Israeli Theater Isn't What It Used to Be

Between rise of electronic media and need to be commercial, the stage doesn't mean what it used to in this country.

I know that the following article is liable to cast doubt on what I have been doing for a living as well as for my enjoyment at it, on occasion, for almost 40 years: Today's theater isn't what is used to be. You'll probably say that I haven't discovered America by making that observation, and that nostalgia isn't what it used to be either (like the title of Simone Signoret's biography), and I'll agree with you. I'll even add that I don't mean that the plays used to be better than the ones I sometimes see today. Rest assured that even today there are good plays, and even very good ones (alright, not too many).

And it's true that the numbers contradict my claim, at least ostensibly. It's well known that Israelis are big theatergoers. According to the 2010 Pilat report, several million (!) theater tickets are sold in Israel annually. So how am I claiming that theater is not what it used to be? Because of the feeling, based on longstanding personal experience, that the theater is not fulfilling the important social function that it did in Israel 20 and 30 years ago, that it is not at the center of public interest, and that it lacks the influence it once had.

I got this impression from the scandals that have accompanied Israeli theater life all during my shift in its auditoriums. For example, take a scandal like the one that took place surrounding the staging of Martin Sherman's play "Messiah" at the Haifa Theater in 1983, in which the heroine was required to challenge God, onstage, and to maintain that he "doesn't exist." Today nobody would get excited about the possibility of a declaration of heresy onstage. But in the 1980s in Haifa there was a member of the city council from Agudath Israel, who without reading the play demanded that the insulting sentence be removed and threatened budgetary sanctions. Aryeh Gurel, the mayor of Haifa at the time, rejected the demand, claiming that such a change could be made only by the theater directors – but behind the scenes he pressured them to eliminate the sentence. The two sides went all the way to then-President Chaim Herzog, who asked the theater people to give up their principles for the sake of shalom bayit, peace at home.

Can you imagine a similar uproar today? Not that there aren't attempts. When Israeli theater people set out on a campaign of opposition to performances by theaters and actors in the cultural hall in the settlement of Ariel, government ministers threatened budgetary sanctions. Or, for example, the opposition to letting Jerusalem's Khan Theater (which receives support from the Jerusalem municipality), host the play "My Name is Rachel Corrie."

A cultural-national matter

Some of the change in the public status of the Israeli theater is not its fault. Once a theater auditorium was the main public venue. But since then it has been replaced as the tribal campfire by both television and cinema. Another issue is that the threshold of public sensitivity has changed drastically in the ensuing years. Things that were unmentionable in public are now matter-of-fact statements.

But part of the transition of Israeli theater from the center to the margins of public interest also stems precisely from the fact that Israeli theater today is a very popular art form. I know it sounds like a contradiction, so I'll explain: From the beginning of Hebrew and Israeli theater, it saw itself as being important beyond the question of its artistic quality. The Habima National Theater considered its plays a cultural-national matter. The Cameri Theater wanted to transfer the cultural emphasis from the Slavic-European context to the modern Anglo-Saxon-American context, and to speak in the language of the Israeli street. But both thought that what they were doing should reach the entire Israeli public. The Theater for Transit Camps project was established so everyone in Israel could see this important, serious art form.

The trend continued in the projects for organized sales of tickets to unions and subscribers, which reached a peak in the establishment of a network of regional auditoriums all over the country. And that was the origin of the conditions which mandated that Israeli theater first of all had to be popular. Over time the center could no longer dictate which art to bring to the people, and was forced to take into account that the audience had to be given the theater it wanted to see. And we shouldn't be surprised that theater which caters to large audiences is forced to satisfy a broad common denominator, and that the situation on the stage becomes escapist – cultured and professional at best, but not the kind that's anything to write home about.

I'm not saying it's impossible to do "important," "relevant" theater with timely public significance (as, for example, the Cameri’s version of "Cabaret"). But experience teaches that those are the exceptions. Moreover, the need to reach wide audiences has not distanced the Israeli reality from the stage. But as opposed to the situation in the past, this reality appears either as a reflection for the sake of reflection (“such is life”), as a comedy or as an absurd satire.

Rarely does the Israeli theater permit itself today to deal with Israeli reality via a serious social-problem play – a politically oriented play like those written by Motti Lerner or Gilad Evron, each in his own way. We can almost say that the problem is not that theater is no longer at the center of public interest, but that – excuse me for generalizing – that it is no longer in the interest of its creators to be in this center. But the time has come for the theater to fight a little harder for its right to be at the center of public interest, as a focus for debate, as a subject that is present in the soul of its audiences, challenging them.

Moti Milrod