'Writing Theater Critiques Isn’t a Job – It’s a Way of Life': Haaretz's Theater Critic Steps Down

Michael Handelzalts, Haaretz’s veteran theater critic, has written reviews of about 4,000 performances. Now, after 42 years, he is bidding farewell and exiting the stage

Michael Handelzalts, Haaretz’s veteran theater critic, steps down after 4,000 performances spanning a career of 42 years. March 2017.
Moti Milrod

This is the last article I will be writing in my capacity as the Haaretz theater critic. In fact, it’s my last article as a theater critic at all. As such, I would like to ruminate on the place of theater criticism in the life of a daily newspaper, in the life of “the theater” in general, in the life of the Israeli theater in particular – and in my own life for these past 48 years.

Many of my journalist colleagues are not aware of – and perhaps do not admit to themselves – something that I have learned during the two years I wrote theater reviews in the Massa supplement of the now defunct newspaper Lamerhav, the 10 years I broadcast theater criticism on Army Radio and the 42 years I have written “Last Night” in Haaretz: Namely, that we are all just filling places.

There is a space – an area of white paper, in a newspaper or a broadcast time segment – that we have promised our editors to fill with information that we bring. If we do not fill it by the deadline – that line in time after which the newspaper is sent to be printed and the lines that haven’t entered it are dead – we have failed to keep our commitment to the editors and we have forced them to fill the space we abandoned with something else.

Nature and newsprint abhor a vacuum. As for “Last Night” – the review that is written immediately after the performance ends, to be published in the newspaper the following morning; a tradition that predates me – the theater citric does not have the option of telling the editors after a premiere: “I’m not writing because I have nothing to say,” or, “I don’t feel like it.” His role at the newspaper requires him to write, within a given and short time, even if he himself isn’t clear about his opinion.

Theater people joke among themselves, with unconcealed scorn, that no one ever dreamt as a child of becoming a theater critic. Indeed, I didn’t dream of becoming a theater critic. I wanted to work in theater – to translate, edit, act, direct, participate – and I prepared myself for that with academic theater studies. It was by chance that I came to writing theater criticism and this shaped my life. In the first years I was convinced that I was participating in theater, that I was writing about plays I saw, some of them the work of childhood friends and people who attended theater studies classes with me.

Only gradually did I realize that I was filling not just a place but also a role, in the big show called “the world of theater.” In my case, the world of Israeli theater. Participating in this show are playwrights, directors, theater executives, actors, designers, composers, stagehands and stage managers – all of these both male and female. And the plot of this show needs a “villain” or, if you will, a “parental figure.” Someone who belongs but doesn’t belong; someone whose role it is to bear witness to the experience but mainly to approve or reject. It all would have existed quite well without him (or her; some of my best female friends were theater critics), but we are necessary. In order to praise, of course, but also in order to condemn and in order for it to be possible to be (very) angry at us and blame us for their failures or the successes they believe were too modest.

I did not understand this role when I chose to fill it (or when it chose me). In retrospect, I believe that I enjoyed playing this role. In the heat of playing it, I was more attentive to my own emotions and urges and I related to the productions as though they had been performed for me. If they were good, I was happy. If they were not good, in my opinion, I took them as a personal insult and defended myself aggressively. Gradually, I understood – and belatedly applied – what English actor Harriet Walter articulated: “Acting is what I do with who I am.”

In the case of theater people – mostly the actors and actresses, but also the other creative folk – both the materials of the creative work and the creative work itself are themselves. And when I write about what they have done and are doing on the stage, I am, in any case, writing about them. And even if I think I am being professional, for them it is always very personal. And when I write quickly, and in the heat of the moment, and from within myself, I don’t always think about their feelings.

But if we are talking about this image, “a show,” then the critique – short and long – is the theater critic’s show. He, too, like the creators of the performance, wants to impress his audience with that brief text he has written under the pressure of time. And he has to show it to several different audiences: the people who made the production; the audience that was in the auditorium for the premiere; and also to the audience that was not in the auditorium and might perhaps be there in the future. Therefore, the review must be not only to-the-point or decisive, but also entertaining to the readers.

Insofar as I can testify about myself – and I know that many of you believe that I am not entirely impartial – I have never written good things about friends or artists I admire with no connection to the specific work I have reviewed, just as I have never entered a theater with the intention of slaying artists I didn’t especially esteem, or their work, on the basis of previous experience. I was aware of my preconceptions and prejudices – a person who says he doesn’t have any is not telling the truth – and I tried to modify them in accordance with what I saw or heard. I think that, all in all, I succeeded – but I understand that there are those who will not agree with me.

What I began to understand, the more I watched performances (I estimate that I have seen and written reviews of about 4,000 performances, more or less), is that the show and the review, as important as they may be, are not the nub of it all. In my view, the real experience of theater is not just the performance but rather also the discussion of it that takes place among the audience members after they have left the auditorium. Not a panel of post-performance speakers organized by the theater to discuss the topic of the play or its quality, but, rather, shared conversation and contemplation in a small group, preferably over food and drink, in order to keep it alive a bit longer in the imagination and shared memory. The review can – perhaps must – be an opening for such a conversation.

I assume that I have not always been “fair” in the opinion of the people whose works I have reviewed. They say that I am acerbic, or even rude, and I assume that mainly for phonetic reasons my surname hasn’t become a verb like that of my predecessor at Haaretz, Haim Gamzu, from whose name Ephraim Kishon derived the lethal verb “to gmoz.” However, I remember the vast experience of pleasure the Israeli theater has granted me. Most especially, the good fortune I had to write theater criticism in the years when theater artists like Hanoch Levin, Tom Stoppard, Stephen Sondheim and Peter Brook – some of the artists whose work I had the privilege of seeing in world premieres – were active.

In the political, social and cultural atmosphere that is growing murkier – here in Israel and abroad – politicians gloat about their own ignorance, attack artists and threaten to cut budgets and to silence people. When they are insulted, they incite the public and insult the artists. This looks chilling, but these frictions have always existed with varying degrees of intensity. That said, in the long run, art and culture – including theater, which is more ephemeral than the other arts – have survived long after politicians have exited the stage of history.

For nearly five decades, I have documented the Israeli theater, with its organizational and budgetary systems. Precisely because I am aware of the problems, constraints and limitations, I am amazed by the quantity of fascinating productions that are put on and that run – despite the conditions and against all the odds.

Do I have regrets about any review? No. Am I sorry about any unsuccessful, hurtful, wrong or injurious wording? Of course. Far too many to count. Is there a review of which I am especially proud? Yes, and in fact not in the area of theater. I was at the first performance by singer Achinoam Nini (known abroad as Noa) and guitarist Gil Dor and I was fortunate enough to have comprehended the value of what I heard.

Can I boast that I have left a mark on the Israeli theater world? Definitely. In a certain place in the big hall of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv there is a ramp for mobility challenged people that was installed in the wake of my nagging.

In his last performance in Las Vegas, Bobby Darin sang a song entitled “The Curtain Falls.” The final stanza ends with these lines: “People say I was made for this / Nothin’ else would I trade for this /And just think I get paid for this...”

For 42 years I edited the culture section of Haaretz (in the years before Galleria); I founded the “Books” magazine and edited it for 12 years; I wrote a personal column; I edited the Weeks End pages in the English Edition of Haaretz and I wrote a television column and a column in English. I also wrote theater reviews, which I never saw as work but rather as a way of life. So why am I stopping? Because at some point one must. Because I can.

And now, this curtain falls. But for every curtain that falls, others rise on other stages. The musical “King Solomon and Shalmi the Shoemaker” by Natan Alterman and Sasha Argov – of which I saw both the world premiere and the new revival – ends with the line: “Let us not take ourselves too seriously, please.”