Jacob's Dream, by Richard Beer-Hofmann
A Heroic Drama
by Richard Beer-Hofmann Translated by Ida Bension Wynn.
Philadelphia, Jewish Publication Society of America, 1947. 188 pp. $2.50.
Recent years have seen a revival of interest in the poetic drama. Although it cannot be said that the poetic form has achieved significant victories in the theater, it may be claimed that the modem poet can only express certain ideas in dramatic form and that some of the most important poetry written in this century has, in fact, been dramatic. That important poems should be written which depend for their realization on a theater which cannot interpret them adequately, is an unsatisfactory situation. Nevertheless this should not lead us to ignore the fact that some of the most effective poetic statements of our time have been made in the poetic plays of Claudel, The Dynasts of Thomas Hardy, Murder in the Cathedral of T. S. Eliot, Der Turm of Hofmannsthal, and in Jacob’s Dream of Beer-Hofmann.
It is significant also that four plays by poets expressing ideas so different as Hardy in The Dynasts, Claudel in L’Annonce Faite à Marie, Eliot in Murder in the Cathedral, and Beer-Hofmann in Jacob’s Dream, should yet have most important characteristics in common. All these plays are concerned with man in relation to the historic human destiny within the universe, and all emphasize the inevitability of suffering of the most extreme kind if redemption is to be possible. They are all, in their different ways, religious statements, and they are “tragic statements” rather than tragedies because they emphasize tragedy as the human condition, beside which the actual conflicts which result in suffering have only secondary importance.
The Jewish attitude to experience (that of a very old race), as expressed by Beer-Hofmann, has more in common with Hardy’s fatalism than with the Christian mysticism of Claudel or Eliot. To both Hardy and Beer-Hofmann, there is a sense of the guilt of the creative forces of the universe towards man as well as of man towards God and his fellowman. In Hardy, man is the victim of forces predominantly malicious, projections of his own spirit which, weighing the scale of human destiny towards the sinister and evil, form a kind of democracy of the whole human spiritual life in which the bad forces are almost certain always to form a parliamentary majority. In Beer-Hofmann men are victims of their own personalities and God has guilt in having created men as they are—a point of view very similar to Hardy’s.
These four plays must be described as “successful” quite apart from any success they might have on the stage, because it is impossible to imagine the human drama, invented on so large a scale, being created in any other form for our time than in a dramatic and poetic one. Only poetry—or a prose which borrows imagistic effects from poetry—can concentrate into a small space of action such widely diffused material drawn from the history of races and the distances between heaven and earth.
I have never seen Jacob’s Dream performed (indeed I have only read it recently). Apparently it attracted large audiences in Berlin and Vienna before the time of Hitler. I can imagine people being deeply moved by it, as by an impressive religious ceremony, but it is not, by ordinary standards, good theater. The action, indeed, does not so much develop, as unfold and open into a vision that entirely dwarfs what would seem to be its natural center—the rivalry between Jacob and his brother Edom. The first act is concerned with Jacob receiving from Isaac on his deathbed the blessing that should be bestowed upon his brother Edom. This act is the tragedy of Rachel, torn between Edom’s wrath, succeeded by the translucent wave of Jacob’s vision. Rachel is submerged by the new emotion of the second act between her love for her two sons, seeking to appease Edom by offering him the whole inheritance of Isaac if he will renounce vengeance on Jacob for having stolen the blessing. The next act is the story of Jacob turning Edom from his wrath by gentleness, and the last act shows us Jacob alone with the angels.
This scenario has little unity of action. It is like a succession of three waves: the wave of Rachel’s passion succeeded by the wave of the two brothers, and Edom is submerged by Jacob’s vision. There is no real conflict between the characters: or, rather, the conflict is with a protagonist who does not appear—God.
At the same time, poetically, a wonderful unity of growth is achieved: of passion leading to reconciliation and reconciliation to supreme vision.
There is a beauty of invention in, for example, the conversation between the spring which flows at Jacob’s feet and the stone pillow supporting his head, which recalls the spiritual fantasy of Shelley in Prometheus Unbound and perhaps also certain passages in James Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. Even in translation (and Ida Bension Wynn’s translation is a model of its kind) the language rises easily to the heights demanded of it when the angels appear. And perhaps the strength of the play does not lie so much in the language itself as in the remarkable conviction of the dignity and nobility of life which enables Beer-Hofmann to inhabit a world where the Old Testament with its patriarchs and its angels is as real as the landscape of the Promised Land. The dramatic action which creates for us the distress of Rachel, the wrath of Edom, the reconciliation of the brothers, and the vision of Jacob has a sculptural quality resembling a procession of figures belonging to a nobler age portrayed on a marble frieze.
No poem could be more profoundly encouraging and heroic than this play which reminds us inescapably of the grandeur of man’s tasks in life.