Israel's National Theater and Its Slow Descent From the Stage

How did the Russian tradition influence Israel’s national theater in its early stages, and why has none of it survived?

Limor Edray / Reproduction

I must take off my hat to the work of Elena Tartakovsky, a theater researcher who immigrated to Israel in 1996 and has written the excellent Hebrew-language book “Habima — The Russian Heritage.” I want to give it the honor it is due.

Those who are interested in the history of the Hebrew theater know Habima Theater, now the national theater of Israel, was established less than 100 years ago because of the enthusiasm of Nahum Zemach, who dreamed of establishing a Hebrew theater. Zemach gathered a group that helped him actualize his dream (including actors Hanna Rovina, Menachem Gnessin) and set his sights as high as possible: Konstantin Stanislavsky himself, the man who developed the acting method that still bears his name and who at the time ran the Moscow Art Theatre, the height of culture in that era.

Tartakovsky tells a fascinating story, in which she wisely combines the reminiscences of various Habima members, which add up to a wonderful tale of people who lived theater 24 hours a day and became the high priests of their art. They studied together, worked toward a goal that was larger than them, left Russia and broke away from the sources of their inspiration. They lost their leaders, wandered around Europe and the United States for a few years and ultimately reached Palestine, convinced of their greatness but also filled with doubt. They are treated here with admiration, but also with scorn and arrogance.

Based primarily on Hebrew and Russian documents, Tartakovsky tells of the beginnings of Habima as one of a number of “studios” that were affiliated with the Moscow Art Theatre, about training with Stanislavsky and his colleagues. She tells of the renowned theater director Yevgeny Vakhtangov, who, with “The Dybbuk,” raised the beginners of Habima to a peak at the very beginning of their journey. When the early Habima theater lovers left Russia in 1926, four years after his death, they went without a shepherd.

Creating new worlds
Tartakovsky breaks down the “Russianness” that has become a sort of trademark of Habima into multiple parts. She shows very well how the troupe combined several components: the Stanislavsky method for achieving the “inner truth” of an actor creating a character; an expressive manner, orchestrated with precision to the last formative detail in “The Dybbuk,” as directed by Vakhtangov; and the work ethic of the theater, which was a temple to which everything — personal life and life in general — was subordinated. She also discusses the cohesive spirit of Zionist Jews in Soviet Russia who found themselves acting in a foreign, strange and exotic language.

Tartakovsky makes it easier to understand the art of the theater and the dead-end realism it led them into. Her starting point is the aesthetics and the ethic. Maybe it was also the sign of the time and place: Stanislavsky, Vakhtangov and the Habima troupe, the Hebrew Zionist amateurs, created new worlds.

Her book is packed with details on what the various directors did with the actors during their training and rehearsals when they were starting out. There is a lot of information that can teach us many lessons, even now, to help us understand the profession of acting and theater arts. There is a wealth of instructive learning material for anyone who wants to know something about theater and acting as an art and a profession. And there is also a multilayered and multicultural story here, on Russianness and humanity and theater.

Ultimately, though, the book deals with both the Russianness and the Israeliness within Habima.

Artistic height
Habima spit out its founder, Zemach, possibly as the inevitable result of a relatively small group that formed its own personality after a short time, creating a dynamic that could not withstand one of its members feeling that his opinion was more important than that of the others. And of course, the more the Habima members’ self-confidence decreased, the more their arrogance increased. The actors presented themselves jointly as a collective with a single goal that was larger than themselves, but ultimately they had to fight for survival, with the less talented among them setting the tone.

When Tel Aviv’s Cameri Theatre was formed in 1944 to rebel against everything Habima represented, Habima was already a fossilized, internally conflicted organization that was run based on the sum total of its internal and external constraints.

Tartakovsky’s book includes an unassuming sentence that is of outsize significance for someone like me, who has watched the performances of the national theater for the past 40 years with the feeling that this is a theater in an ongoing crisis, hitting a new low every time. “The period of Vakhtangov was the most effective and successful period in the history of Habima,” writes Tartakovsky. “‘To this day, ‘The Dybbuk’ was its artistic peak.” Vakhtangov died in 1922. It is now 2015.