The 'Harmful' Word That Pitted Cameri Theater Against the National Censor in 1949

Israel State Archive to publish documents about the Cameri Theater's feud with the national censor over the insertion of the word 'urinate' in a play, before the War of Independence was officially over

Actor Zalman Lebiush at the the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, in 1957.
GPO

Seventy years ago, before the War of Independence was officially over, the state found a no less important issue to deal with. The “Council for Oversight of Films and Plays,” known by its less formal name “the censor” held a special meeting. On the agenda: a sharp reprimand of the Cameri Theater for using the word “urinate” in a play, without permission from the state. Looking at this issue years later, this seems like a parodic comedy suitable for the stage, but documents from the State Archive revealed now in honor of the Cameri’s 75th anniversary show that the issue was discussed with extreme seriousness.

“The council decided in its meeting to reprimand you for changes in the original text of the play “Nights of Rage,” which you had presented to it for critique, against clause 3(4) of the Public Plays Order (Critique) 1927,” the letter of reprimand, dated July 1, 1949, opened.

It turned out that after the theater received a permit for the play, it added – without authorization – the word “urinate” to one of the dialogues. “You must immediately remove this word from the above play,” the council demanded.

Actress Hanna Maron at the the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv, in 1957.
GPO

The stinging response was written by the actor Yossi Yadin, brother of Yigael Yadin, who was to be the Israel Defense Forces’ second chief of staff a few months later. Yadin wrote, in the name of the theater management, that the word “urinate” appears in the Bible (Samuel and Kings). Therefore, he concluded: “We see no reason not to use this word on stage.” Yadin went even further: “We see in this word an expression of a biological need that every mortal feels, and the laws of nature should not be ignored or denied. We think that this word reveals no military secret nor could it compromise the security of the state or the public.”

At the end of that same month, the council revisited the matter. According to the minutes of the meeting of July 28, one of the council members reread the dialogues in the play and came to the conclusion that “the expression ‘urinate’ is not essential and is harmful to literary good taste. And yet, it does not constitute cursing, and on this basis its use cannot be banned.” The council also turned for an outside opinion to the poet and playwright Aharon Ashman. “Please be so good as to express your opinion on the play. In your opinion should the word ‘urinate’ be left in or not?” he was asked.

Ashman replied: “As for the ‘fatal’ word, I do not know whether a storm should be raised because of it.” Quoting from Proverbs, he added: “Apparently a righteous man knows the life of his beast. They know their audience and serve up the concoction that tastes best to it – let them enjoy it.”

Eventually the state allowed the Cameri to use the word “urinate,” but it had the last word. “No changes may be made to the play that was approved by the council without special permission,” it said in a letter signed by the council chairman Yaakov Kisilov. The council’s authority to approve or withhold approval for plays was taken away from it 30 years ago.

Documents on the affair are to be released together with a group of documents about the first years of the theater, to be published by the State Archive next week on its website, that afford a fascinating look at the history of the state through the theater. After the state was established, the theater requested government funding, explaining: “The standard of living of the actor does not allow the theater to reach the artistic level to which it aspires.” A decade later, the relationship between the theater and the government was on the edge of a blowup when income tax authorities threatened it with criminal action. “I believe this step could … lead their artistic thoughts into prosaic problems of life in Israel, which now also includes income tax,” the tax commissioner wrote at the time.