Not Work, Pleasure: What I’ve Learned in 40 Years of Writing About the Theater

The real life of a play begins when it’s over, and it is being discussed among the spectators, among people who read reviews and debate it.

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Illustration by Amos Biderman.
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

At my advancing age (not yet advanced, but getting there) I remembered that the date is approaching, but I thought it was only next month. In a short visit to the Haaretz archive prior to the date, I discovered that it has already passed: My first theater review in Haaretz was published on March 19, 1975, 40 years ago.

The unlucky play was Shakespeare’s “The Comedy of Errors,” adapted and directed by Peter James at the Cameri Theater, and the heading – oh, how predictable – was “An error of a comedy.” And to my great surprise, I read in my own article the same complaints that I just recently made about Shakespearean productions in Israel. Then as now I have no problem with the adaptations and abridgements that a director wants to make in a classic text. I only expect these adaptations and improvisations to have a guiding idea to which I can relate.

And today – as opposed to then – I don’t care so much whether the idea fails during the implementation. I only want to sit in the auditorium and be able to feel that the creator of the theatrical experience knew why he started out and where he wanted to end up. He didn’t promise me not to fail. He only suggested that I accompany him along the way and trust him for a limited time.

An examination of my first reviews showed that I didn’t go out of my way to pan a play to establish my new status in the mythological shoes of my predecessor as Haaretz theater critic, Dr. Haim Gamzu (for 34 years). In the next review I highly praised the play “Catch 22,” based on Joseph Heller’s novel. I attributed the success to the adapter and director Ilan Ronen (after this success, he was appointed artistic director of Jerusalem’s Khan Theater). I also highly praised the lead actor, Sasson Gabai, who only four years earlier was a classmate of mine in theater studies at Tel Aviv University.

Although I wrote positive criticism about plays at Habima throughout my career, I did write very disparagingly about the Habima National Theatre when I was a fledgling reviewer, I have also written on the same note recently about the national theater, attributing the responsibility for the theater’s situation to its artistic director. But the name of the present artistic director of Habima is Ilan Ronen. And I now know that artistic directors of theaters can make a valiant effort and have ambitions but they are dealing with executive directors for whom the artistic consideration is secondary (at best), and with the reality of guaranteed but limited public support, and the proceeds from the unguaranteed but tempting box office.

And still, I try to see every play not only for itself but also as representing, in the quality of its intentions and its professional level, the theater company as a whole, as though the play is the symptom that attests to the theater’s spiritual and professional strength.

One of the not surprising differences between being, at 25, the theater critic for Haaretz – who may bestow a kind of cultural stamp of approval (also thanks to Dr. Gamzu’s status) – and writing criticism nowadays is that at the time, some people demanded that my status be revoked due to my lack of experience (“What did you see? What the hell do you know?” they demanded), whereas today I read about myself in talkback messages that “You’ve seen too much, and therefore you don’t see anything anymore,” and that the time has come for me to retire. And there’s something to be said for both arguments.

By a cautious estimate, I see about two plays a week, which is about 100 plays a year. Do the math yourselves. And somehow I have never considered going to a play to write a review as “work,” but rather as a natural part of my life. That’s what I know how and like to do.

No, I don’t remember all of them, but I remember quite a few moments, the color of a certain costume, an actor’s intonation, even various lines. Yes, there are plays where I look through the reviews I wrote, and were it not for the fact that I had evidence before me that I attended that play, I wouldn’t remember it. Because one of the truths that you discover over 40 years is that there are very few plays that are really very good or very bad. The vast majority are more or less all right, or in other words nondescript, at best good for their time and particular audiences on a given night only, nothing to write a review about.

And so that I won’t think that 40 years as a theater critic for the same newspaper is a world record, I checked it out of course. I discovered that Michael Billington, the theater critic for The Guardian, began four years before me.

That same Billington recently wrote in The Guardian about the traits necessary for a theater critic (if we assume that a theater critic is a necessity, of course). First and foremost is the quality of the writing. Afterwards he mentioned the critic’s social involvement, because theater does not exist separate from the society in which it is performed, and the critic is not worth much if he doesn’t watch and write as part of the society in which he lives.

Billington takes for granted matters such as knowledge of the field being reviewed, and also speaks of the need for curiosity, psychological traits such as patience, and physical traits such as the upholstery of your backside that makes it possible to survive for hours in your seat.

I, for my part, can add one item to the traits necessary for a critic: the desire to “talk about” the theater experience after it has ended. Because with all due respect to creators of theater wherever they are (and I apologize to all those whom I insulted over 40 years; you know who you are), the real life of a play begins when it is over, and it exists in the discourse among spectators who talk about it, among people who read reviews and conduct a debate about it.

The critic who leaves the theater and goes to write conducts this discourse with himself. But when I record this conversation with myself, I in effect want to initiate a discourse about the play, about what it told me about myself, about what it can – or cannot – tell other spectators. I want to keep it going. And therefore today – as opposed to the past – I find the question as to whether a play – or the acting – is good or bad far less interesting. I’m interested in whether it’s a play about which there’s something to say.

All in all I’ve been lucky. I’ve seen lots of fascinating plays, by lots of directors, I’ve had the privilege of seeing lots of wonderful actors and actresses, some of whom I’ve gotten to know personally. During my time some great creators of theater did their best work: I was lucky to begin writing criticism more or less at the same time Hanoch Levin started writing plays. A play can still excite me and make me talk about it.

A concentrated effort was made by theater directors to bring about my dismissal 25 years ago, but as you see, it failed. Once I was attacked physically during a play by an actor, but that was also 30 years ago, and he and I have both survived. And as one of the characters in a Stephen Sondheim musical sings: “I’m still here.”



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