The Never-ending Story of Israeli Playwright Hanoch Levin

A bold new production of 'The Labor of Life' is a welcome addition to the eternal effort to interpret this play and its master playwright.

Rabbi Tarfon said that "The day is short and there is much work to be done." I do not claim that the "Ethics of the Fathers" are directly connected to Hanoch Levin's play "The Labor of Life," but Levin did have a background in Jewish tradition, having studied in a religious school. In this play, you can find a hint of that, in the hallucination of the main character, Yona Popukh, before his death: "Saturday morning. Look: A father is walking / with his son to the synagogue. / The son's hand is in his father's." Yitzhak Laor, Levin's foremost and instructive critic attributes this scene to Levin's autobiography.

"The Labor of Life" is now being performed at Tel Aviv's Beit Lessin Theater - the third time the play is being staged at a major venue since it was written (in 1981), and was shelved by its author.

The name of the play expresses the unique quality of its content. The life whose meaning is being confronted by Yona and his wife Leviva, both almost 60, is first of all "labor." Although the creation of the world also involved God's labor, in everyday language - and certainly in Levin's language - the reference is to manual labor.

Although at the start of the play Yona turns over his wife's bed, out of a fear based on the romantic notion that life must have meaning, that "Yona Popukh's life has passed," and that he did not live it - instead it happened to him. The main reason for that, Yona tells his wife, is his life with her. But toward the end of the play, when Yona is already dead (his body is on the bed but his character continues to talk ), his wife Leviva tells him the prosaic truth, that life together is a partnership in a workshop: "Yona! Get up! Morning's coming. The gate / of the old workshop of our life is creaking open. / Get up and go to work, Yona. Get up to finish / with me the labor of life."

Levin thought that this play was neither good nor complete. It was staged twice during his lifetime, and Levin never directed it. Michael Gurevitz rescued it from oblivion and first directed it in 1989 at the Habima Theater. In all of Levin's "neighborhood" plays - "Hefetz," "Yaakobi and Leidental," "The Rubber Merchants," "Vardale's Youth," "Krum" - the characters tell one another what we sometimes think about others but don't dare say and are usually embarrassed at the very thought. "The Labor of Life" is one of the most biting of them, and not only because Yona calls his wife a "dumb animal" and informs her that her expiration date has passed, while she challenges him by saying that he is "an aging man with an aging penis."

According to Gurevitz, he was able to persuade Levin to moderate the cruelty somewhat, which enabled him to add a child to the play, who appears in Leviva's memories about their married life. But the main reason for the success of Gurevitz's production was the casting: Nissim Azikri played Yona, Leah Koenig played Leviva - two actors who are graced with a certain warmth and humanity that under Gurevitz's direction aroused a great deal of compassion for them in the audience, despite their cruelty. That is why the play is actually remembered, in the final analysis - thanks to a quality that has usually been mentioned as lacking in Levin's world: compassion.

Entirely earthy

In the second stage version, staged in 1998 in Beit Lessin and directed by Oded Kotler, the two characters were played by Yossi Banai and Tiki Dayan. Unlike Azikri and Koenig, Banai and Dayan had strong stage personalities: They were always the character in its entirety, but themselves as well. That's why, in a certain sense, the cruelty was not held against the actors, who existed on the stage in parallel to the character they played, and the audience's underlying affection for them remained unchallenged.

In that sense I find the third, present version of "The Labor of Life," directed by Roni Pinkovich, closer to the spirit of the play and to Levin's spirit, because it lacks even an iota of compassion and sentimentality. Actors Sasson Gabai and Liora Rivlin are entirely earthy in their behavior toward one another, and the dirty laundry is washed onstage without a drop of softener. The two hints at the unsuccessful sexual relations between Leviva and Yona, for example, are visualized in a way that does not leave much to the imagination, including when Gabai-Popukh rudely removes Leviva's hand as she tries to help him with her hand (this scene is repeated twice in the play - more than is required in Levin's text ), when "The face of a humiliated woman, collapsed in tears - / makes your tube stiff / More precisely, half stiff / What's stiff? Who's stiff?"

The dynamic that ostensibly exists between the play and its characters, the actors and the audience, the personalities of Azikri and Koenig, and the familiar stage personas of Banai and Dayan, counterbalanced Levin's cruel truths about life and relationship.

Gabai and Rivlin present the hint of compassion that exists in the second half of the play as a function of the situation, and not of the little people who are experiencing it. He is coarse, she is cruel, effective and lethal. In that sense neither Gabai nor Rivlin depend on the "wretchedness" of the characters; Rivlin is far from looking like an "animal" whose expiration date has passed. Gabai does not look like "absolutely nothing."

It is clear from the casting and the acting in this production that the text is the characters' opinion of one another, and of themselves, in no small contradiction to what they really are and do and, as a result, the entire dynamic between the characters and the audience is different. And by because the characters do not arouse pity, the audience members are encouraged to pay more attention to their own relationships. After all, when Yona claims that "Our life / doesn't interest" the audience, Leviva responds, "Our life has to interest them! It'll be their life someday."

The different balance between the actors, the characters and the audience in this production affects the presence of the third character in the play, Gunkel. As opposed to Levin's other triangular dramas ("Yaakobi and Leidental" and "The Rubber Merchants"), in which two men and a woman create an equilateral triangle, in "The Labor of Life" (as in "Romantics") they are an isosceles triangle: The main plot occurs between the husband and wife, and the second man is an interlude in the action. In the previous stage versions of the play, the scene of Gunkel bursting into the couple's life in the middle of the night - performed by the late Shimon Lev-Ari at Habima and by Hugo Yarden at Beit Lessin - was a marginal episode; a momentary escape from the married couple's battle over the meaning of life.

Under Pinkovich's direction, the precise Yitzhak Hizkiyahu, who has a warmth similar to that of Koenig and Azikri, creates a focus for the play, in terms of both content and emotion. In terms of his status as an actor and his stage presence he does not play a secondary role. Suddenly his individual misery, his need to warm himself in the light of the relationship of the other two, even if it is miserable, propels the end of the play into a kind of acceptance by Yona and Leviva of their life, which in itself is part of the answer to the meaning of life - if you are willing and able to make do with it. Popukh is willing to be himself, as long as he isn't Gunkel. But Gunkel, despite the absurdity of his character, is able, thanks to Hizkiyahu, to be extremely likable.

Personal subplots

I have several reservations about this production of "The Labor of Life," including the fact that Ruth Dar's scenery, which is minimalist in the spirit of Levin, is spread too far across the stage (the doors, the window, the closet are all too far from the bed in the middle of the stage to be realistic, especially since they are on an exposed stage ). In addition, I was unsure about Pinkovich's interpretation of the play's last scene as Yona and Leviva's old age, rather than as a dialogue between the living and the dead - but those are petty matters.

I see this production as another stage in the never-ending work, which should not be avoided, of the interpretation of this play and of Levin's world. For me, who has been accompanying the life of Hanoch Levin's plays on the stage from the beginning, this performance also has several extra-dramatic and personal subplots. One is the memory that in 1970 at the Haifa Theater Liora Rivlin played the part of "young and pretty" Fogra in "Hefetz," whose mother in the play informs her, "Now you are flaunting your youth, but later other Fogras will come and they will twist knives in your insides as you are doing to me." And Sasson Gabai, who was one of the murderers in Levin's "Execution" (1977 ) and the slaughterer in "The Great Whore of Babylon" (1982 ) here is the accused, Yona Popukh, who is judging his life and sentencing himself to misery.

And there is my own story with this play. In 1989, when I first saw it, I was 39 years old. I laughed quite a lot at the distress of Yona and Leviva, and I agreed with Yona that life should have meaning and believed that life was still before me. The second time I saw the play, in 1998, I was already 48, and it bothered me that the audience in Beit Lessin laughed so much at the characters' distress. Like Yona, I thought that this was my time to try to make my life meaningful - in my case, as opposed to Yona's, not in relation to my wife, may she live and be well, but in relation to myself and to the world. I didn't find Yona's anxiety at all funny.

Now I've already passed the age of Yona and Leviva. But I think it's not because of my age that I know Leviva is right when she says, "I don't care what's going on somewhere else! If my world was a puddle - I put my life in this puddle! And who will dare tell me I lived a lie? I led my life honestly, nobody gave me anything, not you and not anybody else. I lived the way decent people live. I worked hard. What was the lie, and who's got the truth?"

Understanding that while you still have enough time to appreciate it - that's the labor of life.