Okay. So long story short. Some of you saw my lecture at JTS (I will post the video soon) where I demonstrated how The Wooster Group’s Hamlet was more Jewish than The Folksbiene Yiddish Theatre’s staging of Gimpel Tam. Trust me, it makes sense. Basically, the idea is that the Talmud (see picture below) is the archetypal embodiment of Jewish intellectual and creative construction; the source text is in the middle and it is surrounded by commentaries spanning millennia, all on the page at once, speaking to each other, often in disagreement.
The Talmud is a living, hybrid, trans-temporal, intercultural, evolving document that is “performed” through study and engagement. Thus one might posit that this mode of constructing theater – multiple texts in conversation in around a source text, with multiple authors, commentaries and perspectives, from different eras, in different languages and different geographies – is deeply Jewish. I have also written about the idea of Jewish Diaspora Culture as pre-technological networked society where the “meme” of Judaism replicated throughout the network, constantly mutating and evolving, integrating elements of the dominant cultures while retaining an essential Jewishnesss. Look at hybrid languages such as Yiddish and Ladino, hybrid musics, cooking – even philosophy. If we look at the history of Jewish thought we see the influences of Hellenism, the Enlightenment in Western Europe (Haskalah).
And yet, most cultures insist on telling “the story of our people” using the tools of modern drama to reinforce simplistic dominant narratives, manufacturing nostalgia and constructing authenticity through consensus. So, while Gimpel Tam appears to be “Jewish” in that it reinforces a dominant narrative built on manufactured nostalgia, TWG’s Hamlet is actually more Jewish, in that it involves a source text (Hamlet) which in itself comes from an oral tradition/folk story, which is staged with commentary, referencing Burton & Gielgud’s Hamlet on Broadway, the film of that Hamlet, plus the editing and mediation of multiple authors in performance during the theatrical event of TWG’s staging.
That is why Dan Safer and Witness Relocations‘s Haggadah at LaMama is such a breakthrough. It is the first intentional work of contemporary Jewish theater. Bringing together the traditional text of the Haggadah (the central text of the Passover holiday, it is the “script” for the Seder – a ceremonial meal recounting the story of the enslavement of the Israelites and their Exodus from Egypt. It, too, is a hybrid text, written in multiple languages by multiple authors over millenia, a performance unto itself) with radically edited footage from iconic swords & sandals epic The Ten Commandments, the music of Metallica and contemporary performance practice, Safer has created what will come to be seen as a seminal work in the history of Jewish theater.
This intensely physical piece puts the performers through their paces – an extended sequence where the entire cast runs in place for the entire 6 minutes and 36 seconds of Metallica’s “Creeping Death” (inspired by the band’s viewing of The Ten Commandments and its representation of the plague “the slaying of the first born”) is inspiring and exhausting. Haggadah, with its wrestling matches (the word “israel”, etymologically, can be translated as “wrestling with G-d”), a fantastic duet between Moses and Nefertiti where he rejects her advances and several dynamic group numbers, is Safer’s most physically adventurous and athletic work since Dancing vs. The Rat Experiment and in this case the physicality drives the piece with a sense of urgency and fun. (I am biased, I have always loved really physical theater from Grotowsky to Berkoff to DV8 and everything in between).
Safer not only uses this multitextual mode of construction to get at an essential Jewishness, he brings it to life in other ways, such as including a few moments of intense debate, or pilpul. Particularly striking is the moment, just before the Egyptian soldiers are to be drowned by the rapidly encroaching Red Sea, where two Angels debate their fate. Are they guilty, do they deserve this, or should they be spared? After all, they were just following orders. They were not responsible, they did not personally enslaves the Hebrews. Of course we all know how this ends. And having angels debate this not only reflects the Jewish character of the story but creates a link -however post-post-post modern- to the long history of theater engaging in theological and sociological debate, from the ancient greeks to archibald macleish and beyond.
This also is possibly my only moment of dramaturgical reticence, something I wish Dan had included, the postscript to the Egyptians drowning that I think is very important. Here it is described by Rabbi Jeremy Rosen:
“There is an amazing Midrash that tells us that after the Egyptians pursued the fleeing Hebrew Slaves and ended up drowning, the angels wanted to sing a song of joy but God said ‘No! My creatures are drowning in the sea. How can you rejoice’ And we do not say the full Hallel Prayer of Rejoicing on six of the days of Passover precisely because our liberation came at the expense of other human beings. And we are commanded despite everything not to hate the Egyptian.”
But that’s a small quibble. From the footage of Yul Brynner as Pharaoh radically edited to make him look like a queen working the runway to the hilarious staging of the burning bush and the cliffhanger ending Haggadah is an intelligent, enjoyable, exciting piece of theater. And historically it marks the moment where the gauntlet has been thrown down, where Jewish theater has been reinvented for the Information Age, and the next part of this millenia-long conversation begins.