Hanoch Levin, Posthumous Star of the Polish Stage

During the playwright’s lifetime, I was one of many to write that Levin was not finding an audience outside of Israel. I was wrong.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
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A scene from a recent Warsaw performance of 'Move My Heart.'
A scene from a recent Warsaw performance of 'Move My Heart.'Credit: Katarzyna Chmura-Cegiełkowska/Teatralna.com
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

First the disclosure: This isn’t a theater review or a complicated thought piece on theater. Rather, this is a selfie of sorts, what in the glory days of print journalism would have been called “new journalism,” in which the writer is at the center of the story. Why is a disclosure required? Because I intend to talk about a performance that involves me, so it’s worth knowing that I am partial to it and that my comments will be free of criticism — even though I am quite critical when it comes to myself.

At this point, you will think that I have crossed the line and forgotten that I can’t write about something and actually do it at the same time. That is both true and not true. The performance I am writing about is not on an Israeli stage and is not even performed in Hebrew, putting it beyond my usual hunting grounds. I am not beholden to any theater in Israel and none of them have involved me in their productions, other than as a demanding and grumbling member of the audience.

But I have crossed a line nonetheless, because the production I’m writing about here is Hanoch Levin’s “Move my Heart,” which was performed less than a month ago at Warsaw’s Dramatic Theatre using a script that I translated from Hebrew into Polish. The theater is also currently showing Levin’s “Romantics” and Savyon Liebrecht’s “The Banality of Love.” Since I don’t review Polish theater on a regular basis, there is no conflict of interest in the clear sense of the word.

The director of the Warsaw theater is Tadeusz Sobodzianek, whose play “Our Class,” about 20th-century Polish-Jewish relations, is currently being performed in Israel in a joint production with the Cameri Theater.

Finding success in Poland

During his lifetime, many people, including myself, wrote that Levin was not finding an audience outside of Israel. After his death in 1999, it turned out how mistaken that was. Levin has been more successful in Poland than anywhere else in the world. I will even go out on a limb and say that at any given moment, his plays are performed on the Polish stage more often than in Israel. There are several reasons for that.

One is that Levin’s friend, who to a considerable extent is carrying the burden of his legacy, is Danny Tracz, who is of Polish origin. The Polish production of Levin’s “Krum,” as directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, also marked a turning point, after which devoted translators such as Michael Sobelman and Agnieszka Olek, and later Ela Sidi, were recruited to the cause of Levin’s work. A third volume of a Polish translation of Levin’s work is currently being edited by Elzbieta Manthey.

But perhaps the main reason for Levin’s posthumous success in Poland is that the contemporary families in his plays are Polish in character in the sense that in Israel people say “Don’t be Polish” when they take offense easily while laboriously putting on a brave face. Levin’s characters are quick to take offense but insist on hiding it, signaling their forlorn state by demanding respect for their deprivation and always convinced that others somewhere else have it better than they do; they exaggerate their expressions of modesty and arrogance while also putting up a front. Call them romantics of wretchedness. One does not get more Polish than that. For those familiar with Polish audiences, it’s no surprise they love this.

And this is where I get into my story, since I am familiar with Levin’s creative work from the beginning and it knows me too — and I am Polish.

In Hebrew, Levin is above all a poet, meaning that not a single word of his is used by chance. Each word is chosen for both aesthetic and psychological value; in his quasi-realistic plays, Levin writes in the vernacular yet his writing is extremely precise. Thus, translation of his Hebrew texts into Polish requires the right sensitivity to a combination of the literary and the vernacular in both languages. Fortunately, it seems to me that I am properly situated in this Hebrew-Polish-Levin triad. Every time I have heard Levin on the stage in Polish, I have felt that his work has the proper ring in the language, as it does in Hebrew. He is a natural in Polish.

It’s got something to do with the sound and the tone. First of all, the names of the characters have a Polish-Slavic ring to them. Take, for example, “Yakish and Popcheh,” as the names of the characters are pronounced by everyone, including Levin and Tracz — though I am convinced that the first of those names represents the distorted memory of Levin’s childhood Hebrew, of hearing his parents talking about something bordering between Yakish and Yakis, softened somewhat, meaning “some kind of, someone.” And Popchech is actually Poopcia, pronounced with something between a “ch” and a “tz,” meaning “little derriere.”

In “Move My Heart,” one of the characters is called “Kakha Kakha” (“So-So” in Hebrew). As a translator, I could have left her name as is, but in Hebrew, the choice of name is not happenstance, so I translated it as Jako Taka, a name meaning “Some Kind Of,” which could have been a distant cousin of Yakish.

Another task facing the translator was the name of Kakha Kakha’s husband in the play, Pszoniak. Levin encountered this Polish name when his play “The Rubber Merchants” was performed in 1993 in Paris, in French. One of the cast members in the production was noted Polish actor Wojciech Pszoniak. Levin, who had a good ear and understood that Israelis love to poke fun at the Polish language, with its varieties of “sh” and “ch” sounds, planted a dialogue in the play in which the characters argue about whether it’s Pszoniak or Szpszoniak or Kszpszoniak, as the name gets longer and longer with the addition of letters. In this context, I had to invent equivalent Polish sentences with the right sounds.

You have it good, even if you don’t

The first version of the translation was commissioned by the director of the theater in the Polish city of Poznan several years ago. I never saw that production, because a volcano eruption in Iceland grounded my flight. I was therefore particularly pleased to be present at the debut in Warsaw so I could hear and see how the Poles understood Levin’s Hebrew through my Polish, and how I would view a Levin play without the Levin actors speaking Hebrew onstage.

So how was it? In my biased opinion, very nice. Director Malgorzata Bugajewska and her set designer found a wonderful solution for the set, a kind of gray trapeze that was open to the audience. The week before the premiere, Warsaw was full of posters advertising the play that featured the face of the actor Waldemar Brawinski, who plays Lamka the judge. There was something in the character’s expression on the poster that was the essence of Levin, of the impersonation that convinces you that you have it good in any event, even though you know you don’t (and that others have it better).

I obviously asked myself if the reason I thought the actors were excellent is that I am not familiar with their mannerisms, and so have no way of judging if what I like about them is them or their acting. But it wasn’t just me. The actors got high praise in the reviews in the Polish press that I read (despite not taking theater criticism seriously; after all, I know theater critics).

What I found interesting was that the Polish critics didn’t treat the plot as a small, pitiful, ridiculous human drama. They rightfully saw the play as an existential, universal drama. A huge amount of creativity was invested here in the supporting characters, each of whom has a fascinating life story.

One of the things in this production that I liked best came near the end, when Lamka asks people to stop treating him like a judge, since he was never a courtroom judge; he only served once on a panel of judges in a neighborhood beauty contest. The singer Lalalalah accepts his admission with rolling laughter. She is relieved to be able to stop pretending too. She isn’t a singer and she can stop pretending that she will ever love Lamka.

Though Lamka ultimately gives up on the illusion that had taken hold of him, he remembers that he had once had a huge “wow” in his life and that, as Pszoniak says in the play: “In the end, there’s an end.”

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