A dramatic occupation
In the last 40 years, there have been playwrights, actors, managers and directors who saw Israel's political situation sharply and clearly, before anyone else
Around the time of the Six-Day War there were no performances in local theaters and actors were conscripted to improve the morale of the soldiers during the hiatus. But during the war itself there were advertisements in Haaretz for the musical "Casablan," produced by Giora Godick in the Alhambra hall in Jaffa. In the days following the war the Haifa Theater presented Jerusalemites with a victory offering at the Jerusalem International Convention Center, in the form of George Bernard Shaw's "Pygmalion" and Peter Weiss' "Marat/Sade." Also a few days after the war, Bimat Hasakhanim published an advertisement for a rare performance for the civilian audience of "Little Malcolm and His Struggle Against the Eunuchs," after it had been successfully performed for soldiers throughout the country.
Looking back at the four decades of theater since that war, it seems that perhaps there is, after all, something in the right's claim that Israeli theater has been controlled by the left, which opposes the occupation and Jewish settlement in the territories. Perhaps not "controlled" per se, but there is no doubt that prominent theater people were aware even in 1967 of the problem that the occupation presented, and this trend has expanded and spread in the theatrical community as the years have gone by.
I write "problem" because the theater's treatment of the occupation has ranged from strong opposition, through protest, to an attempt to understand what has happened "there" and "to them" (i.e., to the Palestinians or the Jewish settlers). Theater people have made huge efforts and great sacrifices to confront the audience with the picture of this reality. However, most of the audiences in the hall, and the public outside - including the media and the establishment and some theater people themselves - did not seem to want to hear.
This began a short time after the war, in Hanoch Levin's satires "You and I and the Next War" (1968), "Ketchup" (1969) and "Queen of the Bathtub" (1970). Even then it was said that it would be impossible to conduct a debate about the future of the (liberated or occupied) territories in the name of those who fell in the war, "because a dead soldier no longer cares who is right." But Levin and those who worked with him were only the first and the most blunt in their comments, and the playwright's phrases and songs today sound like a precise analysis of the situation and not like satire.
The period of original works at the Haifa Theater in the 1970s (under the direction of Oded Kotler with the Actors' Theater people) also gave rise to voices that doubted the justice of the Zionist way. Though Yehoshua Sobol's "The Night of the Twentieth" (directed by Nola Chelton) was set in the 1920s and told of a group of young Jews who turned to Zionism to escape personal problems with their families, the production premiered on the day the Agranat Commission published its interim conclusions concerning the Yom Kippur War, and it raised the question of "What are we doing here - and why?"
Banned by the censor
Sobol and Levin were not the only ones: In 1975 the Cameri Theater put on Yosef Mundi's "The Governor of Jericho," which presented the reality of the occupation directly on the stage. However, these plays did not constitute the majority of the repertoire. In fact they were the minority, and alongside them there were productions of classical plays and other kinds of entertainment. Nevertheless, they did arouse a lot of attention because of the political attacks on their writers and performers (with public funds!).
The audience was not enthusiastic, to say the least. Even if the critics - and I am not referring to myself here - voiced similar opinions and supported the freedom to express them, they demanded to see artistic complexity and a degree of sophistication, not only the reflection of reality as theater people saw it and the expression of opinions.
In such an article of limited scope, it is impossible to present the entire list of theater people who have written and presented plays that have taken a stance on the occupation over the years. But it is possible to cite a number of additional milestones. In 1982 Hanoch Levin's "Patriot" was performed, after several sequences were censored in it: The protagonist both buys lands in the territories and obtains a visa for the United States, and an Arab cleans toilets in a Jewish city and promises that "the day will come when the fear will be overcome by the despair." In 1984 Shmuel Hasfari's "5744" (the year on the Jewish calendar that corresponds to 1983-1984) was featured at the Alternative Theater Festival in Acre. The play was about fanatical Jewish settlers whose lives in the settlement reach the point of explosion. Three years later there was an echo of this plot - with much more attention paid to the settlers' plight - in Motti Lerner's "Pangs of the Messiah" at the Cameri Theater.
Those were the years when the theater dealt intensively with politics in less establishment frameworks like the Acre festival, as for example in Yigal Ezrati's "Givati Trials." The festival in Acre, a mixed city, in any case brought Jewish-Arab problematics to the surface. But local audiences never became used to this. On the contrary: The attacks by the right on the public theater grew harsher.
In 1985 Ilan Ronen directed "Waiting for Godot" at the Haifa Theater in Hebrew and Arabic (in a translation by Anton Shammas). In explicit defiance of Samuel Beckett's stage directions, Ronen transferred the setting to a building site, and Gogo and Didi (actors Makram Khoury and Yusuf Abu Varda) spoke demotic Arabic to one another; with Pozzo, the colonialist contractor (Ilan Toren), they spoke Hebrew. The contractor's slave (Doron Tavori) delivered his speech in high-flown literary Arabic.
In 1995 Hillel Mittelpunkt - who dealt with the occupation issue a lot in his satires - put on "A Temporary Separation" at Habimah. In it the hero and heroine flee to a hotel room to escape from reality and save their relationship. That same year the Haifa Theater planned to put on "Efraim Returns to the Army" by Yitzhak Laor, but the play was banned by the film and theater censorship board. Laor petitioned the High Court of Justice on his own (the Haifa Theater did not join him). Yitzhak Zamir, who was attorney general at the time, refused to defend the censorship board before the High Court, and the ruling by justices Aharon Barak, Yehoshua Maltz and Shoshana Netanyahu (in the minority opinion) allowed the play to be performed - although it did not spare it from criticism.
Although in the end they did not perform Laor's play at the Haifa Theater, in 1988, in the framework of a celebration of original plays, they did perform Yehoshua Sobol's "The Jerusalem Syndrome," directed by Gedalia Besser. In it, a group of mental patients (remember "Marat/Sade") portrays the story of the destruction of Jerusalem, and a clear analogy to the situation in the territories is created. The right mustered its forces against the play and disrupted its performance with firecrackers and stink bombs. The critics (and this does include me) expressed reservations about the play's artistic quality, and Sobol and Besser resigned from the management of the theater.
Audience from Gaza
A few months later the Cameri put on a brilliant production of the musical "Les Miserables." The subject of the intifada - that is to say the situation in the territories, i.e., the occupation - was raised at that time every night in the consciousness of people sitting opposite their television screens. There wasn't a decision by theater people on this matter, but it seems that they became exhausted by their struggles with the audience and the politicians, and felt that the work of confronting the public with reality was now being done by the news broadcasters.
The attempt to deal with politics did not vanish from the realm of the public theater, but the emphasis changed: There were many "relevant" plays that echoed headlines dealing with the occupation ("Leak," "Closed" and "Fog") and social rifts ("Sheindele," "Midnight Tikkun" or "Father's Braid" by Rami Danon and Amnon Levy), and there was a series of original plays that dealt more with the personal and private (by Miriam Kainy, Goren Agmon and others) - too many to be enumerated. However, the theater managements, which were in distress because of the need to pander to the audience's interests, and also perhaps because of their search for complexity and for a different, nonpolitical kind of statement, began to emphasize entertainment and culture rather than political protest.
In the 1990s, the Oslo years, there were also attempts like "Romeo and Juliet," directed by Eran Baniel, which was performed by Jewish and Arab actors from the Jerusalem Khan Theater and the Casbah Theater in Ramallah. In 1997 Omri Nitzan directed Hanoch Levin's "Murder," in which the Israeli-Arab conflict was depicted as a series of murders with neither a beginning nor an end, far beyond politics, while in the background, peace replaces war and then becomes war, "and the land is trembling, but not really." Put on three years before the second intifada, Arabs from the Gaza Strip were still coming to see this play.
Nevertheless, even during the fourth decade of the occupation, in the establishment theater, plays were put on like Yael Ronen's "Tangle," in which bourgeois Tel Aviv audiences encounter a "checkpoint" at the entrance to the theater, where soldiers with weapons and helmets examine their papers.
This, of course, is not a comprehensive history of the position of the Israeli theater with regard to occupation (or liberation). It is possible to complain about the theater with respect to a wide variety of issues. But with regard to one thing, there is no doubt: There have been playwrights, actors, managers and directors who saw the situation sharply and clearly before anyone else. They did not suggest solutions. Even the stage, which is intended for clarifying public discourse, is not built to propose solutions, but rather to present problems. And many theater people can look back today at what they have done and say to their audiences and critics, "We told you so."
All in all, that's quite a lot.