Part Two of Motti Lerner’s Lecture at Strasbourg University, edited by Patricia Connelly
I’m not sure this is the right moment to go into the details of the mechanism of catharsis. Those of you who are interested can read my book, The Playwright’s Purpose, which was published just two weeks ago. But let’s look at a simple example. All of you know the play Romeo and Juliet. It’s about two young lovers struggling to fulfill their love which was forbidden by their families. At the end of the play, they fail and both commit suicide. What happens to the spectator of this play? Does he or she say to himself that forbidden love is so dangerous I’ll never allow myself to fall in love if it is forbidden? Or does he or she say Love is so sacred that I’ll always struggle with all my might to fulfill my love even if it is forbidden I tend to believe that most spectators will choose the second option. Thus, we can learn something highly important from this: the failure of the protagonist of the tragedy actually encourages the spectator to carry out the action of the protagonist in his or her own life, in spite of the fact that the protagonist has just failed in achieving his or her goal. This is the meaning of the term “re-affirmation” which is usually associated with catharsis. Indeed, I honestly believe that the play Romeo and Juliet has caused millions of spectators to overcome their prejudices, their fears and their fixations, and has encouraged them to open their hearts to forbidden loves.
How do we apply this principle to our challenge regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? We need to find a protagonist who struggles for openness, for understanding, for sensitivity, for empathy in his search for progress in the dialogue with Palestinians. If we are able to create such a protagonist, and if this protagonist will create a plot in which his journey ends in a catastrophic failure, we will embolden the spectators to search for such dialogue with Palestinians in their own lives. I hope that I was able to clarify this principle well enough; it’s really a crucial element in my understanding of political theater. You can read a lot more about it in The Playwright’s Purpose.
How do we create such a protagonist? Remember the historian Teddy Katz who wrote his thesis about the battle in Tantura? The play The Admission is not about him, but it is certainly inspired by his story.
I hope you haven’t interpreted what I just said to mean a play can be written according to a formula or a theoretical idea, no matter how deep or developed the theory. A play is written probably because the playwright has found a protagonist who can speak for him, regardless of whether this protagonist is inspired by a real person, or whether this protagonist has crystalized in the playwright’s imagination.
I’ll say a few words about the plot of The Admission. The play takes place in Haifa, a mixed city in northern Israel, in 1988 during the first Intifada. The characters of the play are members of two families. The head of the Jewish family is 64-year-old Avigdor, who owns a large construction company, and who served as a colonel in the Israeli army in 1948. His son, Giora, is a 35-year-old lecturer at Haifa University. He was wounded in the first Lebanon war of 1982. Both his legs are lame and he uses crutches. The head of the Palestinian family is Ibrahim, a refugee from the village of Tantur who works as a cook in his son’s restaurant in Haifa. Samia, his daughter, is 30 years old. She’s also a lecturer at Haifa University and she has had a secret affair with Giora, who is the protagonist of the play. The play begins when Avigdor and Giora go to lunch at Ibrahim’s restaurant as they have frequently done in the previous ten years. To their surprise, Ibrahim is very agitated. He has found out that Avigdor bought the land of the ruined village of Tantur and he’s about to build a new neighborhood there. Ibrahim begs him not to do it, but Avigdor rejects his pleading. Suddenly, Ibrahim takes a knife and stabs Avigdor, accusing him of murdering his family in Tantur forty years earlier. Giora is shocked. But he is even more shocked when he realizes that his father doesn’t go to the police. He hears from Samia that she checked her father’s accusations in several Palestinian history books and she believes he is right. Giora rejects these accusations and begins his own investigation in order to clear his father. The more he learns, however, the more suspicious he becomes, and, at the end of Act 1, his father is forced to admit that there was excessive killing, but he insists it happened during battle. Now Giora has to come to terms with his father. He demands that Avigdor accept Ibrahim’s request and give a proper burial to the dead who were thrown into a mass grave in Tantur forty years ago. Avigdor refuses and sends his bulldozers to cover the mass grave with sand.
Giora is certainly the protagonist of the play. He struggles from beginning to end to understand the Palestinian narrative and the Palestinian tragedy. He struggles to convince his father to take responsibility for what he and his soldiers did in 1948. He fails. As a result of his struggles, he has to tear himself way from his family, his wife, even his lover. He goes through a catharsis which hopefully creates catharsis for the spectators.
Now we’ll see three minutes of production of the play in Theater J in Washington DC. https://vimeo.com/91215025
As you probably noticed, the titles at the beginning of the clip emphasize that this is a workshop production and not a full production. To a certain extent, it’s true. The set and costumes were limited, and the run of the play was cut by the board of the theater from 28 shows to 16. On the other hand, we had excellent actors who were fully committed to the production. Luckily, the reviews were so good that the play moved to another theater for another 14 shows and was a nominee for a Helen Hayes Award for best play of 2014. David Shipler, one of America’s most trenchant social commentators, described the obstacles in the production process in his book, Freedom of Speech: Mightier than the Sword. I highly recommend his book. Here’s some additional background: Theater J, one of Washington’s best theaters, is operating within the Jewish Community Center in Washington (DCJCC) and a significant part of its budget comes from Jewish organizations and Jewish donors. The board of directors was very suspicious about the play even before Ari Roth, then the Artistic Director of the theater, announced it as part of the season. There were several public readings of the play in order to convince the leadership of the DCJCC that the play doesn’t damage Israel’s image by presenting the Palestinian narrative of the occupation of the village of Tantur. At the same time, a small organization based in Washington, called Citizens Opposed to Propaganda Masquerading as Art (COPMA), approached donors and demanded that they withdraw their donations to the DCJCC. Of course, the Israeli Embassy in Washington was furious and the cultural attaché called the play “anti-Semitic.” The Executive Director of the DCJCC was aware that some of her funding would be cut if she approved the production. After a long negotiation, she agreed to the compromise of a workshop production with a limited run. In spite of the limited run and workshop production, the reviews were excellent, and, as I said, after the run of the play at Theater J, the run was extended at another theater. Unfortunately, Ari Roth, the courageous Artistic Director of Theater J, was fired a few months later for daring to produce the play.
I don’t think I know the Jewish community in America well enough and I don’t want to comment about the acceptance of the play in Washington. A lot was written about it, but it’s clear that the censorship of the play exposed a deep controversy in the Jewish community regarding its support of Israel and certainly its support of a peace process between Israel and the Palestinians.
But the difficulties in producing the play in Washington were much less than the difficulties in producing it in Israel. I must admit that the response of the Israeli theater to this play is even more frightening. The play was commissioned by Haifa Theater in 2004. They announced it for their 2006-7 season, but didn’t do it. Immediately afterwards, the play moved to the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv. They announced it for their 2007-8 season and didn’t do it. In 2010, the play moved to Habima National Theater. They announced it for their 2011-12 season and didn’t do it. Then it moved to Herzelia Theater which announced it for its 2013-14 season, but the theater was shut down just as we began the auditions. Now the play is back in the Cameri Theater and they plan to produce it next spring.
This journey of the play indicates that in spite of the official freedom of the main theaters in Israel, in reality, they are controlled by a deep self-censorship, imposed by their own managements. One motivation for this self-censorship is the fear of cuts in the budget they receive from the government — which has been continuously a right-wing government since 2000. The theater managers are not told anything explicitly. They receive hints from officials, they hear from ministers about the role of the theaters in promoting nationalistic and patriotic values, and they understand the message. But there is another reason, even more problematic. It seems to me that most theater directors in Israel have lost their own personal hope for a political change and therefore they have lost hope that the theatre can initiate a public discourse that will lead to such a change. As a result, they give in and produce escapist plays, irrelevant plays, and entertainment.
What do I want to achieve by the production of The Admission in Israel? As I mentioned earlier, I do believe that a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians is possible; I also believe that its first phase is the two-states solution which is described in President Clinton’s plan of 2001. Such a political solution is essential in establishing a peaceful relationship between Israel and the Palestinian state, but it doesn’t ensure peace based on trust, on empathy, and on collaboration that will lead to a long term co-existence based on good relations. The preconditions for such co-existence are many -– economical, environmental, cultural, etc. A very important element in this co-existence is the development of mutual empathy between Israeli Jews and Palestinians. By this I mean the development of the ability of Israeli Jews to feel the Palestinian suffering in their hearts, and the ability of the Palestinians to feel the Jewish suffering in their hearts. The audience for my plays includes mostly Israeli Jews. Therefore, the purpose of the writing of some of my plays — especially The Admission — is to encourage the development of empathy in the hearts of these Israeli Jews. I do hope that Palestinian playwrights will adopt the same purpose. Otherwise, the efforts toward peace within the two nations will not succeed.
I don’t think that we have to wait for the signing of a political agreement between Israel and Palestine in order to begin with creating this empathy. We should have done it right after 1948. The more empathy we create, the easier it will be to achieve a political peace agreement and the easier it will be to develop good relations after the signing of an agreement.
I don’t delude myself. The opposition to the two-states solution based on the 1967 borders, the division of Jerusalem, and the rehabilitation of the Palestinian refugees is very powerful both in Israel and among the Palestinians. Is a play about a handicapped lecturer from Haifa University who struggles to free himself from his father’s legacy going to make a difference? Probably not very much. And certainly not when an Israeli right-wing government is doing all it can to postpone any serious negotiations with the Palestinians, and not when Palestinian fundamentalists are gaining more and more power in their society. In spite of it, I don’t think I can give up. I hope that when Israeli spectators see the play, they’ll empathize with Giora’s struggle. I hope they’ll feel his desperate need to redeem himself from the narrative that has crippled him both physically and emotionally. I hope they’ll leave the theater with more openness and more understanding of the Palestinian narrative and their own obstacles to hearing it. I hope that after seeing the play they’ll have the courage to look at themselves more honestly and explore their own narrative more thoroughly. I hope they’ll discover in themselves the strength to change. This is the challenge and this is the purpose for writing this play.
I’d like to end with a quotation from Arthur Miller autobiography Timebends : “Great drama is great questions, or it is nothing but technique. I could not imagine a theater worth my time that did not want to change the world.”
And I’d like to add the following thought:
There must be a lot of hubris in the heart of the playwright, who hopes to make a change through the hubris of his protagonist, who is fighting to make an enormous change in the world he lives in. In spite of it, I believe that this hubris is advantageous and right because I know that at its base lies the awareness of its ultimate impossibility. This duality is similar to that of the mythological Sisyphus: knowing that the heavy rock he pushes to the top of the mountain will fall right back to the abyss, he nonetheless wipes the sweat from his brow, descends the mountain and, with whatever strength he has left, rolls that same rock back up to the top. So, too, the playwright, who toils diligently and fearlessly to develop his craft, writing his plays with his life’s blood, must recognize the intolerable duality between the nobility of his struggle to create a change, and the slim chances of its realization.
Gelber, Yoav. Nation and History: Israeli Historiography Between Zionism and Post-Zionism. London: Valentine Mitchell (2011).
Lerner, Motti, The Playwright’s Purpose, South Gate, CA: NoPassport Press (2015).
Miller, Arthur. Timebends, A Life. London: Minerva (1990).
Pappe, Ilan. The Ethnic Cleansing of Palestine. London: Oneworld Publications (2007).
Shipler, David. Freedom of Speech: Mightier Than the Sword, New York: Knopf (2015).