Commentary Magazine


Habimah in New York:
A Great Theater Enters a New Period

Probably no theatrical group of our times has had so exciting and intimate a relationship with the cultures of Europe and Palestine as the famous Habimah players. Their recent season in New York, during which they presented four plays from their repertory, evoked widespread comment. Unhappily, the quality of the comment suffered somewhat from the fact that the drama critics for the most part did not understand Hebrew. Heinz Politzer, who has written criticism of distinction on art, the drama, and literature, has for his present article the additional qualification of a long acquaintance with Habimah’s work gained during a ten-year residence in Palestine.

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Since their arrival in Palestine in 1928, the Habimah Players have functioned as “State Theater,” though at that time the Jewish state was a vision rather than a reality. From the very beginning, Habimah (which means “stage” in Hebrew) was part of the nation’s cultural core, growing into a national institution whose popularity and ubiquity—in city, town, and village—was in later years matched only by the Palestine Orchestra. Habimah’s permanent building in Tel Aviv was opened, while still unfinished, in 1945. (At one time it had been planned to build a whole artists’ quarter around it to serve as the geographical focus of Hebrew culture.)

Now, for the first time since settling in Palestine, Habimah has returned to the United States (May 1 to June 10 in New York) in the very hour that the state it represents is struggling to secure its existence.

Dedicated to representing and preserving tradition, Habimah has left experiment to other theatrical companies. The Ohel (“tent”) group has developed an advanced popular style; its performance of Hasek’s Good Soldier Schweik was, to my knowledge, equalled only by the performance of a Czech ensemble in E. F. Burian’s Divadlo 37 in Prague. The Matate (“broomstick”) group has specialized in suburban burlesques and satires of Palestinian everyday life that carry distinct overtones of official policy. In recent years, Josef Pacovski’s Chamber Theater has ventured to perform lesser-known examples of world and avant-garde literature. Though the Habimah players have tried their hands time and again at modem and even at topical plays, they still remain more or less aloof from current trends, possessed as they are with a vision of traditional national culture that has not changed since the days immediately after the Russian Revolution when the company was born.

Among the ways in which Habimah has asserted tradition is language. It has succeeded in setting the standard for spoken Hebrew in Palestine. In view of the fact that Hebrew has had to defend itself against every new wave of immigrants, the linguistic task of Habimah was that of a guardian as well as guide to the melodic beauties and rich intricacies of the national tongue. Habimah’s recitation is flawless and at the same time highly expressive, and though it celebrates rather than speaks a living idiom, it has transformed Sephardic pronunciation into the mature instrument of a kind of secular ritual.

Stylistically, the Habimah players have remained the Russian troupe they were when, in 1922, they performed their first full-length play in Moscow. Continuing in the late 20′s and early 30′s in Palestine to depend on audiences composed predominantly of East European immigrants, they seemingly had every reason to adhere to their original stylistic orientation. However, there was always the risk of remaining a Hebrew theater of Russian actors in Palestine, instead of integrating themselves in the Palestinian scene in such a way as to fulfill the demands placed upon them by the institutional status which they had officially acquired.

After 1933 a veritable wealth of Western and Central European theatrical talent became available; but Habimah failed to assimilate so much as a single actor or producer hailing from those regions. It invited Erwin Piscator to serve as guest director for a performance of Schillers Wilhelm Tell, but would not change its style under his command. The only lasting concession made to this particular new wave of immigrants was to engage Max Brod as dramaturgist; he used his influence and diplomacy to broaden the repertory, if not the composition, of the troupe. Meanwhile public opinion continued to accept Habimah’s rigidly preserved style—which is as Slavic and as romantic as the melody of “Hatikvah”—as the legitimate expression of the cultural aspirations of Jewish Palestine.

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The Habimah style might be described as mystic expressionism. S. Ansky’s Dybbuk, first performed in 1922 and kept alive since then, laid down a line never to be abandoned. And it was the Dybbuk that opened Habimah’s latest run on Broadway.

The settings—somewhat brushed up and simplified—still show that blend of folk life and symbolism which seems to stem from certain Chagall paintings. The perspective is arbitrarily—and often charmingly—distorted. Straight lines are virtually banned; curves and sloping surfaces prevail in benches, tables, and chairs. Hebrew letters dangle from the ceiling. Lighting effects are used with the logic of a fairy tale, and one expects at any moment to see Marc Chagall’s rabbi fly over the roof with a fiddle in his hand.

The rest is movement. The music of I. Engel’s sentimental and bathetic score dominates the scene. Dances follow the highly stylized, violent, and gravity-defying recipe of the expressionist ballet. Costumes, makeup, the grouping of individuals and of the ensemble recall the nightmarish rites of a savage tribe rather than the pious vitality of historic Hasidism. Humor, naturally, falls flat, especially in the scene of Leah’s self-conscious bridegroom. A ghost story set in the midst of the community life of the shtetl has been burdened with the highpitched accents of primitive tragedy. The effect today is just as contradictory, bewildering, and fascinating as it was a quarter of a century ago.

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Eugene Vachtangoff, Stanislavsky’s pupil, staged Dybbuk. Another outsider, the British director Tyrone Guthrie, has directed one of the latest plays to be added to Habimah’s repertory, Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex. Mr. Guthrie concentrates on the choruses of the Greek tragedy and molds them into speech and color units of diversified identity. The settings by Sebba, an abstract painter from Tel Aviv, contribute further to shifting the emphasis from the protagonists to the choral scenes, and from the action itself to its lyrical background. Thus the plight of the Theban populace becomes more important than the fate of Oedipus and his house. The ensemble character of the troupe, its predilection for the macabre and the visionary, were fully exploited in a performance whose mass scenes harvested whatever seeds Vachtangoff might once have sown.

On the other hand the principal actors of Oedipus Rex tend to move as if in a vacuum. Trained to exaggerated and accelerated gestures, they are at a loss in the long-drawn interplays of the Greek dialogue (the play itself was beautifully translated by the late Saul Tschernichowsky, the Hellenist and hedonist of modern Hebrew poets). The Habimah players find it hard to stand still and rest and listen. As usual, their speech is a feast of melody, of the phrasing and blending of phrases, yet the acting itself is insecure, incoherent, and betrays an unfortunate taste for the operatic. The Habimah actors have lost the naive command of their bodies. Continued stylization has deprived them of the grace and spontaneous poise upon which a genuine actor is supposed to base his art. They are two-dimensional players who attempt to make up with spiritual fervor for what they lack in physical plasticity.

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The fresco character of Habimah style is further borne out by the company’s performance of Calderón de la Barca’s David’s Crown, where we faced the essence, nay, almost the caricature, of their artistic creed. A biblical theme—Amnon’s incestuous love of his sister, Tamar, and Absalom’s revolt against his father, David—is offered as a pageant of national history. Stripped of the Catholic and Baroque elements of the Spanish original, the plot takes on the finality and pale bareness of a skeleton and at the same time the rudeness of a fragment of Archaic Oriental sculpture. Sweetness and gentleness, which are the prime qualities of Calderón’s speech, did not lend themselves to the Hebrew rendering. Between quotations from the Bible an abrupt and harsh dialogue intervenes that explains little and makes the understanding of the action possible only to those who happen to know the relevant Biblical passages by heart.

Yet there is the scene in which Absalom is surprised by David while playing with his father’s crown—a Shakespearean climax veiled by the chiaroscuro of a great theatrical style. But the moment passes and is condemned to be forgotten by Absalom’s feast, as provincial and pedestrian an interlude as any freshman’s fancy could have imagined. The second finale, in which Absalom’s body is carried through a lunar landscape of misery and complaint to be laid at his father’s feet, again has pathos, but it is the pathos of Götterdaemmerung rather than that of Old Testament monumentality.

The performance of David’s Crown was as a whole colored by an aggressive self-reliance and sinister romanticism, a kind of brutalization of the national past that, in the final analysis, leads only to national self-glorification. The human element—David’s last words, for example—was submerged in a display of antiquity for antiquity’s sake. The past was offered as a value per se; a myth was presented as the essence of a national dignity transcending good and evil; it was the translation of a certain aspect of biblical ethics into the plain language of history. (But in his Joseph novels, Thomas Mann showed us the possibility of humanizing the bare mythical account by adorning it with legendary exegesis; so, long before him, did the Midrashim.)

The Golem, which reveals a quest for a simpler and more popular style, is the most obvious divergence from the line of the Dybbuk. Yet Habimah’s performance adds up to a hodgepodge rather than a legitimate new blend of styles. Wavering between genre painting and high-pitched expressionism—especially in the scenes of mad Tanhum—it demonstrates more than anything else Habimah’s dire need of a permanent and consistent director.

As a drama Golem belongs to the Yiddish rather than to the Hebrew orbit. The story of a robot brought to life to protect a Jewish community is closely connected with Prague and its legendary Rabbi Loew, and was handed down by that famous thesaurus, the Prague Sippurim, whence Gustav Meyrinck took it and transformed it into a modernistic, half-poetical, half-grotesque mystery story. H. Leivick’s dramatic version still preserves some remnants of the Old Austrian atmosphere, especially insofar as it resembles that strange composition of conflicting elements which once constituted the Viennese Volksstück. Pantomime—the Golem learns to walk and to talk—and farce—the Golem lusts after the rabbi’s granddaughter—are intermingled with drama and even genuine tragedy. The Messiah comes down to earth and, accompanied by the prophet Elijah, asks the Jews to let him sleep in their hideout. But Maharal, the Golem’s master, denies him the rest and refuge lest he disturb his own idea of salvation. Here, the Yiddish popular play comes very near to great world literature. A playwright like the 19th-century poet Friedrich Hebbel would have liked this scene; indeed, the end of one of Hebbel’s own tragedies, Herodes und Mariamne, opens to similar eschatological aspects. In this peculiar climax Golem creates a dramatic situation in the grand style with valid theatrical symbols as it confronts divine providence with human foresight. Yet, although Habimah had accentuated the idea of redemption through most of the performance, it buries the precious scene under a display of communal lament.

The minor key of self-pity rather than of genuine grief to which the Golem was attuned might easily be explained as a facile escape from the basic contradiction in the performance—the divergence of language and plot, i.e., of Hebrew and Yiddish. All the tenderness, intimacy, and Innerlichkeit, and nearly all of the idiomatic qualities of the Yiddish original were lost, and this loss was only partly compensated for by the monumental grandeur inherent in Hebrew. But in the Dybbuk, another Yiddish play, Habimah could replace the idiomatic elements with choreography and was thus able to achieve a certain stylistic unity. This cleavage between, this double allegiance to, Hebrew and Yiddish culture, which is made so manifest in The Golem, was one of the crucial problems of that older generation in Palestine for which Habimah stands.

Taken as a whole, Habimah’s repertory did not fully rise to the occasion offered by its run on Broadway. Apart from the Oedipus—which itself offers none too bright a vista of man’s destiny—biblical and legendary Judaism were revived in their most extreme and grimmest aspects. Terror and persecution, frustration and mania filled the stage with a gruesome atmosphere of despair and forsakenness. Yet, when one considers the recent and current Jewish fate, what is there to wonder at?

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Unlike Hollywood, Habimah prides itself on the absence of stars. Subsidized by a circle of friends, it has built up a cooperative system working on lines similar to those along which the collective settlements are being run. No distinction is made between prominent actors and small fry; plays are selected and cast in company discussions; the custom of alternation in the major parts tends to diminish privileges as well as ambitions. But even when it comes to actors you cannot enforce equality. Habimah’s performances still pivot on the troupe’s outstanding actors: Aaron Meskin and Hanna Rovina.

Meskin is a bear-like giant with the clumsy tenderness that lies hidden in the movements of many a very tall man. His voice, a deep, sonorous bass, commands the full register of human passions There is a childlike quality about Meskin, an innocent playfulness, but deep under the surface there is a real violence. Somehow, wherever Meskin is and whatever his guise, we sense about him the atmosphere of cheap wayside inns and great black forests, unheard-of feats of courage and infantile anxieties—the atmosphere itself of Gogol’s weird and humorous stories. He is the Golem, a figure baked of clay, a ragged and inarticulate monster, an antediluvian relic rather than a product of Cabbalist cunning. He is a helplessly family-minded King David; as Creon in Oedipus he is a self-possessed tyrant not quite aware of the fabric of fate that he tries to brush aside like a spider’s web. He is Rafael, the blind beggar in the Dybbuk, a nightmare out of Ensor or Brueghel, a friendly awkward ogre who joins in the sombre grotesquerie of the wedding dance. Rafael is a very minor part, yet on entering the stage in this role Meskin towers above the shadowy realm with all the fullness of presence of a full-blooded human being.

Hanna Rovina, Habimah’s leading lady, plays young Leah in Dybbuk and Jocasta in Oedipus, and in King David she sings Tamar’s song of love and anguish before Amnon. A very restrained actress, she handles her artistic means with perfect economy. Rovina is the only Habimah actor who allows psychology to enter her performance; her climaxes are well prepared and logically executed. Her acting depends more on the expressiveness of her beautiful hands than on the range of her voice, which tends of late to sound a little husky. At her best she gives shape to a timeless, sovereign, and compassionate mother image, assembling the experiences of a million martyrized women in one outburst of rage or in the slow downward movement of a nobly carved forehead.

Ianna Govinska alternates with Rovina in the part of Leah in Dybbuk. She is younger than Rovina and her passion, less outspoken and self-centered, makes her fatal obsession more plausible to the audience. Since every nuance of movement and speech in Habimah’s rendition of the Dybbuk has been pinned down by precedent, Govinska has little opportunity to offer a vision of her own, yet she cannot altogether prevent her talent from breaking through the artificial fetters of tradition. At the end of the second act, when the Dybbuk’s (and her deceased lover’s) voice answers the unwelcome bridegroom with the words of the Song of Songs, her acting surpassed Rovina’s.

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A New generation of Habimah players is rising who may gradually rejuvenate the style, cast, and repertory of the company. Habimah has a studio for training actors in Tel Aviv, and the chances are good that eventually a Palestinian style will supplant the present attractive but problematic mixtum compositum of Hebrew and Russian elements.

When Habimah appeared in Germany, during one of their first tours of Europe, Martin Buber greeted and evaluated their performances by crying: “Turn to the world, Habimah!” His advice still holds good. They have achieved much but they continue to stand at a crossroads, they still offer well-preserved reminiscences of the unreal days of yore instead of heralding a Hebrew culture to come. By turning themselves to the world at large they might very well win that release from their own past which makes human groups as well as individuals adult and independent.

In a deeper sense than that of a politico-cultural mission, Habimah’s visit to America was a well-timed venture. But it should not rest content with edifying its audiences—it should open their minds as well.

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