The Personal Confusion Behind the Zionist Dream

A new staging of Yehoshua Sobol's iconic play, 'The Night of the Twentieth,' highlights sex and settlement.

Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol
Moti Milrod

I can’t even begin to pretend that I’m capable of treating “The Night of the Twentieth,” by Yehoshua Sobol, directed by Noa Raban at the Haifa Theater, as an “ordinary” play, another routine assignment. Not because of the good qualities of this performance, but because of the special place of this play, and of its world debut in 1976, in the short and fascinating history of Israeli theater.

It is the story of one night, October 20, 1920, in the lives of young Jews – three women and four men – who, having fled from Europe, from their families and from themselves, are now in the place where the new Zionist, cooperative and just Jewish society is supposed to begin. They are packing up their temporary camp “on the mountain,” before descending to inherit the land on orders of the settlement institutions, aware that they are about to face a violent confrontation with the Arab tenant farmers living in the country. It’s important to them to be different from their pioneer predecessors; to do everything correctly, fairly, ethically, together.

When the play was first performed, about two years after the Yom Kippur War, in the days of the painful sobering up from the euphoria of the Six-Day War, the despairing and uninhibited group dynamic of the characters reverberated among the spectators. It brought them back to the days when, ostensibly, “it all began.” It demonstrated how national, political, ideological and ethical issues mingle painfully with the personal, psychological, erotic and egotistical ones.

Sobol took realistic materials from the social-human experiment of the Bitanya settlers, and used them to create a stage situation that demonstrated, among other things, that our history was made by enthusiastic, sensitive, idealistic young people with big dreams, who at the same time were confused, conflicted among themselves, undecided, hurting and hurtful. The pioneering generation of founders is seen as individuals suffering from problems, confusions and crises.

At that moment in 1976, it seemed as though the “original Israeli play” – which Haifa Theater under the management of Oded Kotler was determined to nurture and develop – managed to be “a gesture in face of chaos” (of both 1920 and the 1970s); this expression from the play, which was meant to express the despair, but also the exalted nature, of the collective Zionist dream in the face of reality, is actually a wonderful summary of the act of theater, the play and the performance. Even when it is excellent it is always a gesture, artificial and momentary, in the face of the chaos of reality.

Noa Raban and her actors had to deal with the impression left by the first production in 1976 – justly called “legendary” – which was directed by Nola Chilton, with young actors Shlomo Bar Aba, Moni Moshonov, Sandra Sade, Idit Tzur and Ezra Kafri, Gedalia Besser and Gita Munte.

On the stage, a miraculous live experience was created by the future mainstays of Israeli theater, who were – and for the most part still are – its glorious present. In a sense, this play is proof that the relatively young Israeli theater has reached maturity: The director and all the actors were born after the play was first performed.

Raban understood correctly that simmering beneath the personal-social-ideological-political conflicts among the characters are mainly passions, and part of her work with her (relatively) young actors is based on externalizing the suppressed erotic feelings that erupt among the characters (in the play there is a lot of talk about couples as a threat to the integrity of the group and same-sex relationships are clearly considered and examined.)

What in 1976 was implied onstage is overt here: the actors touch one another almost demonstratively. At first I thought it was an exaggerated and even superfluous emphasis, which detracts from the tension that is not acted out on the stage. But when, after the performance, I once again read the scene in which Miriam (Meital Nir) draws Naftali (Wladislaw Pascovitch) into a game of glances, the text suddenly seemed to me to be describing a full sexual encounter, a kind orgasm of partners without any real contact, which takes place before the eyes of the entire group.

The play begins and ends with a view of the period depicted by the play, as though Moshe (played convincingly, determinedly and amusingly by Ron Richter,) the oldest and most experienced in the group, is recalling what happened. This is also where Raban makes the major change in the plot, regarding the fate of Naftali, and for fear of a spoiler I can’t say more. I will only say that that I think that this change is too extreme, and undermines the plausibility of the plot, whose power is based on the fact that the characters, despite their terrible emotional whirlpool, do in fact descend to inherit the land, and to kill and be killed for it, because that is the order of the day.

The stage – designed by Maor Tzabar and Karin Brauner Comay – provides a good depiction of the temporary camp that is being dismantled, while the costumes (Maor Tzabar) turn these young people into a group of soldiers (they remove their bourgeois civilian clothes, don olive-colored uniforms, with the women in riding pants), which in my opinion is once again too blatant a statement.

Meital Nir is heartwarming in the character of the “mischievous” Miriam. Keren Or is Nehama, the bourgeois Viennese girl and Negba Maor is Shifra, the bourgeois girl from Baden, and all three manage to portray the feminist struggle that was part of this story.

Erez Biton as Akiva and Erez Shaharbani as Ephraim complete the close-knit group, which is evidently well aware of the unique quality of this play and its nightly performance.

Three interesting, theatrical-social contexts arise from Sobol’s play. The characters speak with unconcealed scorn about Kibbutz Degania, which did not leave a “spirit of the generation” legacy in the manner to which the characters in the play aspire.

Fifteen years before “The Night of the Twentieth,” Natan Alterman wrote “Kinneret Kinneret” (recently staged by Jerusalem’s Khan Theater,) in which he described similar, if less acute, problems and doubts. The characters in the play, a lot like the people in the real Bitanya, speak a great deal about spiritual and physical undressing. In the late 1960s, the musical “Hair” – which was also performed in Israel - included a scene of group undressing onstage, as a symbol of liberty and unity; a totally different context, and a similar theatrical act.

The third connection was perhaps less clear in real time, in 1976, than it is today. In 1975, the first West Bank settlement, Kedumim, was established. Is it totally unrealistic to see the founders of Gush Emunim as a group operating from the force of an idea, in this case more messianic than Zionist, which in the end is composed of individuals who subordinate their personal problems to an idea greater than themselves, find refuge in it from what is personal and problematic, and in the end drag the society in which they live to the edge of the abyss, by their personal and desperate gesture in the face of the chaos in their souls?