Stage Animal / When Theater Could Ruffle Feathers

A sketch broadcast recently on "Halaila with Lior Shlein" (the Israeli equivalent of the "Tonight Show") left Christians feeling so insulted they demanded an apology from Shlein and the franchisee of the television channel that broadcast the program.

Even the prime minister added an apology and a recommendation to the media to be careful not to hurt religious sensitivities.

Judging from the public's response, the Christian indignation (and the apology) were somewhat astonishing, as our perception of Christianity is of a western religion, steeped in culture (even if there are some blood-soaked chapters in its past). We are used to religious outrage from the Muslims (as happened after the publication of cartoons depicting Mohammed), but the general perception of Islam anyway (without generalizations) is of a fundamentalist religion whose masses are out to destroy us.

On this very background, and in light of the restaging of Martin Sherman's "Messiah" by the Be'er Sheva Theater, it is fitting to recall the great theatrical scandal that erupted in Haifa surrounding the debut of that play, a quarter of a century ago. The play is set in the 17th century, to the background of the rise and fall of false messiah Shabbetai Zvi, when an unattractive Jewish girl is swept up, like those around her, by the redemption that he offers and suffers terrible disappointment.

Most of the play consists of monologues delivered by the heroine Rachel, speaking to God, and toward the end, due to the suffering of the Jews in general and Rachel in particular, she shouts at God, "Curse be you, God Almighty! I hate you! You do not exist!"

In all fairness, I must note that at the end of the play, before Rachel leaves the stage, she turns once more to God and says, "I don't want to leave without you, but I don't want you to come with me. I don't know. Oh, Lord, after all this I still don't know."

The last lines (from Nava Semel's translation for the play's performance in Haifa in 1984) are proclaimed on stage in the Be'er Sheva Theater performance, and even though I noticed some skullcaps among the audience that saw the play with me at the new theater in Be'er Sheva, no one got excited. Not like in Haifa in January 1984, as I will expand forthwith.

In order to understand the public mood then, one must realize that the Haifa Theater, which was the pride of that city under the direction of Yosef Milo in the 1960s, changed its character in the 1970s when it began mounting original Israeli plays directed by Oded Kotler ("Hefetz" by Hanoch Levin and "Status Quo Vadis" by Yehoshua Sobol, the second a revue that attacked religious coercion). Back then the Board for Film and Theater Review reigned with a high hand, under a law we inherited from British Mandate days, and it was illegal to present a play to the public unless approved by the board, which was authorized by the Interior Ministry.

Israeli theater life during the 1980s was particularly stormy: The Haifa Theater, under the direction of Noam Semel and the artistic direction of Omri Nitzan, staged Sobol's "Nefesh Yehudi" (The Soul of a Jew), which also starred a Jew struggling with his existence and the Zionist idea, and included texts of a religious nature in a Viennese brothel.

Israeli theater life during the 1980s was particularly stormy: In the days following the first Lebanon war, Hanoch Levin's "The Patriot" was performed in Neveh Tzedek, and the Board for Film and Theater Review demanded the excising of lines that could offend the sensitivities of religious Jews. The forbidden passages were recited during the play (but not onstage - in other words, not performed), and the director and producer were indicted.

As if that were not enough, the Cameri Theater mounted "The Great Whore of Babylon" by Hanoch Levin, shortly after it had performed his "Job's Passion," whose vulgar nudity by lead actor Yosef Carmon was strenuously opposed by then-education minister Miriam Glazer-Taasa. Yona Wallach published a poem titled "Tefillin," which included erotic connotations, with a photograph of tefillin straps on a naked body beside the text (Glazer-Tassa called Wallach a "beast in heat").

The Siman Kriya literary magazine published Yitzhak Laor's controversial poem "Anthem to the Gush," and Tel Aviv University threatened to withdraw financial support for the magazine. On December 27, 1983, National Religious Party MK Haim Druckman called for a debate on the "insult to basic values of the Jewish state and nation in the theater," and drew a connection between the plays (which he had not seen) and the rising crime rate. Even Knesset members who defended freedom of expression (Michael Bar-Zohar of the Labor Allignment and Amnon Rubinstein of Shinui) voiced their reservations toward offensive plays, although it was clear from the remarks by most Knesset members that they had no idea exactly what was being discussed. Yossi Sarid defended freedom of expression and Glazer-Taasa gave him a tongue-lashing.

That was the atmosphere into which "Messiah" was launched by the Haifa Theater in January 1984, albeit not without some apprehension, as just one season earlier the theater had staged Sherman's "Bent," about the fate of gays in a Nazi death camp - hardly a bland subject from the outset - with audacious scenes on the stage, played by Doron Tavori and Yossi Pollack. Still, the theater review board approved "Messiah" without any reservations.

The day after the first performance, in which Tehiya Danon uttered the heretical lines on stage, Moshe Blitental, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Agudat Yisrael faction on Haifa's city council, wrote to Haifa Mayor Arie Goral that affronted viewers (who later turned out to be Haifa District Court Judge Menachem Neeman) had complained they were offended by the lines cursing God. Blitental demanded the immediate closure of the play.

When Semel invited Blitental to come and see the play, he replied that he had not visited the theater for 17 years (although that did not prevent him from objecting to "Status Quo Vadis" as well).

He agreed to reading the text, and based on that reading submitted a complaint to the police. The police closed the case due to lack of public interest, based on the theater review board's initial approval of the play.

Goral supported the theater's freedom of expression, but added, as a private individual, that he felt the offensive lines should be removed from the play. In a meeting with the theater's directors, Goral told them that Knesset Finance Committee chairman Shlomo Lorenz of Agudat Yisrael was withholding debt consolidation transfer payments from the Interior Ministry to Haifa municipality, and each day the play was performed was costing Haifa's city coffers hundreds of thousands of shekels in interest.

The following day the theater received an anonymous phone call during the performance, warning that two hand grenades has been planted in the theater. The play was stopped and the audience evacuated. The hall was searched, and when nothing was found, the play resumed. Semel, who also received threatening letters from the Keshet organization, filed a complaint with the police.

The theater's public management board, which had already been considering closing the play at the end of performances to season ticket holders, decided not to bow to pressure, and it was decided that the play will go on tour to Be'er Sheva and Jerusalem. Even so, Haifa city councillor Willie Katz (Likud) demanded the establishment of a repertory committee for the theater, with representation reflecting the balance of political power in the municipality.

The newspapers reported all these developments, usually without expressing an opinion, with some articles supporting freedom of expression while understanding the offense. Semel and Nitzan felt isolated and searched for a compromise without surrendering. They eventually found a way.

After then-opposition chairman Shimon Peres said there should be no interference in matters of freedom of expression (whoever wanted to could interpret this to mean that freedom of expression needed no intervention in its defense), an honorable way out was found: President Chaim Herzog was informed that if he were to ask the theater's management to remove the offensive lines for the sake of the unity of the people, the theater would defer to him, out of respect.

In the newspapers from that period, I found one report in which education minister Zevulon Hammer (NRP) indicates that he was behind the idea; and another report in which Knesset Education Committee chairwoman Ora Namir praises Hammer for not getting involved.

Following the president's intervention, the line was cut from the play. It was still there during the first performance on February 2, 1984, but not in the second performance that evening. The actors read a proclamation before each subsequent performance, protesting the affront to freedom of expression (sometimes Tavori read it, sometimes Hagit Ben Ami). Channel 1 television broadcast the controversial scene. The management committee of the Israel Broadcasting Authority apologized. The studio personnel refused to apologize, arguing that if they had not broadcast the scene, the public would not have known what all the fuss was about.

From that moment on, however, the debate was not over what should or should not be allowed to be said on stage, but rather whether the president should or should not have intervened. A spokesman for President Herzog said that he would not have intervened had it not been clear to him that his intervention was called for. MKs Shulamit Aloni and Ora Namir lambasted the president. Others defended him.

Aharon Meged, president of the Israeli branch of PEN, the worldwide association of writers, also protested Herzog's intervention. Letters to the editor supported him. One such letter stated that only a believer can curse God. An editorial in Haaretz advocated the theater's freedom of expression and decried the president's involvement. A Jerusalem Post article by MK Shevach Weiss was actually against anything on stage that would offend the sensitivities of the religious. A gathering of intellectuals was held at the Tzavta club in Tel Aviv - then, but not a month before - to protest any infringement of freedom of expression.

The play finished its run and was rather quickly forgotten. A short while later, the Haifa Theater staged Sobol's "Ghetto" and a year later his "Palestinian Girl," then "Jerusalem Syndrome" in 1989.

By that time protests against Israeli theater had taken on a national-religious and not only a religious focus, and very quickly Israeli theater began to move away from politics, and Israeli audiences stopped getting excited by theater.

Ach, those were the days.