Bringing Israel's Best-known Playwright, Hanoch Levin, to a Worldwide Audience

His plays were funny and provocative, but what Hanoch Levin — who 20 years after his death is still considered one of Israel’s greatest playwrights — wanted his work to do was make audiences squirm in discomfort. A new round of translations means that English-language audiences can join in the squirming

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A Habima-Cameri Theater coproduction of Hanoch Levin's "The Child Dreams" from 2018.
A Habima-Cameri Theater coproduction of Hanoch Levin's "The Child Dreams" from 2018.Credit: Gerard Allon
Janice Weizman
Janice Weizman
Janice Weizman
Janice Weizman

“Who is this Fogra that everyone is talking about so much? You must agree that she is a young and beautiful woman; take note: young and beautiful, and just 24 years old, excelling as she writes her doctorate in physics, yes, physics, and engaged to a rich and successful man. She’s full of life, loves to have fun. She milks enjoyment from each and every moment of her life. That, ladies and gentleman, is Fogra. That is Fogra. And now I’d like to see the person who would tell her that she isn’t allowed to enter a nightclub while dressed in her tennis outfit, or whatever else she might like to wear. And anyone who feels that her firm, tanned thighs are mocking them, can go and bang their head against a wall.”

From “Hefetz” (translated by Janice Weizman)

As the curtain went down to thunderous applause on the premiere of Hanoch Levin’s comedy “Hefetz” at the Tzavta Theater in Tel Aviv in 1972, the director turned to Levin and asked him, “So? What do you have to say?” The writer’s previous plays, hard-hitting political critiques such as “You and Me and the Next War,” and “Queen of the Bathtub,” had so incensed critics, the government, the military and the general public that some of them had to be shut down mid-run.

Levin, at 34, was already infamous as a highly original but also fiercely provocative writer, a mocker of sacred cows who took aim at what he saw as Israel’s cult of militarism, the euphoria that followed the 1967 Six-Day War, and the beginnings of the occupation. “Hefetz” (Hebrew for “object” or “thing”), however, marked new territory for Levin — less political, more philosophical and cultural. The play’s eponymous protagonist is an aging bachelor who lives in a rented room in the home of his relatives Taiglach and Clemancea. Hefetz is weak, hapless, and penniless, and his landlords and their 24 year old daughter, Fogra, flaunt their social and economic superiority, lording it over him and making him miserable. The play was intended as a scathing critique and stark portrayal of social and economic hierarchies in which the strong prey on the weak, humiliating them at will. One early critic wrote that the auditorium was filled with Fogras and Clemenceas and Taiglachs, who laughed at the characters on the stage, not realizing that they were laughing at themselves.

Now, replying to the director by his side, as audience members rose to their feet to applaud “Hefetz,” Levin said, “I’ll tell you something. I just pray that I’ll never let myself be taken in by the adoration of the crowd.”

Israeli playwright Hanoch Levin, who died from bone cancer at age 56 in August 1999.Credit: Yaakov Levin

In an interview that year, one of the last he was to give to the press, the playwright was asked if his latest work was a comedy, a farce, or theater of the grotesque. “I know that the audience laughs, and that saddens me,” he replied, “but I consider it a drama. When people tell me that it’s funny, I feel like I’ve failed. … I want them to see the tragic, malevolent side … I don’t want to give them pleasure, on the contrary, my aim is to not give them pleasure.”

In Israel, two decades after his death, Levin is widely acknowledged as one of the country’s most important playwrights. His absurdist style is often compared to the work of Harold Pinter and Samuel Beckett, and since his death of cancer at the age of 56, his works have remained popular and relevant, and continue to find new audiences. Not a night goes by in which his work isn’t performed in Israel, and in recent years, with productions of his plays opening in venues around the world, including Spain, France, Germany, Bulgaria, Morocco and Kenya, recognition of his brilliance and unique contribution to theater is growing internationally.

Yet the process of introducing Levin’s work to the English-language theater community has been somewhat more challenging. Though several of the plays have been translated over the years, his work has seldom been performed in the English-speaking world. Dr. Etan Bloom, a translator, critic and dramaturge who has written extensively about Levin’s work, feels that the reason for this has a lot to do with the quality of the translations, which didn’t effectively convey Levin’s lyricism, incisiveness, and originality to audiences.

But the situation is about to change. A three-volume anthology of 15 plays is due out this November from Oberon, a prestigious British drama publisher. It is the hope of all who are working to further Levin’s legacy hope that the anthology will finally enable the English-speaking world to discover the work of an artist who has been, until now, largely unknown to it.

Service in Sinai

Hanoch Levin was born in Tel Aviv in 1943 to parents from Lodz, Poland, and grew up in South Tel Aviv among shopkeepers, immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe, a community whose world-weary ethos is often reflected in his dramas. He left school at the age of 15 in order to help support his widowed mother, taking high school courses at night. As a student at Tel Aviv University, he published satirical pieces in the student newspaper in which he sharply criticized the military establishment

A 2015 Israeli Opera production of Hanoch Levin's “Schitz.”Credit: Yossi Zveker

He had done his army service as an encryptor in the Signal Corps and was sent to Sinai as part of an anti-aircraft unit during the Six-Day War, an experience that affected him deeply. Rather than sharing in the jubilation that spread throughout the country, Levin felt revulsion at the sight of Israeli soldiers taunting the defeated Egyptian captives, and was horrified by what he saw as an easy acquiescence to the loss of life. It was an experience that was to shape his humanist world view, and much of his work. On returning home, Levin left the university, rented a small apartment in Tel Aviv, and sat down to write his first cabaret production, “You, Me and the Next War,” which featured provocative skits and songs with verses like this:

“Whenever we go out walking, we’re three

You, Me, and the next war.

And when we’re sleeping, we’re three

You, Me, and the next war…

And whenever we smile in a moment of love

The next war is smiling with us

And when we wait in the delivery room

The next war is waiting with us.”

From “You, Me, and the Next War” (translated by Janice Weizman)

A 2017 production of Hanoch Levin's last work, "Requiem," at the Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv.Credit: Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

While the play was not a popular success, it caught the attention of a wealthy, left-leaning patron, David Arenfeld, who offered to fund the writing and production of a new work. The result was a satirical review called “Ketchup,” which was funnier, more entertaining, and a little easier on the audience. The show was staged in the basement of a Tel Aviv cinema with room for no more than 80 people. The cast was made up of young up-and-coming actors, and was soon attracting the enthusiastic attention of the theatrical and artistic community.

But it was his next play, “Queen of the Bathtub,” that cemented Levin’s notoriety. On reading the script, the managers of the Cameri Theater in Tel Aviv were impressed, but requested that Levin make changes and tone down the material. Levin refused, but the Cameri nonetheless agreed to stage it, and supported the controversial work. When the Censorship Board, which had the legal authority to shut down the play, requested that two sections be cut, the Cameri stood behind Levin. The play, a ruthless satire that held a mirror up to the intensely militaristic atmosphere of the time, took on such themes as the conquest and glorification of “holy” sites at the expense of human lives, and the moral dangers of the occupation, and was difficult for Israeli audiences to stomach.

“Sleep child, don’t fear

for the kingdom has been made whole

most of the uncles have only one leg

but the kingdom has been made whole

and all the aunties standing by the grave

are waiting for you, brave boy

but the kingdom has been made whole”

From “Queen of the Bathtub” (translated by Janice Weizman)

A Chinese anthology of Hanoch Levin's works.Credit: Gadi Danon

The text of “Hefetz” was unlike anything that had ever been written in Hebrew. Originally turned down by both Habimah and the Cameri, and it took a young, open-minded director like Oded Kotler to see its genius and agree to stage it at the Haifa Municipal Theater, where it marked Levin’s first popular and critical success. From then on, he had an open door at the Cameri, which was to debut most of his work. Levin continued to write plays that, while incisive and thought-provoking, managed to just graze the border of what was palatable to audiences.

Prof. Nurit Ya’ari of Tel Aviv University, an expert on Levin’s writing, divides his plays into three categories: the satirical cabarets — Levin’s early political pieces; the domestic comedies, which focus on conceptions of courtship, marriage, family and community; and what she calls the “spectacles of doom” — philosophical and mythical works that take on classic themes of Western culture, exploring questions of suffering, degradation and death. With each production, Levin’s reputation grew in both popular and critical acclaim. It was as though Israel itself was changing, and in the wake of the shock of the Yom Kippur War, the entrenchment of the occupation and, following 1982, the conflict in Lebanon, people were more willing and able to hear what Levin was trying to say.

By the time “The Patriot,” a devastating satire warning against the political and ideological direction Levin saw the country as taking, was produced, in 1982, he had an enthusiastic following who supported the play from the moment they learned that the censors were demanding omissions from the text. Memorably, Oded Kotler came up with a creative solution; he simply sat in the audience and read out the lines the actors were forbidden to enact from the stage, an event which has become legendary in the annals of Israeli theater.

“I had no success overseas, Mother. I didn’t make money and I didn’t become happy. I didn’t have fun, I didn’t get ahead, didn’t get married, didn’t get engaged, didn’t meet anyone. I didn’t buy anything, didn’t bring anything. In my suitcase there is dirty underwear and toiletries. That’s all, I’ve told you everything, and I want you to leave me in peace.”

Opening lines of “Krum” (translated by Jessica Cohen and Evan Fallenberg)

In Levin’s perception, the human condition is a rat race, brutal, pitiless, and unforgiving. Life is structured according to cruel hierarchies, in which everyone is constantly striving to climb one more rung on an endless ladder. Heartwarming notions of love, loyalty and altruism are ultimately meaningless, and the only certainty is death. “He saw society as “neo-barbarian,” says Etan Bloom, “and his plays were an attempt to hold up a mirror to that concept.”

Varna City Theater's production of Hanoch Levin's "Bulgarian Cabaret," November 2015.Credit: Varna City Theater

In 1994 Levin was awarded the prestigious Bialik Prize, which is conferred by the municipality of Tel Aviv for significant accomplishment in Hebrew literature, and in 1999, the last year of his life, a joint project of three Israeli publishers put out a full collection of his works

Yet by all accounts, all Levin cared about was the work itself, writing and directing. “He had absolutely no interest in self-promotion,” says actress Lilian Barreto, Levin’s widow. “He was entirely devoid of a sense of self-importance, and simply oblivious to the notion of ‘success.’”

This attitude — which was reflected in part by his refusal to speak to the press after 1972 — partially explains the fact that Levin’s work did not appear on stages abroad until after his death, and to this day, is not well known in the English-speaking world.

It has, however, made headway in other languages. In the summer of 2001, in the midst of the chaos and suicide bombings of the second intifada, 36 producers, theater directors, and others from the international theater community arrived in Tel Aviv to attend a festival, organized by the Cameri’s general director, Noram Semel, aimed at showcasing several of Levin’s plays. “It was unbelievable,” Barreto says. “At a time when no one was coming to Israel, they flew in and saw the plays performed in Hebrew with English subtitles, and that was how his work began to be recognized abroad.”

A memorial plaque on the childhood home of Hanoch Levin in Tel Aviv.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Lola: In the middle of the soup! In the middle of the soup! In the middle of the soup! In the middle of the soup!

Ziggy: A… a… a… a… a…

Lola: [Carries on screaming] In the middle of the soup! In the middle of the soup!

Bella: Who? Who?

Henia: Munya Globchik

Lola: [Crying, quietly] Munya…Munya…Munya…

Tzipora: You hand in two watches to be repaired, 80 lira.

Bianca: One person hands in two watches to be repaired, another person dies.

Henia: At least he lived a little, played cards. And me?

Alberto: Dear Munya Globchik. Today we bid you farewell.

From “The Suitcase Packers” (translated by Na’aman Tamuz)

An Israeli production of “The Suitcase Packers” from 2014.Credit: Gadi Dagon

Found in translation

Over the years, it has become clear that what best furthers the production of the plays in foreign languages is the determination of an enthusiastic, active advocate.

Danny Tratch, who for many years acted as Levin’s manager and who is himself of Polish background, was instrumental in bringing Levin’s dramas to Polish audiences. He initiated a translation project in Polish and worked toward the staging of several of Levin’s dramas in Poland.

Anthologies of Levin’s work have come out in Polish, and last year, Kryztof Warlkiowski, director of Warsaw’s renowned Nowy Theater, put on a production entitled “We Are Leaving,” which is based on Levin’s 1983 “The Suitcase Packers.” In the play, everyone is on their way to a better place, whether it be the airport or the cemetery, constantly chasing after a dream of happiness that can never be realized. While the original play deals with existential themes such as “life is always elsewhere,” Warlkiowki’s version explores current issues of migration, anxiety and freedom of expression in the face of growing nationalism.

In the case of French-language productions, it was Nurit Ya’ari who worked to introduce Levin’s work to the French theater community, in particular via a 2006 Isra-Drama festival that showcased French-subtitled productions. Consequently, Levin’s work began to appear on the French stage. Similarly, Levin was unknown in Germany until Dedi Baron, an Israeli director living in Dusseldorf, put on a German translation of “Murder.” “It was a matter of finding the right translator,” says Shimrit Ron, the current director of the Hanoch Levin Institute of Israeli Drama. This year, the Suhrkamp publishing house published the German texts of “Requiem” and “Popoch” (known in Hebrew as “Melekhet Ha’haim”), translated by Doron Hamburger and Frank Weigand.

Two Polish translations of Hanoch Levin's works.Credit: Janice Weizman

A striking case of an enthusiastic advocate introducing Levin’s work in a foreign country is that of China. A few years ago, Lilian Barreto was contacted by a Chinese woman living in Israel who had a background in theatre. After attending a production of “Ya’akobi and Leidental,” she sought out Barreto regarding the possibility of bringing the Cameri’s productions of “Requiem” and “The Suitcase Packers” to the Chinese stage. Likewise, she contacted Dr. Ping Zhang, an associate professor at of Chinese and East Asian Studies at Tel Aviv University, who eventually co-translated a Chinese language anthology of Levin’s dramas. This year, a Chinese production of “Requiem” is set to be produced in Beijing. The award-winning play is Levin’s last, written and directed while suffering from fatal bone cancer at the age of 56. Loosely based on three stories by Chekhov, the play uses lyrical language and expressive imagery to confront themes of suffering, grief and the never-ending quest for meaning.

All of these success stories beg the question of why Levin’s work has not made the same headway in English language productions.

“Levin’s style is deceptively simple,” says Etan Bloom. “It’s more like poetry than prose. His language is very economical in a way that is essential to the dramatic action. English translations are always longer than the original Hebrew, but when Levin’s sentences run on too long, or the translator attempts to explain, then something in the dramatic effect of the text is lost. It’s essential that the translation retain the original tension in the lines, the subtleties that Levin intended.”

Three French translations of Hanoch Levin's works.Credit: Maison Antoine Vitez / Photo Janice Weizman

Another problem had to do with the fact that there is something very cruel, even pitiless, in Levin’s characters, and some translators found this difficult and subconsciously altered the language to make them gentler and more sympathetic. But in doing so, they missed the essence of the text. One translator tried to make a play into a love story, but there is no “love” in Levin’s work. No God and no love.

“Levin’s language juxtaposes biblical and literary language with street slang and cursing that only Hebrew speakers fully understand,” Ron explains. “And on top of that, the plays are filled with Levin’s own inimitable, invented words and expressions, as though he was kneading the language. This was incredibly problematic — literal translations just didn’t work. English speakers weren’t able to see what was unique and special about Levin, and they couldn’t understand why Israelis love his plays.”

The Institute decided to commission new translations by translators who had a proven ear for the subtleties and nuances of text. They approached Na’aman Tamuz, as well as Jessica Cohen (winner of the 2017 Man Booker International Prize for her translation of David Grossman’s “A Horse Walks into a Bar”) and Evan Fallenberg (a novelist and translator, whose translation of Meir Shalev’s “A Pigeon and a Boy” won the National Jewish Book Award and was a finalist for the PEN translation prize), who teamed up in order to translate five of Levin’s plays.

“The idea was to allow the translators more freedom in their work,” says Barreto. “Levin isn’t a realistic dramatist, he’s a poet, so we needed translators who could fully understand his meaning — who could sense what in the text is essential and what is not, so that the ratio of what is gained to what is lost remains faithful to the original.”

Today, Lilian Barto manages Levin’s estate, and it is she who is first reached out to Oberon publishing. “Following Hanoch’s death,” she explains, “I went to England and met with an important publisher with the hope of interesting them in the plays. They turned me away and politely suggested that I focus on specifically Jewish theaters.”

Encouraged by the success of the plays that had been translated and performed in other languages, Barreto continued to pursue her goal of having them published in English. It was David Lan, the former artistic director of the Young Vic in London, who, after seeing a production of “Schitz” in Brussels, was moved to help Barreto in her mission. Armed with the new translations, she approached Oberon Publishing, who agreed to take on the publication of the plays For Cohen, who resides in the U.S., and Fallenberg, who is based in Israel, the process of co-translating the plays was intentionally slow and thorough. Rather than working through email, they made a point of meeting in person in order to arrive at the best possible result.

“When we worked on any given play,” Fallenberg explains, “we were both looking at the original text, but one of us would speak out the translation while the other typed it up. It was almost like taking dictation, except that the person who was typing would interrupt if there was something they wanted to do differently, in which case we would discuss the options.”

A 2017 production of Hanoch Kevin's "Krum" at the Cameri Theater, Tel Aviv.Credit: Gerard Allon

“When the first draft was done,” Cohen adds, “we would switch places — the person who typed would read the new English text aloud and the other would follow along in the Hebrew. And when that was done we would watch a video of the actual production, to see what we were missing. We tried to find versions that were directed by Levin himself, so as to get as close as possible to what he intended in the text.”

It’s a technique that seems to have worked. Bloom checked the translations and found them to be excellent, saying that they are among the best English translations of Levin that he’s come across. “The text flows easily,” he explains, “while remaining faithful to the spirit of the original, even in case of the songs, which are particularly difficult to translate.”

Shimrit Ron is delighted that there are now first-rate translations to show to anyone who expresses interest in putting on a foreign production of Levin’s work. “At the last Isra-Drama Festival there was a guest from Bangkok,” she recalls. “She had never heard of Hanoch Levin, and then she saw ‘The Child Dreams’ and ‘A Winter Funeral.’ A few weeks later she wrote asking if any of the plays are available in English translation, and it was wonderful to be able to send her the material.”

“The sweet days of summer are here,

Awash in joy we await,

The day is long, the night is far,

But already we start to fret:

Will summer be time enough? Will life be time enough?”

From “The Child Dreams” (translated by Jessica Cohen and Evan Fallenberg)

A German production of Hanoch Levin's "Murder," staged by the Dusseldorf Theater Company in 2015.Credit: Sebastian Hoffa

“Hanoch’s work isn’t for everyone,” Barreto admits. “He’s very sharp, unflattering, incisive. In terms of the current trend of closing your ears to what is not pleasant to hear, he doesn’t fit well.” In December 2018, Barreto appeared in the Cameri’s production of “A Winter Funeral,” in Beijing. The play is a tragic-comic farce, in which a middle-aged couple does whatever it takes to evade being told of the death of a relative, so that their daughter’s wedding will come off as planned. “After one of the shows, there was an opportunity for Q and A” recalls Barreto, “and a woman in the audience stood up and said, ‘I feel cheated. I came here to see a comedy, but I feel as though I’ve been stabbed in the stomach.’ But that was precisely Hanoch’s idea of comedy — to make humor out of what is most painful.”

Janice Weizman is the author of the historical novel “The Wayward Moon.”

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