Shampoo Queen
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The photo is of a cover for a theater program, but the show did not feature any nudity – although it did present its audience with some bare facts – nor is it etched in the annals of Israel’s theater history as “The Shampoo Queen.”
It opened in April 1970 on the main stage of Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater and closed by the end of the following month, after a mere 19 performances. And yet it remains the most resonant, memorable and vociferous scandal of the Israeli theater, and its echoes reverberate to this day.

Called in Hebrew “Malkat Ambatya,” it was a review of satirical songs and skits written by the 20-something Hanoch Levin and directed by his slightly older brother, David Levin. The literal English translation of the title is “Queen of the Bathtub,” which was also the name of the longest skit, actually a playlet that almost ended the show itself.

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The playlet features an Israeli family, with a domineering Israeli-Jewish mother, a henpecked husband, a pert teenage girl and a precocious boy. There is also a tenant in the flat, possibly a distant relative of the husband (“less than kin”), with whom the family has a long-standing dispute about hot water usage and the payment of the bill.

One day the family mobilizes to storm and conquer the bathroom, and the toilet in its confines. The mother proclaims herself “Queen of Bathtub.” The tenant-cum-cousin is left outside the bathroom’s closed door. The family is unwilling to negotiate any agreement, bar an unconditional surrender. They bathe around the clock, he soils his pants, and so they could have lived happily ever after, but for the unbearable stench.

If the metaphor sounds to you all too familiar, even if oversimplified and crude, you have to bear in mind that it reflected Hanoch Levin’s take on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in 1970, three years after the overwhelming triumph of the Six-Day War, when the people of Israel were still reeling with euphoria, relief and a feeling of omnipotence, although soldiers were killed almost every day on the shores of the Suez Canal.

But the skit about the queen and the bath was not the whole story. Young Levin had already made a name for himself as one who sticks a finger in your eye (or wound). In his first anti-war review, “You and Me and the Next War” (1968), he reminded viewers that the amazing victory had exacted a terrible price in young human lives, that there will never be a war to end all wars, and that the next one is just around the corner. He was definitely out of synch with Israel’s national mood and had his makeshift stages dismantled under his actors’ feet while the performances were still in progress.

Since “Queen of the Bathtub” was to be presented by a mainstream theater company, its text had to be submitted to a public committee at the Interior Ministry for approval. It was duly approved, but some journalists on the committee started a press campaign, paraphrasing bits of text and songs, claiming that performing such a play in such times was harmful to the nation’s morale.

Lame efforts to present the whole issue in a wider context, or at least to allow the audience to make up its own mind (a campaign led valiantly by Haaretz), were lost in the ensuing din.

The audience went to the theater not to see the show, but to protest against it. Performances were interrupted by shouts and stones and homemade petards were even hurled onto the stage. Five actors – Tiki Dayan, Germaine Unikovsky, Yossi Graber, Nahum Shalit and Israel Gurion, with a combo led by drummer-composer Zohar Levy – had to hide behind the cut-out letters of the word “ambatya.” The hecklers were protesting against songs that were no longer part of the show, and once when shouts erupted as Dayan started to sing a completely “neutral” song about the Air Force, she had to tell them: “Hey, that’s not the song you’re against. That one comes later...”

After 19 performances (and amid the public outcry and demands to withhold the theater’s public budget), the theater management itself decided to close the show down, due to their inability to sustain it on stage. The remaining scheduled performances went on without a word of protest, and even with a measure of applause. I can attest to this, as I was in the house.

Theatre does not, and cannot change reality, although it too often harbors such hope. Israels’ reality didn’t change that much since 1970. Here is the penultimate song from the “Queen of Bathtub” review of 1970, and it reads and sounds as good as new:

But our Kingdom is whole again

There will come a day
When all our intentions, good and bad
By the flow of time will be drenched,

And even a fart, as it is only a fart
Will be remembered without its art
But one thing will remain: the stench.

But fear not, dear child, sleep on
As our kingdom is whole again,
Most uncles have only one foot to walk on
But our kingdom is whole again,
And all the aunties around the pit
Expect you, child hero, to lay in it,
But our kingdom is whole again.

What will we tell our sons on those future days,
When all the reasons we had ever had
By the flow of time will be drenched?

That we aimed for the best, one heart and hand
And now even we cannot understand
How all that remained is the stench.

But fear not, dear child, sleep on
As our kingdom is whole again,
Most uncles have only one foot to walk on
But our kingdom is whole again,
And all the aunties around the pit
Expect you, child hero, to lay in it,
But our kingdom is whole again.

And in case someone did not get it, here is the last word of Hanoch Levin to his audience in “Queen of Bathtub”. Look, listen, and apply, 2013:

Lick, oh brothers, lick

Lick, oh brothers, lick,
Lick your fingers clean
Those which you had not lost
In the wars you had fought in
And if you really want
Your head and tongue still keep
Lick, oh brothers, lick
And go back home to sleep.

"Good night" says the fighter jet
"Good night" answers the canon.
"Sleep well and sweet dreams"
Say the children with their gas masks on
And the chief of staff adds in a whisper
"You and me together, we will prosper."

Lick, oh brothers, lick
Lick your wounds clean
And the day they will heal
You will have new ones to begin
As there is no intention
To spare an arm or a hip,
Lick, oh brothers, lick
And go back home to sleep.

"Good night" says the fighter jet
"Good night" answers the canon.
"Sleep well and sweet dreams"
Say the children with their gas masks on
And the chief of staff adds in a whisper
"You and me together, we will prosper."

Lick, oh brothers, lick,
Lick each other asses nice
That way you at least will be spared
Looking into each others eyes.
Only let the right head
Be stuck in the right ass deep
Lick, oh brothers, lick
And go back home to sleep.