piece of journalism, its relevance was praiseworthy. He added that when the curtain came down, he felt such an identification with the characters that he felt like leaving the theatre, joining the fighters and weeping on the grave of the hero, Uri, who had fallen in battle.

The playwrights, mostly of the Palmach generation (Moshe Shamir, S. Yizhar, Hanoch Bartov, Aharon Megged, Yigal Mossinsohn, Yehudit Hendel and others) expressed the national consensus. The voicing of extremist socio-political positions, at times censored, was usually limited to the fringe theatres which blossomed from the early 1950s to the late 1960s. However, even on the fringe, the consensus was maintained, and the "revolt" usually went no further than the adoption of avant garde modes such as the Theatre of the Absurd, which was popular at the time in Europe and the USA.

In the eyes of the Israeli audience, who has always wished to see itself and its problems on stage, the secret of the theatre’s success lies in the strong links it forges with society. The audience is willing to be provoked, but only within limits. It is open to controversial and critical theatre but only as long as it stays within the national consensus. Theatre thus faithfully reflects the changes wrought in Israeli society from its early days, including the rupture in the consensus beginning with the Six-Day War of 1967 and the subsequent occupation of the territories.

The rift in the consensus began with Hanoch Levin’s biting satire, "The Queen of the Bathtub," performed at the Cameri, which was forced to close almost as soon as it opened. Bowing to violent public pressure, the theatre’s board decided not to violate its audience’s wishes, or, as actress Orna Porat put it: "We cherish freedom of speech, but we cherish our audience more." The Cameri, together with Habimah, has toed that line ever since.

The group which stretched the national consensus to its limits was the Haifa Municipal Theatre, which, in the 1970s and 1980s, mounted several plays that challenged government policy both in the political and the social arenas. Many of these were documentaries or semi-documentaries and their artistic value was minimal. But they gave vociferous expression to ideological positions that aroused fierce public debate and often resulted in political or financial pressure being brought to bear on the theatre.

This flourishing period in the Haifa Theatre was a particular boon for a new and young generation of writers who today constitute Israel’s foremost playwrights, including Hanoch Levin, Yehoshua Sobol, Hillel Mittelpunk and others. It also gave voice to the attitudes of a young audience which identified with attacks on the values of the founding generation and rebelled against the concept of paying the price of the nation’s wars with its life. In retrospect, however, it seems that although the Haifa revolt stretched the limits of the consensus, it did not actually break it.

The social crisis of 1977 and the rise of the Likud political party, both events which transformed the face of Israeli society and redefined the national consensus, also brought about changes in the theatre. The political reversal was expressed by an ever-increasing pressure on theatres to moderate their message, an influence which reached its peak at the end of the 1980s. The Arabic stage of the Haifa Theatre was closed down, and plays containing a particularly strong anti-establishment statement, such as "Ephraim Goes Back to the Army," which drew an analogy between the occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and the Holocaust, were rejected by the theatre. The situation came to a head in 1988 with the closing of Sobol’s "Jerusalem Syndrome" in the wake of which the theatre management resigned.

The closing of "Jerusalem Syndrome" which, ironically, took place during "Original Play Week" in Israel, is only one aspect of the change that has left its mark on theatre to this day. The other is the "Les Misérables" syndrome. Mounted by the Cameri in 1988, the world-famous musical inaugurated the concept of the "professional" theatre. A huge success with the audiences and critics alike, it was greatly admired for its professional standard and wealth of technical effects. "Les Misérables" drew audiences from all walks of life, even those who are not normally theatregoers. Over the next three years, the main theatres competed with one another in mounting large spectacles, the most "populist" of which was Ephraim Kishon’s "Salah Shabati" at Habimah. It might be said that 1987-8 saw the swing of the pendulum in Israel from the social to the artistic and professional theatre.

The first half of the 1990s was a period of complacence and plenty. Repertoires were built to satisfy audiences wishing to see well-performed, easily-digestible and "respectable" plays. One example of this can be seen in the wave of Tennessee Williams and Arthur Miller plays from the 1950s that enjoyed revivals in 1990-1992. Realistic and innovative in their time, they are now accessible and classical. The same swing of the pendulum left its mark on Israeli drama. In 1990, Oded Kotler, the man who initiated the Haifa revolt in 1970, stated that the "political era" of Israeli theatre was over. Today, he said, an original Hebrew play must be, first and foremost, well-written. An even more extreme expression of this attitude was voiced by Gary Bilu, then artistic director of Habimah, when he claimed that the Hebrew play was "backward" and that only artistic criteria, i.e., the skill of the playwright regardless of subject or profundity, should be at issue when considering a play for production. In other words, the Israeli theatre of the early 1990s, conformed to Susan Bennett’s description of western bourgeois theatre as an institution whose repertoire is aimed at "middle-aged and middle-class" audiences ("Theater Audiences," New York, 1992).

The truth of this statement is reflected not only in the repertoire, but also in the nature of Israeli theatre audiences, marketing strategies and the playwrights. The majority of theatre-goers are subscribers, or people who have obtained tickets through their staff organizations who offer "culture" to their members. The "young" playwrights of the 1970s are still in their prime and as yet no significant younger generation has replaced them. One result is that young audiences flock to stand-up comedy shows, a genre that has begun to flourish in Israel and has been legitimized both in the press and on television.

On the face of it, the picture is bleak. Israeli theatre seems to have lost its uniqueness, and its manifest ageing and fossilization resembles that of western theatre as a whole. However, over the last two years and the influence of left-of-centre forces, there has been a cautious swing back to a national-social agenda. The Cameri recently mounted a hugely successful series of Hebrew dramas. Oded Kotler, who in 1990 proclaimed the death of the documentary, directed a play, now in its third season, based on a real-life rape case that sent shock waves through Israeli society. Six out of the ten shows on the list of most successful plays, published in 1996 by the Public Council for Art and Culture, were local works dealing with socio-political issues. A good example is "Retzach" which speaks to the heart of young people because of the political stances taken and its style. Another case in point: Hillel Mittelpunkt’s "Gorodish," demonstrates both the continuity and the change evident in Israeli plays of the mid-1990s. On the one hand, it deals with a socio-political subject; on the other, it is well-written and excellently directed and acted, and is performed on a large stage abounding with technical effects. Taking the cult of the hero as its theme, "Gorodish" traces the downfall of a Six-Day War hero to humiliation and disgrace in the Yom Kippur War. However, while attacking the myth of the macho hero, it also harks back to Israel’s heroic period. Thus it satisfies both the older members of the audience who come to the theatre to look back with nostalgia at the days of heroism and splendour, and the younger audience who see in it a reflection of their service in the army. In other words, "Gorodish" is a sophisticated example of the combination that has worked so well throughout the history of Israeli theatre. Other recent productions are no exception. They take on accepted targets such as religious fanaticism ("Fleischer" and "Sheindele") or petty corruption ("The Inspector-General";) they are easily understood and they give the audience the feeling that it is seeing itself reflected on stage. The Israeli theatre, thus seems to have returned to the bosom of consensus and to the heart of the social establishment. Once again it seems that the formula for success is to mix relevance with accessibility – to which now is also added professionalism. As it worked in the past, so it will probably work in the first decade of the next century. But to keep it from expiring with the middle-aged generation to which it caters, it is also crucial to open up channels of communication with the younger generation.

We began this survey with "Mister Wolff," representing the "professional" approach. This play was mounted not because of its quality but because its language and style, appealed to and addressed the younger generation, and the popularity of the show would, indeed, seem to indicate that the Cameri had found the right way to revitalize its audience. But, in this writer’s opinion, the price is too high. By compromising the artistic quality of its productions, a theatre forfeits the ethical justification of its existence as a formative public-social institution. Moreover, the younger generation does attend quality plays which appeal to them, either on the grounds of their relevance or because of their innovative modes of expression. Again, the best example is "Retzach," which speaks to the heart of young people because of the political stances taken and its style.

At the same time, there have been successful avant garde productions of Shakespeare mounted by the Itim Company, directed by Rina Yerushalmi. "Hamlet" and "Romeo and Juliet" are not easy to comprehend, but the style is contemporary and the codes that the audience is asked to use in deciphering them are taken from the storehouse of images of the world today – the world at the eve of a new century.

While it is impossible to prophesy, it is my belief that Israeli theatre at its best will continue to thrive. I believe that even in the 21st century, Israelis will want a living theatre, one alert to society and responsive to its problems. They will want a theatre that constantly renews itself technically while maintaining a high artistic and professional level, and most of all, one that is always on a quest for the right, but not necessarily the easy, way.

Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry