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American Dreams

Hanoch Levin’s characters live in one promised land

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Hanoch Levin

Yona Popukh, the hero of Hanoch Levin’s 1989 play The Labor of Life, gets his sleeping wife out of bed in the middle of the night to announce that he’s leaving her after 30 years of marriage. The heartlessness of his desertion is evident even in the words with which he tries comfort to her. “Maybe this won’t hurt you either, maybe you’ll meet a widower, a real estate dealer from Long Angeles,” he says, mangling the city’s name, “and have a good laugh on me in America.”

In the imagined Israel of Levin’s plays, the allure of America is strong. Levin’s characters dream of cornfields and trees and endless lawns; of Hollywood and Chicago and Texas; of rich, golden-skinned, long-legged women who’ll take them into their beds. “I once heard about a whorehouse in Ohio,” Bitterman, the dying patriarch of The Whore From Ohio (1997) tells his son, “the square footage is two and a half times bigger than our whole state. That’s my dream: a whore in Ohio—and die!” But as much as they long to visit these shores, they almost never make the journey. Nor do Levin’s plays. An icon of the Israeli theater, Levin remains a virtual unknown in the United States, his work rarely explored on American stages.

That seems to be changing, albeit slowly and imperfectly. In 2004, Barbara Harshav, who teaches translation in the comparative literature department at Yale University, won the TLS-Porjes Prize for Hebrew-English translation for The Labor of Life, a collection of eight of Levin’s plays. In recent months, New York has seen productions of Job’s Passion (also known as The Torments of Job, 1981), The Child Dreams (1993), and Murder (1997). This month, from October 17 to 20, the Brooklyn Academy of Music will host perhaps the highest-profile production any of Levin’s plays has received here, bringing to this year’s Next Wave Festival the Warsaw theater company TR Warszawa’s production of Krum (1975), performed in Polish with English supertitles and directed by Krzysztof Warlikowski, who brought The Dybbuk to the festival in 2004. Judging from a DVD of the production, the staging is visually powerful and emotionally troubling, enshrouded in the loneliness that is a hallmark of Levin’s work.

Translated into Polish by Jacek Poniedzialek, who plays the title character, Krum (which means “skin on milk” in Hebrew and “crippled” or “crooked” in Yiddish) is a dark tale of a man who returns to his mother and his hometown, where he becomes an unwilling observer of the cycle of births, deaths and celebrations that are part of any society. The ridicule and resentment Levin directs at the entanglements of family and community are part and parcel of a young rebel’s stance: cynical, somewhat bitter, and typical of his work at the time. As he aged, his plays grew kinder, though no less powerful. Unambiguously influenced by European masters like Brecht, Chekhov and Beckett, steeped in Aeschylus, his work is utterly at home alongside a postmodern American playwright like Charles Mee, who also has a play in BAM’s Next Wave Festival and, like Levin, builds songs into his comedies and dramas without ever turning them into musicals.

There is a kind of sweetness in the mere existence of a Warsaw production of a play by Levin, whose parents fled Poland for Tel Aviv in 1935. Raised Orthodox, Levin attended religious primary and secondary schools, then studied Hebrew literature and philosophy at Tel Aviv University, where he wrote satirical pieces for the student newspaper. His plays—often set in Tel Aviv, infused with biblical references and informed by a knowledge of Jewish history—are as Israeli and Jewish as Chekhov’s plays are Russian, yet their themes transcend geography and culture in their unblinking insistence on the coexistence of laughter, horror, sex and death. Surreal, sometimes bizarre, and often unsettling, Levin’s plays are preoccupied with anatomy and mortality, coupling and cruelty, grief and isolation, the bonds of family (whether constricting or consoling) and the universality of human experience. “Look how much he looks like all of you,” a father tells the trio of young soldiers who’ve just killed his son in Murder. “What you wanted—he also wanted: air to breathe, a little love, that nobody should spit in his face.”

The tenderness and heartache that underlie Levin’s anger in Murder, in which the boy’s death drives his father to vengeance, making them both part of a seemingly endless cycle of violence and retribution, is similarly evident in his other late plays. Early in his career, in the late 1960s and 70s, his work was overtly political, reflective of his undergraduate affiliation with the Communist party: His 1968 satire You and Me and the Next War, recently revived by the National Theatre in London, offered such harsh criticism of the Six-Day War that it provoked an audience of left-wing veterans into hurling chairs at the actors. Later, he ran afoul of the military censors and “became almost like a recluse,” refusing to talk to the press, Harshav recalls. He was the bad boy of Israeli theater and remained so until the mid-1980s, when he found popularity. Suddenly Levin was no longer merely a provocative and respected fringe figure but the hot playwright to see, even if mainstream audiences didn’t necessarily understand his references.

“Towards the end of his life, he was less cynical, more open and forgiving,” says Freddie Rokem, a professor of theater at Tel Aviv University. There was more humility in the later works, both the texts and Levin’s own productions of them, Rokem says. “And the audience reacted to that. It took a long time, but I wouldn’t say that he was embraced by all parts of society. He was very radical in his political views, much more radical even than the left in Israel.” Nonetheless, says Rokem, who penned the introduction to The Labor of Life and has translated and written about Levin elsewhere as well, “I think he is the most important Israeli playwright in the short history of Israeli drama.”

Rokem is not alone in that estimation. Levin’s death eight years ago was met in Israel with days of media coverage and speechifying about his importance to the culture. In the States, his New York Times obituary called him “Israel’s leading playwright, who spent more than three decades trying to strip the nation of self-congratulatory armor and force it to examine what he considered its hypocrisy and self-delusion.”

Now seems precisely the time for Levin, and especially for Murder, which easily could be read as a straight commentary on the intractability of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but, as Harshav points out, never actually mentions it. It is just as valid, and probably more valuable, to recognize Murder as a lament for humanity, for the mistakes it makes generation after generation, choosing violence over forgiveness, electing to kill innocents to avenge the killing of other innocents. Again and again in his plays, Levin makes the point that every human being is someone’s child. “Did you know,” a man asks in “Murder,” pleading for his life at the hands of a bloodthirsty mob, “that even I was born once? Did you know that my birth was considered good news? They even made a party.”

Rokem has written in detail about the role that threat plays in Levin’s plays: Levin’s characters tend to be menaced and bullied. “It is our own ability to live with or under threat that he tests in different ways,” Rokem says. “I don’t have to spell out what that means in America today.”

Levin wrote 56 plays, about 30 of which were produced during his lifetime. Recently, he has become the darling of a group of directors in France, despite his fear that he wouldn’t be understood outside Israel. “His work is bleak and difficult,” says Harshav, “and it’s hard and it doesn’t give comfort. Can’t we have that, too? Does Beckett give comfort?”

Often, in times of threat, we do seek comfort, even when provocation is the thing we need. To listen to Levin seems the least we can do. His characters see themselves in America. We haunt their dreams. They ought to haunt ours, too.

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American Dreams

Hanoch Levin’s characters live in one promised land

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