On May 4, 1970, the audience at Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theater took in a performance of Hanoch Levin’s play “The Queen of the Bathtub.” During the staging, the hall manager received an anonymous phone call telling him that a bomb was in the theater.
The play, which premiered in late April, had sparked extensive fury. While Israel was still steeped in euphoria following the Six Day War, Levin took a more caustic approach to the victory, ridiculing the nation’s pride and mocking the war and the occupation. The Israeli public was not accepting.
The head of the Israel Bar Association, Dr. Yehoshua Rotenstreich, for example, wrote a sharp letter of protest to Tel Aviv Mayor Yehoshua Rabinowitz after seeing the play.
“He did not deem it appropriate to direct his protest at the theater, because ‘to the theater that presented this play, there is nothing to say,’” wrote Ram Kislev in Haaretz.
The head of the Herut-Liberal Party faction in the Tel Aviv city council, Menachem Savidor, asked the mayor “to use his influence to halt performances of ‘The Queen of the Bathtub,’ at the Cameri Theater,” and if the theater’s management did not agree, “to withdraw its financial support and the municipality’s sponsorship.”
Savidor explained his demand by saying “the country, which is in a state of war, cannot allow itself the luxury of harming the fighters’ morale,” Mati Golan reported in Haaretz.
To support his demand, he cited the Rolf Hochhuth play, “Soldiers” whose performance was canceled by Britain’s National Theater “because it offends Winston Churchill.”
Bereaved parents made an “emotional appeal,” to Education Minister Yigal Alon and to the Tel Aviv mayor, Golan wrote. The show is “a pile of dirt and a wicked desecration of the sacred values of the nation,” wrote bereaved parent Pinhas Barukhi, who was sent by a bereaved parents’ group to see the performance.
But the Cameri, supported by personages such as law professors Amnon Rubinstein and Amos Shapira and Haaretz’s editorials, withstood the pressure. “In order to endure difficult trials, we don’t need the services of those who would silence others,” said a Haaretz editorial in early May. “The maturity of the nation was tested in harsh ways in the past and it will prevail now as well and in the hard times that will come.”
And so, on that night of May 4, when an anonymous caller reported there was a bomb in the hall, the director general of the hall refused to stop the show. He called the police, who sent a special police unit and a sapper, who checked the hall, while the actors were on stage.
During the intermission, there was a more thorough inspection: no bomb was found. The day after the false threat, the theater’s director general, Yeshayahu Weinberg, told a press conference that the theater would not be cowed into closing the play.
“The performance of ‘The Queen of the Bathtub’ turned into a test of the way Israeli democracy functions in times of war, and the Cameri Theater will continue performing the play so long as there is an audience for it,” he said. However, at that time he also announced that “since the audience did not understand the refrain about the air force as the author had intended, it was decided to remove it from the play.”
Haaretz also deemed this omission superfluous: “The Cameri is now busy with apologies and unnecessary explanations, even if Mr. Weinberg denies this. Such apologies miss the point and serve as additional fuel for those embarking on a fight to the finish against any critical phenomenon, be it satirical or otherwise, on behalf of sacred cows such as ‘the warrior morale’ and others like it.”
The Cameri’s stand did not last long. On May 19, Weinberg announced that the play would close, after just 19 performances.