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The Israeli Wagner

Playwright Joshua Sobol brings the composer to life on the Vienna stage but can’t bring him home to Tel Aviv

Liel Leibovitz
April 25, 2013
(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos Wikimedia Commons, Melville House, and Shutterstock)

(Collage Tablet Magazine; original photos Wikimedia Commons, Melville House, and Shutterstock)

Earlier this month, Israeli playwright Joshua Sobol was awarded the prestigious Golden Medal of the City of Vienna in recognition of his long-standing theatrical innovation on the stages of Austria’s capital. Sobol’s Alma—exploring the life of the tempestuous woman who had been Mrs. Gustav Mahler, Mrs. Walter Gropius, and Mrs. Franz Werfel—has been running in Vienna for more than 18 years and is still a sought-after ticket. Understandably, then, the Austrians were delighted to learn that Sobol was at work on a new production. It would be, he announced, another biographical treatment, rehearsals for which are slated to start in a few weeks. It would begin with a young Austrian boy going to see an opera by his favorite composer. The boy, naturally, is Adolf Hitler, and the composer, the new subject of Sobol’s obsession, is Richard Wagner.

Anyone expecting a coherent biographical portrait, however, will be in for a bit of madness: Like Alma, the new play, too, will be performed in Vienna’s old, run-down central Post and Telegraph Office and will challenge audience members to pursue the characters they find most interesting, catching only slivers of the complete narrative at a time. As each performance draws to its end, actors and audience members alike will descend to the building’s cellar, where Hitler and Arthur Schopenhauer and others who had influenced Wagner or had been influenced by him will congregate for a final, hellish bow.

Like Sobol’s best-known work, Ghetto, which features a protagonist who is a member of the Judenrat and a believer in collaboration with the Nazis as the sole avenue for Jewish survival, the new play, too, will explore the psychological complications of anti-Jewish persecution. Speaking with an Israeli newspaper recently, Sobol revealed that among the protagonists of his play will be three Jewish characters who had shaped the famous composer’s life. Born in the Jewish quarter in Leipzig 200 years ago in May, Wagner lost his father to typhus shortly after his birth and was raised by a stepfather, Ludwig Geyer, who was an actor, a playwright, and, most likely, a Jew. Later in life, Wagner speculated that Geyer might have been his biological father, a possibility that left him bitter and incensed and paranoid about the purity of his own bloodline. The young man’s distrust of the Jews was then further complicated by his introduction to Giacomo Meyerbeer, who was an early supporter of Wagner’s and who had enabled the production of Wagner’s first opera, Rienzi; it was the same opera that Hitler would eventually see as a teenager, becoming an ardent fan. Wagner soon turned on his benefactor; as a Jew, Wagner wrote later in life, Meyerbeer “owned no mother-tongue, no speech inextricably entwined among the sinews of his inmost being.” The same must have held true for Hermann Levi, a rabbi’s son-turned-conductor, and still, Wagner’s respect for his friend’s talent was responsible for Levi’s installment as a major early fixture in Bayreuth, where he conducted the first-ever performance of Parsifal in 1882. These three men are all among Sobol’s central characters, as is the Russian revolutionary Mikhail Bakunin, another unlikely Wagner companion.

Exploring the canonical anti-Semite’s tense and intimate relationships with his Jewish peers is likely to inspire a splash of controversy, a response to which Sobol is no stranger. In 1987, his Jerusalem Syndrome sparked a political upheaval in Israel, with right-wing activists claiming that the play—following a group of mental patients staging a theatrical production about religious zealots shortly before the destruction of the Second Temple—was a thinly veiled allegory to contemporary Israel and a deeply disrespectful portrayal of the state and its army. Performances were picketed, pundits thundered, and Sobol was forced to resign from his day job as the artistic director of the Haifa Theater. He continued to explore his views, however, writing about loaded topics from pacifism to the ravages of privatization. In 2010, he was awarded Israel’s highest theatrical honor.

None of which, sadly, guarantees his new play the pleasure of an Israeli performance: Wagner’s work is still effectively banned in Israel, and the same, Sobol said recently, is likely to be true of any work of art portraying the composer in a nuanced light.

“I assume it’ll be hard to do it here,” he told an interviewer, referring to the possibility of staging the play in Israel. “I regret that, as I believe that in order to watch out for dangers—and his music is dangerous—you must first recognize what they are. Many people, including Thomas Mann, idolized Wagner but changed their minds once they noted the danger inherent in his music. The play portrays a miserable man, a haunted man, without moral scruples, the sort of man you wouldn’t like to befriend. And yet, on the other hand, the might of his influence makes you wonder.”


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Liel Leibovitz is a senior writer for Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.

Liel Leibovitz is editor at large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One.