Levin’s ‘Murder’: The Question 'Why' Is for Another Era

Twenty years after it was written, Hanoch Levin’s satirical play, just staged in Tel Aviv by a German theater, is a chilling reflection of the reality we live in today: A cycle of murder, death and lynching, whose causes are long forgotten.

From "Murder," by Hanoch Levin, a satirical play staged by a German theater in Tel Aviv, November 2015.
Sebastian Hoppe

Hanoch Levin wrote the play “Murder” in 1995. It was staged in the Cameri Theater’s big auditorium on Dizengoff Street and directed by Omri Nitzan in 1997, during Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as prime minister and during the first signs of the demise of the Oslo Accords. The show was also attended by Palestinians, who came, yes, in buses, from the occupied territories. Despite everything there was still some hope that there was a partner for making peace.

Last week I saw the play in the small Cameri auditorium at the Tel Aviv Arts Center. It was produced by the Dusseldorf Schauspielhaus, as part of an international festival of Hanoch Levin plays. The play was performed in German with Hebrew subtitles, directed by Israeli-born Dedi Baron. Hearing this play in German, with its sounds well identified by an Israeli audience, with some of the characters on stage so blatantly Jewish (a skullcap, wedding music in Jewish style), all adhering to the script, was a very strange experience.

The plot’s the thing

The most important thing, however, is to retell the plot, not forgetting for a moment when this play was written. In the first scene, three soldiers overpower a boy during a nighttime search in his house. They are amazed by their unlimited power, and torture and abuse him sadistically, before and after he dies. When the boy’s father searches for him, accusing the soldiers of using excessive force, they blame the “circumstances” and the heat of battle. Suddenly, peace “breaks out” and catches everyone off guard. The soldiers link brotherly arms with the dead boy and go off to celebrate, while the father remains with the boy’s corpse and his pain.

From "Murder," by Hanoch Levin, a satirical play staged by a German theater in Tel Aviv, November 2015.
Sebastian Hoppe

Five years later, a young couple escapes their wedding ceremony and heads off to have some fun at the beach. There they meet the father who is looking for the person who hurt his son. He’s convinced it’s the groom, and despite the pleas of the bride and groom he shoots the groom, rapes the bride and kills her too. When she asks “why,” he replies that this is a question that belongs to other times. People tell the grieving father of the groom, who is crying out in pain, that he’ll get used to the pain over time. The earth doesn’t tremble. In the third act, three years later, a poor construction worker is a peeping tom in the affluent neighborhood he works in. Some prostitutes gang up on him and almost rape and kill him. When an explosion is heard, residents are convinced that the laborer has placed a bomb in the neighborhood and cruelly lynch him. The leader of the lynch mob is acclaimed a heroine, an oracular voice is heard proclaiming that the time of peace is over, and everyone is called to arms.

In 1997 Levin told us – in Nitzan’s production it was clear that the soldiers, the wedding guests, the neighborhood residents and prostitutes were Israeli while the boy, his father and construction worker were Arab – that the conflict between us and the Palestinians was no longer political or historical: It was by then a cycle of arbitrary bloody vengeance, murder leading to murder, leading to yet another killing, carried out by afflicted individuals who cannot be restrained. Then it sounded like a warning. Now it seems simply to reflect the reality in which we live and die.

From "Murder," by Hanoch Levin, a satirical play staged by a German theater in Tel Aviv, November 2015.
Sebastian Hoppe

Familiar scenery

The performance staged by Baron, in German, attempts to maintain a universal dimension, not necessarily identifying Israelis and Palestinians (the uniforms are more generic, one scarf looking somewhat like an Arab keffiyeh), but there is no mistaking the scenery, which looks like Israel and the West Bank from the air, as well as ruins that look like Gaza after Operation Protective Edge, and any audience, especially an Israeli one, knows who the playwright was. These elements complement any details the play leaves out.

I would have foregone the textual additions, such as the instructions for kosher slaughtering and the correct processing of meat by a butcher, which accompany the scene in which the soldiers abuse the boy’s corpse. In my view the director and designer Florian Etti gets swept up too much in several scenes by the emotional charge of the characters’ pain. It’s no coincidence that Levin meticulously “balances” the pain and emotion with ridicule. The director and designer had to contend with a theatrical and aesthetic problem that exists in all of Levin’s writing: What does one do with all the horrific, repulsive elements that he concocts in his imagination, as well as scenes immersed in filth and scorn? Baron and Etti treated these at face value and occasionally, to my taste, too graphically.

The German actors are all impressive, particularly Reiner Galke as the father and one of the laborers. Very powerful scenes – such as the enraged neighborhood residents after the explosion, preparing to stone the terror suspect while knocking the stones against the wooden stage props – lose their intensity when the actors have to rearrange the props (a large stage that breaks up into sand-hued sections), which makes the performance cumbersome.

From "Murder," by Hanoch Levin, a satirical play staged by a German theater in Tel Aviv, November 2015.
Sebastian Hoppe

In this director’s epilogue, there is some kind of reconciliation between the two sides in their pain. Wonderful, even if this is more wishful thinking than something emanating from the play and performance. The truth is that under the special circumstances in which we live, when this satirical text from 20 years ago sounds horrifically current, the director’s interpretation is much less important.

I don’t know how an uninvolved German spectator experiences this play, even though it definitely has a universal message, showing a world losing control and sliding into barbarism. For an Israeli viewer, this play strikes at one’s soft underbelly, since Hanoch Levin foresaw in 1970, in his play “Queen of the Bathtub,” what we’d be like in 1995, and in 1995 he knew how to describe our reality in 2015. We go on living, with an arbitrary peace declared from time to time, which no one is prepared for, and then a war is declared, making everyone somehow more comfortable. The question “why” no longer needs to be asked, since its time has passed. The trouble is that some Israelis live quite well, in the “exciting life of Asia” (a quote from the play), and from time to time there is an explosion or lynching, and shouting is heard, such as at the citizen trying to stop a lynching.

From "Murder," by Hanoch Levin, a satirical play staged by a German theater in Tel Aviv, November 2015.
Sebastian Hoppe

Israeli theaters have returned, since Levin’s premature death in 1999, to his dramatic plays. But it is his satires that are increasingly more current. This play, “Murder,” must be shown in Hebrew now, on a central Israeli stage, with the desperate hope that it will cause Israeli society to awaken from the madness it is sliding into. I fear that no Israeli theater will be courageous enough to place this painful mirror before an Israeli audience in 2015. If one does turn up, I can already see the hunters of traitors and snitches, trying to save the Jewish state’s dignity, calling upon the Minister of Culture, who is so eager to censor anything that moves in a direction that displeases her.

Dusseldorf Schauspielhaus presents “Murder” by Hanoch Levin. Translation: Matthias Neumann. Song translation: Avishai Milstein. Director: Dedi Baron. Choreography: Florian Etti. Costumes: Kirsten Dephoff. Music: Bojan Vuletic. Video: Yoav Cohen. Lighting: Konstantin Svenson.